the mothers of hockey players worry about injuries and, sometimes, freeze the living-room carpet for their sons to skate on

Home Ice: Pierrette Lemieux wields her spatula as goaltender to her sons Richard, Alain, and Mario, as seen by illustrator Nick Craine. (Image: HarperCollins Canada)

The fathers of hockey players write books, sometimes, about sons of theirs who’ve made it to the NHL, while mostly the mothers don’t — other than Colleen Howe, who perhaps deserves a bright asterisk for having published in her time books both as a hockey mother and a wife. I wish they’d write more books, hockey’s mothers, share their stories. As it is, in the hockey books, they’re mostly reduced to a few mentions, mostly in the early chapters. If you read all the hockey books, there’s a certain amount you can glean about hockey’s mothers, and a whole lot more you can’t. Herewith, some of the gleanings. Numbers in the text link to the list identifying the various mothers in the endnotes.   

Hockey mothers are descended from Sir Isaac Brock [1], some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England [2]. Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby [3] and Grace Nelson [4], Rose Pauli [5] and Agnes Mather Bell [6]. The former two have been described, respectively, as “charming” and “demurely pretty.” The third wanted to be a nurse, but found that she fainted whenever she got near a surgery. The latter married a cheesemaker.

Other mothers are described, sometimes, in biographies written about their sons’ lustrous careers as “the soft-spoken daughter of German immigrants [who] worked as a domestic before her marriage.” [7] Sometimes, as the daughters of cattle farmers from Saskatchewan, they’re waitresses who see their future husbands for the first time at a bowling alley. [8] In other cases, the mothers of hockey players meet their husbands in Pristina, in what’s now Kosovo, before they emigrate to Canada without knowing a word of English. [9] Or else they arrive in Canada from Ukraine at the age of 16 and end up in Fort William, Ontario, in 1912 where they soon meet their future husbands, who don’t necessarily tell the truth about how wealthy they are, such that after the wedding the young bride finds that her husband rents a tiny house with six boarders for whom she’s expected to cook and do laundry and, plus, also, he’s abusive, beating her for any reason at all, or none, including when she talks to other men, including when she fails to walk behind this husband on the way to church on Sunday,  causing the son of such parents to write, years later, “My father was a very cruel person.” [10]

The mothers of hockey players have an old six-string Spanish guitar they like to play. In 1928, they’re outside chopping wood when they feel the labour pains coming on. Having already given birth five times, they know what to do: drew water from the well, put it on the wood stove to boil, make themselves comfortable in bed. They’ll deliver their boy themselves, cut the umbilical cord, then suffer a serious hemorrhage that’s almost the end of them, but then they get help, just in time. “The strongest woman I have ever known,” is what the son of a mother like that will say, in time. [11]

You were a mistake, hockey mothers will sometimes tell their sons when the sons are grown and playing defence for the Detroit Red Wings, but you were a wonderful mistake. [12] Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. [13]

Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller. [14] They’ll pass on to their sons an inner strength by way of, when they’re in the country sometimes, they’ll pick up a snake, or play with spiders, while never betraying any fear. [15]

The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner. [16] They teach their boys to knit. [17] They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30. [18] They wash floors and make gallons of soup, and have their own version, some mothers, of fish and chips that consist of big slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-friend, served with French fries on the side. “We thought we were having fish and chips,” their sons will write in their autobiographies, “but actually they were potatoes with potatoes.” [19]

In 1922, when their sons are budding 19-year-old hockey stars but haven’t yet made it to the NHL where they’ll blossom into one of the league’s first genuine superstars, the mothers of hockey players will, sometimes, tragically, drown in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” as a Toronto newspaper reports it. [20]

King Clancy’s father was the original King, and while he was a very good football player, he may have been the only person in Ottawa who couldn’t skate a stroke. Not so Dolly Clancy: no-one, said King Jr., could match her grace on the ice, and he learned his skating from her.

Esther Dye (Essie, they called her) was the one who flooded the backyard rink when her Cecil was a boy, on Boswell Avenue in Toronto, got out the sticks, tied her son’s skates on, taught him the game. This was when skates were tied onto shoes; Cecil, of course, was better known as Babe, ace goalscorer and one-time captain of the Toronto St. Patricks. “My mother could throw a baseball right out of the park,” he said. “Or a hammer, or anything at all. She could run the other women right off their feet, and some of the men as well.”

Jeanne Maki’s boys, Chico and Wayne, were playing for Chicago and Vancouver respectively in 1971 when she was asked about their boyhoods. “Wayne used to imitate Foster Hewitt and got on everybody’s nerves,” she said. “Oh, he used to give me a headache, and even the neighbours threatened to kick his rear end.”

Here’s Edith Plager, mother of St. Louis Blues legends Barclay, Bob, and Bill:

They were never really indoors much, except to be in the basement and play hockey there — or sometimes they shot BB guns. Once Billy went off and broke about 50 jars of my preserves with his BB gun, and then another time, oh my, I was peeling potatoes and I started finding BBs in them. He’d been shooting into the bag, ha ha ha. Anyway, they had an understanding mother.

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apples and oranges, sugar for the brothers

mahovlichesFrank Mahovlich was a better reader than brother Pete, comic books first, then later storybooks. Frank did pretty well in school as a boy; Pete, well, he needed a push. Sorry, Peter. “Peter was smart, but he just didn’t want to do it.”

That from the boys’ mother, Cecilia, in 1971, when a weekend magazine got her talking about what her wingers were like as children. They were both skating for Montreal at the time. Frank was 33, Pete 24; both, by then, had long since given up the violin. Once, said Mrs. M, they really had loved to play. “In fact, they would give me hell if I forgot to tell them it was time to practice.”

Frank liked to play with guns, while Pete was more of a trucks man. “They were good boys,” testified their mother, “and did everything they were supposed to do.” Although:

Peter watched too much television, and drank too much pop, and chewed gum. Frank was better about that. He ate a lot of apples and oranges.

Frank was never much of a help to young Peter — he just told him to protect himself.

The Bigger M made his debut for Toronto back in the 1956-57 season. It was almost ten years before M the Littler followed him into the league, with Detroit. It was the fall of 1966 when they first played against one another as NHLers. First there was an exhibition, in Kitchener, where Pete prevailed — well, he scored a goal, at least, while Frank cracked his ribs. At the end of October, at Maple Leaf Gardens, the two met again in a regular season game.

“Brand X” was what 20-year-old Pete was calling himself that year. His brother was, at 28, an established star, three times a Stanley Cup-winner, with a Calder Trophy and a couple of First All-Star selections to his name. At Toronto’s Daily Star, Milt Dunnell profiled Pete the day after the Leafs beat the Wings 3-2:

The younger Mahovlich is as different from brother Frank as the ace of hearts is from the ace of diamonds. Where Frank is shy and reserved, Pete is an extrovert and a package of personality.

Also, he could eat. So Red Wings’ defenceman Gary Bergman told Dunnell: “That Pete Mahovlich eats doubles of everything. What an eater — world champion and only 20.”

The Leafs’ season would end that years with another Stanley Cup, but at this point it was only three games old, and the win was their first of the campaign. They were leading 2-0 after two periods on goals by John Brenneman and Kent Douglas. Then in the intermission goaltender Terry Sawchuk got a message to call home to Detroit, where his mother-in-law was seriously ill, and while he wasn’t looking for excuses, he did say later that he had a bad feeling heading into the third, wherein Paul Henderson scored within the first minute and then again a little, though Eddie Shack scored, too, for the Leafs, so not to worry.

“The big thing is we won,” said Sawchuk, the game’s first star, “and the news from home wasn’t as bad as I expected.”

Johnny Bower had played the first two games of the Leafs against the New York Rangers, a tie and a loss. Sawchuk’s summer had included back surgery in June and though he was feeling good when he arrived at Toronto’s Peterborough training camp in September, that didn’t last.

“Physical and mental fatigue set in,” he said. “I hated the sight of pads, skates and the ice: wanted to chuck the whole thing. I walked in on Imlach one Saturday and told him I’d had the course.”

Punch Imlach, the Leafs’ coach and GM. He talked to Sawchuk, calmed him, told him he could set his own schedule. Sawchuk: “You have to stick and stay for a guy like that. Punch may trade me tomorrow but I’ll still say he was great for me.”

He felt like a rookie, to the start the night. “I had the jitters when I skated out before that crowd. But after the first few shots I was okay. I know my back will stand the gaff.”

Mrs. Mahovlich was in that crowd, along with her husband, Peter, Sr. That’s them, above. “They would root for the Big M when he had the puck,” The Daily Star reported, “and go through the same routine when young Pete stepped out.” Neither of the younger Mahovliches made any impression on the score sheet. Frank had missed the first two games of the season, too, suspended by the team in contract dispute. Before that, he’d been out rehabilitating those cracked ribs. So Imlach excused his muted showing. (Adding to Frank’s woes: he fell on an elbow, needed five stitches to close the cut.)

He said he didn’t notice Pete too much. Pete said, sure, yes, he was a little self-conscious, playing against his big brother. Of their dad, Frank said, “He wasn’t rooting, just hoping for both of us. And that’s the way it should be.”

The brothers did end up winning two Stanley Cups together, as Canadiens, in 1971 and ’73. It was in the opening game of the latter championship series that both Frank and Pete scored in an 8-3 win over the Chicago Black Hawks. Ted Blackman of Montreal’s Gazette told of Peter Sr. arriving in the Habs’ jubilant dressing room after the game:

Pete spotted him in the midst of reporters and hollered something in Croatian, then translated for the benefit of the bystanders. “Cut the gab, Dad, and get up some sugar for the brothers,” he whooped.

Mr. Mahovlich stuck a paw in his pants and pulled out a wad of U.S. dollars. He peeled off one for Peter and gave him another fro brother Frank. Twenty years out of short pants and these $100,000 athletes are still taking allowance from an old miner?

“I pay my boys one dollar for each goal I see,” Pete Sr. explained. “Not for games I don’t go to, only those where I’m there. See, my boys must get me tickets or they don’t get a dollar.”

mother’s say

Montreal captain Brian Gionta sideswiped Leafs’ goalie James Reimer, shook his head, sent his mask skittering. That was October 22, and Reimer hasn’t played since. A concussion? The Leafs haven’t said. Whiplash is a word they’ve volunteered for his non-lower body injury; concussion-like symptoms is something else they’ve disclosed. So a week ago, Toronto Star reporter Dave Feschuk phoned up James’ mum in Morweena, Manitoba, to see whether she had anything to add to the team’s diagnosis. “He looks clear,” Marlene Reimer said. “His eyes look fine.” But — well, she didn’t know. There were headaches. He seemed better and then he didn’t. As a mother, she worried. That’s all, pretty much — oh, James and his wife have a new puppy, a Havanese, called Optimus.

 The Leafs didn’t like it. Coach Ron Wilson was ready to — not the dog, the interview. The dog was fine. The interview was …. Well. Where to start? What you don’t do, according to Wilson, is a call up a man’s mother. That’s a line you just do not cross, because to do so is sneaky and underhanded and also (this from TV pundits like Nick Kypreos and Mike Keenan) not-journalism. Don Cherry said it was weaselly — unless that was Mike Milbury. Why so, exactly? Well, obviously as mentioned, because of the line: you don’t cross it.

A quick review of other notable motherly interventions from hockey’s archives:

• Boston centre Milt Schmidt’s mother wouldn’t let him play football when he was a boy because it was too rough;

• Andy Bathgate was going to quit hockey in 1953 when the New York Rangers sent him down to play in minor-league Vancouver, but his mother talked him out of it;

• when referee Red Storey did walk away in 1959 after NHL president Clarence Campbell criticized his handling of a playoff game, Mrs. B.L. Storey weighed in from her home in Barrie, Ontario: “He’s a mighty fine boy and I don’t care what Campbell or anyone says;”

• in 1957, Mrs. Alice Richard came clean on her eldest, little Maurice: as a boy he was a fierce competitor. “He even played hockey in the streets,” she said, “and always came back with torn pants.”