jean ratelle: among stooges and pirates and marx brothers madness, a stylist supreme

The New York Rangers stowed away Rick Nash’s sweater today, numbered 61, when they traded him to the Boston Bruins ahead of tomorrow’s NHL trade deadline. Jean Ratelle knows what that’s like. It was November of 1975 when the Rangers shipped him and Brad Park to the Bruins in a seismic exchange that brought Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais back the other way. Tonight, Ratelle, who’s 77 now, is back in New York to see the Rangers retire the number he wore for most of the 14 New York seasons he played before that. Ratelle’s number 19 will rise to the rafters of Madison Square Garden in a ceremony ahead of the game in which the modern-day Rangers go Nashless against the Detroit Red Wings.

“The trade began a seven-season seminar in poise and determination.” That’s from a 1980 editorial in The Boston Globe just after Ratelle announced his retirement at the age of 40 to move back of the Boston bench as an assistant coach. That’s right: the Globe saluted him with an editorial when he finally ended his playing days. As revered as he was in New York, Ratelle was, very quickly, beloved in Boston. In both cities the affection had to do with his skill and scoring prowess, and the trophies he won — a Masterton in 1971 along with two Lady Byngs (’72 and ’76) — but there was more to it than that.

Everybody knew how good he was, Globe columnist Leigh Montville effused on another page in 1980. “Not so much how good he was as a player — though he was very good indeed — but how good he was as a person.” He continued:

In the arms-and-elbow game in which the best disposition might be that of a pirate, Jean Ratelle was able to play 20 years on top of a pedestal. He was religious. He was a family man. He was a gentleman. He scored 491 goals and collected 776 assists and totaled 1267 points. He was a hell of a player.

On an ice surface filled with Marx Brothers madness and Three Stooges shenanigans, he was Fred Astaire in full glide. He was the maitre’d of hockey, the stylist supreme, top and tails and ease. The ragged and well-publicized fringes of the game never interested him or bothered him. He worked its heart, goal to goal, back and forth, follow the puck. He was a purist, an artist, a painter of perfect miniatures doing his job on a street filled with car horns and busy shoppers.

Rod Gilbert was a childhood friend of Ratelle’s in Montreal long before they ever played together in New York. He thought he could have been an actual artist. “He would really have excelled in any area of his life,” Gilbert said in 1981. “He showed beauty. If he was a writer or a painter, he would have done well.”

Also: “In all the time I’ve known him, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Jean Ratelle swear. Not once. Never.”

“It’s amazing, really, that he was able to play the game,” Brad Park said. “That might be the most amazing thing of Jean Ratelle’s career. That such a tranquil man could play such an aggressive game and survive.”

Not that he was fragile. Back in that editorial-page endorsement, the Globe maintained that for all his Astaire-ness, Ratelle was also “as tough as John Wayne,” as “eager young defencemen found out after bouncing off Ratelle’s strong forearms intent on guiding the puck to a teammate.”

“Others skate,” the Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote in 1976, “but Ratelle glides.” His passes? “Feather-soft, accurate, and there’s only one thing to do if you’re playing on a line with him: keep your stick on the ice because he’s going to put the puck on it.”

A year before he hung up his skates, Steve Marantz from the Globe was marveling how good he still was at the age of 39: “no slippage, no coughing an sputtering, no sudden gasp and wheeze.” Bruins’ coach Fred Creighton: “He does things with the puck that young players coming up don’t even know about.”

The highest praise you’ll come across in all the annals of Ratelle-related enthusiasm? I’m going to go with Bobby Rousseau’s ode from 1973. He’d skated the Montreal Canadiens’ wing for ten years in the 1960s, of course, before joining the Rangers in 1971.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career to play with two of the greatest centreman in the National Hockey,” Rousseau said, “Jean Béliveau at Montreal and Jean Ratelle with the Rangers.”

I’ve played against Jean Ratelle, I’ve played on a team with him the past two years, and for the past few games I’ve played on a line with him. He’s the same height, same personality, same temperament, same talent as Jean Béliveau. Because of the way he is, Ratty will probably be annoyed with me for saying these things. I don’t think Jean Ratelle has ever been given the credit he’s deserved.

(Image: Library and Archives Canada / PA-057285)

worth the weight

Claims for Camille Henry’s fame might include the Calder Trophy he won as the NHL’s top rookie in 1954 or the 1958 Lady Byng that recognized his mix of good manners and superior skills. They might reference, equally, the chase he took up in 1960 when a high-spirited fan smacked him in the face with his own stick. The latter was a year after this portrait was taken, or two years after yet another newspaper article made the rounds focussing on his weight, or lack thereof. Spoiler alert: at 24, he was on the smaller side, 5’7”, “a scrawny-looking French-Canadian youngster,” as profiled by an unnamed Associated Press correspondent, “who answers to the nickname of Camille the Eel.”

This was January of 1958, when Henry’s 23 goals happened to be more than anyone else had scored in the NHL to that point, ahead of Detroit’s Gordie Howe and Dickie Moore of Montreal. (Both would end up passing Henry by season’s end; he finished the year with 32 to Howe’s 33 and Moore’s 36.)

“Camille weighs about 149 pounds soaking wet,” the AP explained, “which he usually is after most of the games in the bruising, contact-filled sport.”

Henry’s view? “I figure being light helps me,” he said. “I can sometimes squeeze in among the bigger men, get my stick in the way of the puck and get it past the goalie. If I was heavier I might not be able to maneuver so well.”

(Image: Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada/e002343730)

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

mighty maracle

On NHL Ice: Fred Sasakamoose skates for Chicago, circa 1953-54.

Great to see Fred Sasakamoose honoured yesterday as one of 124 appointees to the Order of Canada. The pride of Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation started the week with a birthday — he turned 84 on Christmas Day — and yesterday he joined 85 distinguished others in being named a Member of Canada’s highest civilian honour. Best known as a pioneering hockey player, Sasakamoose has also worked tirelessly over the years with youth in his community as well as counselling young people with addictions. It’s high time he was recognized. Hours after the Order of Canada was announced by Governor-General Julie Payette in Ottawa, Sasakamoose was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off featuring Oilers’ captain Connor McDavid and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews. It was the Blackhawks for whom Sasakamoose played his 11 NHL games, debuting as a 19-year-old in November of 1953.

As we credit Fred Sasakamoose’s entirely deserving work and experience and achievement, today might also be the day to point out a historical oversight that yesterday’s news from Rideau Hall only served to solidify.

Sasakamoose’s Order of Canada citation goes like this:

For his trailblazing contributions as the first Indigenous player in the NHL and for his work in seeking the betterment of his community through sports.

Reports in the press yesterday and today have steered the same way. “First Indigenous NHL player,” reported the CBC, The Edmonton Sun, the NHL.com, et al. “The first Indian player for an NHL team,” Simona Choise wrote in this morning’s Globe and Mail, with a nod from Sasakamoose himself. “Your white man called me Indian 100 or 200 years ago,” he’s quoted as saying; “I don’t mind that, I like it the way it is.”

Here’s the thing: at least one Indigenous player made it to NHL ice ahead of Sasakamoose’s debut in 1953.

Twenty-two years earlier, in early 1931, 26-year-old Henry Maracle suited up for the New York Rangers. But while the Society for International Hockey Research recognizes him as the league’s first Indigenous player, word doesn’t seem to have filtered out into the wider world. It’s time he was recognized, for that and more. Like Sasakamoose, Maracle played 11 NHL games before he was returned to the minor-league career he’d been pursuing at the time of his call-up. For all his efforts, Sasakamoose’s NHL numbers include no goals or assists to go with his six minutes of penalty time. Maracle made a bit more of a statistical mark, serving four minutes in the penalty box while also aiding teammates with three assists. And he scored a goal of his own.

Details of Henry Maracle’s life and career are scanty at best. He was Mohawk, born (very probably) in 1904, in (pretty sure) the town of Ayr in southwestern Ontario. That makes it entirely possible that he skated and maybe even hockeyed on the ice of the Nith River, which is also where, many winters later, Wayne did some of his earliest Gretzkying, in Brantford, just to the south.

At some point he got to North Bay, Ontario, where he played his junior hockey for the local Trappers alongside future Leafs Gerry Lowrey and Shorty Horne. When Maracle got married in 1924 at the age of 19, he put his pen to an affidavit to get a license, giving his profession as “riveter.” (His wife, 20-year-old Irene Marshall, was a stenographer.) If on official paperwork he remained Henry, he was mostly called otherwise throughout his hockey career: Bud or more often Buddy was his nom-de-glace, though sometimes, inevitably, the papers tagged him Chief Maracle.

By 1926 he’d gone professional, graduating to the newborn Can-Am League, where he signed with the team in Springfield, Massachusetts. Maybe Maracle’s background was lost on some who saw him play in those years, but for many it provoked a cascade of cultural stereotyping. For some others, it triggered racist comment that’s no less searing for being so long-ago or casually or smirkingly cast. I’m only going on newspaper clippings; I can only imagine the grotesqueries that Maracle would have faced in person, on the ice and from the stands.

The fact that the Springfield franchise was nicknamed the Indians licensed all kinds of winking nastiness among the headline writers and beat reporters. The Indians won the Can-Am championship in 1927 and repeated in ’28, with Maracle playing a major scoring role, and so he featured as the “Giant Redskin” and “Springfield Injun.”

Here’s a newspaperman named Stan Baumgartner accounting for a dominant performance in early 1928 by “miracle Maracle,” “a mighty, marvellous Indian,” when “the Red poison” scored a pair of goals in a come-from-behind victory Springfield engineered over the Philadelphia Arrows:

Alone this great Indian had snatched the game from the ignominy of defeat to the glories of victory. And when he left the ice, a few seconds later, the entire throng arose and gave one mighty cheer for the original American, first in the forests, first on the trails, and first in the hockey ring tonight.

It was Conn Smythe, apparently, who first rated Maracle as potential NHL material. This was in 1926, when the future Leaf panjandrum was (briefly) in charge of assembling the expansion New York Rangers. When Lester Patrick replaced Smythe, he farmed Maracle to New York’s team in Springfield.

Five years passed before Patrick found a place for Maracle in his big-league line-up. This was February of 1931. He was 27 now, and “veteran” was a regular adjective attending his name in the papers along with the inescapable “Indian.” Bert Perry of Toronto’s Globe noted that Maracle had been playing as effectively “two and three years ago” as he was in ’31, “but it probably required five years for Lester Patrick to see possibilities in him.” Perry’s potted biography vaguely told of Maracle’s background as “an Indian reservation in northern Ontario near North Bay” before cruising, unfortunately, to this finish:

If nothing else, his presence on [sic] the Rangers’ line-up ought to inspire New York sport writers to write some curdling stories about him. He will probably make his first appearance at Madison Square Gardens all decked out in feathers and a tomahawk or two just to provide a little atmosphere.

Maracle joined the Rangers in Detroit, making his NHL debut in a 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He made no impression on the scoresheet that night, nor in New York’s next two games, a 2-1 win in Chicago and a 5-4 loss at home to the Ottawa Senators. A headline from a dispatch detailing the former: “Apples Are Thrown At Referee By Fans.”

It was in New York next game, Maracle’s fourth, that he made the biggest impression he’d make in his short NHL career. Hosting the Philadelphia Quakers before a not-very crowded crowd of 8,000 at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers won handily, 6-1. When Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period, Maracle was the man who set him up to beat Quaker goaltender Wilf Cude. In the third, Dillon returned the favour, assisting on Maracle’s lone NHL goal. Low or high? Shovelled in from the crease or sizzled from afar? I’m afraid the papers don’t yield much in the way of further description of how it happened. To go with the scoring, Maracle did, on this night, take all the penalties he’d take in his NHL career, which is to say, both of them.

Buddy Maracle skated in all four of the Rangers’ playoff games in the spring of 1931 before they were eliminated by Chicago. He registered no points and took no penalties. the following fall, Lester Patrick did what he’d done back in ’26, cutting Maracle again, consigning him back to Springfield.

There’s not much more to add, at this point, to Maracle’s biography. He played another nine minor-league seasons after his NHL stint, skating on in the Can-Am League for Springfield before moving over the New Haven Eagles. He played for Tulsa’s Oilers in the American Hockey Association before ending up with a series of senior-league teams, including the Detroit Pontiac Chiefs and the San Diego Skyhawks. He died in Dallas in 1958 at the age of 53.

Five years had passed since Fred Sasakamoose had taken his turn with Chicago. By 1953, Buddy Maracle’s trailblazing time in the NHL was already all but forgotten, even as the stereotypes renewed themselves for the debut of another Indigenous player. Informing its readers that Sasakamoose was “the first full-blooded Indian ever to play” in the NHL, The Chicago Tribune added that he was known “to his tribesmen as Chief Running Deer.”

 

spillway

Homestretch: Defenceman Ching Johnson lies down on the job during a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden in January of 1934. The home team beat Montreal’s Maroons on the night on the strength of Frank Boucher’s two goals. Still on their feet are Rangers (right) Ott Heller and (possibly) Murray Murdoch. Unless, maybe, is it Butch Keeling?

on the road to new york: the rangers’ first training camp, 1926

In the spring of 1928, the team that Conn Smythe built went to the Stanley Cup finals and won. Smythe, of course, wasn’t around to join in the triumphing as the New York Rangers, in just their second season in the NHL, defeated the Montreal Maroons to win the championship. Hired in the spring of 1926 to sign players and coach them for Rangers owner Tex Rickard and president Colonel John Hammond, Smythe could hardly have made a solider start before finding himself fired by fall — before the Rangers had played even a single game.

Stan Fischler tells the tale in the newish, season-preview edition of The Hockey News. To sum up: in the spring of ’26, Smythe had coached the University of Toronto’s varsity team to the Allan Cup final. “I knew every hockey player in the world right then,” Smythe wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided memoir. On the Ranger job he went out and signed some of the best of them who weren’t already in the NHL. By mid-October the squad he’d assembled in Toronto for pre-season readying included goaltender Lorne Chabot, defencemen Taffy Abel and Ching Johnson, and forwards Frank Boucher, Billy Boyd, Murray Murdoch, Paul Thompson, and brothers Bill and Bun Cook.

“An hour’s road work in the morning and two hours on the ice at Ravina Rink this afternoon constituted the first day’s programme of conditioning,” The Ottawa Journal reported. This was Smythe’s first go at organizing the formal training camp he’d impose later on his Toronto Maple Leafs. At his side he had Frank Carroll, who’d had a winning record in the single season he coached the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21. That’s him above, on the far right, leading a Ranger group through Toronto streets at the end of October. Ching Johnson is on the other extreme, with (sixth from left) Bill Cook in behind; Frank Boucher, just visible, third from the right; and Bun Cook upfront, fifth from the right.

Smythe was out of a job before the Rangers played their first exhibition games, a 6-0 win over London of the Canadian Professional League at Ravina Gardens followed by a 3-1 follow-up in London. The variety of factors that seem to have contributed to Smythe’s precipitous demise included his bluster and insistence that he knew best. Where hockey was concerned, that was probably true, but his refusal to take Colonel Hammond’s pointed direction to sign the veteran Babe Day was the last straw. There are several versions of just how the firing went down; what’s not in dispute is that the Rangers had already signed Lester Patrick and brought him to Toronto before they sent Smythe packing.

The story that the press heard was that the parting was amicable. Smythe went along with the fiction that it was all a big shame that he couldn’t continue with the Rangers, but the business of the sand and gravel company he owned would (so sadly) prevent him from fully committing to the team.

Frank Carroll lasted a little longer. At Smythe’s departure, Lou Marsh reported in The Toronto Daily Star that Colonel Hammond was “delighted with the spirit and morale of the new team.”

“In fact, he expressed astonishment that Smythe and Carroll had, in such a short time, produced such harmony among athletes drawn from so many different sources.”

But by the time the Rangers travelled to New York to play their opening game with the Maroons, Carroll had been reassigned to coach the Springfield Indians in the brand-new Canadian-American Hockey League, forerunner to the AHL.

“As time went on,” Smythe wrote in If You Can’t Beat ’Em In The Alley, “I came to see that losing the Ranger job was a blessing.” Lester Patrick, he said, did a better job than he ever could have. Also? “I’ve seen what happens to other men who go to New York and can’t handle all the wine, women, and song.” Colonel Hammond, Smythe said, had done him a favour in 1926.

madison square-off

Four, Cornered: The indefatigable Gump Worsley watches the puck from the New York Rangers’ net at Madison Square Garden, circa the early 1960s. Later, he was a Canadien, of course, while his teammate, wearing the A, is former Montreal defenceman Doug Harvey. His  partner here, numbered four, is another former Hab, Albert Langlois. Montreal’s interlopers are, left, (future Ranger) Boom-Boom Geoffrion and (a further four) Jean Béliveau. (Image: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505707)