behind the boston blueline: safety first

In the catalogue of hockey-player poses, the First Pass falls somewhere between the static standard we’ve already seen on display in the Tripod and the showy effort of the Maximum Slapper. It’s your all-business, man-at-work option: what we’re looking at here, above, is a single-minded man on a mission to clear that puck from the defensive zone. Head up, eyes on the breaking winger, he won’t be waylaid, not even for a photo shoot.  Can there be any doubt that when Mr. Armstrong makes contact here, stick to puck, his pass will be crisp as Melba toast on its way to where it’s going?

Sorry: Bob. Bob Armstrong. He was a regular on the Bruins’ blueline through the 1950s and into the early ’60s, long before I knew him, in high school, in the 1980s. Lakefield, Ontario is where he settled after his hockey career ended, and it’s where he spent some 25 years as a beloved teacher and housemaster, and as a coach of hockey and football players. His First Hockey teams were very good in those years, which meant that I never quite cracked any of his line-ups — I was only ever a Second. In the classroom, where he taught history and economics, he did his best to guide my Grade 12 studies of Schlieffen plans and Keynesian multipliers. Big Bob we called him, too, though not, if we could help it, within his hearing. He was much mourned when he died at the age of 59 in 1990, much too soon.

Back in Boston, he’d worn number 4 for five years before Bobby Orr arrived on the scene. A dozen seasons he skated in the NHL, 542 games, a big, solid, no-nonsense, front-porch defender, which is to say (as I wrote in a book called Puckstruck) stay-at-home. On the Boston blueline his partners over the years included Hal Laycoe, Ray Gariepy, Fernie Flaman, and Leo Boivin, though mostly he paired with peaceable Bill Quackenbush. In 1952, Boston coach Lynn Patrick sometimes deployed a powerplay featuring forwards Real Chrevefils, Leo Lebine, and Jerry Toppazzini with winger Woody Dumart manning the point with Mr. Armstrong. He scored but rarely: in his twelve NHL seasons, he collected just 14 goals.

Bruising is the word that’s often attached to Mr. Armstrong’s name as it appears in old dispatches from the NHL front, which sounds like it could be a reference to his own sensitive skin, though mostly it refers to the welts he raised on that belonging to opponents. He didn’t only batter members of the Montreal Canadiens, but they do figure often in the archive of Mr. Armstrong’s antagonism, cf. his tussle with Goose McCormack (1952); that time he and Tom Johnson were thumbed off for roughing soon after the game started (1954); the other one where he and Bert Olmstead were observed roughing up each other (1955); and/or the night he and Andre Pronovost were sentenced to penalties for fighting but subsequently left the penalty bench to join in a disagreement Labine was having with Maurice Richard (1958), leaving Mr. Armstrong when it was all over with a large purple swollen area around his left eye.

Players who rarely found themselves fighting — Jean Béliveau, Max Bentley — somehow ended up throwing punches at Mr. Armstrong.

“A big fellow, he liked to dish it out,” the Boston Globe’s Herb Ralby wrote in 1953, looking back on Mr. Armstrong’s rookie season. If there was a fault to find in his game then, it might have been his hurry to rid himself of the puck — he was, Ralby wrote, “afraid of making moves that might prove costly.”

Playing alongside Hal Laycoe cured him of that: “a patient, painstaking tutor,” the six-year veteran helped turn his rookie partner into such a polished performer that by 1953 Bruins’ coach Lynn Patrick was ready to rate a 21-year-old Mr. Armstrong the third-best defenceman in the NHL, after Detroit’s Red Kelly and Bill Gadsby of Chicago.

He played in a single All-Star Game, in 1960, when the best-of-the-rest took on the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens at the Forum and beat them 2-1. “The best safety-first defenceman in the league,” Leafs’ assistant manager King Clancy called Mr. A that season. “He doesn’t fool around with that puck behind his own blueline. He gets it out of there in a hurry.”

Gadsby and Kelly were part of the All-Stars’ defensive corps, too, that night, along with Marcel Pronovost, Allan Stanley, and Pierre Pilote. Pronovost was roundly cheered by the Montreal crowd on the night, the local Gazette noted; Mr. Armstrong and Bruins’ teammate Bronco Horvath suffered “distinct booing.”

shooter tutors

In the taxonomy of hockey-player poses, the Slapper rejects both the inert formality of the Tripod and the more or less uncomfortable self-consciousness of the Snow-Job in favour of the speed and contact and, well, impatience inherent in hockey. Presumably there was a puck in the frame a moment before the photographer released the shutter, but these Blues weren’t interested in letting it lie: that’s just not what pucks are for. Teammates on St. Louis’ 1970-71 roster, the shooters here are wingers (top) Gary Sabourin and Wayne Connelly.

at rest, at the ready

The Tripod that St. Louis Blues’ captain Al Arbour is affecting here, above, circa 1970, may be the original hockey-player pose. Check your collection of Beehive hockey photos from the 1930s, or the NHL portrait-work of the Turofsky brothers in the 1940s: the Tripod is the default. It’s as natural a stance as there is for a skater (as opposed to a goaltender) lining up for the puck to drop — in a game that’s all motion once it starts, this is how you look (at rest but at the ready) in the moment before the chaos ensues.

If you do happen to find yourself standing still while the puck’s in play, and it’s the Boston Garden in May of 1970, then it may be that you’re St. Louis Blues’ defenceman Noel Picard, and Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins is airborne nearby, having scored his famous Stanley-Cup-winning goal. Not much Picard could have done, really — did I mention Bobby Orr? That’s Picard in repose below, around that time; he died in 2017 at the age of 78. According to Richard Labbé, writing this week in La Presse (here, in French), Picard was at peace with his famous failure to stop Orr, and would happily put his signature to copies of Ray Lussier’s iconic photograph when fans approached with Sharpies.

snow show

In the vast catalogue of hockey-player portraits, the Show-Your-Snow is as classic as they come. It can’t, perhaps, match the nimble drama of the Leap (a.k.a. the Up-Up-And-Away) or the slightly distressing mystery of the Man Down, but neither of them evokes the rink like this — the shish of the skates, the spray of the snow, the wind of the collision just barely avoided. As Phil Goyette demonstrates above, you don’t have to produce a blizzard — although as fellow Blues centre Camille Henry emphasizes below, why not? Goyette played 13 seasons for Montreal and the New York Rangers before arriving in St. Louis at the age of 36 for the 1969-70 campaign, leading the team in regular-season and helping the Blues gain the Stanley Cup Finals. Henry, who was 37 that year, came to the Blues after 13 distinguished years as a Ranger, though he played just a few final games in ’69-’70 (none in the playoffs) before announcing his retirement.

red kelly, 1927—2019

With yesterday’s sorry news that Red Kelly has died at the age of 91, recommended readings on his remarkable life and times would include obituaries from Richard Goldstein in The New York Times and Eric Duhatschek in The Globe and Mail. CBC has one from The Canadian Press augmented by archival video. More to follow here, too. In the meantime, from the Puckstruck archives, here’s Kelly in Leaf blue and Red Wing red, as well as a rare portrait of his wrath.

early adapter

Up And Away: Boston defenceman Jack Crawford lifts off in early 1939, during his first full season as a Bruin.

Lots of NHLers donned helmets in the 1930s: call it the Ace Bailey Effect. Bailey, of course, was a fleet Toronto winger who nearly died after Boston’s Eddie Shore knocked him down in December of 1933 and his head hit the ice. Carried off the ice at Boston Garden, Bailey’s survival was very much in doubt as he underwent the two skull surgeries that ended up saving his life, though he never played another hockey game.

Many players across the league adopted helmets in the months that followed; lots of them ended up abandoning them after a brief trial.

The Bruins actually had a regular helmet-wearer before Bailey went to ice in George Owen, who served as the team’s captain in 1931-32.

Afterwards, they had Jack Crawford, captain for three seasons through to 1950. He didn’t start his career as a Bruins’ defenceman until 1938, and he arrived in the league with headgear in place.

Born on this date in 1916, Crawford hailed from the western Ontario hamlet of Dublin, not far up the road from Howie Morenz’s hometown of Mitchell. He would go on to play all of his 13 NHL seasons with Boston, winning two Stanley Cups along the way, in 1939 and 1941. In 1946, he was named to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team. He died in 1973 at the age of 56.

For Crawford, wearing a helmet was a matter (at least in part) of modesty. It all stemmed from a youthful mishap caused by … a helmet. He played schoolboy football in Toronto in the early 1930s — possibly at St. Mike’s, where he was a Junior B Buzzer? Along with several teammates, he suffered a reaction to the paint used on the football helmets, causing the loss of his hair, and he wore a leather hockey helmet ever after to cover the lack.

Just how bald was he?

A Boston Globe article from 1938 explaining the situation says “practically.”

“Jack very, very bald,” Stan Fischler has written. “The helmet did a very, very good job of concealing his pate.”

“Completely bald,” Fischler has also said, in a different book, explaining that he was “so embarrassed by it that he decided to wear the headpiece.”

A reminiscence from a 1970 edition of The Boston Globe recalled this:

Whenever his helmet was knocked off the capacity crowd would react when they saw his totally bald head. There was just something eerie about hearing 14,000 gasp “Oooooh!”

All of which makes this photograph from the Hockey Hall of Fame’s archive a bit of a … head-scratcher. It’s the only one I can recall seeing that shows Crawford without the helmet. He first wore number 5 for the Bruins before switching (as above) to 19 for a single season, 1938-39. After that he was 6, which means this photo was taken at some point between 1939 and 1950, probably in Toronto by one of the Turofsky brothers.

So what’s with the hair? Did he at some point manage to grow this array? Acquire a hairpiece? I can’t say so with any real authority, but spying as closely as I can, my bet is on the stranger still possibility that somebody — by request or on their own initiative? — did some inky photo-doctoring here to restore Jack Crawford’s lost thatch.

 

jump shot

Upstart: Headed for the Calder Trophy, they said. One of the two best rookies in the NHL (that from Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin; the other rookie he favoured was Boston’s Dave Creighton). Born on this day in 1926 in Sceptre, Saskatchewan, Bert Olmstead would eventually make a name as a dynamic left winger for the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto’s own Maple Leafs. But Olmstead, who died in 2015, made his leap into the NHL playing for the Chicago. And it was as a 23-year-old Black Hawk that he rated all those rookie raves during his first full NHL season, 1949-50. Pundits were mentioning him as the leading Calder candidate as early as December, that year; by February, the six NHL captains were prepared to nominate him as the league’s primo rookie. In April, Dink Carroll of the Gazette in Montreal was still hearing that Olmstead still had the inside track. It didn’t work out: in May, when 18 sportswriters cast their ballots, it was 25-year-old Boston goaltender Jack Gelineau who ended up top of the Calder rankings. The league gave him $1000 to go with the trophy, and the Bruins rewarded him, too, with (an undisclosed amount of) cash. Olmstead tied Bruins’ centreman Phil Maloney for second place in the Calder voting; others who were considered were Gus Kyle of the New York Rangers; Toronto’s John McCormack; and Steve Black of the Detroit Red Wings.