gordie howe, 1964: you want a punch in the mouth?

Cover Story: Tex Coulter’s handsome portrait of a happy Gordie Howe adorned the cover of a 1957 edition of Hockey Blueline. The accompanying story was bylined (if not, maybe, entirely written by) Ted Lindsay. No buried ledes here: “Gordie Howe — The Greatest!” laid out the author’s premise in the first two lines: “Gordie Howe is the greatest player in hockey! Gordie, in fact, may be the greatest hockey player ever.”

March of 1964 was a busy month for Gordie Howe. To finish up his 18th season with the Detroit Red Wings, he scored four goals in 10 games, giving him 26 on the season and 566 for his career. He ended up, again, as Detroit’s leading scorer, fifth overall in the NHL. Both The Hockey News and the Associated Press voted him to their Second All-Star teams, which is where he’d end up when the official NHL version was named in April. What else? As his 36th birthday loomed, on March 31, and Howe was signing a 10-year promotion deal with Eaton’s department store, he mentioned that he planned to play two more years of pro hockey before he retired and went looking for a coaching job.

Also: on this very date in ’64, another Sunday, deep in Chicago Stadium, Gordie Howe asked a young fan a question that — just guessing here — he thought of as rhetorical. Did the fan, Howe inquired, want a punch in the mouth?

Having just helped his team even its first-round playoff series with the Chicago Black Hawks at a game apiece, Mr. Hockey might or might not have gotten the answer he was or wasn’t looking for: we just don’t know.

What’s clear is that Howe put down the bags he was carrying to deliver the aforementioned punch — “a good one,” as he described it, later, to reporters.

Robert Rosenthal, 20, was the fan. He and his friend George Berg had gone down after the game to wait outside the Red Wings’ dressing room. This we know because the next day, Monday, Rosenthal presented himself at Chicago’s Monroe Street municipal court with an idea of obtaining a warrant for Gordie Howe’s arrest on a charge of assault.

“When the player came out,” Rosenthal recounted, “I said, ‘Why don’t you learn to play a little cleaner?’” Howe’s reply: “You want a punch in the mouth?”

To that, Rosenthal told the court, he said this: “You’re good at fighting guys smaller than you.”

Howe hit him.

Rosenthal testified that he’d retreated south, to nearby Cook County Hospital, where he’d taken on eight stitches to close the cut to his mouth.

Judge John Sullivan wasn’t impressed. “I will not,” he told Rosenthal, “perform a useless act.”

“On the basis of the evidence you’ve given me, any judge in my opinion would find Mr. Howe not guilty, since you admitted that you provoked him.”

Boston Globe headline, March 30, 1964

Back in Detroit, Howe told reporters what he knew — and added several new punches to the mix-up.

“This guy got in the way and said to me, ‘The ref called ’em right for you?’ I said, ‘Sure, all right.’ Then he said, ‘Oh, he didn’t call them right, huh?’” He wasn’t making much sense.”

“I asked him if he was looking for trouble. Then he stepped into me and I let him have a light punch on the nose.”

“I took another step toward the bus and he hit me on the back of the head, so I put down both travelling bags and let him have a good one.”

“I don’t think they have the right to swear at you,” Howe said, summing up, “and I’m not going to stand for it when they use my mother’s and father’s name in vain.”

Rock Island Argus (Illinois) headline, March 30, 1964

In the aftermath of Rosenthal’s dismissal at court, his mother, whose name may have been Veronica but is given in at least one account as Veronia, mentioned that lawyers would be consulted. Sure enough, before the week was out, just in time for Howe’s birthday, Rosenthal filed a lawsuit seeking US$25,000 for damages from number 9 and the Red Wings, claiming “Howe’s unprovoked attack humiliated, embarrassed, and held him up to public ridicule.” He noted, too, that his wound had become infected and swollen to three times its regular size.

Howe and/or Wings may have settled the suit — whatever happened, the incident vanished from the press. They had largely, true to Rosenthal’s claim, sided with the hockey player over the man who accosted him. A scrapbook of not exactly sympathetic headlines from that week, 56 years ago, might include:

Detroit Hockey Player Socks Annoying Fan

Fan Learns What NHL Players Know — Don’t Mess Around With Gordie Howe

Gordie Howe Decks Abusive Fan

Fist in Face Worth $25,000, Figures Fan

As for the NHL, president Clarence Campbell said he’d investigate, though he didn’t expect anything to come of it. “I’m not too excited about it,” he said, “and I doubt there’ll be any league action against Howe. After the game is over and he’s out of the rink, it’s not really an NHL affair, although these incidents can’t do anything for our public image.”

Calgary Herald, March 30, 1964

fanbelt, 1949: clouted by kenny reardon, not mad at anybody

Fix You: Clouted by Kenny Reardon, George Grbich was cut for ten stitches on November 2, 1949.  Nurse Amy Kreger tended his wounds.

It was a fracas is what it was, according to some of the people who were on hand to see what happened and write about it: some of them also rated it a rhubarb and a melee and a hoodlum outbreak. Chicago’s Daily Tribune either couldn’t sum it up in a word or two, or preferred not to: there was no bigger headline on next day’s front page than the one given Victory-in-Europe billing across eight columns: PLAYERS SLUG HOCKEY FANS.

However you want to frame the events at Chicago Stadium on this very date in 1949, any statistical summary of the proceedings should really reflect the number of Montreal Canadiens who ended up in jail (two) along with the score of the game (Chicago 4, Montreal 1).

Ken Reardon and Leo Gravelle were the Canadiens incarcerated after time had ticked away to end the game. Chicago police from the Warren Avenue precinct arrested their teammate Billy Reay, too, briefly, before releasing him. There are famous photos of Reardon and Gravelle behind bars, with Canadiens coach Dick Irvin and Hawks president Bill Tobin in front of them. Tobin was the one who paid $200 to bail the boys and promised to see that they returned to Chicago to face justice. Here’s one version; others come with bonus hamming.

Flight Risks: Canadiens coach Dick Irvin, left, and Black Hawks’ president Bill Tobin pose with the not-quite-free Leo Gravelle and Ken Reardon.

Good, maybe, that they could find some fun in the situation, given that the players had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon, and that there were other photos taken that same night, like the one at the top here, of men like George Grbich with bandaged heads who didn’t happen to be professional hockey players.

How had it come to this? In the regular heedless hockey way, I guess is the general answer. More specifically, well (also in the regular hockey way), there were various versions of the second-period unrest. The Tribune had it that Reardon ran into Chicago’s Roy Conacher against the boards. Reardon told police that someone grabbed him, so he swung his stick.

Montreal’s own Gazette quoted him saying this: “As I skated by, swung my stick instinctively. I thought I had busted it against the screen. I was the most surprised person in the world when I saw I’d bloodied somebody.”

That was Grbich. Bleeding from the head, he was seen to leap the boards to go after Reardon, whereupon ushers intervened along with hockey players, including Billy Reay, who got a misconduct from referee Bill Chadwick for directing what the Gazette called “a wild swipe of his stick” at — maybe fans, maybe Black Hawks. Reardon, for his part, wasn’t penalized on the play. Nor was Leo Gravelle, described by the Tribune as having swung his stick at spectators, striking a tavern owner and his nearby brother. Also struck: a taxi-driver, whose tie was torn.

I’ve seen a handwritten note that Reardon sent many years later describing what happened with Grbich. Here’s how he choose to recall the incident:

This fan stood up on top of the boards and grabbed me around the neck while I was carrying the puck along the boards. I hit him on his head when he spun me around. I hit him accidentally but the fan had no business tackling me while I was in action.

On the night, Grbich was tended by Dr. Mitchell Corbett, who closed the cut on his head with ten stitches. Described by the Tribune as an unemployed steelworker, the wounded man apparently stuck around until the end of the game. He and Reardon met, shook hands, were photographed (below and here, too). Grbich confirmed that Reardon’s stick has “clouted” him, but no worries: “I’m not mad at anybody.” He had to head to hospital for x-rays, but before left, he told police he wasn’t interested in pressing charges.

Forgiven: Following Montreal’s 4-1 loss to the Hawks, Reardon and Grbich met and shook hands.

The other fans who’d been involved weren’t quite so forgiving. Anthony Scornavacco was the tavern-owner, and with his brother, John, and the taxi-driver, Peter Zarillo, he’d marched right out of the Stadium over to the Warren Avenue police station to complain about the Canadiens. That was enough for Sergeant James Smith, apparently. Having heard their story, he sent Detectives Joseph Gordon, Joseph Sidlo, and Peter Garamone over to the rink to make the arrests. When Grbich wouldn’t add his name to the complaint, Patrolman Hugh Frankel signed in his stead.

A court date was set for later in November, when the Canadiens were due back in town for another meeting with the Hawks. Stay tuned; we’ll get to that (here). In the meantime, Montreal had a train to catch for home, where they were hosting the Boston Bruins.

Over at South Shore Hospital, Dr. Nicholas Columbo was still waiting to get George Grbich’s results back. He was keeping him there, just to be on the safe side. Dr. Columbo said he suspected that the patient had a “slight concussion” to go with his stitches.

 

 

when fans attack: out on the street in his skates, the eel gives chase

Shake It Off: Showing the wound he was willing to forgive, the New York Rangers’ Camille Henry makes peace with Detroit salesman Eric Steiner in January of 1960.

He was just small, the newspapers liked to point out: at 5’10”, the New York Rangers’ centreman Camille Henry scaled in at a feathery 151 pounds. In 1960, the Associated Press decided this was news enough to flash out as free-standing story across the wires to its North American readers. In his sixth NHL season, the 27-year-old Henry had made his mark in the league in other ways, too, starting out with a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in NHL. Dubbed, inevitably, the Eel, he was a reliable scorer. As a mostly peaceable presence on the ice, he won a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for gentlemanly proficiency in 1958. In his first five seasons, Henry accrued just 20 minutes in penalties, and while 1959-60 was a more delinquent year, his total by the end of the regular season was a mere six minutes.

That’s not to say that his restraint didn’t have its limits. On this day in 1960, he seems to have crossed over as he left the ice at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium at the end of a game that saw the Rangers tie the Red Wings 2-2. An account of what happened next made up of sentences cut and pasted from several contemporary newspaper reports might look like this:

Some fans threw small objects at the players and words were exchanged.
Bumped when the New York Rangers’ Camille Henry stumbled and dropped his stick …
Eric Steiner, a 37-year-old Detroit salesman, picked up the stick and gave Henry a good thumping under the right eye.
Henry — skates and all — lit out after the fan.
He caught Steiner in the street outside the stadium, some 50 yards from the rink, and held him for police.
A half-dozen other players were chasing fans but officers quickly quelled the uprising.

While the police questioned Steiner, Henry took on four stitches. Detroit coach Jack Adams conferred with New York Alf Pike and, by one report, they were all for pressing charges. But Henry demurred. He settled for an apology and (above) a handshake. “I just lost my head,” Steiner is on the record as explaining; he also gained a ban from attending future hockey games at the Olympia.

A week later, the two teams met again New York, tying again, 3-3. This time, the damage Henry sustained was on the ice, in the rush of play. Again he stumbled, crashing this time into a goal post, fracturing his left forearm. The Rangers’ Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa took care of the surgery later that week, putting in a pin. Henry was back in the line-up by the end of February.