(Artist: Constantin Aladjálov)
Bullet Joe Sawyer was the star goaltender for the Montreal Mounteds, see, but then he went to war and lost his nerve, and when he got back to guarding goals, it just wasn’t the same. With all those pucks piling up behind him, Montreal just had to let him go, which is how he ended up suiting up for their rivals, the Red Ants, in their big game against — yes, that’s right — the Mounteds.
“Staggering to this feet, though he tottered and sagged against the goal post, Bullet Joe faced the surging forms in front. He tossed aside the stub of his hockey stick as useless, and extended gloved hands, spreading the fingers wide. A woman’s hysterical, high-pitched scream carried above the human battery of sound. “Stop them, Bullet Joe!”
I’ll let you guess how Harold Sherman’s novelette “Bullet Joe, Goalie” ends, and who gets the girl — yes, there’s a girl. Hockey’s not your thing? In 1928, readers of Top-Notch Magazine could take their pick of torrid tales: also included in this mid-winter issue were stories of cowboys (“Blazing Six-Guns”), canny courtroom stenographers (“All is Not Wasted That Leaks”), and big, striped-game hunting (“Zebra Guile”).
Call him a double threat: as well as playing at centre for the Blue Haven Maple Leafs, Mart Norde moonlights as muscle for mobsters. So that’s obviously how, in the middle of the big game against the Tene River Terrors, “watched by thousands of Canadian spectators,” Mart ends up trying to strangle Larry Regan, captain and ace scorer for the Terrors.
Mart, see, is “in league with the ruthless racketeer, the Black Spot — that dreaded racketeer who had demanded 10,000 dollars from the Terrors, and when they refused to pay, had threatened them with death.”
I’m not going to get (much more) into the breathtaking whys and wtfs of Edwin Dale’s “The Ice-Rink Avenger” here. This installment of Dale’s vivid northern serial appeared in the rough-and-ready British schoolboy weekly The Champion in March of 1936 alongside stories of soccer, greyhound-racing, and boxing derring-do. I can’t tell you anything about Edwin Dale, other than he seems to have been prolific in his output of rollicking pulp adventures in his day.
Is it surprising that hockey tales set against cold Canadian backgrounds were popular in Britain the 1930s and ’40s? With the help of many Canadians, the game was taking hold in British rinks in those years, and ’36 was the year that Great Britain claimed gold at the Winter Olympics. Also, it’s not as if writers like Dale were being paid for painstaking documentary accounts of the game or its colonial home: for The Champion and its readers, the adventurous potential in Canada’s wild frontiers and exotic puck-fixated peoples must have seemed endless. Far-fetched a story like “The Ice-Rink Avenger” may seem today, but presented as it was on the page under the banner “Sports Thrills and Mystery in Canada,” in 1936, far-fetched was the point.
Lucky Larry survives, I should report, and am pleased to. The fact that nobody really notices Mart’s attempt at murder is dismaying, for Larry, who remains in danger, but also, don’t you think, for hockey. This is fiction, true enough, and a boisterous, British, none-too-subtle brand of it, at that, but still, the idea that nobody really blinks an eye when one player tries to choke the life out of another — hey, it’s a hockey game, stuff happens! — doesn’t really frame the game so flatteringly.
Does dastardly Mart get his come-uppance? I haven’t read to the end of the serial, so I don’t have the goods on that. The referee does, at least, sanction his throttling with a three-minute penalty.
And Larry does score the goal that wins the game for the Terrors, too, so there’s that. Mart is humiliated in the traditional Canadian way, too, as depicted on the magazine’s cover, above. (The artist, I’m sorry to say, is uncredited.)
What I can tell you about that is that, as the game ends, Larry and a couple of his teammates grab Mart and a couple of brooms, wrangle him up with some rope that they happen to have on hand. Then, as Edwin Dale writes it:
Roy Repton and Happy Scott each grasped one of Mart Norde’s legs. Then they began to propel him around the rink at hair-raising pace, waving their hockey-sticks in their free hands.
Mart yelled at the top of his voice to be released; speeding along with his face a few inches from the ice was a hair-raising experience. The whole crowd rocked with laughter as they watched the scene.
At last, after most of the rink had been swept with the villainous hockeyist, he was allowed to go.
He slunk from the rink, wishing he’d never tried to crock the Tene River Terrors’ skipper!
Eric Nesterenko has died at the age of 88, the Chicago Black Hawks are noting today. Born in Flin Flon, Manitoba, he made his NHL debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1952 as an 18-year-old. After playing parts of five seasons in Toronto, the Leafs sold his and Harry Lumley’s contracts contract to Chicago for $40,000. Sixteen seasons he skated with the Black Hawks before retiring from the NHL in 1972. He subsequently joined the Chicago Cougars during the WHA’s 1973-74 season, taking a last pro turn at 40. In later years he worked as a ski patroller and instructor and taught some university as a guest lecturer. He played Rob Lowe’s father in the 1986 movie Youngblood and, apparently, passed several summers in the northern Alaska volunteering as air-defence spotter in case any Russian aircraft should stray into view.
In Bill Gaston’s wonderful novel The Good Body (2000), his protagonist, Bonaduce, marvels at Nesterenko, who in 1968 (he asserts) “scored 32 goals for Chicago and published his first book of poems.” I looked for that book, and when I failed to find it, I asked Gaston, was it true? He couldn’t remember whether or just should be. I found an address in Vail, Colorado, and wrote to Nesterenko for the final word, but my letter came back unopened, RETURN TO SENDER, the envelope demanded, while confiding also ATTEMPTED and NOT KNOWN, and finally (protesting way too much) UNABLE TO FORWARD.
It’s worth, on this day, revisiting the interview Studs Terkel did with Nesterenko for his 1974 book Working.
“It’s been a good life,” the hockey player said there. “Maybe I could have done better, have better record or something like that. But I’ve really had very few regrets over the past 20 years. I can enjoy some of the arts that I had shut myself off from as a kid. Perhaps that is my only regret. The passion for the game was so all-consuming when I was a kid that I blocked myself from music. I cut myself off from a certain broadness of experience. Maybe one has to do that to fully explore what they want to do the most passionately.
I know a lot of pro athletes who have a capacity for a wider experience. But they wanted to become champions. They had to focus themselves on their one thing completely. His primary force when he becomes champion is his ego trip, his desire to excel, to be somebody special. To some degree, he must dehumanize himself. I look forward to a lower key way of living. But it must be physical. I’m sure I would die without it, become a drunk or something.
I still like to skate. One day last year on a cold, clear, crisp afternoon, I saw this huge sheet of ice in the street. Goddamn if I didn’t drive out there and put on my skates. And I flew. Nobody was there. I was free as a bird. I was really happy. That goes back to when I was a kid. I’ll do that until I die, I hope. Oh, I was free!
The wind was blowing from the north. With the wind behind you, you’re in motion, you can wheel and dive and turn, you can lay yourself into impossible angles that you never could walking or running. You lay yourself at a 45-degree angle, your elbow virtually touching the ice as you’re in a turn. Incredible It’s beautiful! You’re breaking the bounds of gravity. I have a feeling this is the innate desire of man.
I haven’t kept many photographs of myself, but I found one where I’m in full flight. I’m leaning into a turn. You pick up the centrifugal forces and you lay in it. For a few seconds, like a gyroscope, they support you. I’m in full flight and my head is turned. I’m concentrating on something and I’m grinning. That’s the way I like to picture myself. I’m something else there. I’m on another level of existence, just being in pure motion. Going wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go. That’s nice, you know.”