Naturally, there will be some hue and cry to the effect that the National Hockey League should abandon its All-Star Game. Monday night’s exhibition cost the Chicago Black Hawks the services of Bill Mosienko, the right-winger on the their only proficient forward line. The Hawks suffered a sorry blow when Mosienko fractured an ankle as he was bounced by Jimmy Thomson. From this seat, it appears that the injury will be sufficient to assure the Hawks of last place in the NHL standings.
• Jim Coleman, The Globe and Mail, October 15, 1947
Spoiler alert: they didn’t nix the All-Star Game. They kept it going. For the 1947 Chicago Black Hawks, Bill Mosienko’s fractured left ankle raised more immediate concerns. Such as: who, now, was going to play the left wing on Max and Doug Bentley’s line? Also: how could they turn their season around even before it got underway? As Jim Coleman and everybody, the Black Hawks were one of the NHL’s weaker teams. It was ten years since they’d won the Stanley Cup, and nowadays they were in an annual struggle just to make the playoffs. Despite Max Bentley’s having led the NHL in scoring for two straight seasons, the Black Hawks had failed to make the post-season in the spring of ’47.
The All-Star Game was on the Monday in Toronto. While the rest of his teammates aimed for Wednesday’s season opener in Detroit, Mosienko hobbled back to Chicago. How much time was he expected to miss? Five or six weeks, Black Hawks’ president Bill Tobin told reporters. Coach Johnny Gottselig wasn’t so optimistic: he thought his winger was lost for the entire season. “I don’t know how we can replace him,” Gottselig said. “He was one of the league’s standout players.”
Six weeks or all season: either way, the team needed help. The Chicago Tribune reported that Tobin had $100,000 he was willing to spend to upgrade his line-up, starting in goal, where Emile Francis wasn’t quite getting the job done. Problem: Tobin’s rivals didn’t seem all that eager to help him get his spending spree started. Case in point: with Chuck Rayner guarding the New York net, the Rangers had Sugar Jim Henry playing in the minors. Chicago fancied him, but the Rangers wanted Alex Kaleta, the best of their forwards not surnamed Bentley or Mosienko. Preferring a straight cash deal, Tobin asked for a price. The Rangers, Andy Lytle of The Toronto Daily Star wrote, laughed.
In Detroit, Gottselig tried a rookie by the name of Dick Butler alongside the Bentleys. It was a nice story: like them, Butler hailed from Delisle, Saskatchewan. Chapter one wasn’t as fairytale as it might have been. Max Bentley’s two goals on the night were unassisted, and the Black Hawks lost, 4-2. They kept on losing, too, seven games in a row as October became November, and Bill Tobin failed to bring in any new players.
A New York radio station reported that Tobin had a new deal in mind for Sugar Jim Henry: $15,000 plus the Rangers could have Alex Kaleta once the season ended. New York GM Frank Boucher heard that and telephoned Tobin to accept. Tobin backed off: he’d been misquoted, he said.
That was the end of October. Around the same time, Tobin was talking to the Leafs about handing over $25,000 for defenceman Bob Goldham along with $15,000 each for Elywn Morris, another bluelines, and center Gus Bodnar.
A rumour was in the autumn air, too. The Leafs, it went, would surrender an entire forward line plus two defencemen in exchange for Max Bentley. It was Bill Tobin’s turn for mirth. Yes, the Leafs’ Conn Smythe might jokingly have proposed such a deal, Tobin guffawed, but the Bentleys were not for sale. “To satisfy our large following, we need name players,” he explained.
“He wants to give men five charley horses for Max Bentley?” Tobin continued. “Why, I’ll better that offer and give Smythe the whole Kansas City team, with Johnny Gottselig’s false teeth thrown in, for Syl Apps.”
Not quite a quite a week later, Max Bentley was a Toronto Maple Leaf. It wasn’t quite the deal that had been so humorously sketched out previously: in exchange for forwards Bodnar, Gaye Stewart, and Bud Poile along with defenders Goldham and Ernie Dickens, the Leafs also got forward Cy Thomas.
NHL president Clarence Campbell said he was shocked when he heard about the trade. Back in Saskatchewan, Bill Bentley, 74, professed himself to be very unhappy. He didn’t think either one of his talented sons would be able to replicate the success they’d had playing with each other.
Coach Gottselig admitted he’d been reluctant to break up the brother act from Delisle, but said it was inevitable. “We needed fresh blood,” he said, “and no other club wanted any of our players except Max Bentley.”
What changed for Bill Tobin? Edward Burns of The Chicago Tribune reported some of the finer strokes from behind the scenes:
The swap was broached more than a week ago in Toronto when Connie Smythe, managing director of the Leafs, suggested the deal after President Bill Tobin of the Hawks had gone there, screaming for help. Tobin was reported to have said that he wanted to “talk it over with his mother.” At the time the reply was interpreted as a facetious comment by Tobin, who had been waving $100,000, not the deed to Bentley, in his belated effort to strengthen his cellar Hawks. Then he went to Ottawa and conferred with his mother.
Bill Mosienko’s ankle was sufficiently healed to see him return to the Chicago line-up early in December. Despite his and his teammates’ best efforts, the Black Hawks never made it out of the NHL cellar that year. As for Toronto, their Bentley-boosted line-up won another Stanley Cup in the spring of 1948, the second of three in a row, one of four they’d win in five years in the ’40s.
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.