bob baun’s broken leg, 1964: pain on the parade

Easy now, after the fact, to point to Monday’s Bob Baun anniversary as a propitious one for the 2018 incarnation of the doughty defenceman’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Harder to prove that Baun’s heroic goal 54 years ago might have powered the modern-day Leafs to their game six win, but I’ll listen if somebody wants to argue the case.

April 23, 1964 was a Thursday, and the Leafs had already made it all the way to game six of the Stanley Cup finals by then. They were up against the Red Wings, as you’ll maybe remember, with Detroit leading the series three games to two as the teams met at the Olympia. The game was tied after two periods, 3-3. In the third, Gordie Howe took a shot that hit teammate Larry Jeffrey’s stick before it struck Baun’s right ankle. That’s what Baun says in Lowering The Boom, the memoir he wrote in 2000 with Anne Logan’s aid, though at the time, Dick Beddoes of The Globe and Mailidentified Alex Delvecchio as the shooter. Didn’t matter to Baun, of course: “I felt a sharp pain.”

A couple of shifts later he went into the corner with Andre Pronovost, and that hurt some more. Next up: he took a defensive-zone face-off (as defencemen often did in those years), beating Howe but, almost immediately, going down. “I heard something pop and my leg just caved in underneath me.”

He couldn’t get up. He tried and failed, left the ice on a stretcher. The Leafs’ Dr. Jim Murray took a look, along with an orthopedic surgeon (and Leaf fan) from Chicago who happened to be on hand, Dr. Bill Stromberg. “They suggested taping and freezing it,” Baun blithely recounts, “determining that it was unlikely that I would hurt it further.”

So they did that and Baun was back on the bench for overtime. He was back on the ice for the second shift, which was when he let a fluttery shot go from the point, which (maybe) hit the stick belonging to Red Wing defenceman Bill Gadsby and (positively) beat goaltender Terry Sawchuk to win the game.

Baun subsequently refused to get the ankle x-rayed ahead of game seven: “I was afraid they might find out something that I didn’t want to know; besides, after the seventh game I’d have all summer to recover!”

Dr. Murray suspected that Baun has sustained a hairline fracture of the fibula. If Baun insisted on playing (he did), the doctor prescribed more taping and further freezing.

So Baun skated out for that seventh game — it was this very night in 1964, it so happens, at Maple Leaf Gardens. Leafs won, 4-0, to earn their third Stanley Cup in as many years. I don’t want to get too far ahead of this year’s curve, so I’ll hold back on elaborating on just how raucous the victory celebrations got.

There was a parade, I will mention, on April 27. The weather was moist and a little chilly. That could have had something to do with the meagre size of the crowd. Or was there, alternately, a time in Toronto’s history when its citizens were actually growing bored of winning Stanley Cups? In 1962, some 100,000 had turned out to cheer the champions. A year later, it was 60,000. In 1964? The Globe’s estimate was a paltry 8,000 — “predominantly small children and teen-agers.”

In his book, Baun says that he still hadn’t had the leg examined and thought it best to pass on the parade altogether. But that’s at odds with the reporting from the day itself. As the Globeand Toronto Starhad it, Baun was there, ready to process, and only happened to be knocked out of action on his way to the party.

“While stepping into a convertible to join his teammates in the parade to the City Hall,” reporter the Globe’s Jack Marks wrote, “he slipped and fell, further injuring his tender leg.”

It’s not clear whether he went to hospital then and there, but he did miss the mayor’s reception. Baun says in the book that when the leg was finally x-rayed, he learned that he had broken “a small bone on the outside of [the] leg, just above the ankle.” I guess it doesn’t really matter whether that break came on the ice on the way to winning the Cup or by the Cadillac as he prepared to celebrate it — to injure yourself at a parade held in your honour with the Stanley Cup nearby still rates as premium hockey lore.

The Star reported two others casualties on the day: a pair of teenaged girls fainted as Leafs’ captain George Armstrong carried the Cup up the steps of Toronto’s old City Hall. They were fine. As Baun had done earlier in the week and then didn’t that day, Sharon Skrepnek and Ruth Dworking were tended to and soon returned to the line-up.

 

(Image: Topps 1964-65 Bob Baun card courtesy of HockeyMedia/The Want List)

willie o’ree, 1961: scored that one for the whole town of fredericton

Like Bronco Advised: With Montreal defenceman Jean-Guy-Talbot looking on, Willie O’Ree scores his first NHL goal, a game-winner, on Charlie Hodge, January 1, 1961.

Sixty years ago today, Montreal was minus-nine and snowed under, cloudy overhead, with light flurries expected and a risk of freezing drizzle. Normal, then, for a Saturday in January. Marlon Brando’s new movie, Sayonara, was playing at Loew’s downtown. In Ottawa, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was feeling better. Having spent the week confined to his bed with a strained back, he was up and out for a short walk. All was well in the local hockey cosmos: the Montreal Canadiens, Stanley Cup champions for two years running, were once again a top the NHL standings. Coming off a 5-2 Thursday-night win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs were preparing to host the Boston Bruins and their newly promoted winger, 22-year-old Fredericton, New Brunswick-born Willie O’Ree.

This week, the NHL is remembering that 1958 night, the first to see a black player play in the league. O’Ree, who’s 82 now, was honoured last night and roundly cheered at Boston’s TD Garden when the modern-day Canadiens played (and lost to) the Bruins. Earlier in the day, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had proclaimed today Willie O’Ree Day across the city. That was at a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in O’Ree’s honour.

Called up in a manpower emergency, O’Ree played only a pair of games during his first NHL stay. It would be three more years before he returned to score his first goal.

Back in ’58, the Bruins and Canadiens were spending all weekend together. Following Saturday’s game, they’d meet again Sunday in Boston. The then-dominant Canadiens were, as mentioned, cruising atop the six-team NHL, 18 points ahead of second-place Detroit, 24 clear of the languishing fifth-place Bruins.

With Leo Labine out with the flu, Boston GM Lynn Patrick summoned 22-year-old O’Ree from the Quebec Aces of the minor-league QHL. In 32 games there, he’d scored 7 goals and 18 points.

“It is believed that O’Ree is the first Negro to ever perform in the National Hockey League,” Montreal’s Gazette ventured, with nods to other black hockey talents, including Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre, star Aces of the early 1950s, as well as to O’Ree’s teammate in Quebec, centre Stan Maxwell.

Elsewhere, across North America, the headlines were bolder. “Young Negro Star Makes NHL History,” a California paper headlined a United Press story in its pages, noting “the lowering of the last color line among major sports” while also deferring to “most hockey observers” who were said to agree that the only reason there had been such a line was “the fact that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make” the NHL.

O’Ree wore number 25 playing the left wing on Boston’s third line alongside Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini.

“His debut was undistinguished as Boston coach Milt Schmidt played him only half a turn at a time,” The Boston Globe recounted, “alternating him with veteran Johnny Pierson.” The thinking there? GM Patrick explained that Schmidt wanted to “ease the pressure” on O’Ree and “reduce the margin of errors for the youngster.”

Dink Carroll of Montreal’s Gazette paid most of his attention on the night to Boston’s new signing, the veteran Harry Lumley, “chubby goalkeeper who looks like a chipmunk with a nut in each cheek.” O’Ree he recognized as “a fleet skater” who had one good scoring chance in the third period in combination with Toppazzini. “He lost it when he was hooked from behind by Tom Johnson.”

Lumley’s revenge was registered in a 3-0 Bruins’ win. “I was really nervous in the first period,” O’Ree said, “but it was much better as the game went on.”

“It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. It’s the greatest thrill of my life.”

Also making an NHL debut at the Forum that night: Prince Souvanna Phouma, the prime minister of Laos, was on hand to see the hockey sights at the end of a North American visit.

Sunday night at the Garden, O’Ree got one opening, early on, when Don McKenney fed him a leading pass. This time, O’Ree shot into Jacques Plante’s pads. With Canadiens re-asserting themselves as league-leaders with a 6-2 win, O’Ree didn’t play much in the game’s latter stages.

So that was that. Afterwards, O’Ree was reported to be grinning, sitting amid a stack of telegrams from well-wishers back home. He described himself as a “little shaky.” “I’m just happy to get a chance up here, that’s about all I can say.” Leo Labine was back at practice next day, along with another forward who’d been injured, Real Chevrefils, so after another practice or two, O’Ree returned to Quebec.

As a Hull-Ottawa Canadian, 1960.

It was three years before he got back the NHL and scored his first goal. Canadiens figured prominently again, starting in the summer of 1960, when the Bruins agreed to loan the winger to Montreal. O’Ree was duly assigned to the Hull-Ottawa edition of the Canadiens, in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, where Glen Skov was the coach. The team had a good autumn, but as happens with farm teams, they paid the price in having their best talents stripped away. In November, Canadiens called up Bobby Rousseau and Gilles Tremblay while Boston beckoned O’Ree, now 25, back to the fold. The Bruins were still down at the wrong end of the standings, just a point out of last place, while also suffering adjectivally in the papers where, if they weren’t “listless” they were “punchless.”

Starting off his second stint as a Bruin, he was numbered 22, assigned to a line with Charlie Burns and Gerry Ouellette. As in 1958, newspapers (like Pittsburgh’s Courier) took due note that the “fast, aggressive forward” was “the first of his race to play in the National Hockey League.”

“The Speedy O’Ree” The New York Times annotated him when he made his Garden debut; in Chicago, the Tribune’s Ted Damata was particularly attentive. “The first Negro” was “on the ice four times, three times as a left winger and once as a right winger. He touched the puck twice, losing it each time, once on a hefty body check by Jack Evans of the Hawks.” Continue reading