twas a close squeeze

1932

Hard to say what’s going on with the puck in this imaginatively enhanced German photo-illustration of Canada’s first meeting with the United States at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. If the teams did indeed play the game batting about the lid of a teapot, it’s not something the newspapers noticed. What we do know is that this was the opening outing of Canada’s least-dominant Olympics up to that point, even if they did — spoiler alert — end up grabbing gold.

It was the Winnipeg Hockey Club representing Canada that year, the Allan Cup champions, and despite what you see above, they (a) wore regular shinpads and socks and (b) affected plain old red maple leaves on their sweaters, no  exoskeleton needed. Going into these III Winter Olympics, Canadians back home wondered whether the Winnipegs were worthy representatives. Could they get the job done? The team was considered weak, writes Andrew Podnieks in Canada’s Olympic Hockey Teams (1997), not to mention lacking in lustre. I don’t know that it’s fair to say that the country suffered a national sinking feeling as the team rode east out of Manitoba on Canadian National’s Continental Limited flyer, but neither am I ruling it out.

Against the U.S., the Winnipegs may have been thrown off by the fact that the game was played outdoors. Goalie Bill Cockburn had sun glaring in his eyes, and the team in general was (said The Globe) “as nervous as an amateur theatrical troupe on ‘the big night.’” Also, did I mention that the rink was disconcertingly small?

Canada was not only “sluggish” for the first two periods, but “wobbly.” In the second, the Americans scooped up a wild Canadian pass in front of Cockburn and … scored.

That woke up the Winnipeggers. Time to step it up. In the third, as The Globe told the tale,

Franklin Farrell, the United States goaler, was on his knees most of the time batting away shots with his elbows and his hands.

Hack Simpson finally beat him. In overtime, despite taking two penalties, the Canadians prevailed when Vic Lindquist drove at the net, fell, collided with Farrell and, somehow, shoved the the lid of the teapot into the net. “Twas a close squeeze,” Globe sports editor Mike Rodden exhaled next morning.

Now’s not the time, probably, to get down on the Winnipegs for what happened next. With an eye to selling tickets, the Americans had organized a series of exhibition games throughout the Olympics, which is how Canada played and lost to the team from McGill University next day. Canadian management attached no importance to the game but still, a loss is a loss.

Next, back to the fight for gold, came Germany. They insisted on succumbing by a mere 4-1. This was just getting silly. Four years earlier, Canadians had been winning games by scores of 33-0 and 19-2. The Winnipegs did record a restorative 9-0 drubbing of the Poles next, and that must have calmed some nerves. The Germans got the message, sort of, losing 5-0 when the teams met for a second time. Next day, when it was Poland’s turn again, the Winnipegs patiently re-drubbed them 10-0.

Which was better. More Canadian, certainly. In the final, the Winnipegs faced the United States again. Twice the Americans had the audacity to take the lead and twice — “a little shaken by the unexpected turn of events,” as The Globe reported — Canada was forced to tie it up. That’s how the game ended, 2-2, which was just enough to give Canada the gold, on points, even as the country considered the disturbing shift in Olympic hockey that we’ve been struggling with ever since: other teams, from other countries, seemed like they wanted to win gold just as much as we did.

firstsecondthird.9

mrhockeyFIRST. CBC TV is airing Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story on April 28 at 8 p.m. Made for television, the movie stars Vancouver-born actor Michael Shanks (Stargate SG-1, Arctic Blast, Mega Snake) as Mr. H. It tells the story of Howe’s return to the professional ice, in 1973, at the age of 45. He’d retired, reluctantly, in 1971 from the Detroit Red Wings, but when sons Mark and Marty signed with the WHA’s Houston Aeros, the temptation was too much to resist.

From a CBC press release, last week:

In addition to the challenge of playing real people, the actors had to be prepared to play hockey like the Howes.

mrhockey_020

Shanks may look more like a latter-day Barry Melrose than a middle-aged Mr. Elbows, but he does have some hockey chops, apparently. His online biography reports that

at 16, he had to decide whether or not to become a professional hockey player. He chose not to, but he continues to support the Canucks (though pragmatically admits that sometimes “They suck”) and has played for the Stargate SG-1 team against teams from other Vancouver-based shows.

Having decided that pro hockey was not for him, Michael went to the University of British Columbia to study business, financing his studies by taking laboring and lumberjack work. Math proved to be his downfall as a failed calculus course meant he was a half credit short of getting a Business degree. He switched to Theatre and graduated in March, 1994 with a degree in Fine Arts

SECOND. Marty and Mark Howe, who were 19 and 18 respectively, signed four-year deals with the Aeros that were worth a reported $400,000 each in June of 1973. Howe Sr. was a vice-president with the Red Wings at the time. Before he signed his deal with Houston (four years, $1-million), the NHL had offered him a five-year deal worth $500,000 — as a PR man. League president Clarence Campbell didn’t take it too hard when Howe turned him down. He was disappointed, sure, but he understood:

“It was his choice and he was obviously unhappy with his position in Detroit. I hope he won’t suffer the fate of other people who have played too long.

“It would make me sick if instead of applause he was greeted by boos. It would make me sorry to see him in that position.”

Howe, of course, went on to play six seasons in the WHA along with one more in the NHL for good measure, retiring in 1980 at the age of 52. Campbell retired in 1977.

THIRD. Andrew Podnieks has a great piece about our hockey-loving heads of state at iihf.com. On the occasion of Governor-General David Johnston’s patronage of the Women’s World Championship that wraps up tonight in Ottawa, Podnieks talked to him his early hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, where his U-17 teammates included Phil and Tony Esposito and Lou Nanne.

Johnston went on to Harvard, where he ended up captaining the hockey team. Like Michael Shanks, he came to the point where he had to decide whether to continue. Podnieks:

He played for four years starting in 1959 under coach Cooney Weiland, Boston Bruins legend and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was good enough that a career in the pro ranks was not out of the question.

“I did [consider a pro career],” he confessed. “I was 150 pounds at Harvard. I played defence, and I was in the hospital the last two weeks of my final season with mononucleosis, but I had been invited to the Bruins training camp. This was before the draft, and there were only six teams in the NHL. I think if I had been healthier, stronger, and played when there were 30 teams, not six, I probably would have told myself to go. But, I had a scholarship opportunity in Cambridge, England to study law, and the law called me.”

Along with his skill as a player, Podnieks points to the GG’s “Drydenian” understanding of the game’s details:

“I played forward and defence, and at one point I even played goal,” Johnston explained. “The thing I enjoyed most about hockey was seeing the whole ice and being able to see how individual virtuosity works into overall plan. I loved the strategy and the on-the-go intelligence of the game. I love the intensity. It’s played at such speed that you simply cannot skate for more than a minute or so without requiring relief. Very few sports have the same intensity that you need wave upon wave of players to maintain that intensity.”

Nels Crutchfield

Nels Crutchfield

OVERTIME. Reporting in the fall of 1934 of the Montreal Canadiens’ preparations for the upcoming season, Montreal’s Gazette noted that coach Newsy Lalonde was tending towards a number one line of Wildor Larochelle on the right, Pit Lepine at centre, Aurele Joliat over on the left. Further down the bench, Lalonde had Nels Crutchfield centering Joe Lamb and Jack McGill in the pre-season: “the first completely English line ever turned out by the Canadiens,” according to the paper.

the corkscrew rusher

Little Bullet Joe Blue Streak Corkscrew Babe Ruth Simpson

William McBeth was the Windsor sportswriter who decided that New York needed an NHL hockey team — he just didn’t have the money to pay for it. Stan Fischler tells the story in Those Were The Days (1976): how McBeth persuaded the bootlegger Bill Dwyer to bankroll the team and, in 1925, ended up with most of the players from the newly defunct Hamilton Tigers. McBeth, for his part, signed himself up as the Amerks’ publicity director. In aid of advertising the team and building excitement among fans better used to ballplayers, McBeth crowned Billy Burch as hockey’s Babe Ruth. (Burch wasn’t the last to find himself so named.) For Joe Simpson, McBeth (according to Fischler) decided on The Blue Streak From Saskatoon — even though Simpson hailed from Selkirk, Manitoba. Fischler continues:

New Yorkers, unschooled in hockey fundamentals, seized upon the nicknames and immediately goal from them each time Billy or Joe would touch the puck.

Conscious of their newly created audience, Burch and Simpson responded by stressing their individual exploits. “Every time one of them passed to another player,” wrote Frank Graham, Sr., who covered sports for The New York Sun, “the spectators howled in rage and disappointment. Seeking to please the customers, Billy and Joe did as little passing as possible. This resulted in spectacular but futile one-man raids on the enemies’ nets and a rapid disintegration of the team play necessary to insure victories as the other players then all tried to get into the act as individuals.

Which brings us to another nickname of Blue Streak Babe Ruth Bullet Joe’s: Corkscrew Joe. It’s not quite as evocative as Bullet, I don’t think, but close. Jim Coleman says that the Amerks’ first manager was the one who coined it just for Joe in New York. “When he was carrying the puck,” Coleman attested, “Joe skated rapidly on a twisting route and Tommy Gorman publicized Simpson’s unusual tactics as ‘corkscrew rushes.’” Continue reading

losing the room

Rudy Pilous was the winningmost coach the Chicago Black Hawks had ever had in 1963, not to mention he’d steered the team to Stanley Cup victory two years earlier. But as the season ended that year, the team not only fell out of first place, but followed up in the playoffs by losing to Detroit. A month later, when the coach’s hometown paper in St. Catharines, Ontario, declared that Pilous was going to be fired within two days, he was calm. “If it is true, then all I can say is that coaches have been fired since the first time a dollar bill got stuck to a puck.”

Had he lost the room? Was that the trouble? It sounds like something that might afflict an absent-minded architect, but no, it’s not. It’s what happens to a hockey coach just before he no longer had the job he had the night before. If you look it up in The Complete Hockey Dictionary (2007) … lose —the battle, — a draw, — the handle … okay, so it’s not in hockey’s dictionary. Should be. To lose the room is to get to a point where players once heeded your counsel and responded to your exhortations (i.e. in the dressing the room), now they’re jaded and hard of hearing, and don’t. As then-New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury said when he’d waxed* Peter Laviolette in 2003: “The line of communication between players and coach snapped.” Continue reading