andy bathgate, 1959: the main thing in shooting is your grip

“The main thing in shooting is your grip on the stick,” Andy Bathgate divulged in January of 1959. “You don’t have to be big and you don’t have to be strong, but you have to have the right grip. People talk a lot about my slap shot — that’s an arm shot, you don’t break the wrists. But my best shot is a wrist shot with no followthrough. I know exactly where it’s going, and I can get it off pretty fast.”

Bathgate, who died on a Friday of this date in 2016 at the age of 83, was playing in his seventh NHL season in ’59. At 26, he was making such impression on the New York Rangers’ right wing that Sports Illustrated put him on its cover. “The most exciting player in hockey,” Kenneth Rudeen called him in the profile within, before casting back to Bathgate’s Winnipeg boyhood. “He had a hockey stick in his hands at 6,” Rudeen wrote, “and he was playing in organized community games at 9. He managed to get in as many as 100 games a season as an adolescent; during one winter he played on eight different teams and coached another.”

Interesting to hear Bathgate explaining how he developed his shot, which would become one of the most effective in hockey. He and his friends, he said, would skate as much as possible on outdoor rinks in the neighbourhood, and even when it was too cold to skate, he and a pal would switch to boots and stand on opposite sides of the ice, “some 70 feet apart,” to alternate shooting and playing goal. Rudeen:

Each wore a heavy gauntlet and tried to catch the puck as the other shot as hard as he could. There was a gentleman’s agreement to keep the puck high, because low shots broke sticks and ankles.

“We’d just keep shooting the puck harder and harder and harder,” Bathgate says. “After a while you developed something. Now all the kids are going in for curling In heated rinks! I’m afraid there aren’t many hungry hockey players coming along out there.”

While developing the ability to launch what is now one of the hardest shots in hockey, Bathgate unwittingly acquired the bad habit of making only high shots. When he discovered later that he could not expect to survive in professional hockey without a variety of shots, he buckled down to learn them. Today he mixes the high hard one judiciously with the rest, but even so he is conspicuous for his attempts to score from far out. Occasionally he succeeds spectacularly. For example, in a game last season he cracked a rising slap shot between the top goal post [crossbar] and the shoulder of the startled Montreal goalie, Jacques Plante, from beyond the blue line, about 75 feet away.

It was later that same year that Bathgate unleashed one of the most consequential shots in hockey history at Plante — only this time, he intended to hit him rather than put the puck past him.

November 1, 1959 was the day, when Montreal was in New York to play the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. As I’ve written before, Bathgate was mad at the Canadiens goaltender, who’d clattered him into the boards early in the game, cutting him. As Bathgate later told Plante biographer Todd Denault, he’d had revenge in mind when he broke in and let go a high (not-so-judicious, if very accurate) backhand. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” Bathgate told Denault.

Plante left the game bleeding from his wounds. When he returned, of course, he was wearing his famous mask.

 

 

 

non-fungible number 9

Elbow Room: “Gordie ‘Pow!'” by Detroit artist Zelley was offered for sale as an NFT earlier this fall by the Hoe Foundation. (Image: Howe Foundation)

I lost track of the bidding soon after the bidding started, in October, on the Gordie Howe NFTs. If there was bidding. Was there? I wasn’t bidding, but I think people were, if I’m not mistaken, people who saw an opportunity to acquire exclusive works of art depicting one of the greatest hockey players ever to have played, for the purpose of … not hanging them on the wall, or anywhere, due to the non-fungibility of the works in question, as I understand it, which I don’t, entirely.

I’ve been slow on the NFT uptake, I confess. Trying to catch up. Gordie Howe’s token efforts snared my attention because (i) Gordie Howe and (ii) I’m always interested in the artwork that hockey inspires. I didn’t need to be seeking to acquire any of the vaporous masterworks on offer to activate my curiosity in the subject-matter and the history on which they draw. That came naturally.

Howe’s grandson, Travis Howe, is the founder of this feast — Mark Howe’s son. There’s a video you can watch that has Travis explaining the whole concept behind The Gentl9man 2021 NFT Art Collection. The idea, in short, is to be sharing “some really special stories that have true meaning to the Howe family” while raising money for the good causes that the Howe Foundation has long believed in and supported. I can get behind that, even if I’m not bidding: the Howe Foundation does worthy work in aid of both getting kids active and in backing women aspiring to make their way in the world of sports business.

Along with a reproduction of a sketch of Mr. Hockey’s own, there were eight works originally on offer in October, by a Detroit artist, Matt Zelley, a.k.a. just plain Zelley. Among them is a great piece of puck-pointillism, reproduced at the foot of this post; another portrays Gordie Howe as an oncoming locomotive — at least I think that’s the concept. Promised as a premium bonus to the lucky buyer of the poppy Roy Lichtenstein-inspired piece at the top of the post: “a game-used pair of Gordie’s elbow pads” currently on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Zelley’s interpretations of some of the landmarks of Howe lore are to your taste or not; all the works are up for viewing at the Howe Foundation site.

It’s not the commerce involved with these NFTs that I’m interested in, particularly, nor Zelley’s decisions as an artist. What I’m here for (sorry if you’re not) is the storytelling that’s behind the project, and the messages it’s sending — and ignoring. While there’s plenty to consider and to discuss in each of these Howe Zelleys, the one that catches my attention in particular is the vivid one we’re looking at above, the one titled “Gordie ‘Pow!’”

Let me just disclaim, up front, any desire to mess with Gordie Howe’s legacy. He remains one of hockey’s undeniable greats — Maurice Richard himself will be testifying to that a little further down. Howe’s talents were mountainous, as was his strength and his durability. I’m not denying any of that. He played the game at such a high level for such a long time, was an idol to so many, worked tirelessly as an ambassador of the game he loved, seems to have been just a great guy, so long as you were meeting him in circumstances in which you weren’t trying to take the puck away from him or otherwise stymie his progress on NHL ice.

But also? There’s no getting away from the fact that, on that ice, he was a clear and present danger to anyone who got in his way. Gordie Howe was violent and he was mean.

You don’t have to take my word for it. “Meanest player in the league,” Andy Bathgate called him in 1959, “uses all the tricks plus.” A sampling of the press Howe got when he first retired in 1971 might include Dave Anderson’s verdict in the New York Times: “Sure, this soft-spoken man was dirty. Some say the dirtiest.” Son Marty has called him (with, I guess, affection) “the toughest, meanest guy I’ve ever seen on a pair of skates.” Howe was often injured, we know; he also did a lot of injuring. I’ve written about both, including here and here.

Hockey, which is to say hockey people, long ago found ways to reconcile itself to and excuse the violence it tolerates within the game. One of them is to insist that assaults that take place on the ice are somehow different from those that occur elsewhere, beyond the confines of arena boards. (That this fiction has taken hold and, mostly, been accepted in the wider world is a magic no-one truly understands.) There’s a rhetorical trick hockey people like, too, the one that seeks to detach hockey players from the anti-social behaviours they sometimes perpetrate by emphasizing what wonderful people they are away from the game. I’ve written about this before — specifically in reference to Gordie Howe, in fact — without ever really understanding the logic at work. The Howe Foundation’s NFT project blithely embraces the contradiction by including the concept of [sic] gentl9manliness in the title of a collection that includes portraits of our hero punching and knocking out opponents.

In those works, Zelley honours and adds to another tradition of hockey’s tendency to downplay its own brutality, whether or not he’s actually aware it. “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is an actual cartoon, so it’s hard to blame it for doing (and doing well) what cartoons are meant to do: brighten, distort, exaggerate, spoof the real world for entertainment’s sake.

Here’re the rubric accompanying the piece in the Howe Foundation’s online gallery:

Gordie “Pow!”

“It’s better to give than to receive.”
— Gordie Howe

With playful colors and a comic-inspired style, a smiling Gordie Howe uses one of his infamous elbows on Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Contrary to popular belief, there was no bad blood between the two players. That myth began when Howe hit Richard coming across the line, and according to Howe, “he spun like a rocket and fell down.” Howe went on to explain, “He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.”

Where to begin? Also: how to begin, without sounding like a serious finger-wagging pedant? I guess maybe would I get going by pointing out that elbowing, infamous or otherwise, is a penalty, following up to ask why the act of knocking out an opponent, even rendered with a playful palette, would be one you’d want to spotlight? Yes, I think that’s how I’d do it.

Definitely looks like a headshot, too, that grinning Gordie has delivered here. We’re late to the scene, but I’d say that the Richard we’re seeing is unconscious, even before he’s down — which won’t be good for his head when it does hit the ice in the next (purely notional) panel. I guess if you were aiming to portray both Howe’s cheery nature and his grim record of administering concussions to opponents, this is how you’d do it, but again I’m going to fall back on questioning: why?

I know, I know: it’s comic-inspired, not an accurate portrayal, what’s the big fuss, why do I hate fun?

It just strikes me as stoutly strange that (i) this is the one of the (quote) really special stories that has true meaning to the Howe family and (ii) that no-one involved in the project saw any dissonance in turning hockey head trauma into a cartoon for a Howe-related project.

Mr. Hockey, after all, spent the last years of his life with dementia that, as son Marty talked about in 2012, was surely related to the injuries he suffered in his hockey-playing years. “You play 33 years at that level without a helmet,” the younger Howe told the Toronto Star’s Mark Zwolinski, “and things are going to happen.” Did he have CTE? It’s not clear; as far as I know the family didn’t donate Howe’s brain for study after his death in 2016 at the age of 88. In 2012, Marty Howe said that the Howes had no plans to do so.

Marty and Mark and their two other siblings, Murray and Cathy, did write an afterword to the autobiography that Howe published in 2014. My Story is a bright and entertaining package, written in the confident first-person; only on a back-end acknowledgments page does Howe credit Calgary writer Paul Haavardsrud for helping “to take the thoughts in my head and put them down on paper.” As John Branch wrote in a review of the book for the New York Times, the whole enterprise raises “at least two questions, both unanswered: What kind of damage did hockey do to Howe’s brain? And how does someone with dementia, which severely impacts memory, write a memoir?”

The afterword, which the Howe children presumably penned themselves, does actually attempt to rationalize the punishment and pain that were such prominent parts of their father’s professional brand. It’s almost endearing.

“How can someone who’s so kind and soft-spoken at home become so remorseless once he puts on skates,” they ask. Answer: “It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde duality that’s not easy to reconcile.”

It comes down to his professionalism. That’s what they believe. His job was to win; he did his job.

“He decided early in his career that to be successful in the NHL he’d need to give the opposition a reason to slow down when they came to get the puck. If that meant throwing an elbow or putting some lumber on a guy, then it seemed like fair game to him. After all, everybody in the NHL was being paid to be there, and the odd cut or bruise was just the cost of doing business.”

Here’s where differ from those earlier (and forthcoming) witness statements. “Ironically,” the Howe siblings propose,

it was the respect he had for other players that made him feel like he had a license to play as ruthlessly as he did. He wasn’t mean-spirited or dirty; he just figured that a few stitches or a knock to the ribs didn’t cause any real harm. If it gave him the extra split second he needed to make a play, then that was justification enough for him. In his mind, playing any other way would be shortchanging the team. Some people might not approve, but his tactics gave him the space he needed to operate for more than 30 years. There was definitely a method to his madness.

I can’t decide if the generosity of this reading outweighs its naïveté, or whether do they just cancel each other out? That the Howe children decided to address their father’s on-ice vehemence at all should be recognized — but then so should the fact that they then so studiously avoid any serious discussion of the head trauma that Gordie Howe suffered and administered even as they’re leading up to their mention of his “cognitive impairment” in the last few pages of the book.

The jolly anecdote that Zelley and company have attached to “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is, if nothing else, of a piece with the reputational reset that Mr. Hockey proposes.

I know, I know: the quote about the supposed bad blood between Detroit’s most famous number 9 and his Montreal counterpart is accurate: it’s something that Gordie Howe did indeed tell Dave Stubbs, then of the Montreal Gazette, in 2007. They were in Montreal, at a gala celebrating the charitable works of a mutual acquaintance Howe knew as “John” — Jean Béliveau. Most of the account Stubbs wrote focussed on the amicable relationship that those latter two enjoyed through the years. Here’s a fuller excerpt:

They fought hard, but within the rules during a time of bitter rivalries, when teams met each other 14 or more times per season. Neither recalls ever dropping the gloves against the other.

It was the late Rocket Richard, a fellow right-winger, that lore has Howe detesting.

“There was no dislike,” Howe said. “I respected him. I’d watch every move he made, if it could benefit my hockey. …

“They always thought there was bad blood because I hit him once coming across the line and he spun like a rocket and fell down. He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.

“I felt sorry for the Rocket. I never felt he enjoyed the game. If he wasn’t having a good night, he’d just as soon explode. That fellow didn’t know when to stop, did he? But I admired him.”

So much so that Howe named his dog for Richard. Surely the four-legged Rocket is a ferocious, brooding beast?

Howe leans in close.

“A toy poodle,” he whispered, his playfulness worn in a grin.

A great party piece, that last bit, if a little cruel. The pity, just before that, is interesting. As for Howe’s assertion that there was no antipathy between the two superstars — I’ll grant that it’s entirely likely and unsurprising — allowable, even — that at that late date, when Howe was 79, with almost half-a-century gone by since the two men last met on NHL ice, that’s how he chose to remember the way it once was, benevolently, generously, electing to settle back on the comforting chimera that as old rivals they two had engaged in honourable sportive struggle against one another with reverence and esteem as their mutual watchwords.

The historical record isn’t entirely contradictory — let’s just say that it has a finer grain to it.

Howe and Richard were fighting each other on the ice as early as 1949, when Richard was 27 and Howe was 20. Detroit and Montreal had a bad-tempered meeting that January at the Forum wherein Richard engaged in what the local Gazette rated as “determined slugfests” with Howe and Red Wing captain Sid Abel. In both cases, the Gazette decided, he was “on the short end of the punch-throwing.” The Rocket was hurt, too, in one of those melees, tearing a muscle in his hip.

Red Wing defenceman Red Kelly later recalled that the referee on the night, King Clancy, skated in to adjudicate when Howe and Richard first began to scruffle, calling off the players who were trying to separate the two. “Let ’em alone. Let ’em fight. Let’s see who is the best fighter,” Clancy said, by Kelly’s 1970 account. (Before it was all over — accidentally or not — Richard ended up punching Clancy, too.)

That wasn’t the only occasion on which Howe and Richard brawled. There was this time, too, which I don’t have a precise date for, though the details of the respective uniforms would seem to say it’s pre-1956:

Howe v. Richard: An undated photo of Detroit’s number 9 and Montreal’s. That’s Red Wing Marty Pavelich sitting atop the boards, which suggests that the photo was taken in 1956 or earlier.

However warmly Howe and/or members of his family have spoken of Richard in recent years, both men did see, in their time, see fit to putting some pricklier feelings on the page.

Here’s the Rocket writing about Howe in his 1971 Stan Fischler-mediated autobiography:

He was big and strong and skated with great ease. He could do what no other player in the league could do, shoot the puck from either the left or right side. I noticed Howe when he first joined the Red Wings in the late forties and he impressed me as a good, but not a great, hockey player.

That changed, with the years. “Looking back,” Richard says, “I would say that Howe is the best all-around hockey player I’ve ever seen, and that includes Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.”

The next paragraph, I guess, counts as … praise?

Another thing about Gordie that I experienced firsthand was that he was a dirty hockey player, not tough, mind you, but dirty — and he would take absolutely nothing from anybody. If you gave him a bad check, you could be sure he’d get even with you, in spades! But he wouldn’t start it. In that sense, Howe and I were the same. I would never hit anybody first if he hadn’t done anything to me before.

In their 2000 book, 9: Maurice Richard, Reluctant Hero, Chris Goyens, Frank Orr, and Jean-Luce Duguay quote Richard near the end of his career. “Howe is a great player, the best I ever played against, but he should hustle more. He doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as he could. He was a better all-round player than I was, maybe the best ever. But I think he should have scored more big goals, like in the playoffs.”

Finally, the 1995 memoir Howe produced with Tom DeLisle’s help is instructive, too, and offers more nuance on the relationship than what we’re getting from the Howe Foundation’s NFT catalogue. Billed as “an authorized autobiography by Gordie and Colleen Howe,” And … Howe! includes a chapter called SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT. Here’s the salient sub-head followed by Howe’s reminiscence as it appears on the page:

THE ROCKET AND GORDIE HAVE NEVER BEEN FRIENDS SINCE GORDIE BROKE THE ROCKET’S GOAL RECORD OF 544.

GORDIE: Things have changed but, at the time, I hated the old (bleep). Of course, he hated me too. There were a few guys he hated worse than me, like [Ted] Lindsay and Stan Mikita. But that was then. Now, Rocket and I are pretty good friends. We do a few things together, and he and his now deceased wife, Lucille, were our first choices to be included in a book Colleen produced a few years ago about former players and their families, entitle After The Applause. So I think that shows our respect for him.

Rocket said once in the paper that “Gordie might have more goals, but my goals were more important.” I told somebody, “I don’t want to fight with Rocket, but I’d like to say that his goals meant bugger-all to me.” Essentially he’s such a proud man. He was a goalscorer, I was a goalscorer. I had to take him out, he had to take me out. That was our job from the blueline in. Rocket was such a powerful man. He had one habit I perceived, however, he would come down and cut across the blueline because he liked to get to the center of the ice and shoot. Everything was quick wrist shots. So one time, as he came across the blueline, I really nailed him. We ended up in a fight.

This is the 1949 clash described earlier. As the Detroit Free Press saw it, “Richard and Howe met heavily inside the Detroit blueline and came up fighting. They kept swinging lustily with bare fists and tumbled to the ice.”

Back to Howe’s telling:

There was a flurry of people around. Somebody pushed me from behind and I went down on one knee. And for some reason, Rocket was under my left knee. I waited, and when he looked up, I popped him. I whacked him a pretty good one. Then all hell broke loose, and when they got us apart we were yapping like jaybirds at one another. Then Sid Abel poked his nose in, and said to the Rocket, “Aw, you big frog, you finally got what you were asking for.” And Rocket goes — BAM! — and breaks Sid’s nose. Then I started to laugh, it looked so darn funny. Then Sid went in an did a job on the Rocket, again.

Rocket was talking about that episode a little while ago. He said, “I took on your whole damn team, no wonder I lost.” Even in a loss, he could be so proud. The guy is unbelievable.”

Full Count: Zelley’s “1,071 Pucks,” another NFT that went up for sale earlier this fall, with the number recognizing the goals Howe scored in the NHL and WHA.(Image: Howe Foundation)

rod gilbert’s number 7: like a cardinal’s hat at st. patrick’s cathedral

Amid New York Rafters: This LeRoy Neiman portrait of the late Ranger great Rod Gilbert dates to 1976, near the end of Gilbert’s distinguished career with New York. In October of 1979, the Rangers retired Gilbert’s number 7 where (as per this subsequent caption of Neiman’s) it hung “like a Cardinal’s hat at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” It was no fault of Gilbert’s then — and it’s no disrespect to his legacy now — to mention that the Rangers somehow forgot to honour that same 7 for the first Ranger to don it (in 1927), the inimitable (and possibly best-ever Ranger) Frank Boucher. Then again, the team has made a strange tradition of overlooking its earlier stalwarts, and any time the Rangers get around to retiring Bill Cook’s number 5 and his brother Bun’s 6 wouldn’t be too soon. Recognitions for Murray Murdoch, who wore 9 before Andy Bathgate and Adam Graves, and Ching Johnson, a long-serving 3 before Harry Howell, wouldn’t be out of place, either.  

cal gardner does his time (cameo by sin bin sally)

Born in Transcona, on Winnipeg’s east side, on a Thursday of this date in 1924, Cal Gardner made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers before a trade took him to Toronto in 1948. He won two Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs. He was briefly a Black Hawk and then finished his 12-year career in the NHL with four seasons with the Bruins. The scene here dates to his final year, 1957, when Boston visited Madison Square Garden and the Rangers beat them 5-2. Dean Prentice scored the winning goal for New York; Gump Worsley (Rangers) and Don Simmons (Bruins) were the goaltenders.

There was no penalty box as such at the old Garden in those years, which meant that if you transgressed and went to wait out your sentence, you sat just west of the Rangers’ bench on the 49thStreet (south) side of the rink, amid paying customers. Gardner served two time-outs that night, in the first period (for slashing) and in the third (hooking), visiting, unavoidably, with Sally Lark on both occasions.

“Now that some of the Rangers’ games are being televised nationally, she is becoming to many more who assume that she is the wife of someone connected with the team.” That’s from a short profile Sports Illustrated ran in ’57. No, not so, no such connection: 28-year-old Lark was an interior decorator from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, just a big Ranger fan with a season’s ticket that kept her front and centre. “Sin Bin Sally,” the papers sometimes called her. She’d attended her first game in 1942, and in the 15 years since, she’d only missed about ten home games.

“It’s better not to talk to them at first,” Lark said of the players from visiting teams who ended up in her precinct. “They’re not in a very good humour. But if a player gets a major penalty he usually has time to cool off before he leaves the box. Then, maybe, we speak.”

The night of Gardner’s visit was a busy one, despite being brawl-free: Rangers Lou Fontinato, Harry Howell, Prentice, Red Sullivan, Andy Bathgate, and Bill Gadsby all dropped by the penalty bench at one time or another, along with Boston’s Fleming MacKell, Don McKenney, Fern Flaman, Johnny Peirson, and Allan Stanley.

Lark had tickets for two more seats on her right, for friends; on her left sat the Garden timekeeper. In all her years at the Garden, she was injured only once, before the Garden installed glass around the boards in 1946, when she was hit by a puck in the ear. “Just a few drops of blood,” she said. “Even now,” SI advised, “if she wears a hat, she is likely to have it knocked into her lap by some player thrashing about her on the penalty bench.” Lark said she didn’t mind: life by the ice was “exciting but safe.”

bob nevin, 1938—2020

Shake On It: Bob Nevin, left, lends a hand to Chicago defenceman Dollard St. Laurent in the aftermath of the 1962 Stanley Cup Finals, wherein Toronto overcame the Black Hawks in six games.

Sad to see the news this morning that Bob Nevin has died at the age of 82. Born in 1938 in South Porcupine, Ontario, Nevin made his NHL debut in 1960 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. A right winger, he finished second in voting for the league’s top rookie, trailing teammate Dave Keon when the ballots for the Calder Trophy were tallied. Nevin won a pair of Stanley Cups with Toronto, in 1962 and ’63. In early 1964, a trade took him to New York when the Leafs swapped him (along with Rod Seiling, Arnie Brown, Dick Duff, and Bill Collins) for Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney. He succeeded Camille Henry as captain of the Rangers in 1965, serving six years in the role before another trade sent him to the Minnesota North Stars. Nevin went on to skate for the Los Angeles Kings and spent a final year, 1976-77, with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers.

perhaps some day: hockey’s early, battered goaltenders and the long wait for a better (non-baseball) mask

“All his teeth were loosened:” Not long after John Ross Roach posed in a baseball catcher’s mask in 1933, he was cut, contused, and concussed while going barefaced into the breach in the Red Wings’ net.

Last Friday was November 1 and therefore an auspicious anniversary in the history of hockey preventatives: it was 60 years to the day that Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Jacques Plante decided that he’d played enough barefaced hockey in the NHL. Cut by a puck shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that night in 1959 at Madison Square Garden, Plante left the game bleeding badly. When he returned to the ice, he was wearing a mask over his stitches and bandages. Clint Benedict had experimented with a mask (or masks) back in 1930, of course, but it was with Plante that the practice of goaltenders protecting their faces became commonplace in the NHL.

That’s not to say that throughout the rest of hockey history goaltenders weren’t constantly thinking about mitigating the damage being done to their faces. Baseball’s catcher’s mask originated at Harvard University in the 1870s, and it makes sense that hockey players might reach for a handy one of those come wintertime.

Eric Zweig has written about Eddie Giroux experimenting in 1903 with just such a mask. Giroux would go on, in 1907, to win a Stanley Cup with Kenora, but this was four years earlier when he was playing for Toronto’s OHA Marlboros. A shot by teammate Tommy Phillips cut him in practice, and so he tried the mask, though it’s not clear that he wore it in an actual game.

Same for Kingston’s Edgar Hiscock, who had his nose broken playing for the Frontenacs in 1899. He was reported to be ready to don a “baseball mask” in the game that followed, though I haven’t seen a corroborating account from the actual game in question. Mentioning Hiscock’s innovation beforehand, a local correspondent weighed in:

This is a new idea, and one which, perhaps, will create some amusement among the spectators at first, but yet there is not the least doubt of it being carried into effect, as something should be worn by goalkeepers to protect the head from the swift shots of some hockey players.

Is Hiscock’s the earliest recorded instance of a goaltender sporting a mask? That I’ve come across, yes — but only so far, and not by much. A goaltender in Calgary, Ev Marshall, donned a baseball mask in an intermediate game a couple of months later.

Hockey players and pundits were constantly discussing the pros and cons of masks throughout the early years of the new century. There was talk in 1912 around the NHA (forerunner to the NHL) that it might be time for goaltenders to protect their faces, though nothing ever came of it. In 1922, the OHA added a provision to its rulebook allowing goaltenders to wear baseball masks.

We know that Corinne Hardman of Montreal’s Western Ladies Hockey Club was wearing a mask a few years before that. And in 1927, while Elizabeth Graham was styling a fencing-mask while tending the nets for Queen’s University, Lawrence Jones was wearing a mask of his own to do his goaling for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League.

“Keeping both eyes on the elusive rubber disk is a decidedly more difficult matter than watching a pitched or thrown ball in baseball,” the Globe explained in 1922 in noting that catcher’s masks weren’t generally up to job that hockey goaltending demanded from them. On that count, nothing had really changed since Eddie Giroux considered a baseball mask 20 years earlier. “He wore it at a couple of practices,” the Globe noted then, “but found it unsatisfactory owing to the difficulty in locating shots from the side.”

If you’ve dug into hockey-mask history, you’ll recognize that as a refrain. Goaltenders who, liked most of us, would rather not have exposed their heads to hurtling puck and errant sticks and skates chose to do so because nobody had invented a mask that would allow them to see well enough continue their puckstopping at the level they were used to.

I don’t know whether we can properly understand the bravery and hardiness of the men who tended the nets in the early NHL, much less the suffering. Hard as it may be to quantify, I’m ready to declare that the 1920s and ’30s were the most damaging era ever for NHL goaltenders. Lester Patrick’s unlikely turn in the New York Rangers’ net during the 1928 Stanley Cup finals came about because his goalie, Lorne Chabot, nearly lost an eye when Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons caught him with a backhand. Chabot was back in net, mask-free, to start the next season.

It’s just possible (if not entirely probable) that in 1929, a year before Clint Benedict debuted his mask, George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens tried one of his own after a teammate’s warm-up shot to the face put him in hospital. The history of goaltenders contused, cut, and concussed in those first decades of the NHL is as grim as it voluminous — and that’s before you get to the part about the frontline goalies, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers and Canadiens’ Wilf Cude, whose NHL careers seem to have been cut short by what might today be diagnosed as PTSD.

All of which is to say that goalies needed all the help the protection they could get in 1933, which is when this photograph dates to. At 33, John Ross Roach was a cornerstone of Jack Adams’ Detroit Red Wings, and while he was the oldest player in the NHL that year, he wasn’t showing any signs of flagging, having started every one of Detroit’s 48 regular-season games in 1932-33. He was still in his prime when a photographer posed in a mask borrowed from a baseball catcher. The feature that it illustrated does suggest that Roach did experiment with a similar set-up in practice, though he’d never tested it in a game.

Roach’s problem with the catcher’s mask was the same one that Eddie Giroux had encountered 30 years earlier: it obscured a goalie’s sightlines. Playing under the lights in modern rinks only compounded the problem. “The mask creates shadows under artificial lighting that do not exist in sun-lit ball parks,” Jack Carveth’s Detroit Free Press report expounded, “and Roach wants no shadows impairing his vision when fellows like Charlie Conacher, Billy Cook, Howie Morenz or dozens of others are winding up for a drive 10 feet in front of him. Perhaps some day in the not too distant future a mask will be made that will eliminate the shadows. Until such a product arrives, Roach and his fellow workmen between the posts will keep their averages up at the expense of their faces, having the lacerations sewn up and head bumps reduced by the skilled hands of the club physician.”

Detroit took to the ice at the Olympia on the Sunday that Carveth’s article ran. Montreal’s Maroons were in town for an early-season visit (which they ended up losing, 3-1). Other than a second-period brawl involving players and fans and police, the news of the night was what happened just before the fists started flying. Falling to stop a shot from Montreal’s Baldy Northcott, Roach, maskless, was cut in the face by teammate Ebbie Goodfellow’s skate, and probably concussed, too. “His head hit the ice,” Carveth reported, “and he was still dazed after the game was over.” Relieved for the remainder of the game by Abbie Cox, Roach went for stitches: three were needed to close the wound on his upper lip.

The Tuesday that followed this, December 12, is one that lives on in NHL history for the events that unfolded in Boston Garden when Bruins’ defenceman Eddie Shore knocked the Leafs’ Ace Bailey to the ice. The brain injury Bailey suffered that night ended his career and nearly his life.

Roach was back in the nets that very night for Detroit’s 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks. Any ill effects he was suffering weren’t mentioned in the papers. But two days later, on the Thursday, Roach was injured again when the Red Wings played in Chicago. This time, he fell early in the third period when a shot of Black Hawks’ winger Mush March struck him in his (unprotected) face. Once more, Roach was replaced, this time by defenceman Doug Young. Roach took on further stitches, seven to the lips, five more inside his mouth. “All his teeth were loosened,” the Chicago Tribune noted. He was checked into Garfield Park Hospital and kept there while his teammates caught their train home.

Roach ceded the net to Abbie Cox for Detroit’s next game, the following Sunday, but he was back in the Tuesday after that, shutting out the Americans in New York by a score of 1-0. But while he did finish out the calendar year as the Red Wings starter, playing three more games (losses all), that would be all for Roach that season. Just before the New Year, Detroit GM Jack Adams borrowed the aforementioned, yet unbroken Wilf Cude from Montreal, announcing that Roach was being given two to four weeks to “rest” and recover from his injuries.

No-one was talking about post-concussion syndrome in those years, of course. “He has given his best efforts to the club,” Adams said, “but he has been under strain and his recent injury in Chicago, when seven stitches had to be taken in his face, combined to affect his play.”

By the time Roach was ready to return, Cude was playing so well that Adams didn’t want him, and so the former Red Wing number one ended up the year playing for the IHL Syracuse Stars. Roach did make it back to the NHL for one more turn when, still unmasked, he shared the Red Wings’ net with Normie Smith. Adams would have kept Cude, if he’d been able, but he’d played so well on loan to Detroit that Montreal manager Leo Dandurand called him home to serve as Canadiens’ starting goaltender for the 1934-35 season.

Fashion Forward: Could it be that hockey players might one day actually protect their heads? The case for protection came into stark focus in December of 1933 after Eddie Shore ended Ace Bailey’s career. Modelling football helmets here are (left) centre Russ Blinco of the IHL Windsor Bulldogs and his goaltender, Jakie Forbes. At right, Forbes wears a modified (and just how puck-proof?) baseball mask.

 

face value

“We thought it was a joke,” Andy Bathgate said, later, recalling the mask that Jacques Plante donned for the first time in an NHL game 60 years ago today. It was Bathgate’s spiteful backhand, of course, that did the damage to Plante’s face on that Sunday in New York in 1959. There’s a fuller accounting of the hows and wherefores here; if nothing else, it confirms that the puck did not, in fact, decapitate Plante, despite what this graphic 1997 depiction, above, seems to suggest. It’s from The Man Behind the Mask, a 24-page comical retelling of the story of Plante and his mask written and inked by Michael Dixon. Publisher McClelland & Stewart was behind the True North Comics series that spawned it, teaming up with the CRB Foundation in support of the original run of Heritage Minutes, one of which — watch it here — famously dramatized Plante’s bloody night. The True North comics were handed out by the tens-of-thousands at McDonald’s restaurants across Canada. There were four volumes in all, with the others respectively recounting tales of Halifax’s 1917 explosion; Chinese migrant labour and the construction of the CPR; and Joseph Tyrrell’s 1884 discovery of dinosaur fossils in Alberta’s Badlands.

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

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.

this week in 1957, when hockey debuted on american television: show ’em everything, clarence campbell said

Clarence Campbell was in the house: he declared the game a “pretty good show.” If that sounds a little lukewarm, well, maybe we’ll presume that the NHL president was doing his best to spare the feelings of the Chicago Black Hawks, losers on the day to the hometown New York Rangers by a score of 4-1.

January 5, 1957, was the day, a Saturday. The game was a matinee, with a 2 p.m. face-off at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Five years after René Lecavalier narrated the NHL’s first televised game from the Montreal Forum on Radio-Canada, this marked the coast-to-coast broadcast debut for NHL hockey across the United States. Launching a 10-Saturday series of games that CBS cameras would beam across the nation in coming weeks, the Rangers and Black Hawks may not have been the thoroughbreds of the league at the time — New York was skulking only eight points up on basement-bound Chicago. Marshall Dann of The Detroit Free Press wondered in a preview whether these “chronic tailenders” were the best teams with which to try to lure the attention of those potential fans who’d never seen hockey before. “But who will know the difference,” he wrote, “in such way points as Atlanta, New Orleans, Amarillo, Las Vegas, or San Diego?”

CBS estimated that the broadcast could reach as many as 10-million viewers. Sixty-five U.S. stations carried it that day, with another 35 scheduled to join in for future feeds. All of the ’57 TV games, the NHL decided, would be played in the afternoon. League-leading Detroit was scheduled for five appearances in the succeeding weeks, as were Boston and New York, with Chicago showing up four times. (This first broadcast didn’t, notably, play on Chicago TVs.)

Montreal’s Canadiens were traditionally at home on Saturdays, but they would take one network turn south of the border in Boston. “Some one will have to tell the TV watchers that it is a six-team league,” Marshall Dann quipped — the Toronto Maple Leafs figured not at all in that season’s broadcast schedule.

Campbell, for his part, didn’t want anyone mistaking this venture into TV as a cash grab by the clubs. “The amount of money each club will receive,” he said, “is intended to compensate it for changing from night to afternoon. The real value from a hockey standpoint is that we can create an interest in hockey in areas where the game is practically unknown.”

A crowd of 9,853 watched the game live at the Garden. The New York Times’ Joseph Nichols wasn’t as generous as Campbell in his review: he remarked on its lack of speed, action, and heavy bodychecking.

Al Rollins was in goal for Chicago, Gump Worsley for the Rangers. Andy Bathgate opened the scoring for New York with a shorthanded goal. If the second period was dull, Nichols thought he knew the reason: maybe “the skaters were self-conscious because of the television cameras.” (Did they not know about them for the game’s first 20 minutes?) Larry Popein did increase the Rangers’ tally* before the final period came around and the teams relaxed: they were “a little more sprightly,” at least, in the third. The period opened with a goal by Chicago’s Glen Skov before Bruce Cline and Danny Lewicki added to New York’s count.

For the play-by-play, the NHL had angled for Foster Hewitt or (as Milt Dunnell said) a reasonable facsimile thereof. CBS went instead with Bud Palmer, the former New York Knicks’ star who’d moved over to microphones once his basketball career ended. Between periods, Campbell stopped by to chat. The entertainment also included introduction of hockey’s rules and a chalk talk from Rangers’ GM Muzz Patrick.

The following week, the Rangers starred again, beating Detroit 5-4 at the Olympia. That week’s intermission distractions for those watching at home featured a pre-recorded segment with Gordie Howe showing viewers how he shot the puck, and a visit to the Red Wings’ dressing room. George Puscas from the Free Press reported that at the end of the first period, the players, having trooped off the ice, were paused in the corridor for fully two minutes while CBS aired a commercial.

They had to wait, for the script called for the camera to catch them as they entered the locker room chanting how nice they were going out there.

Then, too, things had to be tidied up a bit. Some of the players had hung their underwear on hooks. So their dress slacks were hung on top of the underwear.

It was pretty tame — frankly, it was pretty dull — but that’s the way locker rooms are when you breeze away to a 2-0 lead.

While “the players sipped tea and munched oranges,” Detroit GM Jack Adams defended their docility. “Our locker room is always quiet,” he said. “This is a place for rest and relaxation and that’s what we do here.”

Showman: NHL President Clarence Campbell and friend, in 1957.

Another production note of interest from that first foray onto American airwaves: Campbell apparently instructed the production crew that if a fight broke out on the ice, the cameras shouldn’t shy away. This was “a healthy switch,” one commentator felt, from the pro football playbook. A few weeks earlier, NFL commissioner Bert Bell had explained why he mandated that broadcasters of games from his league should turn their cameras away from the unpleasantness of fights and on-field injuries.

“We are selling our game just as the sponsor is selling his product,” Bell argued, “and that’s the way I instruct the TV people. We are selling football, not fights.”

“Anyway, if there were only one wife or mother of a player viewing the game, I would not want her to suffer while her boy is on the ground. We don’t stress fights because we want to sell good sportsmanship, and not brawls.”

Back in New York in January, Milt Dunnell was on hand to see the spectacle. The reasoning behind Campbell’s laissez-faire approach to televising whatever mayhem might evolve, he said, was “that if the people in the Garden can see it, then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be shown on television screens.”

As it turned, referee Frank Udvari called only minor penalties that day. Dunnell:

There was no blood-letting to shock the millions of new shinny lookers who doubtless had been told that hockey is a tong war which takes place on the ice. The closest thing to head-whacking was a minor flare-up involving Harry Howell and Gerry Foley of the home side, and Glen Skov of the harried Hawks.

As often happened in games involving the Rangers’ goaltender Gump Worsley, the future Hall-of-Famer did go down hard, suffering a — possible? probable? — concussion. As is so much the case in what’s turned into an ongoing accounting of Worsley’s historical head injuries, I don’t have any clinical evidence to go on here, only the anecdotal. Could have been negligible, I guess, but one account had Worsley going down “head first on the pond.” In another he was “felled during the second period when struck on the right side of the head by a stick.”

I don’t know if Bud Palmer was thinking back to Bert Bell’s comments or not. “I’m sure,” he did say, as Worsley was down, “if his wife is watching, it’s nothing serious.”

Worsley did finish the game. To some of those uninitiated seeing the action across the wide open expanses of the continental U.S., he was the star of the show. “He reminded me,” Tom Fox wrote, “of Yogi Berra guarding home plate in Yankee Stadium. Nobody gets by unless he hits a home run.”

Fox was working as he watched, actually. A sports reporter for The New Orleans Item-Tribune, he was one of several correspondents across the nation whose assignment for the afternoon was to watch both TV hockey and those who were watching TV hockey and report on it for Sunday’s paper.

“Ice hockey is more exciting than any other sport I’ve ever witnessed,” was Fox’s verdict.

In Miami, Herald reporter Luther Evans stopped by at several local bars where the game was showing to poll the clientele.

“They talk about jai-alai being fast,” offered June Overpeck, a secretary, “why this hockey is much faster and very interesting.”

“My opinion,” a Miami Beach prosecutor named Wilson McGee testified, “is that TV doesn’t give you the true picture of the game. The camera is following the puck and you miss the most exciting action of the checking.”

LeRoy Henderson, porter: “I’d rather watch Sugar Ray Robinson fighting on TV, even as bad as he’s going.”

* Contemporary newspaper summaries of the game all put Larry Popein’s goal at 14.54 of the second period. In his New York Times account, Joseph Nichols’ note about how dull that middle frame continues: “The highlight of the session was the goal scored by Popein at 14.54, with the help of Bathgate and Harry Howell.” That’s not what the NHL says, though: at NHL.com, the summary has the goal in the first period. After several years of collating, checking, and inputting, official summaries of the league’s 100 years of regular-season games went online back in October. No game-sheets survive from the NHL’s inaugural season in 1917-18, but otherwise the league has the originals on file. A tiny discrepancy, of the minorest possible clerical importance if any at all? Sounds like it needs pursuing. Stay tuned.

(Top image: 1961-62 O-Pee-Chee #65, courtesy of HockeyMedia/The Want List; Clarence Campbell: Chris Lund, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/e011176459)

 

jacques plante’s new face-saver

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Mask + Man: Before he added his famous mask to his game equipment one night in 1959, Jacques Plante was protecting his face in practice. After having both cheekbones broken in training mishaps in 1954 and ’55, he first tried a welder’s mask donated by a fan. He later switched to the plexiglass apparatus he’s holding above, the creation of a St. Mary’s, Ontario, inventor by the name of Delbert Louch. “Louch’s New Head-Saver” had its shortcomings: it left a goaltender’s forehead vulnerable and tended, too, to fog over on the ice. Plante modified his, as shown above, by cutting out eye-holes. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

You can guess, maybe, the species of shot that truly distressed Jacques Plante. “Oh brother, that damned slap shot!” he wrote, to the point, in 1971. “You have no idea what an effect the slap shot has had on goalies.” Heading into a game against Chicago, he said, knowing he was gong to facing Bobby Hull, his nerves would start their rattling two days before the teams hit the ice.

Plante was 41 by then, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs — with another three seasons to go before he’d wrap up his 21-year professional career. He was wearing a mask by then, of course — had been for 11 years, ever since the night in 1959 when Andy Bathgate of the Rangers moved in on him in the early minutes of a game in New York.

You know the story. It was this week, 57 years ago, November 1. It wasn’t a slapped shot that did the damage and launched a Heritage Minute. No, Bathgate’s effort was a malign backhand. He told Plante biographer Todd Denault that he’d done it on purpose, vengefully — Plante had tripped him into the boards, he was bleeding, and mad. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” he said.

The puck struck Plante to the left of his nose. Dave Anderson: “He toppled face down on the milk-white ice at the right side of the net.” Red Fisher, covering the game for The Montreal Star, would describe Bathgate rushing in and lifting Plante’s head.

Plante stayed down for 15 seconds. He got up with a towel fixed his face, skated off under escort by Maurice Richard and Dickie Moore. A pair of Garden policemen helped him to the medical room. Rangers’ doctor Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa sewed in seven stitches. After 20 minutes, Plante was ready to return. There are varying versions of the conversation that took place between coach and goaltender before Plante rejoined the game. In his biography Behind The Mask, Raymond Plante (no relation) has Plante lying on the medical table, seeing Blake, saying I want to play with my mask on. Blake: We’ll see, we’ll see.

Dave Anderson wrote a Plante feature for The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. As he tells it, Blake is the one to mention the mask, tell Plante he can put it on. Good, Plante told him, because I wouldn’t go back without it.

Todd Denault’s biography is Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (2010). He has a stricken Plante departing the medical room, heading back out to the ice (where — a superior detail — the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), then on the Canadiens’ dressing room where he had it out with his coach. Continue reading

firmament first team

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Reaction was swift to the news, when it came on June 10, that Gordie Howe had died. The tenor was sad, with an accent on tribute and fond respect. Hero was one of the words that was trending that Friday, along with legend and icon. Many of those who took to Twitter were quick to imagine Mr. Hockey’s ascension to a whole new celestial venue. “Heaven must have needed an elbow in the corner,” decided Sportsnet Magazine’s Gare Joyce; a certain Mark Scelfo fancied that “the first ever ‘Gordie Howe hat trick’ was recorded in heaven today.” (Howe’s friend, on-ice rival, and fellow Saskatchewaner Johnny Bower, 91, was more domestic in his thinking. “He’ll meet his wife up in heaven now,” he told The Hockey News.)

Both Sportsnet and Sports Illustrated elevated Howe to their covers last week. In the latter, Michael Farber went up on high for his lede to picture God on skates with Number 9 hunting him for a hit:

The Almighty blew it this time.

Sure, vengeance might be His (Romans 12:19), but as the Creator vets His newest recruit — a powerful, stooped-shouldered man with an easy smile and old-fashioned values forged in Depression-era Saskatchewan — He would be well-advised to skim the Book of Gordie. Verse 1: Do not mess with Gordie Howe. Howe, who died on Friday at age 88, had a memory as long as his unparalleled career, which touched five decades and included seven MVP awards in two leagues. Heaven might be a swell place, full of cherubim and gaping five-holes, but if Mr. Hockey suspects that he was taken from us too soon, that he could have gotten yet another day out of his rich life … well, the Supreme Being should start skating with his head up, you know?

Wednesday, at Howe’s funeral at Detroit’s Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, son Murray recounted that he’d once asked his father for advice on shaping his eulogy. “He said, ‘Say this: Finally, the end of the third period.’ Then he added, ‘I hope there’s a good hockey team in heaven.’ Dad, all I can say is, once you join the team, they won’t just be good, they will be great.”

Others who weighed in over the course of the week included Hall-of-Fame defenceman Larry Robinson and former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay. A quick tour:

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h3

h19

h10

h4

h1

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h6

h7

h11

h14

h5

h17

 

 

that week: if he were a forest, he’d be a national park

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“There will never be another Gordie Howe,” is what Bobby Orr was saying last week, in the days following Howe’s death on June 10 at the age of 88.

“You couldn’t invent Gordie today,” Orr told Dave Stubbs from NHL.com. “If he was playing with today’s rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn’t take liberties with him. The way he played, he’d do real well.”

“He was everything to me,” Wayne Gretzky told NHL.com.

Adam Gopnik wrote a Howe tribute for The New Yorker. “Perhaps only Mark Messier, among players bright in our contemporary memory, combined the same qualities of grit, skill, desire, and accuracy,” he mused. “As Gretzky lived on the edge of his skates, Howe lived in his wrists: the accuracy, power, and quickness of his shot are the first things those who saw him up close, in his prime, often reference (after they reference the elbows that rose above those wrists).”

“My best Christmas ever, I was five years old and my dad — I mean Santa Claus — bought me a Gordie Howe sweater, which I wore for the whole year.” That’s Gretzky again, back in 1994. The same article, from Reuters, goes on to say that when young Wayne pleaded with his father, “a barber,” to cut his hair Gordiewise, Walter Gretzky had to explain that Wayne had too much hair and Gordie too little.

“His elbows were the best,” Joe Peacock wrote in 1997.

Gretzky, last week, helped to clarify that old Reuters story: “I was seven or eight years old and I’d go to the barber shop … and I’d say, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut.’ I was enamored by him at a young age.”

Eddie McCabe, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, circa 1979, said this: “Gordie is such a decent man, he makes up for the yahoos and the boors.”

Frank Selke said there was no-one better. “Gordie Howe is the greatest all-round hockey player I’ve ever seen,” he opined in 1961 when Selke was managing director of the Montreal Canadiens. “He’s a composite of some mighty fine players through the years, and I’ve been watching them all, amateur and professional, since the 1910s around my old hometown, Kitchener. I’ve never known any player combining so many faculties. He’s the greatest of them all.”

Gordie’s dad didn’t necessarily agree. Gordie wrote about this in his “authorized autobiography,” and … Howe! (1995):

According to my Dad, Vic was always the better player, better than me. He was so funny. And Vern, my oldest brother, was the best of us all, so Dad said. It wasn’t until Dad was old, on his death bed, that he finally gave me more credit. He was kidding me, and said, “Aw, I saw a few gams on television. I guess you were better than your brothers.”

“In street clothes, he looks quite slim, an impression heightened by his long arms, rather long neck and narrow face.” This is Peter Gzowski, from a famous Maclean’s profile of Howe from 1963. “His most outstanding physical characteristic is the slope of his shoulders; his trapezius muscles — the muscle you feel if you stretch your arm out to one side — rise into his neck at an angle not far from 45 degrees, while his deltoids, at the top of the arm, look scarcely better developed than the average dentist’s. The enormous strength he displays in hockey flows from him, rather than exploding, and the easy grace with which he moves on the ice, and which has given so many hockey fans pleasure over the years, is also evident in his loose, almost lazy walk.”

“He’s always at the outer edge of the rulebook,” Eric Nesterenko told Gzowski. “You never know when he’s going to slip over into what’s dirty.”

Howe’s longtime linemate concurred. “Gordie gets away with more than anyone else in hockey,” said Ted Lindsay. Andy Bathgate of the New York Ranger indicted Howe for “deliberately inflicting head cuts, of deliberately cauliflowering at least one ear, and of deliberately raising the puck at other people’s heads.” He did not spear, Bathgate said, nor butt-end. Gzowski: “He is a recognized master of ‘high sticking,’ an action that is almost impossible for the fans or even the referees to separate from an accident, and which has carved his signature on a good many faces around the league.”

Gary Ross wrote about Howe in 1978, the year Number 9 turned 50 playing for the New England Whalers, “If Gordie Howe were a building, he’d be sandblasted and declared an historic site. If he were a forest, he’d be made a national park. In an age of $100,000 flakes he’s the real thing. A hero, a wonder, a natural phenomenon.”

When a 45-year-old Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to play with sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who told him to go for it. “I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you’d find similar musculature,” Dr. Bailey said. “It’s a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That’s almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80.”

Herbert Warren Wind was first to profile Howe for the pages of Sports Illustrated. “When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone,” he wrote in 1955, “doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot. Also invisible is Howe’s great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete’s forearm.”

Mark Howe, in his 2013 memoir Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey: “He always regretted dropping out of school and felt that somebody from the hockey club should have stopped him. I think that’s why he took up crossword puzzles — a big-time passion of his — to improve his vocabulary.”

“His success is due in part to the fact that he has the ‘perfect body for hockey,’” Larry Bortstein was able to disclose in 1970. “His shoulders slope so sharply into his huge biceps, which flare out into huge forearms, wrists, and hands. His legs are very strong. ‘I conserve them by sitting down at places where I don’t have to stand,’ he says.”

“When Howe is on the ice,” Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964, “Detroit’s Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable.”

King Clancy was the one who suggested someone ought to bottle the man’s sweat: “It would make a great liniment for hockey players.” Continue reading