jacques plante’s new face-saver

e011161492-v8-1

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 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

h20

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:

h18

 

h3

h19

h10

h4

h1

h8

h6

h7

h11

h14

h5

h17

 

 

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

e011166336-v8

“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

andy bathgate writes: second wind is difficult to describe

Credit: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505654

Andy Bathgate in New York Ranger vestments, circa 1959. (Photo: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505654)

Andy Bathgate’s distinguished NHL career is being remembered today following his death yesterday in Brampton at the age of 83, Ontario. Worth your while are Richard Goldstein’s obituary in The New York Times and Lance Hornby’s appreciation from The Toronto Sun.

Otherwise, maybe we’ll pause to salute to Bathgate’s literary legacy. As Goldstein and Hornby both recall, he did publish a notorious 1960 article in True magazine calling out the league’s spearing artists — more to come on that. There was a book, too, in 1963, co-written with sportscaster Bob Wolff. There’s a bit of autobiography to Andy Bathgate’s Hockey Secrets, some scenes from his childhood in Winnipeg, but mostly it’s focussed on the how-tos, from tying your skates and making the most of your wristshot to avoiding the grim dangers of goal-celebrations, all in the interest of guiding the next generation of NHLers into the league. He wasn’t going to play forever. “In a few years,” he mused, “there’ll be new headliners on the ice. There will also be some other talented youngsters who will not savor big league glory and gold unless they learn the all-important extras along the way. This book is mainly for them. I want others to benefit by what it’s taken me years to learn, so they can be ready when those openings occur in the National Hockey League. And there’ll be openings, I can assure you. One of the vacated spots will be mine.”

Herewith, twelve select sentences from the body of the book, extracted live from their context if not their wisdom:

I did not learn my hockey from books.

You just can’t be successful in a sport like hockey or football if you worry about injury or looks.

A good stick man never changes grips.

Talking plays a most important part in passing.

If you want to see a master at it, watch Henri Richard.

The injuries that hurt the most are the foolish ones.

I find that staying condition is a pleasant, year-round job.

If things are quiet, I’ll start clowning round a bit or needle a teammate to get some chatter and kibitzing started.

Second wind is difficult to describe.

When you fire the puck properly in a power shot, you feel it right from the blade through your hands, your wrists, your arms.

I’m no longer sure within my heart whether I’ve had a special aptitude for this game or not.

The secret is toe control.