phil esposito: frankly, I had my doubts

Call It Macaroni: From the early 1970s, Phil Esposito makes the case for Kraft Dinner at the airport. Out on the tarmac. With a side salad.

Hall-of-Fame centreman Phil Esposito is 79 today, so many happy returns of the rink to him. Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on a Friday of this date in 1942 a year before his goaltender brother Tony made his debut, Phil was the first NHLer to score 100 points in a season (ending up with 126 in 1969). In 1971, he set a new mark for goals in a season, with 76. Along with a pair of Hart trophies and five Art Rosses, he won two Stanley Cups, both with Boston. He played 18 years in the NHL, mostly with the Bruins, though he was a Chicago Black Hawk before he was traded to Boston 1967 and then, after another trade, this one in 1975, he joined the New York Ranger.

When hockey writer Andy O’Brien visited with Esposito’s parents in 1970 for a profile for Weekend Magazine, Patrick Esposito confided that, early on, he wondered whether his elder son had what it took to make the NHL.

“Frankly, I had my doubts,” he said. “He was big and tall but he was weak on his ankles. However, he could handle the puck, and even when he was playing juvenile he led the league and had everybody talking about him. He kept on leading leagues but, no, I never felt quite certain he would make it.”

Test Drive: Esposito suggests a Volkswagen in 1980.

howie morenz, 1937: father time easily overhauls the fastest mortals

Hab Down: Howie Morenz hits the ice at Madison Square Garden in March of 1934, not quite three years before his death. His collision here was with New York Americans’ defenceman, number 3, Bill Bridge. Looking on is New York forward Bob Gracie.

It was on a Thursday night of this date 84 years ago that the great Howie Morenz broke his left leg in a game at Montreal’s Forum pitting Morenz’s Canadiens against the Chicago Black Hawks. Removed to Hôpital Saint-Luc, Morenz spent a little over a month in treatment before he died on March 8, 1937, of pulmonary embolism. Adapted from my 2014 book Puckstruck, here’s an accounting of his January 28 injury.

Morenz sobbed when Leo Dandurand traded him, in 1934, to Chicago. He was supposed to be slipping, and the coach had replaced him between linemates Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, the fans were booing.

He was pretty good in Chicago, but he didn’t get along with the owner. At about this time, in March of 1935, he turned again to freelance journalism. Back in Montreal he and Joliat had contributed columns to La Patrie, but now Morenz addressed a bigger, manlier audience by way of Esquire.

We’ll accept that Morenz was moved to write the piece himself, no ghostwriters to mediate his positively chipper tone, and that when he talked about himself in the third person, he meant it. The big news he had to deliver is a surprise: having lost all three fights he started the year before, Morenz has decided to give up fighting. “Yes, from now on I’m a pacifist, a hold-backer.” By the way, for those of you out there who thought that the fighting was a fake, “part of the show, fancy embroidery,” well, hold on just one minute, buster. He makes it all sound so jolly, so much fun, even the scene when the fleet winger meets the defenseman’s “solid, unlovely hip” and “the forward’s breath leaves his body with a ‘woof’, as he goes buckety-buck-buck and crashes into the boards.” On he prattles, and on, tickled as can be to be talking hockey, even when it’s to acknowledge that “Father Time easily overhauls the fastest mortals.”

A year later Chicago traded him to the Rangers — another sad step down, it looked like, on the staircase out of hockey. But then the Canadiens brought him back in September of 1936. He was 34. Cecil Hart was in again as the coach, his old friend, and he reunited Morenz with Joliat and Gagnon. By Christmas the Canadiens were at the top of the league, with Morenz one of the leading scorers. “I’m going the limit right now,” Morenz himself said. “I’m giving the fans everything I’ve got. The end may be in sight but the heart is still sound. You know what I mean.”

If you were writing this as fiction, you’d never write it so starkly obvious. He’s supposed to have told Frank Selke that he was quitting. “It’s getting too tough.”

Montreal played in Chicago on Sunday, January 24, 1937. Hobbled by a knee injury, he still managed to star, scoring the opening goal in a 4-1 decision for Montreal. “Siebert’s got his knee strapped up,” Morenz said of teammate Babe Siebert before the game, “and I got me a new knee put on for the winter, but we’ll win.”

Two nights later, the Canadiens beat Toronto 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens. “The Canadiens had the upper hand when they had Joliat, Howie Morenz, and Johnny Gagnon on the ice,” the Gazette reported. Joliat scored a pair of goals, with Morenz assisting on both. Babe Siebert said it was one of the greatest games he’d ever seen Morenz play. “The Morenz-Joliat-Gagnon line was the whole show, and we defencemen hardly got up a sweat so well were the forward lines going.”

News of Morenz’s injury from January 29, 1937.

On the Thursday, the Canadiens were back home to host Chicago. Morenz’s knee was heavily bandaged. In the first period, he was down at the south end of the Forum, towards St. Catherines Street. Nowadays there’s a rule to stipulate that the boards shall be constructed in such a manner that the surface facing the ice shall be smooth and free of any obstruction or any object that could cause injury to players. In those years, though, it was more of a tongue-in-groove design, as seen in the photograph above, and therein lay the danger.

As Montreal winger Toe Blake saw it from the Montreal bench, Morenz went looping behind the Black Hawks net when he lost his balance and fell into the boards where Chicago’s Earl Seibert “kinda fell on him.” The Montreal sportswriter Andy O’Brien saw one of Morenz’s skates dig into the boards, then he rolled over and the leg snapped. Joliat was on the ice: as he saw it, Morenz lost his footing, went down, put his feet up as he slid into the boards, the heels of his skates stuck in the boards. Somebody checked Earl Seibert, who fell on Morenz’s legs, which broke the left one.

Clarence Campbell was the referee that night. The way the future NHL president described it, Seibert dove headlong at Morenz, knocking him down, skate stuck, buckety-buck-buck.

There was a novelist in the house, too, on the night, Hugh MacLennan: he remembered (as a novelist might) a little smile on Morenz’s lips. “But once too often he charged into the corner relying on his ability to turn on a dime and come out with the puck. The point of his skate impaled itself in the boards. A defenseman, big Earl Seibert, accidentally crashed over the extended leg and broke it.”

MacLennan added another detail: “Howie’s head hit the ice with a sickening crack and he was carried out.” Unless Joliat and Gagnon helped him up and off. That’s another version that’s out there.

In the dressing room, there was a scene so stylized that somebody should paint it to hang up alongside Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe.” Morenz was, apparently, a little more lucid than the general. He lay on the rubbing table, smoking a cigarette. “I’m all through,” he’s supposed to have muttered, “all finished.” Don’t blame Seibert, he said. “It was an accident. My skate caught.” Joliat thought it was his wonky right knee that had betrayed him. Johnny Gagnon had tears in his eyes. Babe Siebert kept saying, “Hang on, Howie, hang on, Howie.” Small boys wept in the Forum corridor as they took Morenz out, and though he was crying too, he gave a cheery way on his way to the ambulance that took him to Hôpital Saint-Luc.

His ankle was cracked and he had four broken bones in the leg. Or it was a compound fracture with the bones shattered in two places slightly above the ankle and below the knee. The papers had differing reports, and it must have been hard to make sense of it all, which may be why La Patrie saw fit to publish x-rays of Morenz’s fractures.

Were there two, four, five? It still wasn’t entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.

“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.”

Two days after the crash, the rest of the Canadiens travelled to New York and Boston, where they beat the Americans and the Bruins, which Howie appreciated. Gagnon and Joliat wrote to him every day they were away and when they got back to Montreal, they went to visit. Dr. Forgues was satisfied with the progress of his patient’s recovery, Joliat reported in his La Patrie column. “Howie is most enthusiastic,” he wrote.

The Winnipeg Tribune added an unsettling Forum update that same week. “An X marks the spot that performers in the Montreal Forum are avoiding,” ran the unbylined item. “A member of the Forum’s ice-sweeping staff put a mark on the boards where Howie Morenz’s skate dug into the wood when the Canadien veteran broke his leg. … A few nights later, Cam Dickson, a Montreal Senior Group player, hit the identical spot and broke his arm.”

 

born on this day, in 1929: hockey’s headgear icon

Unmasked: Jacques Plante poses in December of 1959 with the mask he first donned in an NHL game a month earlier. (Image: Weekend Magazine/Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada)

In Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, Quebec, not far from Shawinigan, Jacques Plante was born on a Thursday of this date in 1929. He remains, of course, an icon of hockey headgear, renowned for tuques and masks that his coaches (Dick Irvin and Toe Blake, respectively) didn’t want him wearing on the ice. In The Jacques Plante Story, a 1972 memoir he collaborated on with Andy O’Brien, the goaltender is quoted telling an interviewer, “My business is getting shot at.” By the end of the 1970-71 NHL season, O’Brien suggests, the 42-year-old Plante had faced 28,545 big-league shots in 865 games. “That does not include the ‘friendly shots’ — possibly 100,000 of them — fired at him in practice,” O’Brien writes, “but they can’t be ignored be ignored because they twice put him in hospital.” Add a few thousand more to the final tally: beyond the book’s telling, Plante played a further two seasons in the NHL, along with a final year with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers. He died in 1986, at the age of 57.

fanbelt, 1949: a man without skates is a pretty inadequate citizen on the ice

All Rise: Ken Reardon and Leo Gravelle have one of their days in court in November of 1949. That’s Reardon at centre, with Gravelle to his left, by the man in the bowtie and glasses. Complainants (and brothers) Anthony and John Scornavacco are the moustached pair on Reardon’s right (not sure which is which). Peter Zarillo is in there, too. Presiding (that’s the top of his head, presumably) is Judge Joseph B. Hermes.

“No comment,” Clarence Campbell said in November of 1949 in the wake of the rhubarbary in Chicago that saw two Montreal players, Ken Reardon and Leo Gravelle, arrested and jailed. The NHL president said that he wouldn’t have anything to say until he’d heard from referee Bill Chadwick.

Other than, well, he did want to warn fans. On that, yes, he had comment. “If people go looking for trouble,” he said, “they’ll always get it.” He was talking to George Grbich, I guess, who’d leapt to ice after being struck and bloodied by Reardon’s stick. “There’s simple protection for him if he stays in the seat allotted to him. And anyway, a man without skates is a pretty inadequate citizen on the ice.”

“No fans need get involved unless they choose to do so.”

The game in Chicago was on the Wednesday. Friday, when Canadiens arrived back in Montreal, Campbell invited Reardon, Gravelle, and Billy Reay to pay him a visit at his office in the Sun Life Building. Reay had swung his stick, too, in Chicago, and taken a penalty, but avoided arrest. The meeting wrapped up without any statement forthcoming for press or public.

“There should be better protection along the rinkside for players from fans,” said Dick Irvin, Canadiens’ coach. His view, other than that the whole business “was really not much,” was that it was all accidental. Well, the damage to George Grbich, at least. Irvin:

“Grbich stood up in his seat with one foot on the railing, reached over the netting which fronts the promenade seats and grabbed Kenny Reardon by the shoulder-pad. The pad was pulled off the shoulder. Reardon went off-balance, swung around and his stick struck Grbich on the head.

“It opened quite a cut and friends of the spectator started to swarm over the netting and out on the ice.”

That was when Gravelle got involved, waggling his stick. “But,” Irvin said, “he didn’t hurt anybody and neither did Billy Reay who took a cut at one of these jerks but missed him.”

Irvin had news, too, of Grbich having come around to the Montreal dressing room after the game for a chat and some forgiveness. Head bandaged, blood on his lapels, Grbich said he was a Czech who’d played hockey back home. Said, too, as Irvin heard it, that “he was a great admirer of Reardon, really meaning to wish him well — but we figured this was a lot of baloney.”

Irvin continued: “Reardon had been in a scuffle with Ralph Nattress just before this and I guess the guy got excited. Anyway, he shook hands.”

Sportswriter Andy O’Brien wanted fans to be fair. Writing in The Montreal Standard, he opined that the whole affair had been “grossly exaggerated.” Players took all kinds of razzing from fans, and some of what they heard was truly filthy. “I have no sympathy for the fan who isn’t fair,” O’Brien wrote, and if a fan decided to punch, grab, or insult “a tensed-up athlete” then it was “a two-way deal.”

In Reardon’s defence, he also wanted to point out that the Canadiens’ defenceman was a member of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, where he excelled at handball and squash, and membership at that august club was restricted to “gentlemen” — so there.

By Saturday, Clarence Campbell was back to keeping his counsel — and commanding everybody else’s, too. He expressed his “extreme displeasure” at the publicity surrounding events in Chicago. He was particularly irked by the jailhouse photos from Chicago; that kind of thing, he felt, “is bad for hockey.”

Uh huh. As opposed to the smacking of spectators with hockey sticks?

“Meanwhile,” said The Ottawa Citizen, “the NHL chief ordered all concerned to refrain from comment on the fracas until the case is cleared up.”

The time for that came not quite two weeks later. Montreal was back in Chicago to play the Black Hawks, which they did on the Sunday night. On the ice, the visitors acted like “little gentlemen,” according to Edward Burns from the local Tribune. And the Hawks? “Mild characters, too.” The game ended 0-0. Referee Butch Keeling called a bevy of minor infractions in the first period, and assessed Montreal winger Rip Riopelle a misconduct for abusive language. There were no penalties in the second or the third.

The legal case was supposed to get going on Monday morning, November 14, but then George Grbich didn’t show up at Municipal Court, so the proceedings were put over a day so that he could be found.

Tuesday: still no Grbich. The news was that he’d upped and sold his Chicago property and moved to Butler, Wisconsin. The charges of assault with a deadly weapon against Reardon and Gravelle were heard without him.

Complainants Anthony and John Scornavacco were there, and so was Peter Zarillo.  Anthony owned a tavern, Zarillo was a taxi-driver; no word on how John passed his days. When they told Judge Joseph B. Hermes that their grievance was with Gravelle alone, he declared Reardon’s charge nolle prossed (not prosecuted), leaving Gravelle to face the music on his own.

The overture had Reardon testifying about the hand that had reached over the rail and grabbed his sweater. He said,

“I spun around and though that my stick hit the screen. And then I saw that a man was bleeding. The man [this was Grbich] yelled at me that he was okay. Just then another man climbed over the barrier and came at me as though he wanted to fight. I dropped my stick and gloves, but the officials ordered the man off the ice before he got to me. I heard a scuffle and then saw a spectator stand up and try to throw a chair over the barrier.”

Reardon didn’t say who the first man was, the one he almost fought; the attempted-chair-thrower he identified as Anthony Scornavacco.

Leo Gravelle said he didn’t see Reardon or Grbich, but he did see the unknown man on the ice.

“I did not strike any of the spectators,” he told the court. “Everybody was standing up and leaning across the barrier so I hit the top of the barrier with my stick a couple of times to keep them from coming over.”

The Scornavaccos remembered otherwise: Gravelle’s stick hit their arms and their shoulders, they said. But referee Chadwick and linesman Doug Young gave stepped up to say that they remembered what Gravelle remembered: no spectators were struck.

I’d like to know (but probably never will) whether Zarillo’s tie was introduced into the record, the one that was supposed to have been “torn” by one of the hockey sticks wielded by one of the Canadiens.

For an hour-and-a-half the evidence spooled out. When it was Judge Hermes’ turn to decide where it all led, he dismissed the charge against Gravelle.

“It is the prerogative of the American fan to boost his team and heckle opponents,” he ruled, “but from the testimony presented here it is evident that the complainants were the aggressors.”

And that was all, the end of it. There was word from the Scornavaccos that they intended to pursue a civil case against Gravelle, but I can’t find any trace of that. Montreal’s acquitted Canadiens were soon on a train to Toronto, where their Canadiens had a Wednesday-night game against the Leafs. As for Clarence Campbell and what his comment might have been on the outcome — whatever he thought, I haven’t come across any record of it.

Decision Day: Chicago brothers Anthony and John Scornavacco (or vice-versa) sign in at Municipal Court in November of 1949.

 

 

 

peter gzowski’s arbitrary list of hockey’s all-time greats

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

Stratford’s Own Streak: Howie Morenz in Hab finery in the 1920s. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.

These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.

There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.

It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.

Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.

This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).

In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.

To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.

Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.

The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.

And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.

Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.

The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:

Goal Scoring Ability
Strength (Roughness)
Speed
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
Flair (Color).

“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”

At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”

All of the nine wrote back.

“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.

“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.

I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.

I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.

Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:

Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.

Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”

Who else?

If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:

Red Kelly
Max Bentley
Bill Cook
Milt Schmidt
Eddie Shore
Dit Clapper
Harry Watson
George Armstrong
Bill Barilko.

Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.

Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:

My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.

Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?

Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:

I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.

Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”

I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.

I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.

Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).

When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:

  1. Howie Morenz
  2. Maurice Richard
  3. Bobby Orr
  4. Gordie Howe
  5. Bobby Hull
  6. Jean Béliveau.

fh

 

I seem to be able to get along with hockey players: the book peter gzowski never wrote

gzowski

If you’re going to write a hockey book, I’m going to suggest you do it the way Peter Gzowski did it with The Game of Our Lives. First thing: hook up with a hockey team that’s just about to turn into one of the very best ever to play in the NHL, with a roster that makes room for names like Gretzky, Messier, and Coffey. Two: have Peter Pocklington own that team, so that in the fall of the year you’re publishing your book, he’ll pre-purchase 7,500 copies to give away to people who’ve bought season’s tickets to watch said team.

Pocklington did that in 1981, without having read Gzowski’s chronicle of the ascendant Edmonton Oilers that McClelland & Stewart published just as the team was preparing to win five Stanley Cups in seven years. I’m guessing Pocklington didn’t read the reviews, either, but if he had he would learned that in Gzowski he’d backed a winner. “He has captured everything about hockey,” Christie Blatchford effused in The Toronto Star. “And he’s done it so well, so eloquently, so plainly, that it breaks your heart.”

Readers who hadn’t bought Oilers tickets joined in with Pocklington to make the book a bestseller. Thirty-four years later, it remains one of the most perceptive books yet to have found a place on the hockey shelf.

The Oilers weren’t Gzowski’s first choice as a subject, as it turns out. As a journalist he’d been writing about the game his whole career, both in print at Maclean’s and The Toronto Star and for CBC Radio, on This Country in the Morning and Morningside. The book he first had in mind would focus on an institution that (as he put it) flourished in a time in which it was hard to flourish, one that demanded to be admired and celebrated, that made you feel good just thinking about them, “like a good piece of architecture painting or a Christmas morning.”

The hockey book Gzowski was going to write, first, was about the Montreal Canadiens. Class is what he wanted to call it.

This is all in a letter I was reading not long ago in Peterborough, Ontario. Gzowski was Chancellor of Trent University there from 1999 to 2002, and one of the campus colleges bears his name. I had lunch in the cafeteria on my visit — a Peter Gzowski Burger, no less — before walking back across the bridge over the Otonabee River to Trent’s Archives, where many of Gzowski’s papers are preserved. Studying a plan for a book that never was, I recognized the shadows of another one that he did eventually write.

It’s two pages and a half, Gzowski’s letter, typewritten, on brown paper. It’s a draft of a letter, I should say, much edited and annotated, a little jumbled, certainly unfinalized, pencilled over, xxxxxxx’d, amended. It isn’t dated, but Gzowski talks about joining the Canadiens ahead of the 1978-79 season, so I’ll guess that he was working on it in the early months of ’78. I don’t know if there ever was a second, clean copy, much less whether Gzowski got it enveloped and stamped to send to the man it addresses. That would be Doug Gibson, the esteemed editor, writer, and publisher revered for his work with Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, among many others, not to mention the man who steered Ken Dryden’s The Game to print. He was, at this time, editorial editor of Toronto-based Macmillan of Canada.   Continue reading