game on, again, 2020: fist bumps no, fist fights fine

Wrasslemania: Art Coulter of the New York Rangers fights Joe Cooper of Chicago’s Black Hawks at Madison Square Garden in January of 1941. Looking on at left is Chicago goaltender Sam LoPresti, along with an unidentified press photographer and (at right) his New York counterpart, Dave Kerr. Working on separating New York’s Muzz Patrick and John Mariucci of Chicago is referee Bill Stewart.

Like everybody, Gary Bettman was housebound at the end of May. Unlike the rest of us, the NHL commissioner was broadcasting live from his New Jersey home, announcing the plan his league would be following in the hope of rebooting a 2019-20 season that the global pandemic had so brusquely interrupted in mid-March.

It was another strange scene in this strange and scary year we’re in, and at the same time as familiar as yesterday’s Zoom call. The image was medium-res at best, and Bettman was looking slightly startled, though smartly turned out in his quarantine-formal blue jacket and open-necked white shirt. He was in his dining room, with a formal-looking high-backed chair sitting empty behind him, maybe to signify the absences we’ve all been enduring. Over his left shoulder the camera caught the corner of a painting rendered in greens that don’t naturally occur in hockey. The room itself was a hue that, if I’m reading my Sherwin-Williams colour chart correctly, sells as Decisive Yellow. Cacophonous and yet somehow consoling was the background percussion accompanying Bettman as he said his scripted piece: nearby, in the commissioner’s kitchen, his three-year-old grandson was happily hammering pots and pans.

“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said at one point in a 15-minute explanation of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan that laid out formats, match-ups, and a tentative calendar. While there were blanks yet to be filled in — just where games would be played still hadn’t been determined, for instance — on the well-being front, the commissioner was adamant. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”

In a 2020 context, it was the right thing to say. In a COVID-19 context, there was no not saying it.

There’s another context that applies here, too, a broader hockey framework in which proclamations of how seriously the NHL takes the health and safety of its players are rendered ridiculous even as they’re spoken by the fact that the league still — still! — insists that fighting is a fundamental part of the game.

Tweakings of rules have, in recent years, contributed to a reduction in fights. Coaching attitudes and strategies have shifted as the game has sped up, and intimidation no longer plays the part it did even five years ago.

The reasons why the NHL prefers this fading-away over an outright embargo on fighting remain opaque. Fans still love it, it’s always said, some of them, and cheer when the gloves drop. Bettman takes cover, when he’s cornered, by insisting that the players think it’s fine.

Otherwise, the league hasn’t bothered to renovate its rationale since Clarence Campbell was president almost 50 years ago. Fighting is a safety valve by which players release the pressure that builds up in such a bumptious game as hockey, he used to argue: without it players would be maiming one another with their sticks. That’s one of Gary Bettman’s go-to defences, too, though it’s a thermostat he likes to talk about.

Advances in medical science continue to reveal links between head trauma and the grim tolls of CTE, but that news hasn’t impressed the NHL, which wants more proofs before it decides that the safety of its players might be improved by not having them punch one another in the head.

The contradiction the league embraces when it comes to fighting remains baked into the rulebook. Which part of Rule 21 doesn’t apply to fist fights on the ice? “A match penalty,” it reads, “shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.”

Earlier this month, The New York Times imagined how major sports might have seized the opportunity of our global lull to re-imagine the way they go about their business. What about dispensing with baseball’s DH, the Times blue-skyed. Or, for the NBA, introducing a 4-pointer for really long-range shooters? And for hockey:

Though that was never going to happen.

Returning to the ice after a four-and-a-half months hiatus is no easy enterprise. You can understand why a league like the NHL, trying to get back to its business in extraordinary times, would seek to keep things as normal as possible, as familiar, as unchanged.

The times, though — they’re different. COVID-19 has sickened millions worldwide. Tens of thousands have died. Mid-pandemic, the movement against racial injustice and police brutality that grew after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman was such that it’s even shaken the NHL out of the complacency it’s preferred to shelter in for so long. (Granted, the response has been a little stilted, a little clumsy, but the fact that the league is getting around taking a stand on issues of systemic racism, equality, and social justice is, I suppose, a something in itself.)

As the NHL lurches back into action — the verb there is Michael Farber’s, from a TSN essay this week, and I think it’s the right one — as hockey goes lurching into its unprecedented and unpredictable future, we’ve learned all about the safety measures the league has put into place for the 24 teams hubbed away in a pair of Canadian bubbles, Toronto and Edmonton, from testing players every day for COVID-19 right down to counselling them to wash their hands frequently while singing “Happy Birthday.”

The league’s playbook on all this is available to any and all who might like to browse it, in two documents, neither one of which is exactly a riveting read. The 65-point Return To Play FAQ is the more accessible of the two; the Phased Return To Sport Protocol: Phase 4 Secure Zone is 28 pages of deeper detail, covering everything from the in-bubble roles of Hygiene Officers and what happens if a player or official tests positive for COVID-19 to Hotel Amenities and Dining Options.

It’s all very thorough, as it should be. But what about on the ice? How is that going to be affected, if at all? Looking in on European soccer over the past few weeks and even some Test cricket, I’ve been interested to see how pandemical conditions and precautions have changed the way games are actually being played.

Not a whole lot, as it turns out. Most of the adjustments have been of a peripheral sort.

Cricketers were told not to apply sweat or saliva to the ball.

The handsome guide issued by England’s Premier League, which resumed play in June, included these provisos:

Closer to home, North American Major League Soccer offered a short plan for “In-Match Prevention,” outlining “general hygiene measures [extending] to the field for official matches.”

Players, coaches and officials were asked, for instance, “to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose;” they were also “asked not to exchange jerseys or kiss the ball.”

Health and safety guidance governing the NBA’s bubbly restart in Florida was contained in a 113-page guide disseminated among teams, though not, as far as I can tell, released in any public way. It does, USA Today reported, mandate that players to “Avoid Gross Habits on the Court,” namely:

No spitting or clearing nose on the court; wiping the ball with jersey; licking hands (and touching other items such as shoes or the basketball); playing with or unnecessarily touching mouthguard (and touching other items.)

Baseball, benighted as its efforts to get back to bats and balls have proved, issued a detailed guide in its 101-page 2020 Operations Manual, which includes a section on the rules MLB has modified for its pandemic return-to-play as well as guidelines for best behaviours on-field. Those include wherein “players all other on-field personnel” are exhorted to “make every effort to avoid touching their face with their hands (including to give signs), wiping away sweat with their hands, licking their fingers, whistling with their fingers, etc.”

Not allowed: any spitting, “including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco.” (Chewing gum is okay.)

Also, says MLB:

Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action. Violations of these rules will result in severe discipline consistent with past precedent, which discipline shall not be reduced or prorated based on the length of the season.

Compare that to what the NHL is offering. As far as I can tell, the NHL’s guidance for what players should and shouldn’t be doing on the ice in the time of COVID-19 is limited to a single bullet-point on page 10 of the aforementioned Protocol, down at the bottom of the section headed “Safety Precautions.” It reads, in its entirety:

Avoid handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps.

So no more handshake lines, I guess, to finish off hard-fought playoff series? What about kissing the Stanley Cup, when it’s finally presented? On that and other matters the NHL seems to be keeping its own counsel. Maybe more advisories are to come. For now, not another word does the league have to say on how players might be advised to conduct themselves on the ice in a time of a highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Teams, I’ll assume, have their own careful systems to make sure water bottles aren’t shared; maybe they’re in charge, too, of reminding players not to be blowing noses or spitting. It may be that, like the NBA, the NHL — or maybe the NHLPA? — has issued comprehensive handbooks to teams to cover this whole tricky territory, they just haven’t been made public.

I guess it’s possible, too, that the league has been talking to players on an individual basis — putting in a call, maybe, to remind Boston’s Brad Marchand, for instance, not to be licking anyone for the next few months at least.

What seems just as likely is that it was decided at some point that short of rewriting the way game is played, there’s no way to govern or even guideline hockey into a safer, socially distanced way of doing things, so why even bother drawing attention to the awkward truth?

There’s nothing social about the game once it gets going on the ice, and no distancing. Players stand shoulder-to-shoulder at face-offs, they jostle, they bump. Once the puck drops, the game is a festival of mingling and milling, of sweaty human pushing and crowding and collision. That’s the game.

And the punching that sometimes ensues? Maybe you could direct players to disperse after whistles blow, to stand back a bit at face-offs. But if you did that, how could you not say something about the closer contact of bodychecking and fighting? While baseball might have no problem with explicitly forbidding melees, the NHL feels safer in silence, maybe, which is why it defaults to pretending that none of this is worth discussing.

The fighting that hockey has failed to inhibit didn’t make sense a year ago, long before COVID had capitalized its threat, and it doesn’t make sense now. But it’s not going anywhere: it’s firmly ensconced inside the NHL’s bubble for as long as this outlandish season lasts.

Even if you missed the exhibition games earlier this week and the several scuffles that happened there, if you tuned in this afternoon to the real thing, you didn’t have to wait long to see the new NHL meld with the old in Toronto.

When Carolina’s Jacob Slavin scored an early goal on Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, once he’d gathered with his linemates for a hug, he headed, as you do, to the Hurricanes’ bench to bump fists.

There was more of that a few minutes later, under angrier circumstances, as Carolina’s Justin Williams felt the need to drop his PPE to punch New York’s Ryan Strome in the head, and vice-versa.

Strome was bleeding from the nose by the time they’d finished. He headed for the Rangers’ dressing room, while Williams sat himself down in the penalty box. A couple of bemasked members of Scotiabank Arena’s rink crew skated out with shovels to scrape away the blood from the ice.

Game on, I guess.

Contact Tracing: Boston’s Brad Marchand showing how it’s not supposed to done in the Eastern Conference finals of 2018. Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan was the unfortunate recipient of the Boston winger’s attentions. The NHL’s handling of Marchand’s lick? The league told him if he did it again he’d be “subject to supplementary discipline.”

 

 

madison square eye in the sky

It was the New York teams battling it out, Rangers versus Americans, that Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, December 16, 1937, with the visiting team prevailing by a score of 2-0 — which is to say, the Rangers. “A speedy, well-played contest that was packed with action,” is how The New York Times accounted for it. Ching Johnson was playing his first game as an American on this night, after 11 years a Ranger, and he almost scored. Dave Kerr is the Ranger goaltender at the centre of things here, covering up to stymie the Amerks’ John Gallagher. Kerr, who was 27 at the time, with a Stanley Cup and a Vézina Trophy both still in his future, died at the age of 68 on a Thursday of this date in 1978. Just a few months after this smothering, he’d become just the second hockey player to grace the cover of Time magazine. Also in the frame? Arriving late are Rangers Lynn Patrick (9) and Ott Heller (3), with Sweeney Schriner (11) of the Americans following up with Art Coulter. Tussling in front: Cecil Dillon of the Rangers and the Americans’ Hap Emms, the latter in his only shift of the game. According to the Times, Toronto manager Conn Smythe was in the house this night, and at the end of the game he offered Lester Patrick the sum of $20,000 if the Ranger boss would sell son Lynn to the Leafs. The answer was a no.

first: socko! next: rangers win

“Syl Apps had counted for Toronto in the first session, Nick Metz in the second and 14,894 were all excited over a series-tying triumph from their heroes when Rangers started to ride the icy plains. Socko! Neil Colville shook Red Horner out of his hair and made it 2-1. One minute, 54 seconds later in the third period, Alf Pike feinted goalie Turk Broda out of position and delivered the tying goal.” That’s how Gene Ward opened his New York Daily News dispatch describing the Saturday-night soiree that saw the Rangers win the third of their four Stanley Cups on this very date in 1940. With the circus ensconced at Madison Square Garden, four of the series’ six games were played at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, and it was there in overtime in the decisive game that New York’s Bryan Hextall beat Broda for the winner after two minutes.

Seen here receiving the stove-pipe Stanley Cup are, from left — well, Rangers’ goaltender Dave Kerr is all but missing from the frame (his pads are present and accounted for). In view next to him is Dutch Hiller alongside Lynn Patrick, Clint Smith, coach Frank Boucher, Babe Pratt, captain Art Coulter, Bryan Hextall, Madison Square Garden president Colonel John Reed Kilpatrick, an unidentified obscured Ranger, NHL president Frank Calder, Ranger manager Lester Patrick, another hard-to-identify Ranger, Neil Colville, Alf Pike, and Phil Watson.

an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose

If many of the standard online references (including NHL.com) list Eddie Shore’s birthdate as November 25, 1902, the facts favour a Sunday of this date in 1902. So happy birthday to the man they called the Edmonton Express. The photo here shows him when he was 36, in 1939, playing out the last few years of his spectacular career as a defenceman for the Boston Bruins. He was playing in his 13th and penultimate season for Boston that year, making a salary of $7,000 (the league maximum), which works out to about $130,000 in today’s dollars. In the spring of the year, he’d help the Bruins win their second Stanley Cup, their first since 1929. This day in that year, it so happens, is the infamous one on which the Montreal Maroons stopped short of killing Shore.

Almost a decade later, Shore’s brand of hockey was as physical and unyielding as ever. He was, as ever, a punishing and occasionally vicious opponent. He suffered, too, for his sins; the story of the bandaging seen here attests to that. It dates to March of ’39, when the Bruins were battling the New York Rangers in a Stanley Cup semi-final series.

Having topped the NHL’s regular-season standings, the Bruins only played a single playoff series that year on the way to the championship round. Under the league’s quirky playoff format, they rode a bye to the semi-final against the second-place Rangers while four teams that had finished lower down in the table battled through two rounds on the other side of the bracket. Dispensing with the Rangers, Boston went on to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs to earn the Cup.

But that was later. The Bruins/Rangers series was the first in the NHL’s 22-year history to go to seven games. It’s the fourth game we’re concerned with here, played on Tuesday, March 28, 1939, at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. The Rangers prevailed on the night by a score of 2-1, with left winger Lynn Patrick scoring the winner shorthanded in the second period.

In those years, the Rangers featured a plurality of Patricks. Father Lester was still coaching and GM’ing a team while he counted on Lynn, 25, and his defence-playing brother, 23-year-old Murray — a.k.a. Muzz — in his line-up.

It was Muzz who featured in the game’s first period, along with Shore, when the hockey gave way to chaos.

Newspaper accounts trot out all the old epithets: meleepitched battle, and free-for-all. Canadian Press called it a “five-star punching bee,” while the Associated Press went with “one of the largest and bloodiest fights in a good many years. The New York Times settled on “the mass fist-fight.”

To sum up: it was just another old-time instance of hockey players swinging sticks and fists to concuss one another, after which a few penalties were called, repairs more or rendered, and everybody carried on despite the damage done.

Melee: The fracas unfolds. Shore is number 2, with Muzz Patrick in front of him. Number 8 is Jack Portland, 16 is Red Hamill. Boston goaltender Frank Brimsek stands alongside referee Mickey Ion.

It all got going halfway through the period, when the score was tied 1-1. Joseph Nichols from the Times testified that the situation began mildly enough with Bruins’ defenceman Portland meeting pesky Rangers forward Phil Watson in a corner back of the Bruins’ net. But let’s go to the eyewitness account that Lynn Patrick gave many years later:

I can see it now: Jack Portland and Phil Watson got into a high-sticking duel down in the 49th Street — 8th Avenue corner of the rink.

Shore, who never liked Watson anyway, went charging into it. As soon as Muzz saw that, he went in and pulled Shore off. As he did, Eddie swung at him. Muzz let his big one go … booooom. Shore was out for the rest of the period, but he came back wearing a lot of plaster across his face.

Victor Jones of the Boston Globe saw it from a different perspective. His account went like this:

… there’s no doubt that the Rangers started the jam and that they concentrated their best efforts on Shore.

The original battlers were Jack Portland and Phil Watson, who engaged in a bumping and high-sticking duel in the corner.

That blew over and Portland was skating away when [Bryan] Hextall climbed up his back. Shore then went over to aid Portland in his affair with the two Ranger forwards and this was the signal for Murray Patrick and Art Coulter, the Ranger defence pair, to skate the length of the ice and gang up on Shore.

Eddie of course got all the worst of it. He’s no match for Murray Patrick, former Canadian boxing champion, with his fists. He was outweighed 20 or 30 pounds and for a while seemed to be fighting the whole team single-handed.

Mickey Ion was the referee. He fell to the ice, or was knocked down, twice before the fracas was over. Restored to his skates, Ion assigned six major penalties, to Shore, Jack Portland, and Gord Pettinger of the Bruins, as well as to New York’s Phil Watson, Muzz Patrick, and Dutch Hiller.

Shore went to the dressing room for medical attention, so Ray Getliffe sat on the penalty bench in his stead.

Muzz Patrick in 1935, when he won the Dominion Heavyweight boxing title.

As mentioned, Patrick did have a particular punching pedigree: in 1935, in Edmonton, he boxed his way to the Dominion Heavyweight crown with an upset TKO of Tommy Osborne, the challenger from Quebec. A contemporary account of the championship bout is as instructive as it is dispiriting, an historical case study for retrospective concussion spotters and students of punch-drunk syndrome alike.

Four years later, in New York in ’39, Shore was almost certainly concussed when he returned to the ice midway through the second period. “I told him not to play any more after it happened,” Boston coach Art Ross later said. “But he insisted on getting out there again. He was fighting mad.”

Edmonton Eddie’s dented and bent prow was Harold Parrott’s jovial description in the next morning’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “It was smeared over on the right side of Eddie’s face by three Muzz Patrick punches, and only a band of adhesive tape held it back in place when Shore returned to the wars.

Papers in New York, Boston, and beyond would spend the next several days cultivating a discussion of just how Shore had sustained his damage. “Patrick didn’t do that,” the man himself told Parrott, gesturing to his nose, which he said had been shattered “for about the tenth time.”

“Watson hit me with the butt-end of his stick even before the scrapping started.”

But Muzz Patrick was adamant. “I hit him three clean shots. I felt his nose give way.”

Hy Hurwitz of the Boston Globe later got Patrick on the record regarding his erstwhile boxing career. He tracked him down in the coffee shop of the Manger Hotel, next to Boston Garden, where Patrick started off by saying, “I’m a hockey player, not a fighter.”

“Sure,” he said, “I used to box as an amateur, but I haven’t fought since 1935, and the fight the other night was the first I’ve had since I quit boxing.”

Following up his Canadian heavyweight crown with several other titles, he’d considered trying to represent his country at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was having trouble with his own nose, though, and underwent surgery for a deviated septum.

So that was what ended his career in the ring?

“Oh, no,” Muzz Patrick told Hurwitz, “my mother was against it. She never liked it from the start. It was all right for me to come home from a hockey game with seven stitches in my head, but if I ever came home from a fight with a little black eye, it was terrible. I gave it up for her.”

Aftermath: Shore adjusts his helmet next to referee Ion. That’s Ranger goaltender Bert Gardiner restraining (I think) Brimsek. The Rangers in front of him include Muzz Patrick, whom Boston number 11, Gord Pettinger, is about to punch. Jack Portland, number 8, is all done.

(Top image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography; photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)

howe and fontinato, 1959: just like someone chopping wood

Alternate History: A comical telling of the night Gordie Howe punched Lou Fontinato in February of 1959, as re-imagined for a 1992 Howe-inspired graphic biography edition of Sports Legends Comics, drawn by Dick Ayers.

Officials at the game charged with breaking up such fights let this one run its course. Showing instincts toward self-preservation, neither linesman chose to step between the pair of 200-pounders as they flailed freely with their fists.

“I never saw one like it,” says goalie Terry Sawchuk, who had a ringside seat when the action exploded behind his net.

• Marshall Dann, The Detroit Free Press, February 2, 1959

Today in concussion history: it was on this day in 1959 that Gordie Howe put his fist into Lou Fontinato’s face, and hard. “The most famous single punch in NHL history,” Peter Gzowksi called it. If that’s true, the fame might not have been spread so far and so wide if Life magazine hadn’t broadcast the news so graphically across the United States and beyond two weeks later.

It’s certainly a tale much (if not always consistently) told. The Detroit Red Wings were in New York to play the Rangers. With the home team out to a 4-1 win near the end of the first period, Fontinato, 27 at the time, skated over to talk to Howe, 30, at a face-off — “warned him about something or the other,” Marshall Dann reported. When the puck dropped, Howe soon ran into his shadow for the evening, Eddie Shack. Howe cross-checked him or just “whacked” him; descriptions differ. (“Shack got his hair parted … from Howe’s stick,” is yet another view.) They, in the hockey parlance, tussled, but didn’t fight. As Howe wrote in several of his memoirs, his history with Fontinato included the high stick with which he’d cut Fontinato’s ear earlier that season, so he wasn’t surprised when Fontinato dropped his stick and came skating at him from 20 feet away.

Howe saw him coming and ducked Fontinato’s first fist. Gzowski didn’t quite get it right: Howe pluralized his punch. Howe: “I hit him with everything I had as hard and as often as possible.” Dann: he “loaded up and started with a steady stream of right uppercuts. He got Fontinato’s uniform by the left hand and pulled it half off, cutting down Lou’s return punches.”

Howe said he changed hands, and then dislocated a finger. That hurt “like a son of a gun,” according to the account in 2014’s My Story, wherein ghostwriter Paul Haavardsrud streamlined and gently updated an earlier effort at autobiography, and … Howe! (1995). Of regrets, the latter admits none: “Did I feel sorry for him? No. We’d gone at one another for years.” Nineteen years later, the official Howe line was slightly softened: “It didn’t make me happy to see Louie in such bad shape, but I can’t say I feel sorry for him. That might make me sound cold-hearted, but to my way of thinking he was just doing his job and I was doing mine.”

Fontinato didn’t leave any memoirs, but he did talk to reporters in the days after the damaging. He shared his opening statement to Howe with the Associated Press: “ ‘Keep your stick to yourself,’ I tells him.” As for his nose: “It’s been broken four times before and there’s hardly any bone there. It’s very easy to push out of place.”

Fontinato also made his case to Tony Saxon of The Guelph Mercury in 2006. “I know one thing,” he said then. “A lot of people thought I lost that fight, but I didn’t. I probably threw ten punches to his one. Then I look up to see what damage I’ve done because I’ve been hammering away for a couple of minutes. I look up and he gets me with one right on the nose.”

The whole affair got a sustained revival in 2016, when Fontinato’s death followed Howe’s by just three weeks. Mentioned in passing in most of the Howe coverage, it was defining anecdote featured in Fontinato’s obituaries. The New York Times included one of Howe’s more uncharitable lines: “That honker of his was right there, and I drilled it.”

“Gordie Howe performed rhinoplasty on Mr. Fontinato’s prominent proboscis with his knuckles,” Tom Hawthorn epitaphed in The Globe and Mail.

Back in 1959, mostly everybody had a go Fontinato’s nose-job. “The bugle was detoured by Gordie Howe” was one of Milt Dunnell’s efforts; “bombed out of commission” was Jimmy Breslin’s contribution on the news-wire.

It’s worth noting just how audible the written record is. Under the headline “Don’t Mess Around With Gordie,” Life’s write-up had an unnamed Red Wing recalling that “Howe’s punches went whop-whop-whop, just like someone chopping wood.”

Frank Udvari was the referee that night, and he either read that and absorbed it into his own experience or thought kindling at the time, too. “Never in my life have I heard anything like it,” he said in 1979, “except maybe the sound of someone chopping wood. Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”

One of the witnesses that Roy MacSkimming canvassed for his 1994 biography Gordie: A Hockey Legend was Red Wings’ trainer Lefty Wilson, who reported what reached him at the bench: “With every blow, you could hear something break — squish, squish.”

Stan Fischler was watching from the Garden press box that night. He’d later describe Howe’s fists moving “like locomotive pistons,” though the sound they made was decidedly equestrian: “Clop! Clop! Clop!

MacSkimming writes that that the portraits Charles Hoff took for Life juxtaposing Fontinato’s face and Howe’s flex may have shocked “gentle American readers by portraying the vicious side of hockey.” Maybe so, but in Canada and the hockey-knowing northeast United States, it mostly went into the books as just another hockey fight.

A brutal one, to be sure — Detroit coach Sid Abel called it “the fiercest I’ve seen since Jack Stewart battled John Mariucci 15 years ago” — but nothing but nothing so especially out of the run of the league’s ordinary brutality. The headlines were almost cheery, even if the photographs weren’t: “Gordie Convinces Lou With Well-Placed Right” readers in Nanaimo learned a few days after the fact; “Gord Howe’s Fists Too Much For Lou,” advised Toronto’s Daily Star. If Fontinato had been (as the AP put it) the NHL’s reigning “bare-knuckle champion,” it was no longer so, according to much of the coverage. “Howe is champ,” declared the AP. “Another smudge on Lou’s escutcheon,” the Star’s Milt Dunnell wrote, while in The Globe and Mail Jim Coleman warned that “even such peace-loving players” as Alex Delvecchio and Ralph Backstrom would now be emboldened to toss “tentative punches at Fontinato’s sore schnozzle.”

Rangers coach Phil Watson had his own historical benchmark. For him, it was “the best fight I’ve seen since Art Coulter and Dit Clapper tried to cripple each other 20 years ago.” He wasn’t what you’d call entirely pleased, however. “Howe gets away with murder,” he railed after the game. “He cross-checked Shack in the head for three stitches. He’s been doing things like this for years, but the referees won’t give penalties to Howe.”

Watson would have more cause for complaint. Holding steady in playoff contention at the start of February, the Rangers would go 6-13-2 post-clout, ceding the last spot for the post-season to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We never got over Louie’s pasting,” Watson said. “His nose looked like a subway hit it.” Detroit missed out, too, though it’s unclear if that was any solace.

Back on the night itself, 59 years ago, Udvari sent Howe and Fontinato to the penalty to serve out their five-minute majors. Because, well, hockey, both men returned to the ice to play out what ended as a 5-4 Rangers win. “Although he suffered a broken nose and had several heavy bruises on his face,” Marshall Dann reported, “Fontinato finished the game.”

Only afterwards did he check into St. Clare Hospital. “The doctors had to wait until the hemorrhaging stopped before they could operate,” he’d recall. He stayed for two days. Two days after his release, he went with his teammates to Detroit. With the newspapers touting a “rematch,” Fontinato skated in the warm-up but didn’t play. He was back in action a week after that when the teams played again. Wearing a protective mask, he seems to have steered clear of Howe, and Howe of him.

The two men did meet again, in a civilian setting, in April of ’59, when their teams were watching the rest of the NHL partake in the playoffs. Scott Young was there to see Howe offer his hand to Fontinato for shaking. “When Fontinato saw who it was,” Young reported, “he grinned and pulled his own hand back and said, ‘It wasn’t like this the last time!’ and then shook hands with the man who had broken his nose in New York.”

 

pulling the proverbial goalie, with apologies to clint and hooley smith

Pullman: Boston's oft-yanked goaltender Tiny Thompson takes stick stock, circa 1930. (Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Pullman: Boston’s oft-yanked goaltender Tiny Thompson takes stick stock, circa 1930. (Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Never mind the NHL’s ongoing historical confusion: the consensus remains that it was Boston coach Art Ross who was first to pull the proverbial goalie in an NHL game. Ever the innovator, Ross was, of course, trying to outman the opposition and tie up a game his team was losing. Tiny Thompson was the ’tender in question on that inaugural essay; leaping to the ice in his stead was Red Beattie. This was in 1931, in a Stanley Cup semi-final, and for the Bruins, a vain effort: Montreal held their lead and won the game, 1-0.

Now that we’ve got that all cleared up (again), a few further findings from the last several weeks to expand the pulled-goalies file.

• Windsor Star columnist and hockey biographer and historian Bob Duff has reset the chronology on the first empty-net goal to have been scored on a team with its goalie gone. Previously, Clint Smith of the Chicago Black Hawks was the man widely acknowledged first to have hit a vacant net, on November 11, 1943, in a 6-4 victory over Ross’ Bruins. That’s what the Fame-Hall of Hockey reports in their Smith biography, and it’s in several authoritative books, too, like ‪Kings of the Ice: A History of World Hockey (2002) by Andrew Podnieks, Dmitri Ryzkov, et al. The Hall alludes to a change in league rules at that time, allowing goalie-yanking, but that’s not right: there was never any legislation like that before or after Tiny Thompson’s 1931 departure. Kings of the Ice is mistaken, too, when it says that the practice was seldom used until the 1950s.

In fact, coaches whose teams were in need of a late goal didn’t seem to hesitate to try it all through the 1930s, especially if their names were Ross and/or Lester Patrick. Which, when you think about it, makes 12 years look like a long, long time for all those professional hockey players to be not scoring when they had all those unguarded net to shoot at.

That’s why Bob Duff’s finding makes much better sense. As he pointed out to members of the Society for International Hockey Research this past week, it’s time we adjusted the date of the NHL’s first empty-net goal to January 12, 1932. New York Rangers were in Boston that night, so some of the protagonists remained from the Montreal game nine months earlier. It’s worth noting that after three periods, tied 3-3, the teams played on into unsudden, non-lethal overtime — i.e. the teams played a full ten-minute period with all the goals counted. It wasn’t long before Ranger right winger Cecil Dillon took a pass from Murray Murdoch and beat the Bruins’ Tiny Thompson. A little later, when Ross called Thompson to the bench in favour of an extra attacker, Dillon — but let the AP reporter tell how it was, as he did, in the next day’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Cecil pulled the rubber out of a pack near his goal, and after beating every Bruin, belted home the final score with no opposition.

Sorry, Clint Smith.

• As it turns out, Cecil Dillon found a way to emphasize his 1932 empty-net achievement. By coincidence — I guess it could also have been fated — either way, exactly a year later, he did it again. This time around, January 12, 1933, the Rangers hosted the Bruins at Madison Square Garden. With the Bruins down by a goal with two minutes left in the third period, Art Ross once again summoned Tiny Thompson to the bench. A Ranger shot hit the Boston post, followed closely by a Ranger defenceman, Ott Heller, who then had to be carried off with a suspected leg injury. The Daily Boston Globe:

From the next face-off Dillon let fly from the middle of the center zone and scored a bull’s-eye on the vacant net. It came with 26 seconds to go.

The 1930-31 Boston Bruins. A study of the roster that year would suggest that that's, back Row, left to right: Marty Barry, Art Chapman, Harry Oliver, Harold Darragh, Red Beattie, Cooney Weiland, Henry Harris, Percy Galbraith. Front: Dit Clapper, Jack Pratt, Eddie Shore, Tiny Thompson, Lionel Hitchman, George Owen, Dutch Gainor. (Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

The 1930-31 Boston Bruins. A study of the roster that year would suggest that that’s, back Row, left to right: Marty Barry, Art Chapman, Harry Oliver, Harold Darragh, Red Beattie, Cooney Weiland, Henry Harris, Percy Galbraith. Front: Dit Clapper, Jack Pratt, Eddie Shore, Tiny (blurry) Thompson, Lionel Hitchman, George Owen, Dutch Gainor. (Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

• The first empty-net goal scored in a rink where Ross, Thompson and the rest of the Bruins were not present seems to have been one that Aurele Joliat put away nine days after that inaugural Dillon effort in 1932. Toronto’s Leafs were in Montreal for this one, trailing the Canadiens 1-2 when Lorne Chabot departed the crease. The AP report in Boston’s Globe:

Toronto, always dangerous, was confident that it could score with six forwards, but Joliat hook-checked the puck away from Red Horner and scored the last goal and Howie Morenz almost repeated before the bell.

• In case anyone’s asking: the first goalie to be pulled at Maple Leaf Gardens was Montreal’s Wilf Cude by coach Sylvio Mantha on February 20, 1936. No goal ensued: Toronto won the game 2-1. Andy Lytle from the hometown Daily Star termed it a “showmanship stunt.”

• Six forwards: that does seem to have been the norm in those days. Today a coach might be content to leave his defenceman in place while adding a further forward but in the 1930s, more often than not, teams appear to have been going for offensive broke.

Which was why Bullet Joe Simpson, for one, didn’t like it. Famous in his own playing days, he was the coach of the New York Americans by the time Cecil Dillon scored his anniversary empty-netter in early 1933. “I don’t believe taking your goalie off is a good thing,” he confided. It was “freak hockey and unsound;” Boston, he felt, deserved what it got. He wasn’t done, either:

Six men are too many to have around the enemy nets. They are sure to get in one another’s way, because there isn’t room enough for them to deploy. And if they should shoot a goal, it’s apt to be called back for interference — somebody between the man with the puck and the goalie.

• What about the other end of the ice? Surprising how little has been written about the success stories. The reason you pull your goalie, if you’re Art Ross or anyone else, is to use that extra manpower to score that all-important tying goal. So who was the first to do that? The NHL.com’s paltry historical miscellany has nothing on that, and nor does the Hockey Hall of Fame, or any of the stand-by reference books. At least, if they do, not anywhere that I’ve been able to fathom.

It did take a long time for that first goal to go in, as it turns out. Years and years. In today’s NHL, pulling the goalie has developed into a strategy that yields a good return. It’s worth doing; it often works. That’s what the modern numbers tell us, along with the charts on the websites where they’re crunched and glossed, and the studies who’ve made it their business to study the stats.

I don’t know how often, exactly, goalies were leaving their nets in hope and desperation in the 1930s because I haven’t done the sifting you’d have to do to figure that all the way out. I can say, anecdotally, that Tiny Thompson was a fairly frequent fleer, in Boston and then later when Jack Adams was calling him to the bench in Detroit. Dave Kerr of the Rangers was another regular, as Lester Patrick’s goaltender with the Rangers. Alec Connell was yanked, in Ottawa. In Montreal, I haven’t myself seen an instance of Flat Walsh leaving the Maroon net, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. George Hainsworth, of the Canadiens, definitely did. Given Bullet Joe Simpson’s feelings, it’s possible that he left Shrimp Worters where he was throughout the Shrimp’s Americans career.

So: lots of goalies leaving many nets. And yet the first time the tactic paid off seems to have been in … 1937, five-and-a-half seasons after Art Ross first gave it a go. The newspapers noted the achievement, if only in passing: there was no great huzzah.

It seems only fitting that Ross was the one who finally got it right. Tiny Thompson was still in (and out of) the Bruins’ net. Also of note: five players who were on the ice that first time in 1931 (Boston was shorthanded at the time), four were in the 1937 game wearing Boston colours — Eddie Shore, Red Beattie, Cooney Weiland, and Dit Clapper — while the fifth, Art Chapman, was playing for the visiting New York Americans.

He scored the game’s opening goal in the second period. By the time that was over, the Americans had built up a 4-0 advantage. Boston didn’t look good, as even the hometown Daily Boston Globe was forced to concede:

Lorne Chabot could have held the New York citadel inviolate with an eclair in either hand.

The Amerks were leading 5-1 and 6-4 in the third before Clapper made it 6-5 on a pass from Weiland.

Twenty-five seconds remained when Ross called in Thompson. (The Associated Press says 30. Not sure how much I trust the AP account, though, given that it also contains this sentence: “It was probably one of the most weird games in the Boston’s hockey history.”) Boston defenceman Flash Hollett followed his goaltender to the bench to let a forward go on and so (just like in 1931) the Bruins only had five players on the ice and no numerical advantage when Hooley Smith scored the goal that tied the game and made the history that eventually got mislaid.

The teams played a ten-minute overtime without any more goals. Neither goaltender, said the Globe, had to make a difficult save. Right until the end, both of them stayed in their nets.

• So that’s that. Except for — well, no, not quite.

About an hour after I’d tracked down the 1937 Hooley Smith goal, complete with contemporary confirmation that it was unprecedented, I came across a 1933 game in which Eddie Shore scored a goal to tie up the Chicago Black Hawks while (do you even have to ask?) Tiny Thompson was on the bench. So that would be the first time a goalie pulled resulted in a goal scored, no?

Yes. I think so. It’s not an entirely straightforward case, though. Continue reading