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 has 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 its 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.”

 

 

asahi on ice

The story of Vancouver’s Asahi Athletic Club’s baseball team is a stirring one, even as it spotlights the shameful history of the Canadian government’s internment of Japanese-Canadian citizens during the Second World War. On a day when Historica Canada is unveiling its latest Heritage Minute (the 91st in that sterling series), you might take a look, here below. The club’s hockey team that’s depicted above is from an earlier generation, 1919-20. For more on the bat-and-ball Asahi, visit Historica Canada’s site (here) and maybe stop in at the page devoted to their history at the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame, this way.

 

(Top image: Library and Archives Canada/PA-117267)

normie himes: kingpin of the new york forwards, with all the aplomb of a regular goalie

If we’re going to talk about Normie Himes, then it’s worth mentioning that he was born in April of 1900, in Galt, Ontario, which is now part of Cambridge. It’s important to say, too, I suppose, that nobody played more games for the long-gone and maybe a little bit, still, lamented New York Americans than Himes did (402). Nobody scored more goals for them, either (106), or piled up more points (219). He was a centreman, except for those rare occasions when he dropped back and helped out in net — just twice, though that would be enough, as it turned out, to see him rated eleventh on the Americans’ all-time list of goaltender games-played.

The elongated Normie is a phrase that would have been familiar to readers of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1930s, wherein he was also described as the size of a slightly overgrown jockey (he was 5’9”). Articles calling him kingpin of the New York offence also sometimes mention that he was hard to unseat and refer to his dandy shot. For a while there he was, I also see, considered one of the shrewdest and trickiest forwards in professional hockey.

Ronnie Martin and Rabbit McVeigh played on his wings in 1932; in 1934, he often skated on the Amerks’ top line with Bob Gracie and Harry Oliver — though sometimes it was Oliver and Hap Emms.

Here’s the great Harold Burr describing a goal Himes scored in 1931 against Ottawa. Taking a pass from New York defenceman Red Dutton, Himes swooped in on Senators’ goaltender Alec Connell.

Himes’ first slam was fended by the Ottawa goalie, but the puck fell at his feet, so much dead rubber. Now Himes hasn’t kept very much of his hair, but he has all the gray matter saved. He pounced on the loose puck like a hungry cat after an old shoe and the Americans were leading again.

“I wouldn’t trade him for any centre in the league,” claimed Himes’ coach, Eddie Gerard, in 1931, a year in which Howie Morenz, Frank Boucher, and Joe Primeau were centres in the league.

His best season would seem to have been the year before that, 1929-30, when he scored 28 goals and 50 points to lead the Americans in scoring. That was the year he finished sixth in the voting for NHL MVP when Nels Stewart of the Montreal Maroons ended up carrying off the Hart Memorial Trophy. That same season and the next one too, Himes was runner-up for the Lady Byng (Boucher won both times. He also finished third on the Byng ballot in 1931-32, when Primeau prevailed.

Playing for the lowly Americans, Himes never got near a Stanley Cup: in his nine years with the team, he played in just two playoff games.

The boy in the baseball cap is from a New York profile of Himes 1931, and it’s true that like Aurele Joliat he went mostly hatted throughout his career as an NHLer, either because he was bald-headed (as mentioned in a 1938 dispatch) orbecause as a boy he wanted to be a professional ballplayer and roam the outfield grass (1930) — possibly both apply.

Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox was Himes’ hero, pre-1919 game-fixing scandal. “I want to tell you I felt pretty mean,” Himes once told a reporter, “when the evil news about Joe broke.” Himes played shortstop for a famous old amateur baseball outfit, the Galt Terriers, and he was bright enough as a prospect that a scout for the ballplaying Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League tried to sign him before he opted to to stick to hockey. Himes didn’t think he was good enough with the ball and the bat.

His first stint as a goaltender came by way of an emergency in 1927, back when most NHL teams didn’t carry back-ups, and skaters were sometimes drafted in to take the net when goaltenders were penalized or injured.

Sprague Cleghorn, Battleship Leduc, and Charlie Conacher were others who found themselves employed temporarily in this way in the early years of the NHL. Mostly they went in as they were, without donning proper goaltending gear, and I think that was the case for Himes on this first occasion. It’s often reported to have been a December game against Pittsburgh, but that’s not right: the Americans were in Montreal, where their goaltender, Joe Miller, started off the night watching Canadiens’ very first shot sail over his shoulder in to the net.

Howie Morenz scored that goal and another one as well, and by the third period the score was 4-0 for Montreal. Morenz kept shooting. The Gazette:

The Canadien flash whistled a shot from the left. Miller never saw it. The puck caromed off his shoulder, and struck him over the right cheek just under the eye. Miller toppled over like a log, and had to be carried off the ice. Fighter that he is, the Ottawa lad soon revived in the dressing room and wanted to return to the fray. But Manager “Shorty” Green decided against taking risks and sent Normie Himes into the American net to finish out the game.

Comfortable in their lead, Montreal, it seems, showed mercy — “eased up in their shooting,” the Gazette noted. New York’s temp, meanwhile, looked to be enjoying himself.

Himes warmed up to his strange task and towards the end of the game was blocking shots of all descriptions with the aplomb of a regular goalie.

It’s not clear how many pucks came his way — fewer than ten — but he did repel them all. The score stayed 4-0.

Himes got his second chance in net a year later, when his coach, Tommy Gorman, got into a snit. With this outing, Himes would become the only NHL skater to play an entire game in goal, start to finish.

After helping the New York Rangers win the 1928 Stanley Cup, vagabond Joe Miller landed in Pittsburgh on loan from the Americans. The Pirates had (1) a new owner and (2) an unhappy incumbent in net. Roy Worters, one of the league’s best, was asking for double the $4,000 salary he’d received previously; owner Benny Leonard was offering $5,000. With Miller aboard, Leonard then signed Worters (for considerably less than he was seeking, according to the owner), intending to trade him.

The Americans were interested. Having started the 1928-29 season with Flat Walsh and Jake Forbes sharing duty in the nets, they now offered Miller and a pile of cash, $20,000, in exchange for Worters. Leonard wanted Himes or Johnny Shepard in the deal, so he said he’d go shopping elsewhere.

NHL President Frank Calder had his say in the matter, and it was this: Worters was suspended, and if he were going to play in the NHL, it would be with Pittsburgh. “He will not play with any other club,” Calder declared.

Calder refused to relent even after the Pirates and Americans went ahead with a deal that send Worters to New York in exchange for Miller and the $20,000. So it was that on the night of December 1, 1928, at Toronto’s Arena Gardens, the home team refused to allow the Americans to use Worters, though he was in uniform and took the warm-up, unless New York could prove that Calder had given his blessing.

New York couldn’t. Coach Gorman’s best option at this point was Jake Forbes, who was in the building and ready to go. But starting Forbes wouldn’t sufficiently express Gorman’s displeasure with Calder in the way that putting Himes in would. So Forbes sat out.

Himes did his best on the night — “made a fairly good fist of the goalkeeping job,” said The New York Times. It’s not readily apparent how many shots he stopped, but we do know that there were three did failed to stymie. Toronto Daily Star columnist Charlie Querrie said the Americans looked lost, not least because “they missed the said Himes on the forward line.”

The Americans had a game the following day in Detroit and who knows whether Gorman would have called on Himes again if Frank Calder hadn’t lifted the suspension and allowed Worters to begin his New York Americans’ career, which he did in a 2-1 loss. “I have no desire to be hard on anyone,” Calder said that week, “but rules are rules and must be followed.”

So Normie Himes closed his NHL goaltending career showing two appearances, a loss, and a 2.28 average.

Worters would be still be working the Americans’ net in the fall of 1935 when clever but agingwas a phrase that spelled the end of Himes’ NHL career. Himes didn’t even get as far as New York that year: by the end of the team’s October training camp in Oshawa, Ontario, teammate Red Dutton had decided Himes’ time was up. While he was still playing defence for the Americans, Dutton also happened to be coaching the team that year so it meant something when he deemed Himes surplus and gave him his release. One of the best defensive centres and play-makers in the league a few years agois a sentence dating to that period, closely followed by failed to keep pace with the younger players and left at once for his home at Galt. Himes was 35.

He did sign that year with the New Haven Eagles of the Can-Am league on the understanding that they’d release him if he could secure another NHL gig. He couldn’t, and so stayed on in New Haven, where he eventually took over as the coach.

When Himes married Ruth Connor in 1928, he gave his occupation as “Pro. Hockey + Golf.” He was good on the grass, I guess, and worked at it in the off-season. “When the cry of the puck no longer is heard in the land,” a slightly enigmatic column reported in 1929, “Normie retires to Galt, Ontario, where he is resident professional. He says hockey and golf are very much alike — in theory.” He was later, in practice, manager of Galt’s Riverview Gold Club.

Normie Himes died in 1958, at the age of 58. He was in Kitchener at the time, collapsing after a golf game with an old New York Americans’ teammate, Al Murray.

 

lionel conacher at the 1921 grey cup: great that we’re winning, gotta get to the rink

Train Stop: Lionel Conacher spent only one of his 13 NHL seasons in Chicago, 1933-34, but it was long enough to help the Black Hawks win a Stanley Cup.

The snow was deeper at this year’s Grey Cup in Ottawa than it was in 1921, when the game was played at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, but the outcome was the same: Argooooooooooos.

In ’21 the game played out on December 3, with the Argos prevailing 23-0 over a different Alberta team, the Eskimos of Edmonton. A hockey fan’s view of the afternoon’s proceedings might focus on 21-year-old Argo halfback Lionel Conacher. He was, The Ottawa Journal’s correspondent reported, “the greatest ground gainer” on the day. He scored a touchdown in the first quarter and another in the second, and maybe would have had a third if he hadn’t been tripped. He also contributed a drop-kick field goal.

“Conacher has the happy faculty of being able to take a pass while at full speed and some of his catches on Saturday were sensational,” the Journal continued. Also of note: the Daily Star recorded that Conacher was “shaken up several times and forced to retire.” So, concussed? Maybe. Doesn’t seem to have slowed him down.

Also of hockey note: another Argo, 27-year-old middleback Alex Romeril, would in later years serve (if only briefly) as coach of the Maple Leafs when they turned in 1927 from St. Patricks. He later served as an NHL referee. Romeril’s Grey Cup was hindered somewhat by a charley horse, though (said the Star) “he tried hard all the way.”

On that triumphant Saturday in 1921, Romeril’s sporting day didn’t end on the football field. Like Conacher, he still had a senior hockey game to play that night. The two Argo teammates may actually have left the Grey Cup game early to make it to the ice. There, at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, they lined up as rivals as Romeril’s Toronto Granites took on Conacher’s Aura Lee in an early-round game for the annual Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association Trophy.

Aura Lee had another future NHL star in the line-up that night in Billy Burch. Conacher scored a goal, but it wasn’t enough. With NHLer-to-be John Ross Roach starring in the net and the future Olympic and Montreal Maroons stand-out Dunc Munro on defence, Romeril’s Granites carried the day by a score of 4-2.

Conacher would have to wait to add his name to the Stanley Cup: it was 1934 before he helped Chicago win the championship. He did it again with the Montreal Maroons in 1935. The only other man to achieve that fairly incredible double is Carl Voss. He won the Grey Cup with Queen’s University in 1924 before gaining the Stanley Cup, also with Chicago, in 1938.

Conacher, of course, would continue to share his efforts between sports. All of them, just about. He wrestled and, also in 1921, boxed heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in an exhibition.  Coancher continued to play football, lacrosse, and baseball up to and beyond time he finally decided to give the NHL a go. He got his start there with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925. He was also a New York American in his time, before retiring, in 1937, a Maroon.

Splendor In The Grass: Conacher is fêted (that must be what’s going on here, no?) as a member of Toronto’s Hillcrest baseball team, circa 1920.

 

hab fan bids kid hello: when jean béliveau met ted williams

On Wednesday, fans marked the birthday of the late baseball bravo Ted Williams. The Kid, who died in 2002 at the age of 83, made his debut in San Diego, California, on August 30, 1918. Today’s the day Jean Béliveau was born, in 1931, in Trois-Rivières; Le Gros Bill, as they’d come to call him, later, was also 83 when he died in 2014. No better time, in other words, to commemorate the coming together, above, of these two greats of their respective games (and Terry Sawchuk, too).

The question of when and where this might have taken place is a good one. As a boy, Béliveau was as keen on summertime bats and balls as he was in the winter with skates and sticks. He was, by no special surprise, good, too. In his 1994 autobiography, he recalls his mentor on the diamond, a Victoriaville electrician by the name of John Nault who was known as Mr. Baseball for his coaching enthusiasm. When Béliveau was 15, a scout thought highly enough of his fastball and homerun potential to offer him a minor-league contract with a team “somewhere in Alabama.” As willing as Béliveau may have been, “maman responded with an unequivocal non.”

A year earlier, Nault led a trip south. As Béliveau recalls it,

he packed four or five of us into his car for a Sunday excursion to Boston’s Fenway Park. We couldn’t understand a word of what was going on around us, but we needed o translation when Ted Williams hammered the ball more than four hundred feet, deep over the right centerfield fence.

It was a gruelling twenty-hour round trip, but I’ve never forgotten it. All the way back to Victoriaville, through Massachusetts and Vermont, a carload of wide-eyed young French Canadiens dreamed of playing for the Boston Red Sox, digging in against Allie Reynolds and other New York Yankee aces.

This must have been in the summer of 1946, when Williams was 27, back in Boston after a three-year stint as a U.S. Navy aviator. The Red Sox played in the World Series that year, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. The homerun Béliveau saw was one of 38 Williams soared that season.

It was 1953 before Béliveau joined the Montreal Canadiens full-time. Three years later, he led the NHL in goalscoring and won the Art Ross Trophy for accumulating the most points, along with a Hart Trophy, as MVP, as well as the first of ten Stanley Cups.

“For some reason,” he writes in My Life in Hockey, “the Canadiens always had an affinity for Boston’s teams.” Given a chance, Béliveau and his teammates would catch a Celtics basketball games on a Sunday afternoon at the Boston Garden before they took on the hometown Bruins. If they happened to find themselves in Boston during the baseball season, off they’d head to Fenway Park to watch the bats swing. He recalls (what must be) the moment we’re seeing here:

Once, Ted Williams invited me into the clubhouse, and we spoke privately for twenty minutes or so. When I came out, the local reporters clustered round, wanting to know what we’d discussed. Apparently I’d been more favoured than I knew; Ted never gave them anything more than a couple of sentences. In fact, he and I started off talking about baseball and hockey, then graduated to the Splendid Splinter’s great passion, fishing. Williams often travelled into the wilds of Quebec on fly-fishing expeditions. My friend Jacques Côté had a wonderful trout stream, and I knew it was his dream to have Williams join one of our fishing parties.

Doesn’t seem like that ever happened. Looking back, the mutual admiration isn’t hard to understand. These were two men, after all, whose talents lifted them to the very top of their respective sports; each in his own way has a claim on having been among the greatest ever to have played his own particular game. Is it worth pausing, for just a beat, on how different these two men were in public persona? Time has yet to diminish the legend of Béliveau’s quiet grace and regal good nature. “He treated everyone with such respect,” Ken Dryden wrote in 2014. “He said the right things, and in the right way — in French and in English — because that is what he believed, and that’s how he was. He made every occasion better. He made everyone who attended feel that their town, their organization, their province, their country, their event mattered. That they mattered. Appealing to their best selves, he reminded them of the best that was in them.”

And Williams? For the full (and brilliant) bible on his bellicosity, see Richard Ben Cramer’s 1986 Esquire profile. For our purposes here, John Updike will have to do. “Boston wanted to love the Kid,” he wrote in Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, “but he was prickly in its embrace. He was hot-tempered and rabbit-eared and became contemptuous of sportswriters and too proud to tip his hat after hitting a home run.” In ’46, the year a young Béliveau first set eyes on him, “he sulked, spat, threw bats, and threatened retirement.” And yet: “No sports hero — not Bobby Orr or Larry Bird or Rocky Marciano — had a greater hold over the fans of New England than Ted Williams.”

As for the timing of this clubhouse conclave, I was initially going to guess at 1957. Mostly this was pegged to Terry Sawchuk’s having spent just a pair of seasons with the Bruins, 1955 through to ’57. In ’56, Canadiens didn’t visit Boston during baseball season. A year later, turns out, is a case of closer but not quite: while Canadiens and the Bruins played two games of the Stanley Cup finals the Garden in early April, it was still several days before the Red Sox started into their season’s home schedule, by which time Canadiens were back in Montreal winning another championship. Also: ’57 is the year Sawchuk walked out on the Bruins in mid-January. He departed Boston for his home in Milford, Michigan — left hockey behind, too, he was saying at the time. Which means he probably wouldn’t have been on hand in the spring to visit with Williams and Béliveau on a spring day at Fenway.

Maybe it isn’t Sawchuk at all? Who’s to say a Sawchuk doppelgänger wasn’t in the house? Because while the actual Sawchuk had returned to the game for the 1957-58 season, he’d taken his talents back to Detroit by then. I guess it’s possible that he took a trip to Boston in April of ’58 to catch a bit of ball after Canadiens eliminated the Red Wings to reach the finals again. Again Montreal met the Bruins there, and again they beat them. The series went to six games this time, which means that the decisive tilt was at the Garden, on April 20. Before that the teams played there April 13 and 15 — coinciding (as it happens) with an early-season Red Sox series against the New York Yankees.

 

 

 

 

enemy bombers arriving in howell’s territory are rarely shot down

Baseball’s Opening Day yesterday, which is all the reason as I need to invoke the venerable name and prose virtues of Roger Angell who, at 96, remains the finest, most exacting of the game’s expressionists. I trust he watched the New York Yankees succumb on Sunday, 7-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays, and that he’ll be soon be weighing in at The New Yorker on Masahiro Tanaka and the flaws in his fastball.

Baseball, it’s true, has been Angell’s bread and … batter. But he knows his hockey, too. He’d tell you so himself, and there’s plenty of evidence in The New Yorker’s archives. Around this time of year in 1967, for instance, he penned a long “Sporting Scene” review of the up-and- down season of the New York Rangers as the team prepared to depart the third Madison Square Garden in favour of the brand-new fourth. “The Last Flowers in the Garden” finds Angell in a mood for nostalgia, recalling the heroes of good old days (Don Raleigh + the Gumper), even as he coddles hopes for the future (maybe they can hang on to second place as the playoffs loomed).

In the here-and-now of late-season ’67, Angell likes the team that GM Emile Francis has wrought, muscled as it is with Reg Fleming and Orland Kurtenbach, sped by forwards Rod Gilbert, Bob Nevin, and Phil Goyette, veteran’d with a 36-year-old Boom-Boom Geoffrion. Maybe the Rangers’ recent history has been one of failing at the finish, but Angell is feeling good: Francis, he feels, has “rebuilt their quaint, four-cylinder interior engine that used to poop out on every winter hillock.” The Rangers have been healthy and playing well: who knows what might happen once the Stanley Cup is in play?

It’s in this spirit that Angell keys in on another veteran, a 34-year-old son of Hamilton, Ontario, pictured here above. “The sudden and absolute apotheosis of Harry Howell, the handsome gray-haired defenseman who has been with the team since 1952 and has played in more Ranger games than anyone else in club history” is, in Angell’s eye, one of the best stories of the season. As he says, memorably:

Over the years, Harry’s sincere, fatherly competence had won him more admiration from the ladies at the Garden than from the sportswriters, but early this season it became apparent to everybody that at last, at the age of thirty-four, he had developed into the best defenceman in the league. Enemy bombers arriving in Howell’s territory are rarely shot down; they seem, rather, to fly into a wall of wet Kleenex and stick there, kicking. When carrying the puck through a cloud of opposing forecheckers and up to the safety of center ice, Howell has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic. This year, relieved by better defense and goaltending, he is no longer burdened with the notion that he must hurry back instantly, and help out at the steam tables, and his low, accurate shots from the blue line have brought him more goals and assists than most of the team’s forwards. In the midseason balloting, Howell was a unanimous choice for the league’s all-star team.

hockey for castro’s cuba (baseball is our main winter sport)

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So, no, that wasn’t Fidel Castro attending his first post-revolutionary hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens. As I wrote in this space back in 2012, it couldn’t have been, based on Castro’s having bypassed Toronto on his 1959 visit to Canada. But I wasn’t able, at the time, to identify the Castro-looking fan in the good seats at MLG.

Staff at the City of Toronto Archives cleared the case for me this weekend, as news carried from Havana that Castro had died at the age of 90. Touring Toronto in April of 1959 (above, in uniform) was the Cuban revolutionary government’s own Director General of Sports, Captain Felipe Guerra Matos.

He was a former rice-mill manager turned rebel, 32, wounded three times as a comrade of Castro’s in the long fight to oust the government of President Fulgencio Batista that had only come to its end in January of the year.

Like Castro, Matos had started his North American journey in the United States, dropping in to New York to see Mickey Mantle’s Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox 3-2 in their American League home opener April 12.

Travelling on to Toronto, Captain Guerra was pencilled in as the starting (ceremonial) pitcher as the local (not-hockey) Maple Leafs opened their International League season against the Havana Sugar Kings. Ontario Lieutenant-Governor J. Keiller Mackay ended up tossing the opening pitch, from what I can tell, with Matos as his catcher: the Toronto Daily Star judged it weak. Leafs won, 6-5, in front of 14, 268 fans. Honest Ed Mirvish was on hand to present Captain Guerra with a gift the Leafs wanted the Cuban people to have: a tractor.

It was later the same evening that Captain Guerra dropped by Maple Leaf Gardens, along with (to Guerra’s right) Bobby Maduro, who owned the Sugar Kings, and (to his left) the team’s road secretary, Ramiro Martinez.

Hockey’s Leafs had finished their season a week-and-a-half earlier, losing in the Stanley Cup final to Montreal. But the Cubans were just in time to catch the Whitby Dunlops take the Allan Cup from the Vernon, B.C. Canadians, and that’s who they’re watching here.

8-3 was the score, which meant that the Dunnies won the series four games to one. Doesn’t sound like it was great finale: “a dreary conclusion,” the Star’s Jim Proudfoot adjudged. Over and above Cubans, only 1,952 spectators showed up to watch Whitby captain Harry Sinden raise Canada’s senior amateur trophy.

Three of the Dunnies’ goals that night were scored by Sid Smith, the former Leaf captain. At age 34, he’d decided to hang up his stick and skates for good. “Working at a job and playing hockey as well becomes too tough a grind,” he told Proudfoot. “This is it for me. I’m going out with a winner.”

On and off the ice, Proudfoot attested, Smith had proved himself a big leaguer every minute of his distinguished career. “With the Maple Leafs he scored nearly 200 goals and played on three Stanley Cup teams. Returning to top-level amateur competition as Whitby player-coach, he helped win the 1958 world championship and now the national senior title. What more can he do?”

No word on just whether Captain Guerra took possession of any further farm machinery. I don’t think so. He did sit down during his time in Toronto with Star columnist Lotta Dempsey, with whom he chatted about his wife and sons; youth fitness; and whether the revolutionary executions of five or six hundred Batista murderers and torturers really mattered in light of the indifference with which the world had regarded the unspeakable cruelties of the former regime.

Back at Maple Leaf Gardens, The Globe and Mail’s Ken McKee wondered, having spent most of the previous three years in Cuba’s Oriente mountains with Castro, what did Captain Guerra think about hockey?

He was very impressed, he said (via Ramiro Martinez, who translated), “by the speed and hard body contact.”

In fact, his office was very interested in bringing hockey to the people of Cuba, most of whom had never seen it before.

Harold Ballard was in the house, president of Toronto’s junior Marlboros and a member of the Maple Leafs’ management committee. He said there might be interest in taking a couple of junior teams down, so long as there was money in it.

What about a league of North Americans playing in Cuba? Bobby Maduro put the chances of that at “very remote.”

“We bring ice shows in for a week or so,” he said, “and would operate a hockey tour the same way. Baseball is our main winter sport. Hockey would be a spectacle.”

 (Image: City of Toronto Archives,  Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4903)

balls and strikes and stanley cups

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On the Tuesday, he coached the underdog Chicago Black Hawks to their second Stanley Cup win, and his players carried him on their shoulders — by Saturday, he was just another major-league umpire calling strikes on the grass at Boston’s Fenway Park.

That’s how it went for 43-year-old Bill Stewart, pictured above in April of 1938, at the busy end of his first and only full season as an NHL coach. Thursday he left Chicago with a smile on his face. “My contract with the Hawks runs another year,” he told the newspapermen, “and we’ll be out to repeat again next year.”

No-one had expected the Black Hawks to prevail that year. Here’s the Daily Boston Globe summing up the situation:

Accorded little chances of entering the playoffs, the Hawks, with an odd assortment of rookies and old-timers, responded to Stewart’s fiery leadership to upset one favored club after the other, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, champions of the National Hockey League.

The miracle man of hockey, Montreal’s Gazette called him. Some other adjectives that the newspapermen of the day applied to Stewart: chunky (Montreal Gazette); plumpish, partly bald (The Day); bald-headed pilot (Boston Globe); big-time ice pilot (ibid.); pudgy, bald sports veteran (ibid.); the Little General (Boston Globe); bald-headed William (Gazette); ordinarily soft-spoken little man (ibid.).

It wasn’t true, what was sometimes said of him: that he’d never coached a hockey team before he was hired by Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin. In fact, though he’d only ever played the game on shinny rinks, he had coached high-school hockey in his hometown, Boston, going on to steer the hockey team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for seven seasons. He’d played some serious ball, too, including stints with the Montreal Royals and the Chicago White Sox.

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He started his umpiring in 1930, graduating to the majors in 1933. By the time he retired in 1955, be was considered the dean of National League arbiters. He took part in four All-Star games and five World Series.

Starting in 1928, he also served as an NHL referee. His reviews there were, predictably enough, good and bad. In 1936, The Ottawa Citizen deemed him undoubtedly high class: “He knows the hockey code and rules accordingly in a fearless manner.” Then again, in 1931, a player from the New York Americans, possibly Bill Brydge, saw fit to write a mid-season letter to the Toronto Star declaring Stewart’s “special wretchedness.” It was a long missive, with specific complaints, but we can boil it down to a single extract: “He is absolutely rank.”

Stewart did, memorably, forfeit a game in Boston’s favour in 1933 after one of Stewart’s predecessors as Chicago coach, Tommy Gorman, (1) punched him and (2) took his team off the ice to protest a tying Bruin goal.

In 1935, Stewart brought (as Montreal’s Gazette put it) “his methods of authority on the diamond into the Forum.” The Leafs were in town and ended up routing the Canadiens by a score of 10-3. In the first period, when Stewart got into an argument with Montreal coach Léo Dandurand, he did what came naturally: tossed his antagonist out of the game. When Dandurand wouldn’t go, the referee sought a policemen to enforce his order. There was a delay. The Gazette:

No officer of the law appeared, however, and Stewart returned to the Canadien bench and after a heated dispute with Dandurand, the latter finally rose from his seat, went behind the bench and stood there, continuing to direct his team without any undue inconvenience. And at the start of the second period Leo was back on the bench and stayed there for the rest of the game.

That’s the first I’ve heard of NHL coaches sharing the players’ seating, but I guess that’s how it worked then. (Is there enough evidence here to credit Stewart with the innovation of upright, ambulatory coaches? I don’t suppose so.) Also worth a mention: this wasn’t the first time Stewart had ejected a coach in the Forum: earlier that year, he’d tossed Chicago’s Clem Loughlin — the man he’d eventually succeed as coach of the Black Hawks.

Hockey refereeing was harder than baseball umpiring, Stewart said in 1937. In the latter, “it’s either a strike or a ball,” while hockey involved monitoring not only the puck but the behaviour of 12 speeding men. A referee’s most important function on the ice? Watching the blueline for offsides.

“If you miss a trip or a bit of scragging or interference,” he said, “you can depend on the players to even it up among themselves, but if you miss a blue line offside and a goal results you can’t call back that goal, and it may mean the game. But no matter what you do, you can’t be right in everybody’s opinion.” Continue reading