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

bill stewartOn 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