maple leaf gardens, 1999: the last waltz

They played in the first NHL game at Toronto’s Maple Leafs Gardens in 1931, and they were there at the last, 68 years later. Red Horner had worked the blueline that opening night for the Leafs, while Mush March was a member of the visiting Chicago Black Hawks, scoring on their behalf the first goal in the history of the rink that Conn Smythe built. On Saturday, February 13, 1999, when the same two teams met for the final game at the Gardens, March and Horner, both 90, were on hand to drop a ceremonial puck. Like them, that was an original, too: March had kept the one he’d scored with in ’31, carrying it with him, back to Toronto, from his home in Illinois.

Also on hand for that final Gardens night were a further hundred or so former Maple Leafs, Gaye Stewart and Fleming Mackell, Ed Litzenberger, Frank Mahovlich, Ron Ellis, Red Kelly among them. (Pointed in their staying away: Dave Keon, still vowing then that he’d never have anything more to do with the team, ever, and Bert Olmstead, miffed that his invitation hadn’t been personalized.)

What else? The 48th Highlanders piped their pipes and drummed their drums. Anne Murray sang “The Maple Leaf(s) Forever,” and Stompin’ Tom Connors struck up with “The Hockey Song.” Michael Burgess took care of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.”

Then, hockey. In 1931, Chicago beat the Leafs 2-1. They did it again in ’99, this time by a score of 6-2.

Toronto artist James Paterson later rendered his vision of the evening’s events, with some added Lordly commentaries. In the fall of 1999, the painting was on display at Toronto’s Wagner Rosenbaum Gallery as part of a Paterson show also called “Hockey All The Time.”

jump shot

Upstart: Headed for the Calder Trophy, they said. One of the two best rookies in the NHL (that from Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin; the other rookie he favoured was Boston’s Dave Creighton). Born on this day in 1926 in Sceptre, Saskatchewan, Bert Olmstead would eventually make a name as a dynamic left winger for the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto’s own Maple Leafs. But Olmstead, who died in 2015, made his leap into the NHL playing for the Chicago. And it was as a 23-year-old Black Hawk that he rated all those rookie raves during his first full NHL season, 1949-50. Pundits were mentioning him as the leading Calder candidate as early as December, that year; by February, the six NHL captains were prepared to nominate him as the league’s primo rookie. In April, Dink Carroll of the Gazette in Montreal was still hearing that Olmstead still had the inside track. It didn’t work out: in May, when 18 sportswriters cast their ballots, it was 25-year-old Boston goaltender Jack Gelineau who ended up top of the Calder rankings. The league gave him $1000 to go with the trophy, and the Bruins rewarded him, too, with (an undisclosed amount of) cash. Olmstead tied Bruins’ centreman Phil Maloney for second place in the Calder voting; others who were considered were Gus Kyle of the New York Rangers; Toronto’s John McCormack; and Steve Black of the Detroit Red Wings.

 

for faster and flashier hockey: building a better, oilier skate

WO-00579

Skateguard: King Clancy, circa 1953, strikes a pose in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room — with a plain old unimproved skate. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, R11224-2910-X-E, Walter Curtin, Liberty Magazine)

In Gordie Drillon’s dream, he sped and stole pucks. “I dreamt I had on a pair of motorized skates,” he told a teammate the next morning, not long after the Hall-of-Fame right winger joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1942. “Nobody could get close enough to me to tap me on the heel with a stick. It was a great feeling.” He was equipped with a telescoping stick, too. “I pressed a button in the handle and the blade shot out a couple of feet. It was great for backchecking. I was taking the puck away from everybody.”

Drillon did fine without enhanced equipment — he was a first-team all-star in his heyday, leading the league in scoring in 1938 as a Maple Leaf, and taking the home the Lady Byng, too, as the NHL’s gallantest player.

That doesn’t mean other dreamers, including the NHL itself, haven’t entertained waking designs over the years of stretching sticks and speeding skates.

Actually, I don’t know about the sticks — but enriched skates definitely figure in NHL history.

Maybe you recall Tory Weber. Or, no, probably not. But his big idea might ring a bell, if only because it attracted Wayne Gretzky’s interest and endorsement a few years ago, and looked like it might even be on the verge of a breakthrough onto NHL ice.

Weber was the Calgary inventor who dreamed that heated skate blades would revolutionize hockey, increasing the speed of players and thereby the game they were playing. His Thermablades started to gain traction in the hockey world in 2005. Gretzky was an enthusiastic investor, and so was Harley Hotchkiss, one of the owners of the Calgary Flames and the presiding chairman of the NHL’s board of governors.

Skates glide on a film of water that’s created by pressure. Heated by a tiny lithium battery, Weber’s prototypes increased the layer of lubrication that forms, reducing friction, enhancing smoothness, increasing speed.

Gretzky testified that that its “performance benefits” would boost the game by making it “more exciting to play and watch.” Hotchkiss felt that it could reduce injuries. NHL players who tried Thermablades liked them; Craig Conroy of the Calgary Flames was getting ready to wear in his team’s home opener in 2008.

That was before the NHL nixed them. The league’s GMs had their doubts, including concerns about cost and damage that might be done to the ice. They wondered whether Thermablades might make hockey too fast. Without NHL support, Tory Weber’s company struggled. By the summer of 2009, it slid into bankruptcy.

It wasn’t the first time a speedier skate almost accelerated onto NHL ice. Forty years earlier, another inventor had a flash of inspiration not so far removed from Troy Weber’s, and by 1960, Wilfrid Vaillancourt — Monk, to his friends — was on the brink of his breakthrough with the — well, it was either the “lubri-skate” or the “lubra-skate,” depending on the newspaper you were reading back then.

Vaillancourt was a steelworker at this time in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We know that he later went on to take charge of maintenance projects at the Soo’s International Bridge, a job he kept for 33 years, through to his retirement in 1995. A sizeable idea that came out of that job was a new and efficient mobile scaffolding structure he conceived of that (he said) would slash maintenance costs on big bridges by 70 per cent. Continue reading

27 x 10 (+ 40)

Embed from Getty Images

It’s 40 years tonight that Darryl Sittler, 65 now, went on his famous bonanza at the expense of the Boston Bruins and their permeable goaltender, Dave Reece. Sittler, as Lance Hornby of The Toronto Sun put it so delicately, made Reece “look silly” on the night of February 7, 1976 as he compiled six goals and four assists in an 11-4 Leaf routing.

1970s me, harshly reviewed by the passport office

1970s me, harshly reviewed by the passport office

I was there with my dad that night, a not-quite-ten-year-old. As I’ve written before, here, it was a noisy occasion on which I did not too badly on the quiz in the back of the Maple Leafs program. I don’t remember much more than that. I can recall the general outlook from our seats — reds, maybe? — looking down on the ice from the southwest corner of the rink. There’s no doubt that I would have been thrilled just to be in the building for an NHL game, and that I would have repeated the names of favoured players — Salming, Turnbull, Ratelle — as though to work a spell. I think I remember standing up for all the ovations we gave Sittler and, being small, having my view swamped by all the joyous Leaf-loving adults around us.

The Leafs are the road today, so the team celebrated Sittler’s feat early, in word online and in deed ahead of their home game last Thursday against the New Jersey Devils. Dave Reece was in on the celebrations, invited up from his home in Vermont to pay tribute to the man who tormented him out of the NHL all those years ago. For a man whose NHL fame is fixed on his worst night in the net and who never played another game in the league, he seems to have a kept his sense of humour about him. He told Lance Hornby that he wasn’t aware at the time that a record was in the making. “All I knew was the fans were going berserk and this guy keeps scoring. I’m thinking: How many goals does he need?

A couple of other anniversary notes:

• Bert Olmstead’s name seems to have gotten a little lost in this week’s excitement. Maurice Richard was the first, it’s true, to establish the record that Sittler broke in 1976: the Rocket scored five goals and added three assists in a 9-1 Canadiens win over Detroit on December 28, 1944. But as much of the media coverage has failed to acknowledge, Olmstead, who died in November, matched that mark in a 12-1 Montreal win over Chicago on January 9, 1954. The long, lean winger, The Globe and Mail called him that night: he had four goals and four assists. Richard couldn’t get a goal, but he did contribute five assists, and managed to tint if not entirely overshadow Olmstead’s feat of scoring.

Richard had published a newspaper column that week criticizing NHL president Clarence Campbell and the Forum crowd showed up prepared to voice their support of the beloved winger. Fifteen plainclothes’d policemen were on duty to help keep the peace. When the president showed up (late) to take his regular seat, Dollard St. Laurent had just scored to make it 3-0 Habs, but the cheers turned to boos as fans saw Campbell.

The Canadian Press:

The crowd of 13,930 booed the league president lustily between cheers for goal after goal, gaped at him between periods and at the end gave up a few yells of “go home, Campbell, go home.”

Occupying his usual box-seat in the south end of the Forum, Campbell took it all in stride and didn’t appear in the least flustered. He was not molested personally and the crowd, happy over the mounting score, was not openly belligerent.

• I’ve wondered, as the Februarys have passed, whether my memory had made up or exaggerated the brass blare from the Gardens’ loudspeakers that heralded Sittler’s goals in 1976. Milt Dunnell’s Toronto Star column from the Monday following suggests I didn’t. A great night it may have been in Leafland, but remember who ruled the kingdom: Harold Ballard. Maybe the owner was trying to channel the call-to-arms of British cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo, Dunnell mused:

Ballard’s bugler assaulted the eardrums of friend and foe alike with a canned version of “Charge” that had been wired into the sound system. No one seems to know who the bugler is. Maybe it’s just as well. This town has enough homicides already.

Dunnell also recounts that only that morning, Sittler had invited his parents to the game — Leaf teammate Greg Hubick had extra tickets — and while the Sittlers thought they were busy to make it, they did in the end make the trip from St. Jacobs, Ontario.

It’s not surprising that Harold Ballard was largely scrubbed from this week’s commemorations of Sittler’s big night — why sour the celebrations? — but the Leaf despot’s pre-game rant is worth a mention all these years later. A day before Sittler ran amok, Ballard had told reporters of his determination to find “a sensational centre” to play between wingers Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson. “We’d set off a time bomb if we had a hell of a centre in there,” he said.

Sittler, of course, was asked about this after the Boston game. The Star’s Frank Orr took down his answer:

“Undoubtedly, Mr. Ballard will figure his little blast inspired me to set the record but it just isn’t that way,” Sittler said.

“Maybe now he won’t have to hunt quite so hard for that centre he wants.”

see change: did bob nevin ever find his contact?

contacts

Readers write and what they want to know, many of them, has to do with the scene depicted here. Just this: did Bob Nevin ever find his contact lens that night in Chicago in 1962?

No, never did.

And it wasn’t Jack Evans who knocked it out, either. Time, then, for an update.

It was March and Toronto was at the old Chicago Stadium to play the Black Hawks. The game that ensued was “brisk, boisterous” (The Globe and Mail) and/or “tough, nasty” (Toronto Daily Star). On his way to scoring 50 goals for the first time in his career, Chicago winger Bobby Hull put away his 44th on the night. A teammate, meanwhile, defenseman Reggie Fleming, got into a post-game fight with three already-fighting fans, which led to the rest of the rest of the Hawks joining in to help. For the Leafs, winger Bert Olmstead was knocked out just before that when, to quote a Globe and Mail account, he “plunged into the boards, head first, near the end of the game after firing a shot at the Chicago goal.” Revived, he went to the hospital for x-rays of his head and shoulder, which revealed that he’d cracked his acromion. (“Ed. note,” advised the Globe’s Rex MacLeod — “everybody has one.”) He’d be back in two weeks, for the playoffs.

The Leafs won the game, 3-2. First to score was Nevin, in the third minute of the opening period. Six minutes into the second, he was detached from the contact lens he was wearing in his left eye. That’s according to the Star; The Chicago Tribune thought it was both lenses (and that there should have been a penalty):  

Dollard St. Laurent, Hawk defenseman, first caught Mr. Nevin in the corner, lined him up, and then gave him a body slam. As Nevin started to collapse, Dolly landed a short left hook that Referee Eddie Powers didn’t see, and then collapsed on the prone Nevin — knees first.

Play continued after Nevin arose, but the swift Toronto right winger just stood in one spot motionless, yelling for help. Time was called and players from both teams dropped to hands and knees searching for the lenses. They never were found, and Nevin groped thru the remainder of the game.

The Star would commemorate the moment in cartoon a few days later, while also noting that Nevin was one of the NHL’s most improved players of late. “Bob’s improvement,” Red Burnett wrote, “goes back to the time that general manager and coach Punch Imlach started to use him as a penalty killer with Bob Pulford and moved him on the line with Pulford and the injured Bert Olmstead. It seems Nevin thrives on extra ice time.”

For his part, Harold Ballard, Leafs’ VP and chair of the team’s hockey committee, mourned the cost of Nevin’s lost eyewear. “There goes another $100,” he said.

nevin contact

Update: Another search for a contact lost on Chicago ice in 1965 looked like this.

In other sundry NHL contact news from the 1960s:

• Centreman Eddie Joyal was leading the Los Angeles Kings in scoring in January of 1969 when he collided with an Oakland Seals’ defenseman, Bryan Watson, and the contact in his left eye “shattered.” The Associated Press reported that while Joyal suffered a corneal laceration, “a medical doctor said there is no permanent damage.”

Dr. Robert Kerlan said Joyal will wear a heavy bandage over the left eye and miss four games or more.

How he’d play without his lenses was a question Joyal was asked back in ’62 when he was playing in the minors. “If I lose ’em,” he said, “there’d better be a seeing-eye dog that can wear skates.” For the Kings, he did return, finishing the season with 52 points. That was well back of Phil Esposito’s Art Ross-winning total of 126, but still good enough to lead Los Angeles. 

• Also in 1969, Ottawa Citizen columnist Jim Coleman wrote about 40-year-old Leaf defender Tim Horton, who just happened to have scored the second goal in that game in Chicago in 1962:

When admiring team-mates are discussing Horton’s physical distinctions, the conversation smacks of a menagerie because, when they speak of Horton, they say: “he’s as strong as a buffalo and he’s as blind as a bat.”

Horton is notorious in the NHL for his allegedly poor eyesight. Ever since he was a youngster, he has worn spectacles off the ice. When he went to [in 1949, AHL] Pittsburgh, his employers insisted that he should equip himself with contact lenses so he could see the puck.

Twelve years ago when the Leafs were training at Sudbury, Tim forgot to take his contact lenses to camp.

“I’ve been playing without them for the last 12 years,” Horton says. “I’ve been hoping that no one would notice.”

For a 40-year-old with allegedly weak eyesight, Horton is doing okay. Gordie Howe and Horton probably will be the first two men to play regularly in the NHL at the age of 50.

big night

I remember trumpets. Trumpets and cornets, trombones, a sousaphone, various horns — lots of clashing brass. They must have been recorded, played over the sound system: certainly in no accounts that I’ve read of that night is there a mention of a live orchestra playing a fanfare after every Leaf goal. They wouldn’t have blared it for the first few, I don’t think — only after events turned historic would they have started it up. It was very loud — too loud, I remember my dad advising me.

That’s about it. Thirty-six years ago tonight my dad and I were at Maple Leaf Gardens to see the famous game, Leafs and Boston Bruins, wherein Darryl Sittler scored six goals and assisted on four others, setting records that not even Edmonton’s Sam Gagner could break  last Thursday night. It’s not a lot, but that’s what I’ve got.

February 7, 1976. I was nine years old. I do recall we were sitting on the west side of the Gardens, maybe half way up. I think I remember being a kid among adults every time we stood up to cheer Sittler, looking at taller people’s backs and heads, struggling to see. That could be a generic memory from any number of other Leaf games I’ve seen, though — or Toros games, because we went to a lot of WHA games, too, in those years, come to think of it. I was just as happy watching Tom Simpson and Vaclav Nedomansky as I was Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming.

It was a pretty good Bruins team that night: Jean Ratelle, Brad Park, Terry O’Reilly, Johnny Bucyk were all on the ice. Nursing a knee, Bobby Orr wasn’t. The goalie was, of course, Dave Reece, who played the whole game and never another in the NHL. Somewhere today someone will be calling him to ask how it felt, what he recalls. I hope his memory is as dim as mine.

It wasn’t Sittler’s fault. What was he supposed to have done? He has the only known videotape of the game, Joe Bowen was saying on the broadcast of the Leafs-Oilers game last night. I wonder if today at home he’ll take a quick look back? He’s also got a whole February 7 chapter in Sittler (1991), the autobiography he wrote with Chrys Goyens and Allan Turowetz.

Which has been a big help for me. When Sittler recorded his eighth point in the first minute of the third period, tying the record held jointly held by Rocket Richard and Bert Olmstead, he had 19 minutes to break it. “And everyone in the building knew it.” Okay! Good! We went crazy, apparently. Every time he touched the puck after that, our decibels went way up. At teammates of Sittler’s we yelled: pass it!

Errol Thompson finally did and Sittler scored. We went nuts. The ovation went on forever. Sittler got the impression that we wanted to stop the game and have some sort of special ceremony then and there. That’s what Sittler writes in his book. Did we? Sure. Fine. Why not? If you say so, Darryl. As it was, he had to wait a few games, when Harold Ballard and NHL president Clarence Campbell presented him with a silver tea service.

I still have the program from the game to go along with my fanfare memory. I don’t want any of Darryl Sittler’s limelight for myself, I promise you, but just for the record, I did score 8 out of 15 on the backpage NHL Quiz that night, and no-one is ever going to be able to take that away from me.

More on Sittler’s big night here.