won and all

Yours, Truly: NHL President Clarence Campbell, suited on the right congratulates Toronto coach Hap Day, on the ice at maple Leaf Gardens on April 16, 1949. Arrayed behind are (from left) Leaf captain Ted Kennedy, Vic Lynn, Bill Barilko, Garth Boesch, (obscured by the Cup, so hard to say, but maybe) Sid Smith, Turk Broda, Cal Gardner, and Tod Sloan. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132795)

“The boys were whooping it in slightly mad fashion,” The Globe  and Mail’s Al Nickleson wrote of the April night in 1949 that the Toronto Maple Leafs wrapped up another championship, “when through the bedlam of the crowded Maple Leaf dressing-room came the stentorian tones of portly Tim Daly. “‘I don’t know why you guys are so excited at winning the Stanley Cup,’ he needled. ‘We do it every year.’”

The long-time team trainer wasn’t far off: the Leafs had just, it’s true, won their third consecutive Cup, and their fifth in eight years. (They would claimed it again two years later, in 1951, on the strength of Bill Barilko’s famous final goal.) In ’49, coached by Hap Day, Toronto had dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep. They won the decisive game 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens on goals by Ray Timgren, Max Bentley, and Cal Gardner. Ted Lindsay scored for Detroit. Once it was all over, NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hockey’s most coveted trophy to Leaf captain Ted Kennedy — as seen above — before the Stanley Cup was carried in the Gardens’ press room and (as Nickleson recounted) “filled with bubbling champagne.”

In street clothes, Leafs joined officials, newspapermen, and friends to sip from the Cup. Garth Boesch, hard-hitting defenceman, stroked the outsize trophy gently, and said, “See you again next year, honey.”

net presence

The first time Gerry McNeil defended the Montreal Canadiens’ net was in 1947, when he relieved an injured Bill Durnan at the Forum midway through a meeting with the New York Rangers. Montreal lost a 1-0 lead that night; the Rangers won 5-3. McNeil “wasn’t given the best of protection,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll wrote, “but the fact remains that Durnan’s absence was felt.” McNeil started the next night, too, against Boston, holding the Bruins to a 2-2 tie. “Steady but unspectacular” was the verdict on that performance.

Born in Quebec City on a Saturday of this date in 1926, McNeil remains largely unsung in the annals of Montreal goaltending greatness. To demonstrate why that’s not fair you might cite the fact that in all four seasons in which he was Montreal’s first-choice puckstop, from 1950 through ’54, Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup finals. “The plucky goaler,” Dink Carroll called him in 1953 when McNeil led his team to a championship with a fifth-game shutout of the Boston Bruins. Often remembered as the man Toronto’s Bill Barilko scored on to win the 1951 Cup for the Maple Leafs, McNeil ended up playing parts of seven seasons with Montreal. His last stint as a Canadien came during the 1956-57 regular season when he returned from retirement to sub in for an asthmatic Jacques Plante. Canadiens won a Cup that year, too.

Gerry McNeil died in 2004 at the age of 78. For more on his life and times, his son David McNeil very good book is the one you want. In The Pressure of the Moment: Remembering Gerry McNeil (2016) also happens to be a fascinating cultural study of the game as well an incisive guide to the arts and anguishes of goaltending.

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

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of the nine wrote back.

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

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

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fh

 

hitman

leo boivin

Bashful: The Toronto Maple Leafs thought that a young defenceman named Leo Boivin might be the man to replace Bill Barilko on their blueline after Bashin’ Bill went missing in the summer of 1951. Andrew Podnieks says when 19-year-old Boivin didn’t crack the Leafs’ line-up that fall, he decided to quit the game and head back to his hometown of Prescott, Ontario, to drive a truck. Conn Smythe talked him out of it and the following season he was a regular in Toronto. “The little man of iron,” coach Hap Day was calling Boivin, who was barely 5’8’’. “When you’re built low, you hit ’em low, and I like to hit,” Boivin happily told The Globe and Mail’s Al Nickleson. “When you hit a fellow good, you feel good.”

He was traded to Boston after two seasons — Bill Ezinicki went the other way — and it was there that he ended up spending the majority of his 19-year Hall-of-Fame NHL career. Above, in 1955, he took to the Garden ice with his wife and daughter at the Bruins’ annual Christmas party.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

the last goal he ever scored (won the leafs the cup)

Pro and Conn: Leaf boss Smythe congratulates Bill Barilko after his overtime goal won Toronto a Stanley Cup. "We just out-Irished them,” Smythe said at the time, alluding to Leaf luck in a tight series.

Pro and Conn: Leaf boss Smythe congratulates Bill Barilko after his overtime goal won Toronto a Stanley Cup. “We just out-Irished them,” Smythe said at the time, alluding to Leaf luck in a tight series.

Bill Barilko still hadn’t disappeared on April 21, 1951, and there was no mourning for his memory, yet, just as there were no songs about him and (for a few more hours at least) no famous photographs of him falling to ice as he scored the goal that won the Toronto Maple Leafs their seventh Stanley Cup.

They were close-fought, those Finals, that year: “five consecutive sudden-death overtime heart buster” is how The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond wrote it. This last one, the Leafs’ Tod Sloan tied the score at twos with 32 seconds remaining in the third period, goaltender Al Rollins on the bench.

Barilko’s goal came at 2.53 of overtime. You can hear Foster Hewitt’s frantic call at CBC’s Digital Archives, here. James Marsh, founding editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia, attended the game as a seven-year-old, deciding early on, before the goal, that Barilko was going to be his favourite player — I’d read about that, if I were you, here.

barilko parkhurst

Referee Bill Chadwick supervises in the 1951-52 Parkhurst card based Turofsky’s famous photo.

As for the songs, I’ll leave you to spin, repeatedly, The Tragically Hip’s “Fifty Mission Cap” at your leisure — but have a listen, too, to “The Bill Barilko Song” by (NDP MP) Charlie Angus and The Grievous Angels. You’ll find it here.

As for the photographs, the best-known is the Turofsky, snapped (most likely by Nat rather than Lou) from behind, with the puck already in the net though Barilko is still falling. “It’s a flawless image, of course,” Andrew Podnieks writes in Portraits of the Game (1997), his fond celebration of the Turofskys’ rich hockey archive, though I have to say I prefer the view from the front, as caught by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns from the opposite side. (At first glance, I thought that must be one or other of the Turofskys in the corner, but of course it can’t be, the sightline isn’t right.) I like the handsome hopeful look on Barilko’s face that I’m glad to see in the Burns. In the Turofsky, as Podnieks notes, none of the spectators has realized yet that it’s a goal. They’re still in a time before the Leafs have won.

Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil knows, though, I think, even though he’s got his eyes closed.

Won The Leafs The Cup? Barilko looks to see if he's scored in this view by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns.

Won The Leafs The Cup? Barilko looks to see if he’s scored in this view by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns.

This is another Burns, below, I’m assuming. It shows the moment of Barilko’s arising from the ice, just before he’s mobbed by teammates.

Game Over: A few fans have begun to celebrate. On the ice we see, from the right, referee Bill Chadwick. Behind the net, Habs' defenceman Tom Johnson (10) tussles at Howie Meeker. Gerry McNeil sits while Bill Barilko arises. Butch Bouchard stands in front, looking lost, while Leaf Harry Watson (4) makes for the goalscorer. In the far corner, Cal Gardner (17) lifts his stick while Maurice Richard mimics Barilko's heroic moment. Hard to say who the fifth Hab is, far left.

Game Over: A few fans have begun to celebrate. On the ice we see, from the right, referee Bill Chadwick. Behind the net, Habs’ defenceman Tom Johnson (10) tussles at Howie Meeker. Gerry McNeil sits while Bill Barilko arises. Butch Bouchard stands in front, looking lost, while Leaf Harry Watson (4) makes for the goalscorer. In the far corner, Cal Gardner (17) lifts his stick while Maurice Richard mimics Barilko’s heroic moment. Hard to say who the fifth Hab is, far left.

Danny Lewicki was a 19-year-old rookie for the Leafs that year. He recalls the aftermath in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks to the NHL: A Hockey Life:

The roar of the crowd was deafening. I have never heard, nor probably will ever hear such pandemonium. What an unbelievable series! …

The next hour was a blur. We skated around the ice in glee. We posed for pictures. I hugged so many people and shook so many hands that I was sore. But I felt no pain. We went into the dressing room to change into civies [sic] and the Stanley Cup was carried by Ted Kennedy into the Maple Leafs’ dressing room. They brought the Cup in and then they just whisked it out. I didn’t even get the chance to touch it.

Kevin Shea later collected Gerry McNeil’s unhappy view of things for Barilko: Without A Trace (2004). “It’s been my claim to fame,” the old goalie said before his death in 2004. “I still get a lot of mail from that goal — people asking me to autograph their picture of the Barilko goal.”

It wasn’t a hard shot, he said.

“I just simply missed it. You have a sense on most goals of the puck coming and you get ready, but on this one, I don’t know what happened. I had to look at pictures after. It surprised me — I don’t know how the puck got in. At the time, I didn’t even know who shot it — I never knew who scored most of the goals that were scored against me. But there was Barilko. He was right at the face-off circle.”

“It was just a shocker. It was an awful disappointment.”

geometry and reflexes

gerry mcn

Is it possible to mention Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil, who was born in Quebec City on this day in 1926, and not allude to the goal that Bill Barilko scored on him to win the Leafs the 1951 Stanley Cup? Maybe, but I don’t know that anyone has really tried too hard. McNeil did win a Cup for himself, in 1953. At the Canadiens’ website, they call him stingiest and 5-foot-7. “Too small,” they say, “to cover much of the net if he remained in his crease, McNeil compensated with geometry and reflexes.”

1 timgren ≠ 17 lunds

timgrenKids liked to draw him. I wish I could tell you the name of the artist whose work this is, above, but I can only guess at the signature. Colin Caslow? Corbo Cartat? Whoever he was, the kid, his scrapbook from the later 1940s came to me, which is how I know that the players he didn’t sketch for his cover include Teeder Kennedy and Max Bentley, Harry Watson, Turk Broda, Bill Ezinicki. I can’t tell you why. What was it about Ray Timgren, just 20 in 1948, rawly rookie-ing his way into a team on a run of winning three Stanley Cups in a row?

He looks troubled. It could be that he wasn’t at all, what happened might have been that when Corbo was drawing him, lying on his front on the rug by the fireplace, biting his tongue in concentration, doing his best with his pencils to render a Timgren that was as Timgrenesque as possible — well, expressions on faces are hard to draw, and sometimes no matter how carefully you work a guy with no worries skating around pushing a puck with nothing in particular on his mind ends up looking like someone who’s been told that children are disappointed in him for a whole bunch of different reasons, as a result of which their mothers have been writing to Conn Smythe to complain.

ray timgrenGolden Boy was his nickname, I find, probably because of his hair which, in his hockey card from 1951 if not in real life, appears as gilded as his gloves.

Turofskys liked to take his photo. That is, as a Leaf during the years that brothers Lou and Nat Turofsky were busy pointing their cameras at the team, he’s well represented in The Hockey Hall’s Digital Archives. There’s a good one of him and his teammates admiring radios at the Barilko Bros. Appliance Store, Bashin’ Bill’s there himself, and Turk Broda and Fleming Mackell, too.

Overall, in photos, Timgren looks smallish, sunny, not-troubled. If you had to guess, you’d say his intentions were good. On the ice he cruises in front of the Boston net, or fights for a place by Montreal’s Gerry McNeil. His number was 22. In the photo where he’s holding a telephone to Tim Horton’s ear, his hair does have the shine of treasure. There’s one where he’s laughing about Joe Klukay’s haircut; in another he’s pretending to tape a stick for a fascinated audience.

At Sid Smith’s wedding he poses happily with the groom and Howie Meeker and several miscellaneous buddies. There’s one where he’s drinking pop from a bottle in the dressing room and Broda and Bentley and Cal Gardner are there with him, you can see their street-clothes hanging on hooks in the background, possibly they’ve just won a Stanley Cup, could be, but I think it’s fair to say, without prejudice, that Timgren’s is the fourth-best smile in the bunch.

Posed in a classic tripod stance for his Beehive photo, he looks as serious as you’re going to see him, as though having his picture taken for the St. Lawrence Starch Company is the most serious business in Southern Ontario. A few more clicks, though, and he brightens right up.

I wonder if this is the photo that young Corbo was looking at when he did his drawing. I think probably it is. The expression is thoughtful with a hint of optimism — he looks like he knows where he’s going with that puck. Other than the ice, I prefer the folkloric style of Corbo’s drawing to the shadowy realism of the photo. The maple-sugar ice is hard is pretty great, though.

The potted Timgren biography that’s posted at the Hall of Fame’s catalogue of players wouldn’t on its own send you rushing out to draw him for the cover of your scrapbook. Reliable is one of the adjectives he inspires there, along with solid and defensive and (his offensive talent) decent.

Later, I guess, when he was a public school vice-principal in Toronto, he liked to say, “Do it now!” According to Wikipedia, anyway.

Flashy comes up, adjectivally, when you’re reading in old newspapers about Timgren in his day. Sometimes, too, you see the phrases top line performer all the way and left-wing shotmaker and known more for his back-checking than scoring.

He won two Stanley Cups with the Leafs. In 1949-50, his best scoring year, he had 25 points playing on a line with Joe Klukay and Max Bentley, The Three Feathers Line was its nickname, because they none of them weighed more than 155 pounds, except for Klukay, who did. The following season, when the fall came, Danny Lewicki filled in for Bentley, who was back home in Delisle, Saskatchewan, harvesting his wheat crop for most of training camp.

In 1949, the year Timgren got his start in the NHL, the sportswriters voted Pentti Lund from the New York Rangers as the league’s top rookie. Leafs supremo Conn Smythe couldn’t believe it; he said he wouldn’t trade Timgren for 17 Lunds. True to his word, he never did, though in 1954 he did send him to Chicago for a single Jack Price. Timgren went back to the Leafs, later, but not for long. He was out of the league at 26.

(Parkie courtesy of hockeymedia at flickr.com)