danny lewicki, 1931—2018

Head Leaf honcho Conn Smythe liked the look of the young left winger he was watching at Toronto’s training camp in September of 1949. Eighteen-year-old Danny Lewicki was fast, impossible to hit, a great stickhandler. “He looks to me,” the Leafs’ managing director said, “more like Aurèle Joliat than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Born in what was then Fort William, Lewicki died in Toronto on Monday. He was 87. His NHL career, which spanned nine seasons, included stints with the Leafs, the New York Rangers, and Chicago’s Black Hawks. There’s memorial news of that here and here, though not all of it entirely accurate. The assertion that Lewicki was the last surviving member of the Toronto team that won the 1951 Stanley Cup will be news to 95-year-old Howie Meeker. (Update, September 26: CBC.ca has amended its story to acknowledge Meeker’s survival.)

Working on a training-camp line, in 1949, with another young junior star, George Armstrong, Lewicki had Smythe thinking of some great old Leafs, too. “They’re the best pair I’ve seen together since Charlie Conacher and Harvey Jackson,” he said.

All of which boded well for the here-and-now Leafs, but for one small catch: Lewicki had no interest in playing for the Leafs. He had, it’s true, signed a contract as a 16-year-old indenturing himself to the team, but as he wrote in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks To The NHL, Lewicki felt he’d been duped. Rather than report to the Toronto’s Junior-A Marlboros as the Leafs wanted, Lewicki preferred to return to the team in Stratford where he’d played previously. “I don’t like Toronto,” he told reporters. “It’s too big.”

Smythe stood fast: Lewicki could either play in Toronto or he could play nowhere at all. He eventually did join the Marlboros in time to help them win the 1950 Allan Cup.

Graduating to the Leafs the following year, he skated on a line with Joe Klukay and centre Max Bentley. Bentley told him that it was the second-best line he ever played on, next to the so-called Pony Line on which Bentley had previously prospered in Chicago alongside brother Doug and Bill Mosienko. Lewicki finished third in the voting that year for the Calder Trophy for best newcomer, behind Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk and teammate Al Rollins. And then there was, too, of that Stanley Cup the Leafs won in the spring of ’51, beating Montreal in five games. Not a bad way to start an NHL career in the city he’d done his best to shun.

No Go: As this (slightly gleeful?) headline from Winnipeg recalls, Lewicki’s dispute with the Leafs was national news in September of 1949.

 

the winnipeg arena’s royal quandary: if the queen herself walked in, would she know who it was?

Elizabeth The First: Gilbert Burch’s original Winnipeg Arena portrait, c. 1979. (Image: Winnipeg Tribune/Universty of Manitoba Archives, PC 18 A81-012, Box 64, Folder 6315, Item 18)

A birthday yesterday for hockey fan and (by the Grace of God), Queen of Canada and of Her other realms and territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Elizabeth II, who’s 92 today. She never did suit up for the Vancouver Canucks, despite what you may have been led to believe by B.C. painter Timothy Wilson Hoey. She has been attending NHL games since 1951 when, a few months before she succeeded her father on the throne, Princess Elizabeth attended her first professional hockey game in Montreal.

What else was she going to do on an autumn’s tour of Canada? She and her husband Prince Philip did see a game in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens that October before they got to the Forum, but it wasn’t a real one. The royals didn’t have time in their schedule to attend Toronto’s Saturday-night season-opener, so Leafs and the visiting Chicago Black Hawks accommodated them by playing a half-hour exhibition game that afternoon. Fourteen thousand non-royal fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock show. The Leafs had Ted Kennedy, Sid Smith, Max Bentley, and Tod Sloan in the line-up, while Chicago featured Bill Mosienko and Gus Bodnar, but neither team was able to show their majesties what a goal looked like on the afternoon. For those, the commoners would have to return for the evening’s encounter, Chicago beat the Leafs 3-1.

Two weeks later, the regal visitors did see Canadiens’ Floyd Curry score a hattrick in a 6-1 Montreal win over the New York Rangers.

I’m pretty sure that Maple Leaf Gardens still had a portrait hanging of King George VI. Once Princess Elizabeth was proclaimed queen throughout her realms, she would eventually ascend (via painted portraits) the walls of several hockey rinks across Canada. The Queen oversaw the Gardens ice in the 1950s and on through the 1960s, until Harold Ballard had her removed in the early 1970s in favour of more seating. I’d like to know what became of that portrait, but don’t. “If people want to see pictures of the Queen,” Ballard is supposed to have said, “they can go to an art gallery.”

In Winnipeg, where the Jets are thriving unseen by the Queen’s likeness, the old Arena knew Her Majesty in several distinctive versions. The first was in place when the rink opened in the fall of 1955. I’ve only seen that one depicted at a distance, and I can’t say who commissioned it or what the painter’s name was. This original Winnipeg Arena monarch was, let’s be honest, a somewhat distracted one, gazing away up into the stands to see what the ruckus might be rather than watching the action on the ice — as is, of course, her royal right. That’s her, here below, in September of 1972, when she was not really paying attention to the third game of the Summit Series — a good one, by most accounts, wherein Canada and the Soviet Union tied 4-4.

queen winnipeg 72

Royal Highness: The Winnipeg Arena’s original, non-Burch portrait of Queen Elizabeth presides over the pre-game anthems ahead of Team Canada’s Summit Series game against the Soviet Union on September 6, 1972.

This first Queen departed the Arena in 1976, as far as I can tell, when Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor, Jack McKeag, decided it was time to update the regal look. Twenty-one years had passed, after all, since the portrait of a 29-year-old queen as a preoccupied spectator had taken its place, and she was 50 now. McKeag paid for the new commission, which went to a company called Claude Neon. The painter tasked to do the job was a commercial artist on staff, 49-year-old Gilbert — Gib — Burch. When he died in 2006, a family remembrance mentioned his hometown, St. James, Manitoba, and his gentle spirit. “He started out as a coffee grinder,” it said, “but wanted to be an artist.”

Burch did his best with Her Majesty. Later, after this new 4.2-by-4.2-metre portrait went up on the Arena’s north wall, he confessed that it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. He complained that he hadn’t been given a proper photograph from which to work.

“I argued and argued that it wasn’t a good enough copy,” he told a reporter. “Even the lighting in the photograph was poor.” It was tiny, too: the distance from the Queen’s crown to her neck, he reported, was no more than a few centimetres.

Burch had gone looking at the library for a better image. “The previous portrait,” he said, “was taken from a beautiful photograph. This one was terrible. I left out some wrinkles. I couldn’t see the eyes. And the mouth was a plain mess. I tried the best I could with the photograph I had.”

He got a do-over. In 1978, there was a new lieutenant-governor in office, F.L. (Bud) Jobin, who felt that the Arena’s queen didn’t resemble the one who lived in Buckingham Palace. “If the Queen herself walked in there,” he said, “she wouldn’t know who it was, except for the jewelry and crown.” He wasn’t campaigning for a new portrait, he insisted that January: “It’s just my opinion that it should be changed.” But Jobin did eventually raise (a) enough of a ruckus and (b) money to see the second coming of the Arena’s Queen replaced by a third. His predecessor didn’t object. Burch’s original portrait did make HM look a little “stiff and solemn,” McKeag conceded. He even offered to help pay the cost — $1,600 — of a new edition.

So Burch started again. He worked from an official portrait this time, spending more than 200 hours on this new oil-on-plywood piece. The painting was bigger this time, five-by-seven metres, making it the largest portrait of the Queen in the world (until someone worked up a bigger one in 2012).

By the end of 1979, with the Jets embarking on their first NHL season, his new (new) effort was ready to be unveiled ahead of the team’s December 7 game against the Edmonton Oilers. The Queen looked happier. And more like herself? The Winnipeg Tribune took to the streets of Winnipeg to ask the people what they thought.

QE2: Gilbert Burch puts the finishing touches of his second 1979 portrait for the Winnipeg Arena. (Image: Peter Levick, Winnipeg Tribune/Universty of Manitoba Archives, PC 18, Box 2, Folder 49, Item 9)

Several said the new painting made her look “phony,” even “comical.” They didn’t love the eyebrows. A woman said, “She looks like a squirrel storing away nuts in her cheeks.” Many liked the smile; some thought she looked more “queeny” in the earlier rendering. One man objected to seeing her get older. “She may be aging,” he said, “but we don’t have to look at it all the time, do we?”

Lieutenant-Governor Jobin was pleased. “In my opinion,” he said, “it is excellent, and a very good likeness.”

The original Jets departed Winnipeg in 1996. The Arena lasted for another ten years, until March of 2006, when 200 kilograms of dynamite helped demolish it. Burch’s second queen was long gone by then, having been removed in 1999 by the rink’s management, dismantled, trundled away into storage. The portrait might have been destroyed but for Syd Davey, head of the Canadian Commonwealth Society, who persuaded Winnipeg Enterprises to give the pieces to him in the hope that he could find the portrait a new home.

That hasn’t quite happened, yet. After a long stay in a Whitby, Ontario, warehouse, the portrait did make it back to Winnipeg in 2015, when a pair of CN rail executives bought it. Burch’s work made a brief public appearance in a downtown parking lot in October of 2016 during celebrations surrounding the NHL’s Heritage Classic. There was talk  then that the painting would be reappearing in 2017 in a more permanent local setting, but that doesn’t seem to have happened to date.

Winnipeg reporters who asked in 2011 whether the the portrait might find a place in the Jets’ current home at the MTS Centre were told by True North Sports and Entertainment that Gilbert Burch’s Queen wasn’t in their plans. She was “outdated,” they said, and would block the view of too many spectators wanting to watch their hockey.

breaking through: notes on fred sasakamoose in 1953, and some others, who went before

Here’s what seems reasonable to say: the facts on just who might have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player are unsettled.

I wrote about this back in December, here, but it bears reviewing.

The record on whether Paul Jacobs actually skated for Toronto in 1918 is — murky.

What about Taffy Abel of the Chicago Black Hawks in the 1920s? Not so clear.

I’m not the only one who’d say the strongest case would seem to be that of Buddy Maracle, who played for the New York Rangers in 1931.

Jim Jamieson, also a Ranger, would seem to have come next, in 1944.

Which gets us to Sasakamoose. There’s no disrespect for what he’s achieved in his career in the suggestion that he’s probably the third Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. So why hasn’t the NHL gotten around to acknowledging this?

This isn’t new news. It’s been discussed before. Not by the NHL, pointedly — the league shows no interest the history beyond the version they’ve settled on. No interest, at least, in disturbing the history that seems to have served just fine since Sasakamoose was actually in the league. No-one was acknowledging Maracle and Jamieson in the 1950s, let alone telling their stories — they’d already been forgotten.

Sasakamoose gets a second call to the NHL, in February of 1954.

The silencing and erasure of Indigenous stories is, of course, another not-new Canadian story. Sasakamoose was only briefly an NHLer in the 1950s, and whatever currency his story had in the mainstream press in Canada and the United States at the time was couched in stereotypes, assumptions, and casual racism.

That his story is being told now, frankly and in fuller frame, with all the pain and ugliness of his experience at residential school, is a greater good. (See, in particular, Marty Klinkenberg’s powerful 2016 Globe and Mail profile.) But what about acknowledging the other Indigenous NHLers who went before? Why is this so hard?

In late December, when Sasakamoose was named a Member of the Order of Canada, he was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off ahead of a game with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The NHL line and that of all the press attending those events was that he was the first Indigenous player. Reporting another story in January, I e-mailed a contact at the league to ask about the possibility that maybe that wasn’t so. Here’s what I heard back:

As far as we know, Sasakamoose was the first Canadian Indigenous player with ties to First Nations. Since we don’t track race/ethnicity, we rely on archives/online stories, and information from the players themselves. In Canada there are lots of communities with ties to First Nations — it’s possible there was a player with Indigenous parents that played before Sasakamoose, but there’s no way to know for sure.

A month later, no such latitude seems to have worked its way into the wider conversation, where there still seems to be no doubt about Sasakamoose’s firstness to the fore. In a front-page story in today’s Globe and Mail, Marty Klinkenberg celebrates Ethan Bear, the latest First Nations player to make it to the NHL. Sasakamoose is in the lede: “the first Indigenous player in the NHL.”

Same again earlier in the week, via the league’s own editorial arm, NHL.com, where Tom Gulitti was still, in a prominent Sasakamoose profile, putting him ahead of any others.

I tweeted a note to Gulitti, with a link to my Maracle story, but didn’t hear back. Along with several other writers, elsewhere, Gulitti also touted this week as the anniversary of Sasakamoose’s NHL debut, in 1954. (Klinkenberg mentions ’54, too.) Quibblesome as it’s going to sound, that’s not right, either.

It’s true that Sasakamoose, rookie centreman, was in the line-up for Chicago when they played in Toronto on February 27 of ’54. But he’d already been called up from the minors earlier that season, in November of ’53.

He’d made an impression at the Black Hawks training camp that year, as Arch Ward of The Chicago Tribune told his readers that September. The Hawks, he wrote, “have a genuine Injun hockey player — Chief Running Deer — under contract, but will call him up to the Stadium ice this season only if they need an attraction to boost the gate receipts.” He continued:

The chief is only 18 and plans to play junior hockey with Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he will be listed in the program as Fred Sasakamoose. … He is a full blooded Cree and as such collects $5 a month from the Canadian government under the ancient peace treaty with the tribe. … Sasakamoose, or Running Deer, is 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighs 165 pounds, a fast centre, and ambidextrous. … Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings is the only ambidextrous player in the National Hockey League at the moment and experts say he does not operate as smoothly as Sasakamoose, or Running Deer.

The Black Hawks had played 20 games when Sasakamoose re-joined them, in New York, on a Wednesday, November 18, under the supervision of Black Hawks’ scout (and former NHL goaltender) Tiny Thompson. That was necessary, the Tribune explained, “because of a Canadian law which requires that a guardian accompany any Indian minor when travelling away from his reservation.”

Chicago coach Sid Abel was said to have high hopes for him when he put him into the line-up on the Friday, at home against Boston. The Tribune said he “gave a spirited account of himself,” showing “a pleasing willingness to rough it up” in Chicago’s 2-0 loss, firing “two or three good shots” on the Bruins’ Sugar Jim Henry.

For Sunday’s game, home again to Toronto, Abel put him on a line with veterans Bill Mosienko and George Gee. He didn’t really feature as the Leafs prevailed 5-1 — or if he did, the Chicago papers didn’t take notice. They did mention that next morning, Monday, the Hawks sent him down: Tiny Thompson took Sasakamoose back to Moose Jaw, where he’d play through until the next call-up, in February.

 

hockey players in hospital beds: bill mosienko

Downcast: Bill Mosienko contemplates his broken foot at Chicago’s Saint Anthony Hospital in October of 1947. Earlier that All-Star week, while his wounded ankle was being tended in Toronto, word had reached him from another hospital in his home town, Winnipeg: his wife had given birth to a son of theirs.

Naturally, there will be some hue and cry to the effect that the National Hockey League should abandon its All-Star Game. Monday night’s exhibition cost the Chicago Black Hawks the services of Bill Mosienko, the right-winger on the their only proficient forward line. The Hawks suffered a sorry blow when Mosienko fractured an ankle as he was bounced by Jimmy Thomson. From this seat, it appears that the injury will be sufficient to assure the Hawks of last place in the NHL standings.

• Jim Coleman, The Globe and Mail, October 15, 1947

Spoiler alert: they didn’t nix the All-Star Game. They kept it going. For the 1947 Chicago Black Hawks, Bill Mosienko’s fractured left ankle raised more immediate concerns. Such as: who, now, was going to play the left wing on Max and Doug Bentley’s line? Also: how could they turn their season around even before it got underway? As Jim Coleman and everybody, the Black Hawks were one of the NHL’s weaker teams. It was ten years since they’d won the Stanley Cup, and nowadays they were in an annual struggle just to make the playoffs. Despite Max Bentley’s having led the NHL in scoring for two straight seasons, the Black Hawks had failed to make the post-season in the spring of ’47.

The All-Star Game was on the Monday in Toronto. While the rest of his teammates aimed for Wednesday’s season opener in Detroit, Mosienko hobbled back to Chicago. How much time was he expected to miss? Five or six weeks, Black Hawks’ president Bill Tobin told reporters. Coach Johnny Gottselig wasn’t so optimistic: he thought his winger was lost for the entire season. “I don’t know how we can replace him,” Gottselig said. “He was one of the league’s standout players.”

Six weeks or all season: either way, the team needed help. The Chicago Tribune reported that Tobin had $100,000 he was willing to spend to upgrade his line-up, starting in goal, where Emile Francis wasn’t quite getting the job done. Problem: Tobin’s rivals didn’t seem all that eager to help him get his spending spree started. Case in point: with Chuck Rayner guarding the New York net, the Rangers had Sugar Jim Henry playing in the minors. Chicago fancied him, but the Rangers wanted Alex Kaleta, the best of their forwards not surnamed Bentley or Mosienko. Preferring a straight cash deal, Tobin asked for a price. The Rangers, Andy Lytle of The Toronto Daily Star wrote, laughed.

In Detroit, Gottselig tried a rookie by the name of Dick Butler alongside the Bentleys. It was a nice story: like them, Butler hailed from Delisle, Saskatchewan. Chapter one wasn’t as fairytale as it might have been. Max Bentley’s two goals on the night were unassisted, and the Black Hawks lost, 4-2. They kept on losing, too, seven games in a row as October became November, and Bill Tobin failed to bring in any new players.

A New York radio station reported that Tobin had a new deal in mind for Sugar Jim Henry: $15,000 plus the Rangers could have Alex Kaleta once the season ended. New York GM Frank Boucher heard that and telephoned Tobin to accept. Tobin backed off: he’d been misquoted, he said.

That was the end of October. Around the same time, Tobin was talking to the Leafs about handing over $25,000 for defenceman Bob Goldham along with $15,000 each for Elywn Morris, another bluelines, and center Gus Bodnar.

A rumour was in the autumn air, too. The Leafs, it went, would surrender an entire forward line plus two defencemen in exchange for Max Bentley. It was Bill Tobin’s turn for mirth. Yes, the Leafs’ Conn Smythe might jokingly have proposed such a deal, Tobin guffawed, but the Bentleys were not for sale. “To satisfy our large following, we need name players,” he explained.

“He wants to give men five charley horses for Max Bentley?” Tobin continued. “Why, I’ll better that offer and give Smythe the whole Kansas City team, with Johnny Gottselig’s false teeth thrown in, for Syl Apps.”

Not quite a quite a week later, Max Bentley was a Toronto Maple Leaf. It wasn’t quite the deal that had been so humorously sketched out previously: in exchange for forwards Bodnar, Gaye Stewart, and Bud Poile along with defenders Goldham and Ernie Dickens, the Leafs also got forward Cy Thomas.

NHL president Clarence Campbell said he was shocked when he heard about the trade. Back in Saskatchewan, Bill Bentley, 74, professed himself to be very unhappy. He didn’t think either one of his talented sons would be able to replicate the success they’d had playing with each other.

Coach Gottselig admitted he’d been reluctant to break up the brother act from Delisle, but said it was inevitable. “We needed fresh blood,” he said, “and no other club wanted any of our players except Max Bentley.”

What changed for Bill Tobin? Edward Burns of The Chicago Tribune reported some of the finer strokes from behind the scenes:

The swap was broached more than a week ago in Toronto when Connie Smythe, managing director of the Leafs, suggested the deal after President Bill Tobin of the Hawks had gone there, screaming for help. Tobin was reported to have said that he wanted to “talk it over with his mother.” At the time the reply was interpreted as a facetious comment by Tobin, who had been waving $100,000, not the deed to Bentley, in his belated effort to strengthen his cellar Hawks. Then he went to Ottawa and conferred with his mother.

Bill Mosienko’s ankle was sufficiently healed to see him return to the Chicago line-up early in December. Despite his and his teammates’ best efforts, the Black Hawks never made it out of the NHL cellar that year. As for Toronto, their Bentley-boosted line-up won another Stanley Cup in the spring of 1948, the second of three in a row, one of four they’d win in five years in the ’40s.

 

 

perils of the all-star game

The first NHL All-Star Game played out one pre-seasonal Monday night, October 13, 1947, at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs were winning Stanley Cups in those years, and as champions they took up against a duly constituted team representing the rest of the NHL’s best. Many pundits favoured the home team to win, though not Boston GM Art Ross: he felt that if the All-Stars were to play a full league schedule, nobody would beat them, and offered the Leafs his sympathies. Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin was in charge of the All-Stars. His line-up featured the Bruins’ Frank Brimsek and Montreal’s Bill Durnan in goal along with front-line arsenal that included Detroit’s Ted Lindsay and Maurice Richard from the Canadiens. He also had at his disposal two of the best lines in hockey in Boston’s Krauts (Milt Schmidt with wingers Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer) and, from Chicago, the Pony Line: Max Bentley between brother Doug, on the right, and left-winger Bill Mosienko. Not that Irvin felt any duty to keep teammates together. After the first period, he shifted Max Bentley in between Dumart and Bauer and slotted Schmidt in with Richard and Doug Bentley. The latter ended up creating the winning goal, early in the third, when Doug Bentley beat the Leafs’ Turk Broda to seal the All-Stars’ 4-2 win. It was all fun and games but for an unfortunate Bill Mosienko, who broke his left ankle when he went down under a check from Toronto defenceman Jim Thomson. NHL president Clarence Campbell, a former referee, felt the need to declare Thomson’s hit “clean,” and it was right and proper that no penalty had been called. (Mosienko’s injury, Campbell added, was “a tragedy.”)

Mosienko departed the Gardens (above) gamely, with a grin, on his way to be treated at Wellesley Hospital.

 

chuck talk

Listen Up: Members of the 1947-48 Chicago Black Hawks lend a post-practice ear to coach Charlie Conacher. They are, top, in back, from left to right: Bill Gadsby, Gus Bodnar, Ernie Dickens Middle: Conacher, Red Hamill, Metro Prystai, Doug Jackson, Emile Francis, Alex Kaleta, Doug Bentley, Bob Goldham Front: John Mariucci, Bud Poile, Adam Brown, Bill Mosienko, Roy Conacher, Gaye Stewart.