behind the boston blueline: safety first

In the catalogue of hockey-player poses, the First Pass falls somewhere between the static standard we’ve already seen on display in the Tripod and the showy effort of the Maximum Slapper. It’s your all-business, man-at-work option: what we’re looking at here, above, is a single-minded man on a mission to clear that puck from the defensive zone. Head up, eyes on the breaking winger, he won’t be waylaid, not even for a photo shoot.  Can there be any doubt that when Mr. Armstrong makes contact here, stick to puck, his pass will be crisp as Melba toast on its way to where it’s going?

Sorry: Bob. Bob Armstrong. He was a regular on the Bruins’ blueline through the 1950s and into the early ’60s, long before I knew him, in high school, in the 1980s. Lakefield, Ontario is where he settled after his hockey career ended, and it’s where he spent some 25 years as a beloved teacher and housemaster, and as a coach of hockey and football players. His First Hockey teams were very good in those years, which meant that I never quite cracked any of his line-ups — I was only ever a Second. In the classroom, where he taught history and economics, he did his best to guide my Grade 12 studies of Schlieffen plans and Keynesian multipliers. Big Bob we called him, too, though not, if we could help it, within his hearing. He was much mourned when he died at the age of 59 in 1990, much too soon.

Back in Boston, he’d worn number 4 for five years before Bobby Orr arrived on the scene. A dozen seasons he skated in the NHL, 542 games, a big, solid, no-nonsense, front-porch defender, which is to say (as I wrote in a book called Puckstruck) stay-at-home. On the Boston blueline his partners over the years included Hal Laycoe, Ray Gariepy, Fernie Flaman, and Leo Boivin, though mostly he paired with peaceable Bill Quackenbush. In 1952, Boston coach Lynn Patrick sometimes deployed a powerplay featuring forwards Real Chrevefils, Leo Lebine, and Jerry Toppazzini with winger Woody Dumart manning the point with Mr. Armstrong. He scored but rarely: in his twelve NHL seasons, he collected just 14 goals.

Bruising is the word that’s often attached to Mr. Armstrong’s name as it appears in old dispatches from the NHL front, which sounds like it could be a reference to his own sensitive skin, though mostly it refers to the welts he raised on that belonging to opponents. He didn’t only batter members of the Montreal Canadiens, but they do figure often in the archive of Mr. Armstrong’s antagonism, cf. his tussle with Goose McCormack (1952); that time he and Tom Johnson were thumbed off for roughing soon after the game started (1954); the other one where he and Bert Olmstead were observed roughing up each other (1955); and/or the night he and Andre Pronovost were sentenced to penalties for fighting but subsequently left the penalty bench to join in a disagreement Labine was having with Maurice Richard (1958), leaving Mr. Armstrong when it was all over with a large purple swollen area around his left eye.

Players who rarely found themselves fighting — Jean Béliveau, Max Bentley — somehow ended up throwing punches at Mr. Armstrong.

“A big fellow, he liked to dish it out,” the Boston Globe’s Herb Ralby wrote in 1953, looking back on Mr. Armstrong’s rookie season. If there was a fault to find in his game then, it might have been his hurry to rid himself of the puck — he was, Ralby wrote, “afraid of making moves that might prove costly.”

Playing alongside Hal Laycoe cured him of that: “a patient, painstaking tutor,” the six-year veteran helped turn his rookie partner into such a polished performer that by 1953 Bruins’ coach Lynn Patrick was ready to rate a 21-year-old Mr. Armstrong the third-best defenceman in the NHL, after Detroit’s Red Kelly and Bill Gadsby of Chicago.

He played in a single All-Star Game, in 1960, when the best-of-the-rest took on the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens at the Forum and beat them 2-1. “The best safety-first defenceman in the league,” Leafs’ assistant manager King Clancy called Mr. A that season. “He doesn’t fool around with that puck behind his own blueline. He gets it out of there in a hurry.”

Gadsby and Kelly were part of the All-Stars’ defensive corps, too, that night, along with Marcel Pronovost, Allan Stanley, and Pierre Pilote. Pronovost was roundly cheered by the Montreal crowd on the night, the local Gazette noted; Mr. Armstrong and Bruins’ teammate Bronco Horvath suffered “distinct booing.”

at home in hockeytown

What’s Sup?: Looks like spaghetti and meatballs. From left the Wings at the table on Lawton Street in the early 1950s are Gordie Howe, Bob Goldham, Metro Prystai, Ted Lindsay, and Marty Pavelich, with Ma Shaw serving.

“I can’t imagine that young Detroit players would go for a similar arrangement these days, but back then most of the Red Wing bachelors lived together in rooming houses organized by the team.”

That’s Gordie Howe writing, or at least Paul Haavardsrud, who ghosted Howe’s memories into Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). In the 1950s, Red Wings’ manager Jack Adams had his Stanley-Cup-winning stars housed with nearby neighbours of Detroit’s old Olympia on Grand River Avenue. Howe’s memoir names some of them — Ma Tannahill and the Michaud brothers — though none was more renowned than Mr. Hockey’s own landlady, who welcomed a succession of Wings to her four-bedroom brick house a block over from the arena. “I was happy at Ma Shaw’s,” Haavardsrud’s Howe recalls.

Minnie Shaw (néeSchunk) lived at 5721 Lawton Street which, if you Google over for a visit, looks very calm and green, if entirely houseless. (Where the Olympia stood is bleaker yet: barbed wire tops the fencing that defends the emptiness of the parking lot that used to be a rink.) What would Mr. Shaw, Asa, who was a real estate broker, make of the current view? It was after he died in 1938 that his widow began to take in hockey players. The pride of Pilot Mound, Manitoba, was her first, defenceman Black Jack Stewart.

A memorial post from Red Wings this morning shows Howe and Lindsay cavorting at home at Ma Shaw’s.

Gordie Howe got Bill Quackenbush’s room when he was traded to Boston, so 1949. Stewart was still there; Ted Lindsay and goaltender Harry Lumley were the other roommates. When Metro Prystai moved in after arriving from Chicago in 1950, Howe’s memoir says that, with Howe, Lindsay, Red Kelly, and Marty Pavelich already in residence, four became five. Sid Abel was there for a season, ’39-40; Kelly stayed for 11 years. The Metro Prystai Story, a 2015 biography by Frank Block, notes other Ma Shaw alumni: Glen Skov, Alex Delvecchio, and Red Wings’ trainer Lefty Wilson. I’d like to know what Ma Shaw’s arrangements were: none of the literature I’ve reviewed mentions just where in her own house she was sleeping.

Jack Adams had a man spying on the house to make sure the players didn’t violate his nightly 11 o’clock curfew. Sid Abel remembered this; also that Jack Stewart would watch the watchman and once he departed, around 11.30, the players would scuttle out to the Crystal Bar on Grand River Avenue. The owner would let them in the back door, and they’d drink in the basement — “would rap on the pipes when they wanted a waitress and beer,” as a later account described the players’ routine.

Boarders paid about $10 a week at Ma Shaw’s. A normal day got going around 8.30 with breakfast, after which the players would walk to the Olympia for practice. Lunch was often at the Central Restaurant on Grand River Avenue, Ted Lindsay remembered, followed by pinball, and maybe a nap.

Detroit Free Press reporter Marshall Dann covered the Wings in the 1950s, and he recalled that the players like to bowl, once or twice a week, at the Lucky Strike Alley on Grand River. “Howe instantly became a good bowler,” he said. “I don’t recall Lindsay setting any records.”

If the Wings were playing well, Jack Adams was pro-bowling. When they lost, Dann said, he soured. “I don’t want anybody bowling,” he’d tell his players. “It’s bad for your legs.”

The players got their dry cleaning done at General Cleaners across from the Olympia. Pete Torigan was the owner. The players used to sit in the back, by the presses, play cards. Lindsay and Kelly had the most cleaning — “Kelly probably more than anybody.”

Torigan: “I used to go to Ma Shaw’s and get his clothes right off the hanger. He’d just say, ‘Go in and take it from the closet.’”

Ma Shaw hated mess, Howe said. “I had the big back room with a big double closet.” For a gag, his teammates would empty it, spread his clothes all around. “Ma would get bloody mad.”

What else? Marshall Dann recalled that when Howe was critically injured in 1950, reporters would telephone Ma Shaw for medical updates during the winger’s long recovery.

By Metro Prystai’s account, the neighbourhood had its, quote, scoundrels, but if they came across a parked car bearing Canadian license plates, they’d leave it alone, out of respect for the hockey players. But when Red Kelly got a new Oldsmobile convertible, “pretty fancy,” in Prystai’s telling, his “fancy hubcaps” were gone the first night.

After a game, the Crystal would be jammed with fans and hockey players alike. Sometimes the Wings would drive to Sid Abel’s home on Detroit’s east side for beers — or head home, to Ma Shaw’s, to review, replay, relive the night they’d had on the ice.

Minnie Shaw died in 1968 at the age of 86. A Detroit obituary noted some of her Red Wing tenants, How and Lindsay and Kelly, and ended with this:

She was practically a mother to the entire club.

spinster

Winged Wheeler: Detroit Red Wings defenceman Bill Quackenbush was 24 in 1946 when he fractured his wrist in a game against the Montreal Canadiens. It was the same one he’d injured in 1942, causing him to miss most of his rookie season. This time he returned, bike-fit, in five weeks. Born on this date in Toronto in 1922 (a Thursday), Quackenbush played 14 NHL seasons in all, the last half of those with the Bruins in Boston, where he was often paired with Bob Armstrong. In 1948-49, when he took not a single penalty, Quackenbush became the first defenceman to with the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for his troubles — which is to say, I guess, his lack of them.

things that just pop your eyes out

Bobby Orr turns 70 today, even now, as we’re talking, so what’s important, I think, is to hear what Gordie Howe had to say about him in 1971, rendered (sort of) as a poem.

Howe was 43 back then, Orr 23, and what Maclean’s thought might be a good idea was to get each of them to argue how great the other guy was. Howe had just retired from the Detroit Red Wings that spring, 25 after he’d started with them on the wing; he was still a couple of years away from making his return with the WHA’s Houston Aeros. Orr was in his sixth NHL season. He’d won Hart and Norris trophies earlier that year while racking up the best offensive numbers of his wonderful career, finishing second in league scoring to teammate Phil Esposito. Orr’s knees still had, at this point, about six-and-a-half hockey seasons left in them.

“Eulogies For Each Other” Maclean’s called their feature, which offered up side-by-side first-person odes. Orr’s to Howe calls him a fantastic hockey player and an amazing guy. It includes an obligatory anecdote of meeting Number 9 on the ice and receiving a first lesson, i.e. a good shot. “He was a tough son of a moose,” Orr says, not to mention “the finest athlete of them all” — in any sport. “I mean you can’t say anything. The guy has got to be the greatest. He’s still the greatest.”

As for Howe on Orr, here he’s what he had to say in 1971, condensed and (why not) poemized:

He was just a snotty-nosed kid
when I first met him.
Maybe 13 years old.
We were visiting
a summer camp
near Parry Sound
and somebody said,
“Watch this kid,
he’s going to be a great one.”
It couldn’t have been
closer
to the truth.

The thing
that amazes me
is his quickness.
Because of that quickness
any move he makes
has got to be exceptional.

I talk to
Bill Quackenbush
who is in Boston
and who sees Bobby
day after day
and I guess
he does things
that just
pop your eyes out.
Any time you play
against him
you’re aware
of his talent.
It’s not only
his puck control.
With that quickness,
plus the ability
to walk around anybody,
and that heavy shot —
and I think he’s got
one of the
better shots
in hockey —
he’s got everything
going for him.
And he doesn’t
make mistakes —
and how can you
improve on that?

You have to chase him
because if you don’t
he’ll kill you.

Let’s face it, he’s the thinking power.

Bobby is a puck
control artist
and whenever
you get a control artist
you’re going to draw
a lot of hits.
What I like about him is
that he’s man enough
that he can take it,
almost to the point
where he sets himself up
and just as he’s
about to get hit
he’ll get
the pass away
and maybe
set up
a three-on-one
break.

I guess Bobby is
no different
from a lot of athletes
— every now
and then
they like
to take the shirt
and tie off
and get back
in the wilderness
and catch a few fish.

Bobby is a great kid.
The whole Howe family
admires him.
I hope
he
never
changes.

of course

Green Energy:  Bruins Johnny Peirson (far left) and Bill Quackenbush (far right) take a break during a 1952 round. Second from right is Joan Kalloch, who married Quackenbush a year later; Peirson's friend remains unidentified. (Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Green Energy: Bruins Johnny Peirson (far left) and Bill Quackenbush (far right) take a break on the golf course in Boston during the summer of 1952. Second from right is Joan Kalloch, who married Quackenbush a year later; Peirson’s friend remains unidentified. (Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

alcoholic drinks? the best they can do is ruin your health

black jack + honeyWhen Black Jack Stewart played his defence on the left side for the Detroit Red Wings, a lot of the time Bill Quackenbush was on the right. Sometimes (above, in 1946) Black Jack read the newspaper while Red Wings’ trainer Honey Walker gave him a rubdown. I’ll let him tell you where he got his nickname:

I bodychecked some fellow one night and when he woke up the next day in the hospital he asked who’d hit him with a blackjack.

He couldn’t remember the player’s name. In other tellings, it was his own dark visage and disposition that got him the moniker. He was a devastating hitter, says the hall of hockey’s fame. Also: complete package, rock-solid, poise, work ethic, excellent stamina, brute force, and subtle clutching and grabbing. He never argued with the referee. “I figured,” he said, “for every penalty I got I used to get away with around 19.” He carried one of the heaviest sticks at the time he played, in the 1930s and into the ’40s. He said,

A defenceman should bodycheck if possible, picking the proper spots and making sure that he gets at least a piece of the opposing player. But it isn’t wise to go in there with the sole idea of bodychecking everything on skates.

Some dates: born in 1917, Hall of Fame’d 1964, died 1983. His love of horses was nurtured in Pilot Mound, Manitoba, where he grew up on the family wheat farm. Later, after the NHL, he was a judge for the Canadian Trotting Association. He’d always remember the day a teenager showed up, fuzzy-cheeked, name of Gordie Howe, with no great fanfare. “We knew he had it all,” Black Jack said.

He showed spurts of being a really good one. But I think he held back a little that first year. He didn’t seem relaxed enough. But of course he overcame that after he’d had a couple of fights.

There weren’t too many ever got by Black Jack, someone said, who knew from trying. I guess he had a little bit of feud with Milt Schmidt: so he said himself. Something else he said was that every team had two players who were tough, for example for Chicago it was Earl Seibert and Johnny Mariucci.

Alertness on face-offs was, to him, a cardinal rule. As for conditioning, he tried to go walking as much as he could, over and above the regular amount of skating he did. “I eat foods,” he said in 1949, “that my system has been used to and at regular hours. I go easy on pickles and pastries. A steak dinner is the thing not less than three hours before playing a game. I aim at eight hours’ sleep nightly. As for alcoholic drinks, leave them strictly alone — the best they can do for you is ruin your health.” Smoking? “A boy who is really serious about coming a topnotch player will be wise to shun smoking until he has attained his 21st birthday.”