below the belt: the great leaf groin crisis of 1957

“Guts, goals, and glamour” was the slogan that GM Hap Day Toronto Maple Leafs draped on his team in the mid-1950s and it was one that his coach Howie Meeker gladly took up when he took charge of the team for the 1956-57 campaign. But halfway through the season, with the Leafs cruising closer to the bottom of the NHL standings than the top, another not so melodious g-word was crowding into the phrasing: groins.

Toronto had gone nearly six years without winning a Stanley Cup, and ’56-57 wouldn’t be their year again. That March, not long after the team missed the playoffs, Day resigned his post, and while Meeker hung around for a little longer, Leafs president and managing director Conn Smythe fired him before the spring had turned to summer. Smythe himself was retiring that year after a lively 30 years helming the Leafs, though not before naming a new coach (Billy Reay) and installing a committee of GMs (it included his son Stafford and Harold Ballard, among others) to steer the team into the future.

Whatever the particular lacks and flaws of the ’56-57 Leafs might have been, injuries did play a significant part in their failure to launch. Hap Day was talking about that in a story that appeared on this very January day in 1957 in The Globe and Mail. “I can recall some pretty rough seasons but never one to equal the present campaign,” he told Red Burnett. “I don’t believe we’ve been able to put a full-strength team on the ice since the season started.”

Injured Leafs had by that point missed a total of 124 games — and they still had 27 games to play. Over the entirety of the previous season, they’d lost a total 66 man-games to injuries. (As of today, this year’s Mike Babcock-led edition of the Leafs have lost 50 man-games.)

Among the ’56-57 wounded were defenceman Hugh Bolton, who’d been out 27 games with a broken leg, and forward George Armstrong, 16 games on the shelf with torn ligaments. Bob Pulford (strained back), Gerry James (battered shoulder), Barry Cullen (charley horse + fractured hand), Marc Reaume (gammy foot), and Tod Sloan (shoulder separation) had all been absent.

For all that pain and damage, it was the ubiquity of one particular ailment that seems to have concerned Conn Smythe most. Defencemen Jim Thomson, Tim Horton, and Jim Morrison had all at some point gone down with groin injuries that season, along with forwards Rudy Migay and Ted Kennedy.

As the pair of memos shown here memorialize, Conn Smythe was on the case. Could his team of highly tuned professional athletes be failing to stretch properly before they threw themselves into the fray? And what about these nefarious stops and starts? Were theyto blame? On this day 62 years ago, he started his investigation with a phone message to GM Day, who duly answered.

fanbelt, 1949: a man without skates is a pretty inadequate citizen on the ice

All Rise: Ken Reardon and Leo Gravelle have one of their days in court in November of 1949. That’s Reardon at centre, with Gravelle to his left, by the man in the bowtie and glasses. Complainants (and brothers) Anthony and John Scornavacco are the moustached pair on Reardon’s right (not sure which is which). Peter Zarillo is in there, too. Presiding (that’s the top of his head, presumably) is Judge Joseph B. Hermes.

“No comment,” Clarence Campbell said in November of 1949 in the wake of the rhubarbary in Chicago that saw two Montreal players, Ken Reardon and Leo Gravelle, arrested and jailed. The NHL president said that he wouldn’t have anything to say until he’d heard from referee Bill Chadwick.

Other than, well, he did want to warn fans. On that, yes, he had comment. “If people go looking for trouble,” he said, “they’ll always get it.” He was talking to George Grbich, I guess, who’d leapt to ice after being struck and bloodied by Reardon’s stick. “There’s simple protection for him if he stays in the seat allotted to him. And anyway, a man without skates is a pretty inadequate citizen on the ice.”

“No fans need get involved unless they choose to do so.”

The game in Chicago was on the Wednesday. Friday, when Canadiens arrived back in Montreal, Campbell invited Reardon, Gravelle, and Billy Reay to pay him a visit at his office in the Sun Life Building. Reay had swung his stick, too, in Chicago, and taken a penalty, but avoided arrest. The meeting wrapped up without any statement forthcoming for press or public.

“There should be better protection along the rinkside for players from fans,” said Dick Irvin, Canadiens’ coach. His view, other than that the whole business “was really not much,” was that it was all accidental. Well, the damage to George Grbich, at least. Irvin:

“Grbich stood up in his seat with one foot on the railing, reached over the netting which fronts the promenade seats and grabbed Kenny Reardon by the shoulder-pad. The pad was pulled off the shoulder. Reardon went off-balance, swung around and his stick struck Grbich on the head.

“It opened quite a cut and friends of the spectator started to swarm over the netting and out on the ice.”

That was when Gravelle got involved, waggling his stick. “But,” Irvin said, “he didn’t hurt anybody and neither did Billy Reay who took a cut at one of these jerks but missed him.”

Irvin had news, too, of Grbich having come around to the Montreal dressing room after the game for a chat and some forgiveness. Head bandaged, blood on his lapels, Grbich said he was a Czech who’d played hockey back home. Said, too, as Irvin heard it, that “he was a great admirer of Reardon, really meaning to wish him well — but we figured this was a lot of baloney.”

Irvin continued: “Reardon had been in a scuffle with Ralph Nattress just before this and I guess the guy got excited. Anyway, he shook hands.”

Sportswriter Andy O’Brien wanted fans to be fair. Writing in The Montreal Standard, he opined that the whole affair had been “grossly exaggerated.” Players took all kinds of razzing from fans, and some of what they heard was truly filthy. “I have no sympathy for the fan who isn’t fair,” O’Brien wrote, and if a fan decided to punch, grab, or insult “a tensed-up athlete” then it was “a two-way deal.”

In Reardon’s defence, he also wanted to point out that the Canadiens’ defenceman was a member of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, where he excelled at handball and squash, and membership at that august club was restricted to “gentlemen” — so there.

By Saturday, Clarence Campbell was back to keeping his counsel — and commanding everybody else’s, too. He expressed his “extreme displeasure” at the publicity surrounding events in Chicago. He was particularly irked by the jailhouse photos from Chicago; that kind of thing, he felt, “is bad for hockey.”

Uh huh. As opposed to the smacking of spectators with hockey sticks?

“Meanwhile,” said The Ottawa Citizen, “the NHL chief ordered all concerned to refrain from comment on the fracas until the case is cleared up.”

The time for that came not quite two weeks later. Montreal was back in Chicago to play the Black Hawks, which they did on the Sunday night. On the ice, the visitors acted like “little gentlemen,” according to Edward Burns from the local Tribune. And the Hawks? “Mild characters, too.” The game ended 0-0. Referee Butch Keeling called a bevy of minor infractions in the first period, and assessed Montreal winger Rip Riopelle a misconduct for abusive language. There were no penalties in the second or the third.

The legal case was supposed to get going on Monday morning, November 14, but then George Grbich didn’t show up at Municipal Court, so the proceedings were put over a day so that he could be found.

Tuesday: still no Grbich. The news was that he’d upped and sold his Chicago property and moved to Butler, Wisconsin. The charges of assault with a deadly weapon against Reardon and Gravelle were heard without him.

Complainants Anthony and John Scornavacco were there, and so was Peter Zarillo.  Anthony owned a tavern, Zarillo was a taxi-driver; no word on how John passed his days. When they told Judge Joseph B. Hermes that their grievance was with Gravelle alone, he declared Reardon’s charge nolle prossed (not prosecuted), leaving Gravelle to face the music on his own.

The overture had Reardon testifying about the hand that had reached over the rail and grabbed his sweater. He said,

“I spun around and though that my stick hit the screen. And then I saw that a man was bleeding. The man [this was Grbich] yelled at me that he was okay. Just then another man climbed over the barrier and came at me as though he wanted to fight. I dropped my stick and gloves, but the officials ordered the man off the ice before he got to me. I heard a scuffle and then saw a spectator stand up and try to throw a chair over the barrier.”

Reardon didn’t say who the first man was, the one he almost fought; the attempted-chair-thrower he identified as Anthony Scornavacco.

Leo Gravelle said he didn’t see Reardon or Grbich, but he did see the unknown man on the ice.

“I did not strike any of the spectators,” he told the court. “Everybody was standing up and leaning across the barrier so I hit the top of the barrier with my stick a couple of times to keep them from coming over.”

The Scornavaccos remembered otherwise: Gravelle’s stick hit their arms and their shoulders, they said. But referee Chadwick and linesman Doug Young gave stepped up to say that they remembered what Gravelle remembered: no spectators were struck.

I’d like to know (but probably never will) whether Zarillo’s tie was introduced into the record, the one that was supposed to have been “torn” by one of the hockey sticks wielded by one of the Canadiens.

For an hour-and-a-half the evidence spooled out. When it was Judge Hermes’ turn to decide where it all led, he dismissed the charge against Gravelle.

“It is the prerogative of the American fan to boost his team and heckle opponents,” he ruled, “but from the testimony presented here it is evident that the complainants were the aggressors.”

And that was all, the end of it. There was word from the Scornavaccos that they intended to pursue a civil case against Gravelle, but I can’t find any trace of that. Montreal’s acquitted Canadiens were soon on a train to Toronto, where their Canadiens had a Wednesday-night game against the Leafs. As for Clarence Campbell and what his comment might have been on the outcome — whatever he thought, I haven’t come across any record of it.

Decision Day: Chicago brothers Anthony and John Scornavacco (or vice-versa) sign in at Municipal Court in November of 1949.

 

 

 

fanbelt, 1949: clouted by kenny reardon, not mad at anybody

Fix You: Clouted by Kenny Reardon, George Grbich was cut for ten stitches on November 2, 1949.  Nurse Amy Kreger tended his wounds.

It was a fracas is what it was, according to some of the people who were on hand to see what happened and write about it: some of them also rated it a rhubarb and a melee and a hoodlum outbreak. Chicago’s Daily Tribune either couldn’t sum it up in a word or two, or preferred not to: there was no bigger headline on next day’s front page than the one given Victory-in-Europe billing across eight columns: PLAYERS SLUG HOCKEY FANS.

However you want to frame the events at Chicago Stadium on this very date in 1949, any statistical summary of the proceedings should really reflect the number of Montreal Canadiens who ended up in jail (two) along with the score of the game (Chicago 4, Montreal 1).

Ken Reardon and Leo Gravelle were the Canadiens incarcerated after time had ticked away to end the game. Chicago police from the Warren Avenue precinct arrested their teammate Billy Reay, too, briefly, before releasing him. There are famous photos of Reardon and Gravelle behind bars, with Canadiens coach Dick Irvin and Hawks president Bill Tobin in front of them. Tobin was the one who paid $200 to bail the boys and promised to see that they returned to Chicago to face justice. Here’s one version; others come with bonus hamming.

Flight Risks: Canadiens coach Dick Irvin, left, and Black Hawks’ president Bill Tobin pose with the not-quite-free Leo Gravelle and Ken Reardon.

Good, maybe, that they could find some fun in the situation, given that the players had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon, and that there were other photos taken that same night, like the one at the top here, of men like George Grbich with bandaged heads who didn’t happen to be professional hockey players.

How had it come to this? In the regular heedless hockey way, I guess is the general answer. More specifically, well (also in the regular hockey way), there were various versions of the second-period unrest. The Tribune had it that Reardon ran into Chicago’s Roy Conacher against the boards. Reardon told police that someone grabbed him, so he swung his stick.

Montreal’s own Gazette quoted him saying this: “As I skated by, swung my stick instinctively. I thought I had busted it against the screen. I was the most surprised person in the world when I saw I’d bloodied somebody.”

That was Grbich. Bleeding from the head, he was seen to leap the boards to go after Reardon, whereupon ushers intervened along with hockey players, including Billy Reay, who got a misconduct from referee Bill Chadwick for directing what the Gazette called “a wild swipe of his stick” at — maybe fans, maybe Black Hawks. Reardon, for his part, wasn’t penalized on the play. Nor was Leo Gravelle, described by the Tribune as having swung his stick at spectators, striking a tavern owner and his nearby brother. Also struck: a taxi-driver, whose tie was torn.

I’ve seen a handwritten note that Reardon sent many years later describing what happened with Grbich. Here’s how he choose to recall the incident:

This fan stood up on top of the boards and grabbed me around the neck while I was carrying the puck along the boards. I hit him on his head when he spun me around. I hit him accidentally but the fan had no business tackling me while I was in action.

On the night, Grbich was tended by Dr. Mitchell Corbett, who closed the cut on his head with ten stitches. Described by the Tribune as an unemployed steelworker, the wounded man apparently stuck around until the end of the game. He and Reardon met, shook hands, were photographed (below and here, too). Grbich confirmed that Reardon’s stick has “clouted” him, but no worries: “I’m not mad at anybody.” He had to head to hospital for x-rays, but before left, he told police he wasn’t interested in pressing charges.

Forgiven: Following Montreal’s 4-1 loss to the Hawks, Reardon and Grbich met and shook hands.

The other fans who’d been involved weren’t quite so forgiving. Anthony Scornavacco was the tavern-owner, and with his brother, John, and the taxi-driver, Peter Zarillo, he’d marched right out of the Stadium over to the Warren Avenue police station to complain about the Canadiens. That was enough for Sergeant James Smith, apparently. Having heard their story, he sent Detectives Joseph Gordon, Joseph Sidlo, and Peter Garamone over to the rink to make the arrests. When Grbich wouldn’t add his name to the complaint, Patrolman Hugh Frankel signed in his stead.

A court date was set for later in November, when the Canadiens were due back in town for another meeting with the Hawks. Stay tuned; we’ll get to that (here). In the meantime, Montreal had a train to catch for home, where they were hosting the Boston Bruins.

Over at South Shore Hospital, Dr. Nicholas Columbo was still waiting to get George Grbich’s results back. He was keeping him there, just to be on the safe side. Dr. Columbo said he suspected that the patient had a “slight concussion” to go with his stitches.

 

 

stan mikita: tough kid who grew up

The Chicago Blackhawks, long since out of the playoffs, wrap up their home schedule tonight hosting the still-in-hunt St. Louis Blues at the United Center. Before the game, the Blackhawks will honour Hall-of-Fame centreman Stan Mikita with a ceremony involving several of his grandsons. Mikita, who’s 77, was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia in 2015; Chris Kuc’s Chicago Tribune feature from that time deserves your attention, if you haven’t seen it already. Otherwise, a Mikita reading list might include books like Mikita’s own 1969 autobiography, I Play To Win, published the same year as Stan Fischler’s Stan Mikita: The Turbulent Career of a Hockey Superstar, along with Scott Young’s brief 1974 biography for young readers, Tough Kid Who Grew Up. More recently, there’s Bob Verdi’s richly illustrated review of Mikita’s career, Forever A Blackhawk (2011).

Mikita, of course, spent all 22 of his NHL seasons with Chicago, helping them to win the 1961 Stanley Cup. One of his coaches, Billy Reay, called him “hockey’s most complete player,” and Mikita helped make that case by winning two Hart Memorial trophies as NHL MVP in the 1960s along with four Art Ross scoring titles and a pair of Lady Byng trophies. “If you don’t have pride in yourself,” he explained to a reporter in 1968, “you won’t write a good story. It’s the same with hockey. You have got to have pride in yourself to win.”

(Top Image, from July of 1966, by Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)

terry sawchuk: he didn’t move so much as he exploded

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This week in 1967, Toronto’s aged Leafs beat the Chicago Black Hawks to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for a showdown with the Montreal Canadiens. Chicago coach Billy Reay wasn’t happy in defeat, but he summoned up some grudging grace. “I’m a little one-sided,” he said, “so I think the best team lost. But Sawchuk stoned us and they outplayed us up the centre. I thought Davey Keon played terrific — on his regular shifts, killing penalties, and on the power play.”

Terry Sawchuk, pictured here in January of that last Leafly championship year, was 37. “He was,” the estimable Trent Frayne would recall, “the most acrobatic goaltender of his time. He didn’t move so much as he exploded into a desperate release of energy — down the glove, up the arm, over the stick, up the leg pad. He sometimes seemed a human pinwheel. He played the whole game in pent-up tension, shouting at his teammates, crouching, straightening, diving, scrambling, his pale face drawn and tense.”

(Image: Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)

what we call the unseen hand

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The Canadians were ready in 1972 — at least, okay, maybe, no, not entirely prepared, exactly, but they were eager to shift from practicing to playing actual games. That, they were ready for. “We’ve had enough of this,” said forward Ron Ellis, “it’s time to get to work.” Phil Esposito didn’t care who was on his wings: “Regardless of whether I play with Roy Rogers and Trigger, just so long as we win.” Defenceman Gary Bergman insisted the team wasn’t overconfident when he said, “Look, we’re used to playing against the best forecheckers in the world — right in the National Hockey League. So we don’t have to learn to change our game to beat the Russians.” I don’t know whether centreman Bobby Clarke thought it was cockiness or not when he gave The Hockey News his prediction, below, but say this — it was in line with prevailing opinion in Canada as August came to an end and the pucks began to fly in earnest. Columnist John Robertson of The Montreal Star was a notable dissenter — his unpopular prognostication had the Soviets winning six of the eight games. And Canadian coach Harry Sinden was, notably, sounding notes of caution while others crowed Canadian domination. “We have to leave ourselves open and be ready to make big and quick adjustments,” Sinden said on the eve of the opening game. A sampling of Canadian self-regard (with bonus Soviet views, too) from the eve of the Summit Series of 1972:

 “We’re going to win.”
• Gordie Howe, former right wing, Detroit Red Wings

 “We will win eight games to nothing.”
• Alan Eagleson, director, NHLPA

“I bet a friend that we’ll win every game by at least three goals.”
• Bobby Clarke, centre, Philadelphia Flyers and Team Canada

“The Russians could take a game or two, though I don’t think they will.”
• Jack Kent Cooke, owner, Los Angeles Kings

“To ask any team to beat another eight times in a row is to ask a lot. But if we play up to our capabilities, we can win every game.”
• John McLellan, coach, Toronto Maple Leafs

 “I believe Russia’s best will beat Canada’s best in hockey eventually. But not this year; I doubt if the Russians will win a single game next month in The Great Confrontation, either in Canada or in Russia.”
• Jacques Plante, former goaltender, Toronto Maple Leafs

“If we play to our potential and, like I say, don’t take them lightly, we will be okay. I would be very disappointed if we don’t win all the games.”
• Jean Béliveau, former centre, Montreal Canadiens

 “I expect the Canadians to win every game. They’re that superior.”
• Billy Reay, coach, Chicago Black Hawks

“I don’t think the series will be a rout but I strongly believe we’ll beat them and beat them convincingly. I think we’ll win all eight games.”
• Ralph Backstrom, centre, Los Angeles Kings

“Our guys are pros and, in my opinion, the best hockey players in the world. If they play up to their potential, I can’t see how the Russians can win a game from them. Except for what we call the unseen hand — some fluky break that could make a difference. Barring that, it should be an eight-game sweep for Canada.”
• Scotty Bowman, coach, Montreal Canadiens

“I’m sure Team Canada is going to win. But I have a lot of respect for the Russians. Their conditioning is superb. They live together for 11 months of the year, and they’re like machines — their thinking is done for them. I don’t think they can react and act on instinct the way our players do. I think Team Canada will win all eight games.”
• Al Arbour, coach, St. Louis Blues

“You have said you will sweep us off the ice. We have said we would like to play and learn for the future. You must fulfill your boast. We will merely play our best, learning as we go.”
• Anatoli Tarasov, former coach, Soviet national team

 “We’ll give predictions for the games after the games. We won’t make any before.”
• Andrei Starovoitov, secretary, Russian Ice Hockey Federation

Sources: “What Experts Think — Most Favor Canada Sweep,” The Hockey News, September, 1972, p. 3; “Anxious To Start,” The Globe and Mail, September 1, 172, p. 36; “Jacques Plante Tells Why We Will Beat The Russians — This Year,” The Globe and Mail, 26 August, 1972, A14; “If We Lose Series Hockey Will Gain — Sinden,” September 2, 1972, p. 22; “No predictions, says Russian hockey official,” August 31, 1972, p. 26.

(Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Frank Lennon. Library and Archives Canada, e010933355 /)

the necessaries

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Denis DeJordy was a young Chicago prospect playing in the AHL for the Buffalo Bisons when the Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 1961, but when the time came to etch the names of the champions on the silverware, DeJordy’s was somehow included. Once the Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec-born goaltender’s NHL career did get going, he’d get into 334 games and while none of those won him another Stanley Cup, he did share in a Vézina Trophy with Glenn Hall in 1967. Shown here, above, with the tools of his trade at about that time, DeJordy played seven seasons for Chicago before moving on to stints with Los Angeles, Montreal, and Detroit. He first skated for the Black Hawks during the not-quite so-glorious 1962-63 season, when they ended up losing to Detroit in a Stanley Cup semi-final. The year after that, as DeJordy graduated to serve as Glenn Hall’s full-time back-up, David Condon of The Chicago Tribune introduced him to the Black Hawk faithful. From October of 1963:

To the rare breed that is a Black Hawk fan, there is only one goalie. That is incongruous, because this season the Chicago club will travel with two sentinels: Glenn Hall, the house man — plus Denis DeJordy.

Hall, 32 last Thursday, has been on the first or second All-Star team all except one year of his National Hockey league career. Of that you are reminded by his fan club, which neglects to mention that Hall was one of the Hawks who ran out of gas late last season.

The Hawks, however, took note of Hall’s weariness and believe they will solve any repetition of that problem by spelling Hall with DeJordy, who is 24. Hall will wear the familiar No. 1. DeJordy’s number will be 30, because the National League now has ruled that a club must not outfit all its goaltenders in the traditional No. 1.

To teammates, as well as to fans, Hall is “Mr. Goalie.” DeJordy has the less affectionate nickname of “Denis the Menace.” If DeJordy’s advance billings are accurate, however, Chicago will find increasing admiration for the newcomer as the calendar continues to close in on Hall.

DeJordy played a bit role in the Hawks’ final fiasco last season. No one on the Hawks was impressive at that trying time; in fact, management even became peeved at Publicity Director Johnny Gottselig, who was skating for the Hawks when Hans Brinker was an amateur, and Johnny was dismissed in a house sweepout that also cost the job of Coach Rudy Pilous.

But DeJordy comes well recommended from Buffalo, where the Hawks’ new skipper — Billy Reay — won the American League’s regular season championship and the playoffs. DeJordy won so many individual honors at Buffalo last season that he had to pick ’em up in a bag.

His bonus money, for individual honors alone, amounted to a staggering $4,200. Denis must have spent a sizeable portion of that for groceries, during the off-season, because he weighed only 155 when he appeared here last winter. Now he has bulked up to 170.

The Hawks lost only three of this season’s 10 exhibition games. One was to Hershey of the American league, 3 to 2. The winning goal was off Denis DeJordy. It was scored by Roger DeJordy, a veteran at Hershey. After that goal, Roger fought the Black Hawks to get the puck as a souvenir. He explained that, though both spent several years in the American league, it was his first goal ever against brother Denis.

rudy pilous: chauffeur, beer waiter, ice-cream salesman, inventor

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The Chicago Black Hawks were tenanting the NHL’s basement when GM Tommy Ivan announced in late December of 1957 that the old coach was out and a new coming in. That can’t have been easy — unless there was nothing easier. Ivan was himself the incumbent, having taken on the job when Dick Irvin relinquished the helm in October of 1956 due to poor health. The new man now was Rudy Pilous, late of the Junior A St. Catharines Teepees, where he’d been both coach and GM. He had one practice with his new players before heading into his first NHL game, early in January, in Toronto. With a smile, he asked a reporter for a program before the puck fell: “I’d better see who’s on the team.” The Black Hawks won that game, and the next one as well, at home to Boston. Chicago didn’t make the playoffs that year, though they had climbed up to fifth, ahead of the Leafs, by season’s end. And with Pilous aboard, they kept climbing, winning the 1961 Stanley Cup.

Pilous persevered with the Black Hawks until 1963, when Tommy Ivan fired him in favour of Billy Reay. Herewith, from earlier days, an excerpt from “Rudy Pilous’ Recipe For Enjoying a Headache,” Trent Frayne’s profile for Maclean’s, published March 28, 1959:

The coach in question is Rudy Pilous, a forty-four-year-old, bulky shambling man of six-feet-two, with a shock of black hair, dark eyes in a moon face, and no previous NHL experience whatever, even as a young player seeking a tryout. Pilous, never quite as graceful on skates as Barbara Ann Scott, played only pseudo-professional hockey — with the New York Rovers, the St. Catharines Saints and the Richmond Hawks in England. It is probably only coincidental that all three of these teams have long since quietly collapsed. Before these peregrinations Pilous endured part of a season with the Selkirk Fishermen, in Manitoba, whom he abandoned when he hadn’t been paid a penny of a promised twenty-five dollars a week.

But he has more than compensated for any lack of professional experience on the ice by the scope and variety of his activity off it. If the bewildering Black Hawks need a coach of bewildering background to get them out of purgatory Pilous (pronounced Pill-us) is their man.

Pilous, who left school at fourteen in Winnipeg to help his father support the nine children in the family, has been a chauffeur, a telephone lineman, an ice-cream salesman, a carpenter, a pipe cutter, a truck driver, a beer waiter, an inventor (General Motors paid him fifty dollars for a safety device), a receiving-department supervisor, and a publicist for ice shows, roller-skating derbies and race tracks. And, to top it off, he has coached hockey teams in such improbable places as California, Kentucky and Texas.

From this vocational mélange there has emerged a deceptively gifted, acutely observant man quite inconsistent with the bumbling, amiable, even naïve façade he often affects. Pilous’ public reputation stems partly from his tendency to link singular verbs with plural subjects and through in a mangled polysyllable now and then. When he succumbs he’ll laugh too quickly and refer to himself as “a big dumb squarehead.” Actually, he has an insight into many kinds of persons besides himself, and as a practicing psychologist it has appeared this year that he’s often been able to get blood out of a stone.

(Photo, from January of 1961: Louis Jaques/ Library and Archives Canada/ e002343755)

hockey players in hospital beds: pie mckenzie

Pieface: Johnny McKenzie of the Chicago Black Hawks was working the right wing that night, November, 28, 1963, alongside linemates Red Hay and Bobby Hull. The Leafs were in town and at some point in the first period two of them converged on 27-year-old McKenzie, the man they called Pie. Carl Brewer and Bob Baun caught him, hit him, hurt him: he limped off the ice and didn’t leave the Chicago bench for the rest of the period. He went to hospital after that, and while X-rays showed that while his ribs weren’t broken, he was bleeding internally. Dr. Myron Tremaine performed the surgery to extract his ruptured spleen. Afterwards, with McKenzie resting comfortably (if not, perhaps, pleased to be facing a photographer), Dr. Tremaine declared that he’d be back on skates in a couple of months. He was, too, in February of 1964, and looking good doing all the things hockey players like to do, scoring goals and bumping into other people, even if he was wearing a protective corset as he did so. “John is one of the gamest guys I know,” his coach, Billy Reay, told Red Burnett of the Toronto Daily Star. “It took a lot of courage for him to come back after losing his spleen as a result of being checked by Brewer and Baun in Chicago. What’s more, he’s skating and hitting as hard as he did when the season opened.”

Piefaced: Johnny McKenzie of the Chicago Black Hawks was working the right wing that night, November, 28, 1963, alongside linemates Red Hay and Bobby Hull. The Leafs were in town and at some point in the first period two of them converged on 27-year-old McKenzie, the man they called Pie. Carl Brewer and Bob Baun caught him, hit him, hurt him: he limped off the ice and didn’t leave the Chicago bench for the rest of the period. He went to hospital after that, and while X-rays showed that while his ribs weren’t broken, he was bleeding internally. Black Hawks team physician Dr. Myron Tremaine ordered the surgery that extracted his ruptured spleen. Afterwards, with McKenzie resting comfortably (if not, perhaps, best-pleased to be facing a photographer), Dr. Tremaine declared that he’d be back on skates in a couple of months. He was, too, in February of 1964, and looking good doing all the things hockey players like to do, scoring goals and bumping into other people, even if he was wearing a protective corset as he did so. “John is one of the gamest guys I know,” his coach, Billy Reay, told Red Burnett of the Toronto Daily Star. “It took a lot of courage for him to come back after losing his spleen as a result of being checked by Brewer and Baun in Chicago. What’s more, he’s skating and hitting as hard as he did when the season opened.”

stan the cam

mikitacam

Stancam: Chicago Black Hawks’ centre Stan Mikita was the focus of a 1964 CBS television documentary, “Firebrand On Ice,” that aired in February of that year on the network’s popular show The Twentieth Century. Billed as “an inside look at big league, professional ice hockey and the brawling, lightning-paced, hard-playing Hawks,” it was shot on pre-season ice in Ontario, in Hamilton and St. Catharines. “In filming the documentary,” The Ottawa Citizen previewed, “air force gun cameras were mounted in shoulder holsters on Mikita, who also wore a microphone, as did coach Billy Reay and a referee. As well, five cameras were placed in strategic locations around the rink. One of them, encased in plexiglass, was embedded in the ice, back of goalie Glenn Hall.”

the won

billy reayEarning A Raise: The Montreal Canadiens went into last game of 1970’s NHL regular season needing to score needing to score a whole raft of goals to in order to edge out the New York Rangers to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The hometown Hawks, on the other hand, were trying to wrap up first place in the Eastern Division: a win would put them ahead of the Boston Bruins. And so they won, lifting (above) coach Billy Reay on their shoulders. It was, for Montreal, not such a happy episode: they missed the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. It came down to this on the night: playing Detroit, the Rangers needed to score five more goals than the Canadiens to nip past on goal difference. New York duly blitzed Red Wing goaltender Roger Crozier with 65 shots, on their way to building a 9-5 lead. They even pulled their own goalie, Ed Giacomin, in the attempt to add another goal or two to the anti-Habs tally. In Chicago, Montreal could only muster a pair of goals by the time the third period rolled around, which is why they ended up pulling Rogie Vachon for most of the game’s final nine minutes. The Hawks didn’t mind, sending five pucks into that empty net. Final score: Chicago 10, Montreal 2. (Photo: Dave Fornell)

leafs in springtime: nobody is going to give us anything

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Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan delivered his verdict on the year just ended on Sunday, when he fired GM Dave Nonis, coach Peter Horachek, and nearly 20 other members of the team’s hockey staff. Yesterday, winger Joffrey Lupul called it “a wasted season,” while captain Dion Phaneuf said it was “the toughest year” of his career. In a press conference, Shanahan looked to the future. “We need to have a team with more character and one that represents this city the way it deserves,” he said. If you were looking for cruel vituperative fun on an altogether sombre day in and around the Air Canada Centre, there was always Rosie DiManno’s column in The Toronto Star, which I’ll just boil down here to a dozen or so key words and phrases she used to describe the team and its effort:

unlamented, unloved, misery, big whoop, defunct, blighted, arse-over-teakettle, implode, benumbed, laughable, how many times and how many ways can you say: Oh. My. God. irrelevant, plague of inertia, ignominy, moribund, the team’s loutish character, comedia del hockey.

This isn’t the first time the Leafs have missed the playoffs, of course, even if it is among the ugliest cases in recent memory. Counting back to 1917 and the dawn of the franchise, Toronto teams have avoided the playoffs about a third of the time, 32 of 97 seasons, or more than twice as often as they’ve won Stanley Cups. Actually, in fact, Toronto is the playoffs-missingest team in the history of the NHL: no team has fallen short more than they have — though the New York Rangers are a close second, with 31 futile campaigns to their credit.

With that in mind, before Shanahan’s future takes hold, there’s just time to review what lies behind, in the past, in the Leafs’ forlorn history of not being good enough.

In 1957, Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe took sole responsibility for his team’s — I don’t know what you want to call it, demise? downfall? collapse? Anyway, Toronto missed the playoffs that year for the first time in four years, and just the fourth in 27 seasons. “A year of failure,” Smythe called it at a “flamboyant” press conference he felt the need to hold in New York, where the NHL governors were meeting while the Leafs played out their season.

They still had a couple of games left, but Smythe wanted to get a headstart on the post-season turmoil. He’d already left his captain at home in Toronto, defenceman Jim Thomson, because treachery: he’d had the gall to be trying to help organize a players’ association.

“Next year,” Smythe thundered in New York, “our players will have to understand that they owe 100 per cent loyalty to the team.”

He didn’t fire his rookie coach that day, Howie Meeker, nor the GM, Hap Day, though many of the newspapermen had come expecting one or both to be sacrificed.

Smythe was willing to say that just maybe the Leafs would have to change the way they played. “We have a Spartan system,” he mused, “and we may be out of date. We prefer the body … we have stressed the defensive and not the offensive … Our system may be open to question.”

The very first year the Leafs were Leafs, they missed the playoffs. That was 1926-27, the year Conn Smythe took control of the team with a group of investors and in mid-season exchanged an old name (St. Patricks) and colour (green) for news. The team had three coaches that year and ended up bottom of the Canadian Division. They played their final game at home, hosting Montreal. Only a small crowd showed up, most of whom had come to see Howie Morenz and the Canadiens. But the Leafs played as if life depended on it, The Daily Star said, and ended up winning by a score of 2-1, with Bill Carson playing a prominent role along with, on the Leaf defence, Hap Day.

So that’s a plus.

In 1930, the club wanted to send the players off to their summers in style once the games were over, with a banquet, but it was hard to organize. Charlie Conacher, Red Horner, Ace Bailey, and Busher Jackson were off in Montreal, watching the Maroons and Bruins in their playoff series as guests of a “Toronto hockey enthusiast,” while back in Toronto, the rest of the team was packing up for home. I don’t know whether they ever got their meal, but the Leafs returned to the playoffs the following year. The year after that, they won the Stanley Cup.

Just to be keeping it positive.

It was 14 years before they ended their season early again and while there’s no good reason, really, to be ranking the years of disappointment one above another, dropping out the year after you’ve won a Stanley Cup would have to smart, wouldn’t? 1946 Toronto did that with Hap Day now presiding as coach. (It happened again, though not until 1968.)

If only, wrote Jim Coleman in The Globe and Mail in ’46, the Leafs had a goaltender like Durnan, and defencemen of Reardon’s and Bouchard’s quality, maybe a front line resembling the likes of Lach, Blake, and Richard — well, then they’d be the Canadiens, of course, who did indeed end up winning that spring.

For solace, at least, the Leafs triumphed in the last two games they played that season, whupping Detroit 7-3 and 11-7. And that had to have felt pretty good.

Still, it was time to clean out the old, sweep in the new. It was a particularly poignant day, once the whupping was over, for a couple of long-serving Leafs who’d scored a bunch of goals over the years. Sweeney Schriner and Lorne Carr were retiring — though they did mention as they prepared to head home to Calgary that they’d be happy to listen to any other NHL teams who might be willing to make them an offer. (None were.)

As the spring playoffs went ahead without his team, Conn Smythe was feeling — surprisingly? — peppy. If nothing else, he noted for anyone who wanted to hear, the Leafs had rights to and/or options on a veritable mass of hockey talent for the year coming up, 82 players.

“We’re definitely,” he advised, “on the upswing.”

True enough: the Leafs did take home four of the next five Stanley Cups.

I’m not going to trudge through every season the team failed — where’s the fun in that? But back to 1957 for a minute. It is, if nothing else, a bit of a watershed. Teeder Kennedy, 31, retired that year for a second and final time, having returned to the ice midway through the year before deciding that it was time to make way for the next generation. Former Leafs captain Sid Smith, also 31, decided he was quitting, too, until Smythe talked him into returning for one more year. Continue reading