tony o in the soo: of sock-hockey, smelts, and dandelion greens

Tony Esposito got his first pair of skates, used, from a cousin, when he was five years old. “I really thought they were something,” he would later recall, as a tender of nets for the Chicago Black Hawks. Older by a year, brother Phil had started off tying double-runner skates strapped to his boots. Phil’s first proper skates were several sizes too big — he’d remember, with chagrin, having to wear three pairs of woolen socks to find a fit.

This was in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, decades before the Espositos got to the NHL to launch their respective Hall-of-Fame careers. Tony, younger by a year than Phil, turns 76 today. Born on a Friday of this date in 1943, he would start his big-league career as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. Understudying Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley, Esposito got first start in December of 1968 against his brother’s Boston Bruins. Phil scored twice in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie; Tony made 33 saves. Backing up Vachon, he didn’t play a game in the playoffs that year, though he did get his name on the Stanley Cup when Montreal beat the St. Louis Blues in four games in the spring of ’69.

Chicago claimed him on waivers that same year, and while the Stanley Cup would elude his grasp in his 15 seasons there, his personal excellence was rewarded over the years. Starting his Black Hawks’ career in style, he won the Calder Trophy in 1969-70 as the NHL’s best rookie, along with the Vézina Trophy and a place on the First All-Star team. He’d claim two more Vézinas, in ’72 and ’74, and he was an All-Star again in ’74 and 1980.

In 1971, Tony and Phil collaborated with writer Tim Moriarty to publish a memoir, The Brothers Esposito, that offers first-person glimpses of their early years, indiscretions, and hockey formation. To kick off chapter three (“Mother Plays Goalie”), Phil recalls that he ran a little wild in the early 1950s as a teenager in the Soo. Nothing too serious, he says — mostly staying out late, stealing his father’s car, getting “nailed by the police” for “minor violations like disturbing the peace.”

Domestically, Phil summons up the family’s move from the city’s west end to a somewhat fancier eastern neighbourhood. The new house, he remembers, “had everything — an inter-com system, stereo and hi-fi, and large rooms, including a recreation room that must have measured 30 by 40 feet.” He goes on:

We used to hold some great practice sessions in that rec room. Instead of using a puck, we’d get an old sock, a big one, and roll it up and tie it with a ribbon. Then Tony and I would take turns shooting with the sock, which would slide very easily across the floor.

Most of the time, Tony was the goaltender. But I remember my mother [Frances] coming downstairs to check on us and we’d put her in goal. She’d get down on her hands and knees and we’d shoot at her. After beating her a couple of times, she would say, “Okay, boys, that’s enough. You’re taking advantage of your poor mother.” Then she would return to her kitchen and prepare our next meal.

My mother couldn’t play goal too well, but she was a great cook. One meal I loved then, which I haven’t had since I was a kid, was a special dish consisting of smelts and dandelion greens. We’d have them with fresh Italian bread from the bakery. Man, than was a feast. Tony, though, didn’t like the greens. He said they tickled his throat.

 

 

close your eyes and count to eight

Upshot: Montreal’s powerful Canadiens got the better of the cellar-dwelling Chicago Black Hawks one Saturday night in January of 1954, beating them 5-1 at the Forum on the strength of a Bernie Geoffrion hattrick. Sunday night, when the teams met again in Chicago, the ice tilted the other way: that one the Black Hawks won by a score of 8-3. Chicago had a pair of newcomers in the line-up, both of whom are shown here, above. Called up from the AHL’s Hershey Bears, left winger Jack McIntyre scored this goal and another on Montreal’s Gerry McNeil. Behind him is Ike Hildebrand, a right winger Chicago acquired from the Vancouver Canucks of the WHL. Arriving too late to aid his goaltender is Montreal defenceman Tom Johnson.

today’s matinee: in 1933, the nhl played its first afternoon game

Wing, Dinged: A year after they met in the NHL’s first afternoon game, Detroit and Chicago met in the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s Detroit’s Herbie Lewis taking the fall here, in the first game of the series, won (like the Cup itself) by Chicago. At right, numbered 2, is Chicago defenceman Taffy Abel.

The Chicago Black Hawks weren’t going anywhere on this date in March of 1933 — they already knew they’d be missing the Stanley Cup playoffs as they limped into the last weekend of the NHL regular season. Beset by injuries and under investigation, they might have been looking forward to the cease of hockey as a mercy that couldn’t come soon enough.

Still, that March 19, the Black Hawks did have one last home game to play, and they made history playing it. That Sunday, along with the visiting Detroit Red Wings, Chicago took part in the first afternoon game in NHL history.

About 6,000 spectators showed up for a game that faced-off at 3.30 p.m. instead of the usual 8.30. When it came to the gate, that was a better number than the last time the Hawks had played at Chicago Stadium, earlier in March, when they beat the Ottawa Senators in front of a crowd of just 3,000. Two days before that, at their previous (nighttime) Sunday game, the crowd that saw them fall to the Toronto Maple Leafs was 7,000.

A few other notes from the Detroit game: the first-place Red Wings prevailed on the afternoon by a score of 4-2, getting goals from Hap Emms, Ron Moffat, Doug Young, and Eddie Wiseman. Mush March scored both Chicago goals. By a Detroit account, the game was a “free-swinging battle” wherein “two fist fights and a free-for-all narrowly were averted;” referee Cooper Smeaton called 11 penalties. Chicago defenceman Roger Jenkins suffered a gash to a cheek that needed four stitches to close. Another Chicago blueliner suffered a worse fate: Billy Burch left the game with a compound fracture of the left leg after he went into the boards with Detroit winger Frank Carson.

It turned out to be the last game of Burch’s distinguished career. At 32, he was playing his 11th NHL season. Starting in 1922 with the late, lamented Hamilton Tigers, he’d was a fast forward in those years, winning the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP in 1925. When the Tigers sank, he went to New York, where he prospered as the first captain of the expansion Americans. He’d be elected, eventually, to the Hall of hockey Fame; 1930swise, the news was that he was back on skates again by the fall of 1933, trading in stick for whistle as a referee in the minor Can-Am League.

Also in the house in Chicago that March afternoon was NHL President Frank Calder. He was on a mission to investigate the conduct of Chicago coach Tommy Gorman who, five days earlier, had pulled his team off the ice in Boston, forfeiting the game to the Bruins after a dispute over a goal Boston scored in overtime. The latter wasn’t sudden-death at the time, so there was still some time to be played, or would have been, except for the fracas that saw Chicago players attacking goal judge, and Gorman exchanging punches with referee Bill Stewart. In the aftermath, Stewart ejected Gorman, who took his team with him; that’s where the forfeit came in.

I don’t know that Calder took any further action, for all the fuss that was stirring in the days that followed. It’s possible Chicago was fined $1,000 for departing the ice; otherwise, the team’s punishment seems to have been to subside away into the off-season.

A year later, the Black Hawks found a better way to end their season’s story when they made it all the way to the Finals, meeting and beating the Detroit Red Wings to take Chicago’s first Stanley Cup. Mush March scored the goal that clinched the championship.

Hawks Asquawk: A Chicago crew of a slightly later vintage, circa 1938. From left, that’s Jack Shill, Carl Voss, Cully Dahlstrom, and Mush March making some noise.

a message from you, rudy

Not sure exactly how it happened that a photographer came across Chicago Black Hawks coach Rudy Pilous writing out Valentine’s Day cards in February of 1962 to send home to his family in St. Catharines, Ontario, but he does appear to be working hard on coming up with just the right message. The Black Hawks were the reigning Stanley Cup champions at the time, and on February 14 they were holding firm in third place in the six-team NHL standings, behind Toronto and Montreal. They hosted the New York Rangers on this night 57 years ago, and beat them 4-3. A few further Rudy Pilous notes from that month:

• Asked about Chicago’s recent surge in the standings, Pilous said, “I like to get my clubs in shape gradually. We like to feel around during the first half of the season and start our move in January.”

• “We’re playing the same kind of hockey that won us the Stanley Cup,” Pilous told Tom Fitzgerald of the Boston Globe this month.

• Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette asked him who was the hardest player to check in the NHL. “Our guy,” he said, without a pause, “Bobby Hull.” Also in February, Pilous was adamant that Hull should be the left wing named to the NHL’s All-Star first team that season ahead of Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich. The Hawks’ Stan Mikita was another clear choice. “Mikita is the best centre in the league on any basis you care to compare him,” Pilous insisted.

• Mid-month, Pilous, who was 47, talked a challenge he’d received from one of his defencemen, the unspeedy Moose Vasko, to a two-lap race of the ice at Chicago Stadium. I don’t know how it turned out — at this point in his preparation, Pilous admitted that he’d only managed a lap-and-a-half.

• Pilous lodged a complaint with NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss regarding the liberties he felt opposing forwards were taking with Chicago goaltender Glenn Hall. “Glenn hasn’t protested,” he said, “but I’ve seen the bruises. Officials should watch closely around Hall’s net. I don’t mind if Hall gets some stick butts, or a few elbows, but I don’t want ’em climbing on his back.”

• Spoiler alert: Chicago did beat Montreal in the playoffs, but come the finals in April, up against Toronto, they fell in six games. Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull were named to the 1stAll-Star team, and Glenn Hall to the 2nd.

maple leaf gardens, 1999: the last waltz

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

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

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

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

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

chicago stadium, 1929: maple leafs forever

The Chicago Black Hawks played their second game at the new-built Chicago Stadium on the night of Sunday, December 29, 1929. The team had just returned from a middling (2-3) five-game road trip. Up against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Hawks ended up on the losing end of a 4-3 decision, with the Leafs’ Charlie Conacher scoring the winning goal. The Chicago Tribune’s man on the scene opened his dispatch by noting a “prophetic” pre-game anthem “faux pas” by the Stadium organist, who played “The Maple Leaf Forever” before “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Harold Rohm doesn’t name him, but I think the man at the keys must have been Al Melgard who, so far as I can tell, was on the job at the Stadium’s enormous instrument right from the start. He continued at it for 45 years, retiring in 1974.

chicago stadium, 1929: keen ice, no boos

On the Thursday night that mid-December, the Chicago Black Hawks beat the Montreal Maroons 4-3 at the Coliseum on Wabash Avenue, their fourth victory in a row. They ran their streak to five games that Sunday — December 15, 89 years ago tomorrow — when they inaugurated the brand-new Chicago Stadium, on West Madison, with a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The crowd of 14, 212 that watched the proceedings was the largest — by 6,000 — ever to have seen a hockey game in Chicago. The baseball player and sometime boxer Art Shires was on hand to drop a ceremonial puck, though for some reason he did so at the start of the third period.  The new rink was an improvement on the old one, the local Tribune was pleased to report, including in its temperature: “It was cold enough to see your breath,” which meant that the ice was hard, and “far keener” that at the Coliseum. Ty Arbour and Cy Wentworth stood out for the Hawks, who got all their goals in the second period. Vic Ripley scored the first goal in Stadium history, then added a second for good measure. Frank Ingram added Chicago’s third goal, with Tex White eventually replying for Pittsburgh. The Tribune’s Harland Rohm lauded the referees, Cooper Smeaton and Bert Corbeau, for not making any terrible calls. The fans appreciated this, too, he said: “They even got the equivalent of a cheer from the crowd,” he wrote, “which was an absence of booing.”