under review: writing the good fight

 

A version of this review appeared in the December, 2021 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Why did a couple of Zacks feel the need to shed their gloves that October evening in Edmonton in early October to fling fists at each other’s heads? Could be, I guess, that Zack Kassian, a winger for the NHL Oilers, disparaged Zack McEwen’s manhood, mother, or mien. It was the NHL’s pre-season still, so maybe McEwen, then a Vancouver Canuck, wanting to audition for his own coach, asked his rival for the pleasure of the punch in the time-honoured way of these things: “You wanna go?”

Was this a warning we were seeing, or maybe a dose of vengeance? Was it fulfillment of an arcane rite only understood by Zacks? There was some suggestion that Vancouver’s forwards had sinned by skating too close to Oiler goaltender Mike Smith, and so there was (in the parlance) a price to be paid, which required (as laid out, possibly, in the game’s opaque Code) a message to be delivered.

It’s easy to make light of hockey’s theatre of the brutally absurd, but in the quick chaos, Kassian lost his helmet, then his footing, fell, headfirst, to the ice, was knocked out. He revived, eventually, and left the ice under his own power, a towel pressed to his right temple. It was all over, then, except for the talking. “He’s got a pretty good bump on his head,” said Kassian’s coach, Dave Tippett. “It’s one of those ones that upsets you when that happens.”

“It’s scary, it’s terrible, it’s not cool,” said a young Vancouver defenceman, Quinn Hughes. “It probably didn’t need to happen.”

And that was mostly it, so far as further reckoning went. There was nothing, certainly, forthcoming from the NHL, which maintains both a rulebook and a Department of Player Safety.

According to the website hockeyfights.com, where these things are reverently logged and parsed, that Zack-on-Zack fight was the 39th (and counting) of Kassian’s 12-year NHL career, the 13th in four years for McEwen. Nowhere is there such a ready archive where you can look into the motives of any given hockey fight, no register of messages sent and received, no docket of damages done. In Canada, we’re so generally socialized to hockey’s culture of on-ice assault that October’s clash of Zacks made no more impression within the sport, the culture, or the Edmonton Police Department than the last time one hockey player punched another in the head. Will the next time be any different?

•••

Questions, questions, questions.

They hang in a haze over the NHL’s ice that never quite dissipates, though the fighting goes on.

Are hockey fights a good idea? Is the difference between a brawl on the street outside Edmonton’s Rogers Place and one that breaks out inside, on the ice, still sufficient to accommodate hockey’s proud exceptionalism? Do angry physical attacks really deserve a place in a game that purports to be for everybody? What do they say about our civil society? What about the potential for harm? Why use them to market the product you’re selling? Could it possibly be true that the blows that the punches that hockey players punch are (actually) a marvelous safety measure without which the game would teach us all the true meaning of mayhem?

Madison Mayhem: “The fight was a honey,” the New York Daily News reported in November of 1937 after New York’s Phil Watson collided with Dave Trottier of Montreal’s Maroons. “They ditched sticks in a hurry and began throwing punches.”

You don’t have to be especially timid or a paragon of moral rectitude to interrogate hockey violence, despite what some fighting enthusiasts in the public square might suggest. You should know that the search for answers might take you in unexpected destinations. The bookshelf, for example, as old-fashioned a resource as that might seem in the digital present.

And yet it is true that the sport’s library has added, over the years, a positive melee of memoirs by former — I was going to say goons, but won’t, since that’s considered a dire insult to the honest folk who put in the time to do the dirty work that others won’t, the keeping of the peace, the protecting of the honour, the delivering of the messages, the doing of time in the penalty box. You’d know this if you’d come across Don’t Call Me Goon: Hockey’s Greatest Enforcers, Gunslingers, and Bad Boys, an actual book, from 2013, by Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen, or if you’d spent weeks immersed in the prose of hockey’s rowdies, ruffians, heavyweights, tough guys, and policemen. Take note: the term of art preferred by the artisans themselves seems to be enforcer.

What exactly do hockey enforcers enforce? That’s not always easy to glean, whether you’re watching the game or reading about it. Not the rules, obviously. John Ferguson (52 fights) offers an explanation in his 1989 memoir Thunder and Lightning, in which he makes the case that he was the league’s original enforcer. His remit, as he understood it: beyond his regular workaday within-the-rules duties, he was to intervene “to maintain decorum if anyone tried to trifle” with Jean Béliveau (7 fights), or Bernie Geoffrion (6), or with “any of our other stars.”

Uh-huh. Of course, Ferguson is here using “maintain decorum” in the hockey sense, where it more commonly means “commit assault.” But if you pay any attention to the NHL at all, you’re used to the ways in which language abstracts the game’s violent tendencies.

There’s nothing particularly insidious in a broadcaster, rinkside reporter, Twitterer, or NHL executive resorting to arcane terms (donnybrook, fisticuffs) or euphemisms (dropping the gloves i.e. the mitts, squaring off, going at it, chucking the knuckles, in a boutthat may also be a tussle, scrap, scuffle, or maybe just someone was taking liberties, that’s what the extra-curriculars are all about, other than showing emotion, sending messages, & etc.). It’s normal, natural enough — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t downplay and normalize the bone-hard brutality of hockey fights, the injuries that result, the examples they set.

They’re a conservative bunch, the enforcers, until, sometimes, they’re not. Dave Schultz was the primary puncher for the Philadelphia Flyers when they ran roughshod to a pair of Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s. The Hammer they called him in the unruly years when he was bashing out new records for penalty minutes, throwing his weight into 164 fights. In 1981, a year after he retired from all that, Schultz enlisted Stan Fischler as his co-writer and published a memoir in which he all but renounced the life he’d been living, pondering withal what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. He also accused his former captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.

Clarke (36 fights) happens to have led a call for the NHL to abolish fighting in 1976, when he was head of the players’ association. (It wasn’t heard.) Champions of bellicose hockey like to point out that the game has always been violent, how can you possibly engineer it otherwise at this late date? Chris Nilan played 13 NHL seasons, helped Montreal win a Stanley Cup championship; the nearly 60 hours he spent in penalty boxes count as the fifth most ever to be accumulated in NHL history, and they include sanctions for 196 career fights. What would hockey be without fighting? “It is simply part of the game, deeply embedded in it, and at its core,” he wrote in his 2013 book Fighting Back, “and it provides hockey with so much of the emotion, spirit, and energy that make it special.”

•••

The first rule of the NHL’s fight club is that no-one in the league’s corporate structure really wants to talk too much about all the punching or its consequences. The worry is, I believe, that all those wolfish lawsuits that roam the land might hear, and circle closer, which just puts everybody in danger.

When someone like the league’s Commissioner, Gary Bettman, does speak up, the message to reporters and legislators and sundry detractors tends to come in same frame that Clarence Campbell carpentered in the 1970s, towards the end of his 31-year reign as league president. When he wasn’t telling critics to mind their own business, Campbell would settle back on his long expertise, advising (as he did in 1975) that, “I feel that the safest and most satisfactory reaction to being fouled is by retaliating with a punch in the nose.”

It was Campbell, too, who may have first come up with the formulation of hockey as some kind of steam-powered 19th-century industrial sporting locomotive whose machinery, which is ever in danger of overheating, has never been upgraded. With temperatures running so hot, of course you need a regulator. “Fighting on the ice is a safety valve,” Campbell explained in 1969. “Stop it and players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.

Gloves Off: “The fight, or rather fights, were swell and snapped 5,000 dozing customers erect in their seats,” the New York Daily News advised after this Manhattan meeting between the local Americans and the Toronto Maple Leafs in March of 1940. Wearing #2 is Eddie Shore, along with (#6) teammate Charlie Conacher. Leafs’ Bob Davidson is their quarry.

The NHL has, it’s true, been beset by legal challenges in recent years. In 2018, the NHL arranged a US$18.9-million settlement with 318 former players who felt that the league has minimized the long-term risks of brain trauma. Hockey’s concussion crisis is separate from, if not unrelated to, the issue of fighting’s place in the game. The NHL doesn’t really want to talk about concussions, either, so that’s one area of overlap; another relates to what medical science has been steadily revealing about what can happen to brains that are battered in sports like hockey.

The brains of boxers have been showing signs of deep damage, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, going back to the 1920s. While post-mortem studies of the brains of football players confirmed the presence of CTE in 2006, the first hockey case wasn’t confirmed until 2009, following the death of a furious NHL enforcer from the 1960s and ’70s, Reggie Fleming (73 fights).

I’d contend that since then — post-Fleming — many of the default rationalizations that hockey leaders reach for when it comes to arguing that fighting is a necessity feel increasingly unconvincing. Less than plausible. Derek Boogaard (66 fights) died in 2011, followed by an appalling succession of other, too-young former fighters, some by suicide, other by “natural” causes: Wade Belak (136), Rick Rypien (38), Steve Montador (69), Todd Ewen (150).

Checking back in on Gary Bettman, he has at least updated the technological metaphor that his league uses to help stall on the status quo. “The threat of fighting,” he earnestly told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa in 2019, “has people believe it’s an important thermostat in the game.”

•••

Is there another sport with a literature so swollen with the memoirs of so many of its lesser talents? Can you name any other game that takes such serious interest in players whose main role and renown is in straying beyond the rules of play? Hockey’s goons are often, of course, beloved as teammates, fêted by fans. Tie Domi (278), Georges Laraque (142), John Scott (44), Bob Probert (242): all of them were celebrities in skates and out. Fans chanted their names, wore sweaters bearing their names and numbers; why wouldn’t they now buy the autobiographies the hockey fighters publish?

That they do is not surprising, or controversial. It’s not news that fans revere role players like Shawn Thornton, the latest heavily penalized NHLer, a puncher in 168 fights, to publish an autobiography. As Terry Ryan, an experienced hockey combatant in his own right (4 NHL fights) as well as a vivid storyteller, has written that hockey players who make a business of punching are “some of the most interesting, funny, charismatic players you’ll ever come across in sports,” as well as “the most genuine and charitable.” Do you have to deny that to wonder why it’s an argument in favour of keeping fighting in the game? You don’t.

•••

In his cocksure 2017 memoir Offside, Sean Avery (83 fights) tells how he once smoked a joint with actress Scarlett Johansson, also kissed her, and “gave her a bit of unexpected sass.” Tie Domi’s Shift Work (2015) explores the author’s views on manscaping, and divulges that he was the very first NHLer to own a Blackberry.

The literature of hockey enforcement, it’s fair to say, contains multitudes.

Some memoirs are livelier than others, more insightful, forthright, better-written. Georges Laraque’s self-titled 2011 foray, for instance. The son of Haitian immigrants, the former Edmonton Oiler winger reflects on the violence he faced from his own father and the racism that poisoned his childhood in Montreal. No-one he knew as a boy believed it was possible that he’d grow up to play in the NHL, “because of the colour of my skin, a colour that would never be suitable for the whiteness of the ice.” Hockeyfights.com tallies Laraque’s NHL combats at 142, and he spends plenty of time talking about those — when he’s not weighing in on why he’s vegan, his commitment to animal rights, or his time as deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada.

In The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior (2019), Stu Grimson (207 NHL fights) offers a thoughtful and often surprising accounting of hockey violence — and of his Christian faith and the peace it’s brought him. “Not everyone could reconcile that I was a Christian whose job involved hurting others,” he writes. He never saw a contradiction: “Who better than Christian to take on the role of protector?”

Pain Killer: A Memory of Big League Addiction (2021) is a harrowing chronicle of the toll that hockey fighting took on Brantt Myhres (58 fights). He survived his addictions and built back a life, he tells us, which makes his book something of a companion to Boy On Ice, John Branch’s devastating 2014 account of the life of Derek Boogaard’s tragic trajectory that ended with his death, in 2011, from an overdose of painkillers and alcohol.

Sean Avery’s is as frank as any of the hockey-fighter memoirs, but if that’s a solace, it’s a sour one. Avery has many titillating tales to share in Offside, lots of disdain to distpense, scores to settle; what’s not entirely clear is what it was — ego? arrogance? — that curdled his personality and left him wandering the world as Not A Nice Person.

The further you trail back with these memoirists, the less defensive they are on the page. “Hockey’s a fast game and tempers flare real quickly,” the late Dave Semenko (73) explains in Looking Out For Number One (1989). “That’s when the fighting comes in. It only lasts a little while. You don’t see a lot of guys getting hurt from it. The majority of times you’ll get your equipment messed up and that’s about it.”

Other than Dave Schultz, these are authors without regrets. “If I could, I’d do it all over again,” Chris Nilan declares in Fighting Back. “Wouldn’t change a thing.” That’s right before he talks about “swimming in alcohol and burying myself in pills” to deal with the pain he still suffers, 29 years after he last played in the NHL.”

The enforcers don’t generally lash out at fighting critics, either. Rob Ray (248 fights) is one of the few to come out whingeing about people who don’t (as he writes) “get it.”

Ray punched people for a living, but he didn’t just punch people. How was it his fault if people watching NHL games didn’t bother to learn that hockey’s “intangibles don’t get printed on the scoresheet.” And hey, parents: it wasn’t his job to be a role model, or to teach kids the difference between right and wrong.

As might be seen to befit his blue-collar roots as an Irish kid from Oshawa, Ontario, Shawn Thornton isn’t blaming anyone, or shifting his focus too far beyond his own understanding of the value (and values) of hard work and personal responsibility. Thornton, who’s 44, played 14 NHL seasons, winning two Stanley Cup championships along the way. He seems like a stand-up guy, a stout family man, a good friend, great teammate. It’s easy to cheer for him, if only because, well, everybody’s doing it, all through the book. Plumped by fond tributes from many former colleagues Fighting My Way To The Top, published in the fall of 2021, often has the feel of a going-away card that’s made its way around the office ahead of the retirement of a cherished co-worker — supposing that at your office you now and then bare your knuckles over by the copier.

“I knew full well the job I signed up to do,” Thornton writes. “I did what I had to do.” Why? Because “the game is a pressure cooker, and fighting helps remove the lid and relieve some of that pressure.” Being a sous-chef in charge of crockpots wasn’t easy, Thornton explains in his entirely affable way. It was actually hard, kind of like being a cop, or working in a steel factory, sometimes the anxiety made it hard to sleep at night, sometimes a teammate got hurt, which meant Thornton had a duty to do, that he did, even if sometimes that meant fighting friends who played for other teams, who then got hurt, he hurt them, unfortunately, nobody wanted that, but, hey: “It was just part of the job.”

The reward? Well, Thornton was, of course, paid well, a handsome US$3-million for his last three seasons in the NHL, though that doesn’t come up in the book. Respect is the currency that he seems to value over most others, and he sounds satisfied that he earned his share as an NHLer.

Thornton doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to tutor the next generation, which, I guess, counts as some kind of progress. Because whether you’re an eager student or not, these books do, taken together, amount to some of kind of masterclass in hockey fighting. John Ferguson: “When I fought, I liked to keep my hands moving and get my legs set wide apart.” Bob Probert: “The fights I did best in were the ones I was truly mad and upset.” Dave Schultz: “My technique was predicated on getting my right arm free to swing at my opponent.” Sean Avery: “My strategy is to be tactical and to not actually get hit, but to show patience until BOOM you can catch your opponent with a solid punch after he’s thrown four or five wild ones and is starting to get tired.”

If it isn’t outlandish enough that sentences like those are a recurring feature of Canadian letters, wait until you get into what the fighters are writing about their own breakages and the prospects of what the future might hold.

“My situation went from bad to nightmarish when he connected with three left-hand jackhammer punches to my face,” Stu Grimson confides. Rob Ray: “I broke my knuckles fighting against Ottawa’s Dennis Vial in 1994. I had my jaw broken, and all the disks in my jaw are gone.” (Vial’s fight total, since we’re keeping score: 87.)

In some of the memoirs published since signs of CTE were discovered  in Reggie Fleming’s brain,  the enforcers gaze grimly into the future. “Getting hit repeatedly in the head is a bad thing that happens repeatedly,” Chris Nilan allows in the opening chapter of his Fighting Back. “The trauma has to do lasting damage.”

Tie Domi bustles by, quick as he can. “I am not one of those people who can weigh in on concussions or the other health issues that some guys in hockey are going through.” That’s Shawn Thornton’s line, too, more or less: “I see that some people express concerns about head trauma, concussions, CTE … But as I said earlier, we all sign up for this and we all get the benefits of being NHL players.”

Saddest of all might be Rob Ray, who published Rayzor’s Edge in 2007, when he was 39: “I try to hope that medical technology will have improved enough in the future so that they’ll be able to fix me up when I’m older.”

•••

Questions, questions.

If hockey’s fighting is so dreadful, why has it endured so long? Aren’t the fighters consenting adults? How come fans all leap to their feet every time the fists flurry? Doesn’t the violence sometimes enliven a team that’s lost its mojo; can’t a punch-up change the energy of a game?

I’ve heard the answers, mulled them. Do they contain compelling arguments for maintaining the status quo when it comes to fighting? I don’t see them. Any of those, for me, are superseded by the potential for harm that every bare-knuckle fight presents. No matter what messages need sending, there has to be a better way.

Does the NHL’s own Department of Player Safety have an opinion on this? Not to mention (may I just mention) the official NHL rulebook. If you’re dipping into the statutes contained therein at all, I’d suggest you bypass the five pages of hows and wherefores relating to Rule 46, the league’s official ordinance on fighting. Instead, I’d direct you to Rule 21, which governs match penalties. The latter is much more succinct in stipulating the fate of any player who attempts to injure another — out of the game, gone. Intent doesn’t figure in; you only need to be attempting to do harm. What is a punch in the head if not an attempt to injure? But no NHL fight, Zacks-only or otherwise, ends with match penalties, and no-one is surprised by — or even discusses — the league’s ongoing willful flouting of its own explicit regulations.

Earlier this year, in another NHL season, Zack Kassian missed 17 games after breaking a hand punching an Ottawa defenceman. In the aftermath of his more recent October fight, he was ready to ready to return to Edmonton’s line-up just a week after hitting his head on the ice.

“It’s an unfortunate injury,” shrugged his coach, Dave Tippett (1 NHL fight as a player). “You can get hurt with by a shot, you can get hurt in a fight. Injuries happen in hockey. Always, all different ways, not just fighting.”

Kassian himself was just grateful. “It’s an emotional game and things boil over,” he told reporters. “Obviously when you see pictures of my situation, first thing that comes to mind is stop fighting. But fighting’s been in the game a very long time, it’s what makes hockey unique.”

He owed so much to punching and being punched, Kassian said. “It’s one of my attributes that made me a unique player. It’s given my family a great life and it’s something I enjoy doing.”

Why.

Emptied Benches: A meeting of Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden during the 1977-78 NHL season.

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a broad street bully reconsiders: regrets, he had a few

Born in Waldheim, Saskatchewan, on a Friday of this date in 1949, Dave Schultz is 72 today. He scored some goals in his 11-year NHL career, but mostly the man they called the Hammer is remembered as the muscle behind the Philadelphia Flyers’ back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in the early 1970s, which is to say the fist. In helping his team claim their second straight Cup in 1975, Schultz amassed 472 minutes in penalty minutes, a single-season record in NHL annals.

“The Flyers’ home, the Spectrum, is on Broad Street in Philadelphia,” Dick Brown wrote in Weekend Magazine the summer before that spree, “and newspapers have referred to Dave Schultz as ‘Broad Street’s biggest bully.’ Okay, then, what is it that goes into the making of a bully? As far as Dave is concerned, the answer is obvious: his fighting is his success. With all that it’s done for him, it would be big news if he decided not to fight.”

Schultz was 24, then, with a five-year contract in hand and “a fine, five-bedroom home across the river from Philadelphia in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.” He was “at an all-time heavy, all-time healthy 196 pounds on a frame of six feet one.” He smoked two or three cigarettes a day during hockey’s season, Brown reported, more in the summer; he liked beer and rye. “A star’s life,” the story went, “for a guy who might not be a star if he didn’t fight.”

After Philadelphia, Schultz carried on to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, where he continued to hammer away as a King, a Penguin, a Sabre.

So surprise was general across the hockey world when Schultz published his autobiography in 1981, a year after his retirement from the NHL. Schultz had Stan Fischler shaping his sentences for The Hammer: Confessions of a Hockey Enforcer, and together they questioned hockey’s propensity for violence, exploring the regrets Schultz now felt for the hockey life he’d led and weighing the question of what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. (They also, incidentally, accused Schultz’s former Philadelphia captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.)

“Hockey can be the most exciting sport on earth and the most artistic as well,” Schultz declared, to sum up his 200-page case, “but only when properly played and administered. Tragically, it has degenerated into a sloppy, brawl-filled mess. I certainly do not deny my own contribution to the problem, which I have tried to spell out as clearly as possible in this book. I hope that I succeeded and that the NHL will, in the future, sell hockey, not blood.”

 

henderson has scored for canada — and he isn’t finished yet

“They’ll never beat us again,” said Team Canada’s spare goaltender Eddie Johnston, and guess what: he was right. It was on this date 49 years ago, a Sunday in Moscow, that Johnston’s teammates outlasted their rivals from the Soviet Union to win the sixth game of that fall’s epic Summit Series by a score of 3-2. The Canadians followed up with wins in game seven and eight, too, with Toronto Maple Leafs’ left winger Paul Henderson scoring the deciding goal in each of those final three games. That’s his September 27th game-seven goal here, above, with Vladislav Tretiak in the Soviet goal and defenceman Valeri Vasiliev sprawled at left. That sixth game wasn’t pretty, it has to be said, featuring iffy refereeing by the West German duo of Josef Kompalla and Franz Baader as the bad blood flowed freely between the two teams on the ice. In the second period, a slash by Canada’s Bobby Clarke fractured Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle.

In 2002, on the Summit’s 30th anniversary, Henderson lamented the swing of his teammate’s stick. “If Clarke hits him with a bodycheck and knocks him out, that’s fair and square,” Henderson said then. “To go out and deliberately try to take somebody out, there’s no sportsmanship in that. To me, it’s the same as shooting a guy in the hallway. Clarke was probably the only guy on the whole team that would have done it.”

Clarke wasn’t best pleased: he thought Henderson’s comments were “foolish.”

“I think it’s improper to criticize a teammate 30 years later,” Clarke seethed. “If it was so offensive, why didn’t he bother to say something after the game?”

Henderson apologized to Clarke that same week, “for causing him aggravation.” The then-GM of the Philadelphia Flyers wasn’t buying it, though. “Henderson called me,” Clarke told TSN. “He used his grandson as an excuse. His grandkids said it was poor sportsmanship. But to me it was all phony.”

(Image: Frank Lennon. Library and Archives Canada, e010933339 )

 

 

in the paint

The Philadelphia Flyers visit Boston tonight for a game against the Bruins at TD Garden, so that’s reason enough to revisit the 1974 Stanley Cup finals as seen by the American artist LeRoy Neiman, no? Yes. The piece of the larger Neiman silkscreen that’s depicted here has Boston’s Phil Esposito buzzing Bernie Parent’s net. So: Game 2 at the old Boston Garden, on May 9, when Esposito scored a first-period goal to put the home team up 2-0? Maybe so. The Flyers stormed back to tie that game, then won it in overtime on captain Bobby Clarke’s goal. The series would go to six games before the Flyers claimed the first of successive Stanley Cup championships, with Parent (of course) winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP two years running.

A devout hockey fan —  samples of his other views of the game are here and  here and here — Neiman, who died in 2012, hailed from Saint Paul, Minnesota. It was while he was teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago that pucks and sticks and their artistic possibilities first caught his attention.

“The thing about painting hockey as opposed to other sports is the ice,” he said in 1977. “It’s a hard sheet of cold white-blue, and there’s something nice about that: hard and cold.” Of his style, he said, “The idea is not to be unclear, but to make clarity seem accidental.”

Still Life With Background Flyers: LeRoy Neiman and his sketchbook rinkside in 1974..

hockey with a grin

Children’s books featuring Bobby Clarke proliferated in his hockey-playing heyday in the 1970s; I’d even say they abounded. Fred McFadden’s Bobby Clarke (1972) should not be confused with Edward Dolan’s Bobby Clarke (1977); only the former, take note, belonged to the Superpeople series of mini-biographies, which also featured slim volumes profiling Jean Béliveau, Ken Dryden, Bobby Orr, Norman Bethune, Alexander Graham Bell, and Karen Kain, among others. John Gilbert’s An Interview With Bobby Clarke (1977) postulated that Clarke never bragged, whined, forgot a friend, or quit, also that he was too small to be a dirty player, Montreal coach Scotty Bowman just called him that to psych him out. Julian May’s 1975 Clarke bio, Hockey With A Grin, studied the love that Philadelphia fans quickly developed for their superstar centre and concluded this:

He was that rarity — a smiling hockey player. He enjoyed what he was doing and let the whole world know it. With his handsome, boyish face and gap-toothed grin, Bobby won the hearts of the fans.

Born on a Saturday of this date in 1949 in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Clarke turns 71 today. His popularity as a literary figure, of course, has to do with the hockey successes he helped engineer in the mid-1970s, when he captained the Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cups while also winning Masterton and Selke trophies for himself, as well as (three times) the Hart Memorial Trophy.

It’s also founded on the inspiring story of how he succeeded despite having been diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager. “You’d better give up hockey,” is what the doctor in Fred McFadden’s bio tells young Bobby when he first breaks the news; in Julian May’s telling, the doctor says, “It would be best if you did not play hockey.”

Dolan boils it down this way:

Bobby’s doctors said that he might be able to play the goaltender spot but that he could never skate all over the rink in a game and still keep his health.

Whereupon, of course, he showed them, and everybody.

Along with our hero’s health, his smile, his refusal to quit, the Clarke oeuvre examines the man’s modesty; the qualities that made him such a great leader; how deeply Flin Flon was ingrained in his personality; and just what happened back in ol’ ’72 when he swung his stick in Moscow and broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle.

Clarke’s ongoing Flin Flon-ness, McFadden maintains, was apparent in the ’70s in the Flyers’ captain’s insistence on “driving a pick-up and listing hot dogs as his favourite food.”

On Kharlamov, the accounting of Clarke’s intent to injure the Soviet Union’s best player in Game Six of the Summit Series is surprisingly straightforward. All the bios take more or less the same shrugging view of the incident — no big deal, what’s all the fuss? In his Superpeople summing-up, McFadden allows that Clarke’s willingness to break the rules to win did cause “some people” to question his sportsmanship.

That’s as close as any of the Bobby-Clarke-for-young-readers books come to grappling with the ethics of the thing. Otherwise, Julian May’s take in Hockey With A Grin can represent the rest:

… Bobby was trailing Kharlamov. He suddenly realized: “This guy is killing us!” And almost without thinking, Bobby lashed at Kharlamov’s ankles with his stick.

Bobby got a two-minute penalty for slashing. The Russian was out for that game and for the next. “It’s not something I’m proud of,” Bobby recalled later, “but I honestly can’t say I was ashamed to do it.”

Flyerdelphian: Readers of John Gilbert’s 1977 bio-for-young-readers, An Interview With Bobby Clarke, learned that the Flyers’ captain never bragged, whined, or quit.

 

like edgar allan poe reincarnated (and the only man with a chance to win a skate-off with a streaking montreal canadien like guy lafleur)

Rick MacLeish was the first Philadelphia Flyer to score 50 goals, a feat he achieved in 1972-73, when he was 22, and finished the season with 100 points, good enough for fourth in NHL scoring. The following year, when the Flyers won the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups, MacLeish led the league in playoff scoring.

A master of the wrist shot is a phrase you’ll see, occasionally, when you cast back to those days by way of old newspapers, which sometimes also reference his stylish finesse and magic wrists. They mention him, circa 1978, as the best pure skater on the club and the only man with a possible chance to win a skate-off down the ice with a streaking Montreal Canadien like Guy Lafleur. MacLeish, they now and then assert, looks like Edgar Allan Poe reincarnated and shares the American short story writer’s grim demeanor. “He is quiet and keeps to himself,” they’ve been know to suggest, “letting others do the talking while he dresses quickly and hurries home.”

“Rick displays so little emotion that his expression hardly ever changes.” That was Bobby Clarke, the Philadelphia captain, in ’78. “That and his easy skating style can give people the impression that Rick’s not putting out. Sometimes even we get on him about it in practice. But if you look at his statistics, particularly in the big games, you’ll know just how important Rick is to the club.”

MacLeish, who died on a Monday of this date in 2016 at the age of 66, was born and raised in Cannington, in middle Ontario, north of Sonya, east of Brock, not far from Lake Simcoe. The rink there, on Elliot Street, is named after him. He played 12 seasons with the Flyers in all, and turned out, too, briefly, for Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Detroit.

On the origins of his shot, he had this to say, in 1980: “There was a bridge over a little stream not far from our place and I used to go down there and fire pucks at the cement for hours. I used to play games with myself. You know, draw circles on the wall and try to see how many out of ten I could get in the circle. I got pretty good at it.”

blueline balladeer

“Look,” Sheldon Kannegiesser was saying in 1972, “some players smoke, some drink, and some run around. All I do is buy clothes. What’s so bad about that?” He was 24 at the time of this outburst, a second-year NHL defenceman, plying the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blueline. The occasion? Tom Alderman was profiling hockey’s best-dressed players for Canadian Magazine, and Kannegiesser was front and sartorially centre of a select line-up that included Dale Tallon, Doug Favell, J.C. Tremblay, and Pit Martin.

Commending Kannegiesser’s unerring eye and $250 custom suits, Alderman named him as “unquestionably the league’s most elegant dresser, even his jeans look made to measure.” Also? Penguins’ management had apparently “suggested that if he paid less attention to his threads and more to his hockey and more to his hockey, he might be a better defenceman.”

Born on this date in North Bay, Ontario, in 1947 (it was a Friday), Kannegiesser turns 72 today. He ended playing eight seasons in the NHL, most of them with Los Angeles Kings, though he also served post-Penguin stints with the New York Rangers, and Vancouver.

In 2009, he published Warriors of Winter: Rhymes of a Blueliner Balladeer, a collection of poems that channel (as he tells it, with due deference, in a preface) Robert Service. “As I was reading through poems and ballads Service had written during his years living in the Canadian Yukon,” Kannegiesser writes, “I thought that possibly I could create a series of poems and ballads about the years I played in the National Hockey League.”

He calls the collection “a mixed bag of some of the most colourful characters and circumstances, along with my personal thoughts about the game that dominated a majority of my life.” Included therein: a whimsy on how hockey might have originated (“The Fearless John Hock and the Mighty Michael McKey”); an ode to a superstar rival (“Standing Orrvation”); a salute to the man who made those spiffy suits he wore in the ’70s (“Styles by Miles”). There are memoirs of Maple Leaf Gardens (“Toronto’s Lonely Lady of the Street”) and what it was like to play against Frank Mahovlich (“Shoulder To Shoulder with the Big M”).

He winds it all up with his own “Shooting of Dan McGrew,” a lusty game-by-game 14-page epic, “The Series of ’72,” that’s narrated, so far as I can tell, by Canada itself. A couple of her stanzas revering Game Six in Moscow go like this:

Let history question our sins — our only job was to win;
We’ll do what’s needed no matter the cost.
Survival’s ugly resolve is for shrinks and philosophers to solve,
So a bounty was placed on the Russian star, Kharlamov.

Debate ethics if you will, ’til you’ve done had your fill;
Such is hockey’s base and brutal and bestial angle;
It’s the nature of the game: the strong survive not the lame.
So Clarke’s Sherwood, like an axe, cracked Kharlamov’s ankle!

flin flon’s flyer

Dressed For Success: Born on a Saturday of this date in 1949 in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Bobby Clarke is 70 today. The Philadelphia Flyers he captained in the early 1970s raised two Stanley Cups, of course, and he won a Masterton and a Selke Trophy for himself, along with (three times) the Hart Memorial Trophy he’s brandishing here in his best duds. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987. Is this not the time or place to mention that he broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle with a craven slash in the sixth game of the 1972 Summit Series? Probably not.

my first hockey game: ken reid

In The Land of Escalators: In March of 1984, a few years before Ken Reid found his way there, Canadiens faced-off with Quebec’s Nordiques at their famous Forum. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM9442Y_019H2068)

Hockey cards or chocolate bars? Growing up in Nova Scotia, Ken Reid always knew the answer to the question.

 “I remember as a kid my grandfather giving me 25 cents and I’d walk down Union Street in Pictou,” Reid told Curtis Rush of The Toronto Star in 2014. “I’d go to Mr. Fraser’s corner store and the decision was always easy. I could look at candy or I’d look at a pack of cards. To me, it was always a pack of cards.”

Ken Reid

 Reid lives in Toronto now, where he co-anchors the weeknight prime-time edition of Sportsnet Central with Evanka Osmak. If his hockey-card collection has grown over the years — it’s an accumulation, now, of more than 40,000 — his love of sports is what it always has been: intense. In a career in media spanning 20 years, he’s covered Grey Cups and Super Bowls, Olympics, and Stanley Cup finals. His books are all hockey-minded: he followed Hockey Card Stories: True Tales from Your Favourite Players (2014) with One Night Only: Conversations with the NHL’s One-Game Wonders (2016). For his latest, published this fall, he collaborated with an eponymous prolific former Washington Capital on Dennis Maruk: The Unforgettable Story of Hockey’s Forgotten 60-Goal Man.

Today, as part of Puckstruck’s ongoing series, Ken Reid recalls his first brush with NHL hockey.

The thought of seeing real life NHLers live and in colour was always a childhood dream for me — and when I say dream I mean dream. I grew up in Pictou, Nova Scotia. Basic geography tells you that’s a long way from any NHL rink, especially for a hockey-obsessed 10-year-old.

In fact, my grade 5 teacher Mrs. MacLean, even wrote a message in my yearbook: “You’ll get to see the Canadiens at the Forum one day.”

It turns out that one day was a very long two years later. Two years is a snap of the fingers for an adult, but an eternity for a kid. After years of prodding, we finally broke my Dad down. He was going to take my brother Peter and me to the Forum to see our first NHL game. (I went to an exhibition game in Nova Scotia a year earlier, but it was in a local rink, so I considered this to be the real deal.)

Peter and I hopped on a plane for the first time. We flew to Montreal with Dad and checked in to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

That night, Saturday, March 14, 1987, we saw the Montreal Canadiens play the Philadelphia Flyers.

The ice was so white. And so far away. We were at the top of the Forum, way up behind one of the nets. I remember having to bend down to see the play at the other end of the ice.

But I was there. The NHL was right in front of me. I couldn’t get over how clean the Forum was. And the building had escalators. Escalators in a rink! I can’t recall who won off the top of my head — although a quick check on the web tells me the game ended in a 3-3 tie. More than just the game sticks out — things like strolling Saint Catherine’s Street with my brother and Dad quickly come to mind. My brother and I were terrified of the big city on day one. By day two, we couldn’t get enough of it. And Dad took us to eat at the famous Bar-B-Barn.

On the Sunday night we saw Team Canada ’72 and the USSR play in a 15th anniversary game at the Forum. Then Monday, we were in the expensive seats for the Habs and the New York Islanders. We didn’t have to bend down in our seats to see the action that night: it was all mere feet away.

I was 11 years old and in heaven at the Forum. Thanks, Dad.

•••

Saturday night’s Flyers game saw goaltender Ron Hextall play his best game in weeks, according to the Philadelphia papers. The Flyers were riding high atop the NHL’s Patrick Division; Canadiens were second in the Adams. Canadiens got goals from Mats Naslund, Guy Carbonneau, and Claude Lemieux. Dave Poulin, Mark Howe, and Scott Mellanby scored for Philadelphia to take the game into a fruitless overtime.

 The ’72 game that Ken Reid saw on the Sunday night was the middle game in a three-game series pitting an assemblage of oldtimers most of whom had played in the epic Summit Series against a similarly staffed touring team of Russians. The latter, featuring Vladislav Tretiak, Valery Vasiliev, and Aleksandr Yakushev, had trained for three months ahead of the rematch; the Canadians, coached by Winnipeg Jets’ GM John Ferguson, were described in several newspaper reports as “mostly overweight and over 40.” Paul Henderson was there from the original squad, along with Mavoliches Pete and Frank, Dennis Hull, Serge Savard, Ron Ellis, Bobby Clarke, Brad Park, Rod Gilbert, Bill White, Red Berenson, and Yvan Cournoyer. (Ken Dryden had offered to play defence, but management had turned him down.)

 The Canadians won the opening game in Hamilton by a score of 6-5, with Clarke, the 37-year-old Flyers GM, leading away with a pair of Flyer ringers as his wingers, Reggie Leach and Bill Barber. With Ken Reid watching in Montreal, a 41-year-old Jacques Lemaire took a break from his day job as Canadiens’ assistant GM to register a goal and two assists in a 6-2 Canadian win. The final game, in Ottawa, finished in a tie, 8-8. Yvan Cournoyer, 43, scored a hattrick for Canada. “After 15 years,” he said, “we realized that they are nice people, and maybe they realized that we are nice people.”

 The New York Islanders were running second to the Flyers in the Patrick Division. Monday night saw Canadiens blank them 3-0 on the strength of Brian Hayward’s first shutout in four years. Gaston Gingras, Ryan Walter, and Claude Lemieux scored for Montreal.

more a fond memory than a thrill

Bobby Hull couldn’t wait for the Canada Cup to be over in September of 1976. Hull didn’t play in the Summit Series in 1972 — wanted to, was disinvited, complained bitterly, fought to go, failed — but he was there in ’76, starring in Canada’s victory in the tournament that ran ahead of the NHL and WHA seasons. On a team that included Bobbys Orr and Clarke, Guy Lafleur, Phil Esposito, Rogie Vachon, and Bob Gainey, Hull would be a dominant force, scoring three game-winning goals in Canada’s seven games and assisting on two decisive others.

Still, by the time Canada got to the best-of-three final against Czechoslovakia in mid-September, he was sounding more than a little jaded. Canada won the first game in Toronto by a score of 6-0. “I think everybody’s had enough of this series,” Hull moped ahead of the second game, “as far as wanting to get it over with in a hurry.”

In Montreal, the Czechs took Canada to overtime in the second game, where Darryl Sittler scored the game and tournament winner.

“This is the greatest team in the world,” he told a Canadian Press reporter later in the dressing room. His teammates concurred, mostly.

“I don’t think you’re ever gong to see a team as great as this again,” Marcel Dionne warned.

Hull: “How can I forget playing with such a great bunch of guys and for such a great country? I have never played with a better team. I know my family enjoyed me participating, even though I was away for so long. It is always worth the effort when it means so much to so many people.”

The Brandon Sun was one paper that ran the CP story containing that generous thought. Right next to it on the page was a fuller account of Hull’s contribution to Canada’s success. In that one, he was sipping a beer when he was asked: how big a thrill is this all?

“I’m too old to get any more thrills in hockey,” the 37-year-old winger confided. “Maybe if I were a little younger it would be a thrill. It’s more a fond memory than a thrill. Being a part of this team is something. Playing on the same team with a lot of guys like Bobby Orr, Bobby Clarke, Vachon, and the whole bunch. I get my thrills out of watching my kids.”

Clarke was on the same page, apparently. Yes, he was thrilled, he admitted — but also happy to be heading home to his family. His children had just started school. “This running around and skating and stuff doesn’t mean anything to them,” he said in the Team Canada dressing room. “They want to know when I’m coming home.”

Phil Esposito was nearby, explaining how this victory differed from the feeling of winning a Stanley Cup. “For one thing,” he said, “we have to start playing again all over again in training camp on Saturday. If you win the Stanley Cup, you get four months off to relax.”

(Image: Two Hockey Players, Aislin alias Terry Mosher, 1976, felt pen and ink on paper, 25.5 x 30.9 cm, M988.176.289, © McCord Museum)

welcome to philadelphia

welcome-to-phi

“We never play such animal hockey,” CSKA Moscow coach Konstantin Loktev seethed after it was all over. Philadelphia captain Bobby Clarke shrugged when he heard that. “We’ve been called a lot of worse things,” he said. “This wasn’t one of our rough games.” On this afternoon in 1976, his Flyers pummeled CSKA Moscow in a mid-winter exhibition game (they also happened to win it, by a score of 4-1.) A fuller accounting of what went on that day might read something like this; for a more graphic telling, there’s “The Check Heard ‘’Round The World” at Victory Journal, a print and digital magazine that, by its own lights, seeks to illuminate the intersection of sport and culture. It’s vital and vivid and worth your time, starting with the story (here) by writer David Hollander and artist Stephen Halker of the night Ed Van Impe got acquainted with Valeri Kharlamov.

(GIF courtesy Victory Journal)

(Correction, 01/15/21: As Jean-Patrice Martel points out, the CSKA-Philadelphia was an afternoon game, a 1 p.m. start, on January 11, 1976, whereas I originally referred to it as a “night” game. The post has been corrected.)

sorry not sorry

Ankleburner: Bobby Clarke’s daughter Jody took to social media during Canada’s quarter-final in the February, 2014 Winter Olympics to suggest a way forward. Tied 1-1 with Latvia after two periods, the Canadians won the game in the third on a Shea Weber goal, and went on, of course, to beat the United States and Sweden to secure a gold medal.

Ankleburner: Bobby Clarke’s daughter Jody took to social media during Canada’s February 19 quarter-final in the 2014 Winter Olympics to suggest a way forward. Tied 1-1 with Latvia through two periods, the Canadians won the game in the third on a Shea Weber goal, and went on, of course, to beat the United States and Sweden to secure a gold medal.

When the ’72 Summit Series Tour stopped in Toronto earlier this month, a third of Canada’s famous team stepped to the stage of the Sony Centre: Ron Ellis, Yvan Cournoyer, Brad Park, Bobby Clarke, Ken Dryden, Serge Savard, Pete Mahovlich, Dennis Hull, and Pat Stapleton were on hand to reminisce, along with the head coach, Harry Sinden. Ottawa radio host and hockey enthusiast Liam Maguire emcee’d. With a fuller account to follow, could we concentrate our attention here, quickly, on something that wasn’t mentioned during the two hours of tale-telling, quips, and video highlights? I can’t speak for everyone in the small and attentive audience, but I’m willing to venture that as the evening’s narrative moved to Moscow and game six, I wasn’t alone in the expectation that there might be something to be said about Bobby Clarke, 67 now, and the Soviet Union’s late Valeri Kharlamov, viz. how the stick of the former found the ankle of the latter in that September 24 second period all those years ago.

No, though. Two hours of talking and nothing — what’s been called the “slash heard ’round the world” didn’t rate so much as a mention. It was only when Maguire asked for questions from the audience that the subject finally came up when a man (in his 50s, I’ll guess) advanced to a microphone in an aisle of the theatre. A transcript here, for the record, of how that went:

Questioner
This is for Bobby Clarke. You put a love-tap on [sic] Harmalov’s ankle [laughter] and I have to ask you — I think it changed the series — what are your comments on that?

Dennis Hull
I got a couple of love taps, too.

Liam Maguire
How many of you got slashed by Bobby?
[Mahovlich, Park, Cournoyer, and Hull all raise hands — big laughter]

Bobby Clarke
They deserved it.

I don’t think that that was that big a deal.
[Hard-to-interpret noises from crowd — intakes of breath? sighs of agreement? of censure?]

Those things were going on in that series. It was never … it was never mentioned for years and years, and then Paul Henderson made some statement that he didn’t want his grandson doin’ what I had done in that series with that slash. And all of a sudden it was a political incorrect thing to do. But really, all kinds of different things went on in that series and … ah … I whacked him, but it wasn’t that big a deal, really.
[Chuckling onstage]

Liam Maguire
It should be pointed out that Kharlamov didn’t … he finished the game, he missed Game Seven, he played Game Eight, he had an assist on the third goal, he set up Yakushev in the second period, it went unassisted because Canadians touched it so they didn’t give him a point, he played a regular shift, and they had three leads, no-one said a thing, like Bobby said, it was just one of those things, Phil got butt-ended in the mouth, Gary got kicked right through the shinpad, but a lot of emphasis is on that slash because they think Kharlamov didn’t play another shift, which as we know is total bs.
Next question.

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