the mothers of hockey players worry about injuries and, sometimes, freeze the living-room carpet for their sons to skate on

Home Ice: Pierrette Lemieux wields her spatula as goaltender to her sons Richard, Alain, and Mario, as seen by illustrator Nick Craine. (Image: HarperCollins Canada)

The fathers of hockey players write books, sometimes, about sons of theirs who’ve made it to the NHL, while mostly the mothers don’t — other than Colleen Howe, who perhaps deserves a bright asterisk for having published in her time books both as a hockey mother and a wife. I wish they’d write more books, hockey’s mothers, share their stories. As it is, in the hockey books, they’re mostly reduced to a few mentions, mostly in the early chapters. If you read all the hockey books, there’s a certain amount you can glean about hockey’s mothers, and a whole lot more you can’t. Herewith, some of the gleanings. Numbers in the text link to the list identifying the various mothers in the endnotes.   

Hockey mothers are descended from Sir Isaac Brock [1], some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England [2]. Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby [3] and Grace Nelson [4], Rose Pauli [5] and Agnes Mather Bell [6]. The former two have been described, respectively, as “charming” and “demurely pretty.” The third wanted to be a nurse, but found that she fainted whenever she got near a surgery. The latter married a cheesemaker.

Other mothers are described, sometimes, in biographies written about their sons’ lustrous careers as “the soft-spoken daughter of German immigrants [who] worked as a domestic before her marriage.” [7] Sometimes, as the daughters of cattle farmers from Saskatchewan, they’re waitresses who see their future husbands for the first time at a bowling alley. [8] In other cases, the mothers of hockey players meet their husbands in Pristina, in what’s now Kosovo, before they emigrate to Canada without knowing a word of English. [9] Or else they arrive in Canada from Ukraine at the age of 16 and end up in Fort William, Ontario, in 1912 where they soon meet their future husbands, who don’t necessarily tell the truth about how wealthy they are, such that after the wedding the young bride finds that her husband rents a tiny house with six boarders for whom she’s expected to cook and do laundry and, plus, also, he’s abusive, beating her for any reason at all, or none, including when she talks to other men, including when she fails to walk behind this husband on the way to church on Sunday,  causing the son of such parents to write, years later, “My father was a very cruel person.” [10]

The mothers of hockey players have an old six-string Spanish guitar they like to play. In 1928, they’re outside chopping wood when they feel the labour pains coming on. Having already given birth five times, they know what to do: drew water from the well, put it on the wood stove to boil, make themselves comfortable in bed. They’ll deliver their boy themselves, cut the umbilical cord, then suffer a serious hemorrhage that’s almost the end of them, but then they get help, just in time. “The strongest woman I have ever known,” is what the son of a mother like that will say, in time. [11]

You were a mistake, hockey mothers will sometimes tell their sons when the sons are grown and playing defence for the Detroit Red Wings, but you were a wonderful mistake. [12] Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. [13]

Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller. [14] They’ll pass on to their sons an inner strength by way of, when they’re in the country sometimes, they’ll pick up a snake, or play with spiders, while never betraying any fear. [15]

The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner. [16] They teach their boys to knit. [17] They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30. [18] They wash floors and make gallons of soup, and have their own version, some mothers, of fish and chips that consist of big slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-friend, served with French fries on the side. “We thought we were having fish and chips,” their sons will write in their autobiographies, “but actually they were potatoes with potatoes.” [19]

In 1922, when their sons are budding 19-year-old hockey stars but haven’t yet made it to the NHL where they’ll blossom into one of the league’s first genuine superstars, the mothers of hockey players will, sometimes, tragically, drown in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” as a Toronto newspaper reports it. [20]

King Clancy’s father was the original King, and while he was a very good football player, he may have been the only person in Ottawa who couldn’t skate a stroke. Not so Dolly Clancy: no-one, said King Jr., could match her grace on the ice, and he learned his skating from her.

Esther Dye (Essie, they called her) was the one who flooded the backyard rink when her Cecil was a boy, on Boswell Avenue in Toronto, got out the sticks, tied her son’s skates on, taught him the game. This was when skates were tied onto shoes; Cecil, of course, was better known as Babe, ace goalscorer and one-time captain of the Toronto St. Patricks. “My mother could throw a baseball right out of the park,” he said. “Or a hammer, or anything at all. She could run the other women right off their feet, and some of the men as well.”

Jeanne Maki’s boys, Chico and Wayne, were playing for Chicago and Vancouver respectively in 1971 when she was asked about their boyhoods. “Wayne used to imitate Foster Hewitt and got on everybody’s nerves,” she said. “Oh, he used to give me a headache, and even the neighbours threatened to kick his rear end.”

Here’s Edith Plager, mother of St. Louis Blues legends Barclay, Bob, and Bill:

They were never really indoors much, except to be in the basement and play hockey there — or sometimes they shot BB guns. Once Billy went off and broke about 50 jars of my preserves with his BB gun, and then another time, oh my, I was peeling potatoes and I started finding BBs in them. He’d been shooting into the bag, ha ha ha. Anyway, they had an understanding mother.

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jets propellant

Winnipeg beat the Nashville Predators last night to advance to the Western Conference finals where they’ll meet the Vegas Golden Knights to see which of them of them will play for the Stanley Cup. That seems reason enough to visit with a former (WHA) Jet, Anders Hedberg, seen here in February of 1977. He had reason to revel: having just scored three goals in Winnipeg’s 6-4 win over the long-lost Calgary Cowboys, Hedberg now had 50 in the 49 games his team had played that season. (He’d missed two games, injured). That put him into the annals of hockey history, ahead of Maurice Richard, whose first, famous 50-in-50 came in 1945, as well as own linemate, Bobby Hull, who’d repeated that feat over the course of the 1974-75 WHA season.

There doesn’t seem to have been much disputing Hedberg’s achievement at the time, though it can’t exactly have pleased the rivalrous governors of the NHL. Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders would notch 50 of his own in 50 games in 1980-81, and the very next year after that, Wayne Gretzky would, playful as ever, score 50 in 39. With the demise of the WHA, Hedberg’s feat has been shuffled, along with Bobby Hull’s, into the footnotes: in hockey’s NHL-dominated universe, those goals you scored in that other league only count as a novelty next to an asterisk. The way the NHL sees it, you have to score 50 in your team’s first 50 games. Five different players have done that, including Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull, twice. Gretzky did it three times in his career.

“I can’t explain how it feels,” Hedberg told reporters after the game in ’77. The Swedish Express, they were calling him back then, noting that he did his scoring with one of hockey’s hardest wrist shots and what had to be the best backhand in the business. “I don’t think Anders has taken a slapshot this year,” said his other linemate, Ulf Nilsson.

It wasn’t all good news for Hedberg that night: playing Calgary that record-setting night also strained some of his ligaments, which put him out of the line-up for ten days. He made up for lost time when he got back, finishing the year with 70 goals. As for the Jets, they were the defending Avco Cup champions that year, and did indeed make it to the finals again, only to fall to the Quebec Nordiques. They did roar back to win two further championships in 1978 and 1979, in the WHA’s last two seasons.

(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, PC 18, A 84-49, Box 5)

can’t beat a canadian bulky for style

Argue, go ahead, that the 1970s marked the golden age of hockey players styling handsome sweaters: you’ve got Bobby Hull, after all, to stand up as evidence for the prosecution. For me, though, I’m stuck in the ’60s. Montreal’s Highland Knitting Mills were spinning their own marvels (below) even as (above) Henri Richard joined with Jantzen’s International Sports Club to tout their newest wool cardigan as it launched across the border into U.S. “better American stores” in colours across the “masculine range.” “You can see the stripes are newly designed in richer, muted,” ran the copy for this campaign. “Thus, like any real pro (and good amateurs, too), Henri leaves his flashiness on the ice, but never his flair.” Probably best to try one on before I declare it a must-have, but the name alone, for me, is a clincher: this is the sweater they called The Canadian Bulky.

the good old unhockey game

Was I going to be the one, finally, to free Yvan Cournoyer to be his own true exuberant self, swerving in off the right wing to jam the puck past Suitcase Smith in the Vancouver net?

I always thought I was. Even now, today, put me in front of a tabletop hockey game and I’ll be working those rods with same desperation as I did as a seven-year-old. Shunting those damned rods forward to shift those tin wingers down their little rink-grooves as though I could force them to finesse as the puck that wasn’t even a puck skittered away to that dead spot behind the net that was out of range for every player on the not-ice.

And still, as it was back in the rec room, I’m always only ever a flicker of the wrist away from alchemizing all that shoving and ricocheting into actual stickhandling and deking.

This is going back to the early 1970s when I first took up at table-hockey in the basement in Peterborough, Ontario. I was — six? seven? My older brother wouldn’t play, wasn’t interested. I probably volunteered my sister to duty, but she would have been too young to appreciate the responsibility involved in pushing around her Don Levers and Bobby Schmautzes with serious enough intent to make the game worth my while.

So it would have been up to my parents. They were patient if not always entirely willing. I was — obviously; always — Montreal.

Donald Munro started it all, table-hockeywise. That’s the story. In Toronto, 1932, in the dimlit Depression, he built the first mechanical hockey game as a Christmas present for his children. Coathangers and butcher’s twine figure into the telling, lumber cadged from coalbins. Then Munro built more, sold them at Eaton’s. It was more of a pinball affair in those years, with a flipper standing in for Charlie Conacher on the wooden wing, a ball-bearing pretending to be a puck.

By the time I got my Munro in the early 1970s, the game had developed without really having evolved. For all the molded plastic and bright NHL colours, the aesthetic was still fairly coathanger. I did love the flat simplicity of the players, even though, disappointingly, none of their grinning faces resembled any of the Canadiens I knew from TV. I was fond of the tiny nets, too, which I’d unmoor and carry with me, sometimes, just in case.

My Munro was a basic model, I think. The old ads I’m looking at show the Bobby Orr edition (regularly priced in 1972 at $29.95) and the Bobby Hull ($16.95). I don’t know that mine was Bobby-branded, though. The “working scoretower with puck-dropper” on the basic Coleco ($11.97) sounds familiar. “Pass, shoot, block and check — complete hockey fun,” the Munro ads promise; “over 1,000 square inches of exciting, action hockey.”

It wasn’t, though, was it? Yes, okay, I’ll accept there, from the physics point of view, that there was plenty of action. I’ll allow that there was much blocking and even, why not, the many inches — but there was never any hockey to the thing. No ice, no skates, nothing approximating a deke or shot, no rules, no penalties, no saves by the goalies. It was slow, rhythmless, much interrupted. It was only like hockey insofar as you could bring your imagination to bear to conjure Cournoyer and Lemaire and Dryden doing what they did and you couldn’t. There was risk in that, too, though: watching the actual Habs on Hockey Night in Canada, I’d find myself muttering at flesh-and-blood #29 for the 16 soft goals he’d allowed down in the rec room. Some of them, he’d hardly even moved.

I’m not saying it wasn’t fun. Frustratingly, and for hours and hours, it was fun.

Michael Winter played in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. He grew up there, and goes back. A couple of years ago when he was home he quarried out his old Munro, packed it up, flew it to Toronto. Now he and his son now sometimes carry on in the cause of trying to emancipate those poor old wingers.

I e-mailed Winter when I saw this painting of his. Pretty sure this is the same model I had in Peterborough, I wrote, the one where the puck slotted so pleasingly into the top of the gondola before, after a moment, dropping in for the opening face-off.

He wrote back:

I’m astonished at how my old instincts and training have kicked in, defeating the youngster with passes using finger-twirl muscles I haven’t activated in forty years.

I believe it’s a Munro 1974 model, though I could be off a year or two.

It comes with four teams: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Buffalo.

Yes, it has that very satisfying drop of the puck from gondola.

I found it under the stairs in the basement last time I went to Corner Brook.

Air Canada managed to break a corner of it during transport to Toronto, but I’ve patched it. Serge Savard, when he’s digging out the puck, says he doesn’t mind.

Read Winter’s book Into The Blizzard: Walking The Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, I suggest. For scores and updates, find him on Twitter @michaelwinternet34 , or (and) on Instagram, @michaelwinternet.

 

tijuana brash

Jean Béliveau, thoroughbreding through centre!

Frank Mahovlich, moosing down the wing past the Montreal blueline!

I don’t what it is about Blades and Brass, but it makes sense. If you’ve screened William Canning’s short film from back in bygone 1967, maybe you know this already. The old technicoloured hockey is fascinating in its own, though without the soundtrack, it just wouldn’t be the classic it is. Don Douglas wrote that, and Ken Campbell orchestrated it. Just what kind of sense the pairing of the hockey and the music makes, the how, and the why of it — that’s a whole other parcel of questions that might be better off left to itself, over there, in the shade, where maybe is it best if we just leave it unopened? The National Film Board’s catalogue copy has an understated charm that  surprises even as it fails to convey the near-perfect oddity of what you’re about to watch. “This short documentary showcases the best of the 1967 National Hockey League season, set to music in the Tijuana Brass style.”

Well, why not?

Jacques Laperriere!

Bobby Hull!

John Ferguson!

Forgive all the exclaiming, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to translate the footage to the page.

Terry Sawchuk! Eddie Giacomin! Gump Worsley in full flop!

Toronto’s Bob Pulford looking downcast! Béliveau wailing on Reggie Fleming of the New York Rangers! Phil Goyette, not seeing the shot that hits him amidships and drops him to the ice in painful anguish that causes you to shift in your seat, especially if you happen to be male! J.C. Tremblay carried off on a stretcher! One lonesome overshoe on the ice! The rink crew scraping up bloody slush! Toe Blake in a porkpie hat, chewing his chaw! Béliveau pressing a towel to a cut! Great goal, Claude Provost!

Blades And Brass is a masterpiece. Is there any doubting this? Watch it, the whole thing. It’s not long. Me, now — watching these 50-year-old scenes, I’m just not sure how I’m going to be able to endure the plain old modern non-mariachi NHL.

 

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)

want to fight or fool around? then bob plager is your man

1972-73 O-Pee-Chee #161 Bob Plager

He was the first St. Louis Blue ever to sit out a penalty, which seems about right. Called for hooking just a minute into the Blues’ NHL debut in a 2-2 tie with the mint-new Minnesota North Stars in 1967, Bob Plager did get back on the ice in time to assist on the team’s first goal, scored by Larry Keenan.

That’s worth recalling, too, after Plager’s place in Blues’ history was formally recognized in a ceremony on Thursday at the Scottrade Centre by way of retiring his number 5 and raising it forevermore to the rafters.

Plager, who’s 73 now, hails from Kirkland Lake, Ont., and is (of course) one of three defence-playing brothers to have worn St. Louis blue in the team’s early years. Elder brother Barclay died in 1988 while Bill, two years younger than Bob, died last year. Barclay’s number 8 sweater was already hanging in the rink rafter, which means that with Bob’s joining it, the Plagers are just the second pair of NHL brothers to have their numbers retired, after Maurice and Henri Richard.

I’m recommending you consult Dan O’Neill’s appreciation of the former (and all-time) number 5 in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this week. First, though, maybe spare a moment for these several illuminations of the NHLer Plager was:

1

Someone poaching from and minimally re-arranging Bob Plager’s entry in the 1972 edition of Zander Hollander’s Complete Hockey Handbook to fashion a poem might do it this way:

Want to fight or fool around? Then Bob Plager is your man
Burly Bob loves a brawl, with anybody
Once fought brother Barclay, now a Blues teammate, when both were minor leaguers
A first class practical joker too
Once went on a tie-snipping rampage in the Blues’ dressing room

2

Stan Hochman of The Philadelphia Daily News wrote about Plager’s prankmanship in 1969. “When he isn’t setting fire to newspapers or nailing shoes to the clubhouse floor,” Hochman wrote, “Plager likes to befuddle newspapermen.”

For example: asked by a reporter how he spent his summers, Plager said he was a deliveryman for a brewery. “I told him,” Plager recounted, “that whenever I made a delivery I had to sample the beer to make sure it wasn’t stale. I said I’d have four bottles with each delivery. … The story went all over Canada. They had seven applications with the Liquor Control Board, people who wanted a job just like that.”

3

“I’m altogether different on the ice,” Plager told Stan Hochman. “I’m out to win and I’ll do anything to win. But I’ve never spread a guy and you don’t see me getting penalties for slashing. I hit hard but not dirty. What did I have all year, maybe 40 minutes in penalties.” (43, in fact.)

4

According to Martin O’Malley, chronicler of the talented, tempestuous, ill-fated Leaf Brian Spencer, Plager was respectable among NHL roughians of the early 1970s. From O’Malley’s Globe and Mail profile of Spencer, “A Capacity For Anger,” circa 1971:

Anyone in the NHL is tough or they would not be there, he said, but some players are tougher than others, and not all tough players are good fighters. It takes a special attitude, a capacity for anger. John Ferguson is a good fighter but Spencer does not respect him because at times he suspects fighting is all Ferguson can do well. He respects Ted Green of Boston, Vic Hadfield of New York, Barry Gibbs and Ted Harris of Minnesota, Bob Kelly of Philadelphia, Marc Tardif of Montreal, Bob Plager of St. Louis, and Rosaire Paiement of Vancouver. He respects them, but he will fight them anytime, anywhere.

5

In a contentious game at Philadelphia’s Spectrum in January of 1972, Blues’ coach Al Arbour crossed the ice at the end of the second period to lodge a protest with referee John Ashley who, in turn, assessed Arbour a two-minute penalty whereupon Arbour followed Ashley into the tunnel as he departed the ice and then the St. Louis, led by Bob Plager, were climbing into the stands, swinging their sticks.

The Philadelphia Daily News later got Arbour’s version of events:

Someone poured beer on me and someone else hit me. Everyone was shoving and pushing and I fell on a policeman. Then I got hit on the head by a billy club. I never hit a policeman — I’d never do that.

Arbour and three of his players, none of them named Plager, were charged with disorderly conduct and assault and battery on a policeman.

The charges were eventually dropped, I might add. “I realize at a hockey game the players sometimes lose their tempers,” said Municipal Court Judge Max Ominsky, “and things get out of hand. It is unfortunate. It’s a rough game. I hope this doesn’t happen again.”

6

In a pre-season game in 1973 in Brantford, Ontario, Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins, a bench-clearer of a brawl ensued, after which Plager was suspended by NHL president Clarence Campbell after he (CP) “physically interfered with game officials and threatened physical violence to referee Andy van Hellemond.” The ban lasted for two regular-season games.

While he sat out, he made news in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, under the headline “From Enraged To Engaged:”

Plager, who came to the Blues seven years ago as the club’s most eligible bachelor, announced his engagement to Robyn Sher, a secretary he met at Jewish Hospital two years ago.

He gave her the engagement ring as the Blues skated off the ice before Wednesday night’s game at the Arena. “Originally I planned to give her the ring cut inside a puck as I skated off.”

7

The Toronto Star’s Milt Dunnell, writing in 1976:

Robert Plager is a member of the Punching Plagers — his brothers are Barclay and Billy — who have fought most of the leading pugilists on ice — including each other.

He shared this story, about his pre-Blue debut, when he was with the New York Rangers:

Look, the first time I come up to the NHL, it’s for a game in Madison Square Garden, against Chicago.

We’re losing 6-1 and it’s in the third period. I still haven’t been off the bench. The fans are starting to yell: “Bring on Plager.” There had been some advance publicity on me.

Suddenly, I’m out therefor a faceoff in their end. I’m scared stiff the puck will get past me and they’ll have a breakaway. They’ve goy Stan Mikita doing the face-off.

Just like I feared, the puck hops past me and here comes Mikita. As he goes to pass, I stick out my hand clothesline him. I been on the ice seven seconds and I got a penalty.

On the next shift, I knock Bobby Hull into the boards. I flatten him. Hull and I always had a funning feud after that. Anyway, the point I want to make is that, for the next game, the fans have Bob Plager banners hanging from the balcony.

Let me tell you something. In St. Louis, I’ve been voted most popular player, most colourful player and I did more commercials than the big shooters. You think that was because of the two goals I scored?

8

Back, finally, to 1972. In October of the year, Bob and Barclay were arrested by St. Louis police after an incident in a barroom. UPI had the story. I think it speaks for itself:

Police said that the two Blues defencemen were drinking at a restaurant when somebody apparently spilled soup on Bob Plager. He then got into an argument with bartender Alfredo Castillo.

Police are uncertain as to what happened next. Most of the witnesses fled before police arrived. But there was apparently no exchange of blows.

Bob was cut by glass and treated at St. Louis County Hospital. Castillo was not injured.

The manager of the bar-restaurant said the Plager brothers chased the bartender with pots of coffee and hot water and that Castillo held them off with a small knife. The manager also claimed at least a case of liquor was broken in the melee. No charges have been filed.

The Blues issued a statement saying: “Bob Plager was defending himself, and Barclay came to his assistance.”

“Nothing really happened,” said Barclay. “It’s been blown out of proportion. I’ve seen worse happen on a drive-in restaurant parking lot. There wasn’t a punch thrown.”

philadelphia_daily_news_fri__jan_7__1972_

(Image of 1972-73 O-Pee-Chee card courtesy of HockeyMedia + The Want List)