change ’em up

Shifty: “The figures caught in a split second, seemingly in defiance of gravity as they float through the air with a grace not customarily associated with hockey.” That’s art dealer Alan Klinkhoff describing the scene depicted in “Changing Lines, A Self-Portrait, 1960-1970” by the renowned painter (like Klinkoff, also a Montrealer) Philip Surrey (1910-90). Surrey’s oil-on-canvas portrait of the Boston Bruins doing battle with Canadiens dates to 1970, a Stanley-Cup-winning year for Boston. The painting featured in the Klinkoff Galley’s 2016 exhibition “Fine Art and Hockey: A Point of View.” It’s Klinkhoff’s thinking that this is the Bruins’ vaunted powerplay taking the ice, Phil Esposito (7, with a fanciful helmet) leading out Johnny Bucyk (9) and Fred Stanfield (17). Johnny McKenzie, Klinkhoff notes, usually played on a line with Bucyk and Stanfield, with Esposito working between Ken Hodge and Wayne Cashman. But with a man advantage, McKenzie often made room for Esposito by dropping back to the blueline to partner with Bobby Orr. This pairing, we’re assuming, are already out on the ice, ready to take to the attack. (Image: Alan and Helen Klinkhoff collection)

the full thesaurus

Born on a Saturday of this date in 1948 in Parry Sound, Ontario, Bobby Orr turns 71 today. The photo here dates to 1969-70, a year in which he turned 22, scored 33 goals and 120 points, and won Art Ross, Hart, Norris, and Lou Marsh trophies — oh, and a Stanley Cup. Here’s Herbert Warren Wind, why not, on Orr’s virtuosity from a 1971 New Yorker profile:

While he is an aggressive, physical young man who never backs off from a scrap, he is essentially a cool, self-possessed player in whom instinct and ratiocination are in perfect balance. If he frequently appears to control the puck — and the game — three-quarters of the time he is on the ice, this is to be credited principally to his outrageous sense of anticipation: he gives the impression of knowing not only what every player is doing at that precise moment but also what every player is thinking of doing in the next moment. There is no better skater in the game, but what makes Orr especially difficult to contain is that his speed, like [Gordie] Howe’s, is extremely deceptive. He has about five different forward gears and a couple of reverse ones, and he can shift from one to another without appearing to change his languid stride. He also has the full thesaurus of slippery moves.

harry howell, 1932—2019

Harry Howell’s adjectives as a Hall-of-Fame NHL defenceman included smart and steady, efficient, and unostentatious, but it’s Roger Angell’s description of his late-career blueline style in 1967 that I hold dear: “Howell,” he wrote in The New Yorker, “has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic.”

Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1932, Howell died on Saturday at the age of 86. Appreciations of his life and times that you might want to attend: Scott Radley’s for The Hamilton Spectator and, at NHL.com, this one by Dave Stubbs.

Howell was 20 when he joined the New York Rangers in 1952. Three years later, he was appointed captain of the team, though he relinquished the role after two seasons, handing the C to Red Sullivan. “Handsome Harry voluntarily gave up the post,” The New York Daily News reported at the time, “agreeing that the weight of the job had affected his play.” It couldn’t have helped that the fans in New York had started to boo him and his relentless (if not exactly electrifying) competence.

“It was quite a relief,” Howell said, years later. “I added about ten pounds to my playing weight and I turned my game around right away.”

The fans forgave, or forgot, or learned to appreciate Howell’s game. In all, he skated in 17 seasons for the Rangers, and he remains the club’s all-time leader in games played, with 1,194. He ended his NHL years on the west coast, serving with stints with the Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, and California Golden Seals. He played three years in the WHA, for the New York Golden Blades/Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners, and the Calgary Cowboys.

He was 35 in 1967 when he won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman, edging out Chicago’s Pierre Pilote and Boston’s 19-year-old rookie Bobby Orr. “I’m glad I won it this year,” Howell said when he took the trophy in hand, “because I think some other guy is going to win it for the next decade.” He was close: Orr would win the Norris in each of the next eight years. They would enter the Hall of Fame, as it happened, together, in 1979.

In January of 1968, the Rangers celebrated Howell’s stout service ahead of his 1,002nd NHL game. New York was playing Boston that night at Madison Square Garden, and would beat them by a score of 2-1. Ahead of the hockey, Howell, along with his wife Marilyn, and the couple’s two children (11-year-old Cheryl and seven-year-old Daniel), stood at centre ice to receive a shower of gifts. Other NHL teams had organized nights  like this, for it was a first for the Rangers. I promise you I’m not inventing any of this. As reported in the press that week, the inventory included:

A set of Ben Hogan woods and irons
A golf-club membership (“paid-up”)

A three-piece set of luggage

A cartoon of Howell (“laminated”)

Kent cigarettes (“cartons of”)
Cigars (“from 21 Club”)

Binoculars
A pool cue

A razor and a year’s supply of blades
Revlon cosmetics

A set of encyclopedias (32 volumes)

A hat
A dozen Gant shirts
Golf shirts
Two pairs of custom-made golf slacks
A ski outfit
A bespoke mohair suit
Thread (50 spools)

Roses for Mrs. Howell before every Rangers’ game played on a Wednesday night
Ten beauty-parlor appointments for Mrs. Howell

A vacation at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, near Liberty, New York
Dinner at a Hamilton, Ontario hotel
A month’s stay at Glen Oaks Village, in Queens, New York
A night at the Upstairs at the Downstairs nightclub, New York
A two-week vacation in Palm Beach, Florida
Swimming-pool privileges at Loew’s Midtown Hotel, New York
Dinner at Toots Shor’s restaurant, New York

A pair of children’s bicycles

A gas barbecue
An electric frying pan
An electric blender
A dishwasher (also “electric”)
An portable stereo (RCA)
25 record albums
A radio
A portable TV
An 8mm movie camera and lighting equipment
An 8mm projector and screen
A colour film of the evening’s proceedings
A hairdryer (“women’s”)

A Christmas tree (“seven-foot artificial”)

A year’s supply of cheese (“from Finland”) and hams (“Polish”)

A week’s rental from Avis Rent-A-Car
Four tires
Gasoline vouchers

The final gift, driven out on the ice by two of Howell’s former teammates, Red Sullivan and Lou Fontinato, was a 1967 Mercury Cougar.

(Top image: Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)

boston for the win

An exercise in “humanitarian concern,” writer Jack Batten called it. “It will do no less than head off the threat of brain fatigue, emotional delirium, heart murmur, incipient alcoholism, and all the other dread symptoms annually associated with following the spectacular ups and downs of a National Hockey League season.”

I don’t know whether Canadian hockey fans truly appreciated the mission of mercy that Batten and his editors undertook on their behalf at Maclean’s magazine nearly 50 years ago, or whether they only indulged it as an entertaining lark. To spare the faithful the time-consuming and oh-so-stressful trouble inherent in following a season’s worth of NHL hockey, Maclean’s decided they’d get in ahead of the season and ask a computer to figure out how it was all going to play out — a “$500,000 computer,” no less.

If this seems all very Stanley Kubrick, well, it was 1970, a mere two years after 2001: A Space Odyssey made its debut in movie theatres.

Looking back, the magazine’s “bloodless and coolly scientific” effort to determine just how the 1970-71 NHL season would end might be best remembered as the novelty act it was. But it also offers a fascinating glimpse into the state of NHL stats at the time, and just how fancy they were getting.

Leaving the pundits to muddle in their guesswork, Maclean’s arranged early in 1970 to gather up a pile of NHL statistics from the ’69-70 season and drive them out to Scarborough, Ontario, for a visit to the offices of Honeywell Controls Limited, then billing themselves as “The Other Computer Company — or, as Batten puts it, Avis to IBM’s Hertz.

How big a pile? “A staggering load” is Batten’s measurement. For these raw numbers, Maclean’s looked to NHL statistician Ron Andrews, not a household name, to be sure, but an important one in hockey history. A former Canadian Press reporter with (as Batten puts it) a “special numerical curiosity,” Andrews was digging deeply into the numbers the game generates and thinking about how they might be used to analyze how it’s played long before NHL President Clarence Campbell hired him in 1963 to collect and organize the league’s statistics. Calling him Andrews a pioneer of plus-minus may not be the compliment it once was, but no-one did more to build the foundation of hockey analytics than he did. With his 1970 Maclean’s cameo, Andrews, who died in 2003 at the age of 67, offers a view into the sophistication of his operation — including a list of 22 offensive categories, “not all but many” of those he and his hunter-gatherers around the league made it their business to track for each NHL player.

While Andrews provided the league’s ’69-70 stats to Maclean’s, he wasn’t in on the computing. He takes his bow early, with a bit of a growl. “The only trouble with all our statistics,” he says, “is that most fans and writers don’t know how to interpret them properly.”

Uh-huh, says Batten. Who doesknow how to read them?

“Coaches do. They understand the best way to judge a player is to watch him perform on the ice. But they use the figures as a backup, as a confirmation of their own ideas. They use them to work out problems, like which players to put together on the same line. That makes sense.”

Anyone else?

“The computer,” Andrews says. “A computer knows what numbers mean.”

Honeywell’s was a Series 200 Model 1250 — “called Foster by its friends,” Batten writes. The company had a crew of three assigned to the Maclean’s job, including a forecasting expert and a programmer responsible for loading the NHL’s hockey data onto punch-cards to feed to Foster.

This, the project’s lead told Batten, was by no means a blind operation. “We attached different weights to the different factors, so that some pieces of data, goals scored, say, were given more significance than others — minutes in penalties, for instance. We helped the computer along by making judgments from our own intuitive understanding of hockey. After all, the computer’s never seen a game.”

The programming took weeks — “several” of them, Batten says. “We don’t accept the computer’s programming forecasts right off, the Honeywell man tells him. “We look at the trends it’s showing, and we compare them with what we know is actually going on in the real world. Then we adjust our programming accordingly, and feed everything back into the computer again. It’s a continuous process. For example, if the computer started to show a trend favorable to the Buffalo Sabres, we’d know we’d have to make adjustments, right?”

When all was said and done — once Foster had “memorized, digested, juggled, and computed the data” — by then, it was “a bright afternoon early in September,” and the computer “presented on its spinning tape a scientific view” of how the season ahead would unfold.

Foster’s regular-season forecast had Boston finishing first in the East, followed by Montreal, while in the West Chicago would prevail ahead of Minnesota.

Eastern teams had swept past their western rivals three years in a row to win Stanley Cups in the late 1960s. In a bid to make the upcoming ’70-71 finals more competitive, the NHL rejigged the playoff format to bring eastern and western teams together in the semi-finals. With that in mind, Foster saw Boston ousting the Minnesota North Stars at that point, and Chicago bettering Montreal.

This latter scenario, one of the programmers told Maclean’s, was all about Foster’s thinking on the Black Hawks’ youth and vigor. “The computer knows that Montreal, with its older guys, is not going to finish the season as fresh and healthy as Chicago. That’s how the Black Hawks get the winning edge.”

It wouldn’t last against Boston, come the finals. The Bruins, of course, had won the Cup in 1970, with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk leading the way. They’d do it again in 1971, Foster felt.

“It couldn’t be any other way,” one of his Honeywell handlers explained. According to the computer, the outcome wouldn’t even be close. “I’d have to call it a slaughter.”

It’s worth noting that Maclean’s saw fit to bolster Foster’s findings with an accompanying column by Harry Sinden. He wasn’t what you’d call an entirely disinterested party, having taken his (temporary) retirement after coaching the Bruins to the 1969-70 championship. For him, Honeywell’s Series 200 needed no correcting. “The Bruins,” Sinden computed, “will ultimately whip everybody for the Stanley Cup.”

History, of course, gets the final say. It shows that while Boston did in fact finish top of the 1970-71 NHL regular-season standings, the Bruins foundered early in April when they ran up against a young goaltender named Ken Dryden in the first round of the playoffs. Having adjusted Boston’s and Foster’s programming accordingly, Dryden’s Montreal Canadiens went on to defeat Minnesota and Chicago to win the Stanley Cup they couldn’t convince Honeywell to hand over.

 

things that just pop your eyes out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the big, the bad, the once, the always e

“Eric Lindros To Be Immortalized By Flyers On Thursday” might be, but isn’t, a headline on a story filed yesterday by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s cryonics bureau; in fact, what they want you to know is that the local hockey team will tonight be retiring the number 88 that the 44-year-old former centreman wore when he led the Flyers for eight seasons in the 1990s. “He was probably the most dominant player during his time in the NHL,” said an old teammate, Rod Brind’Amour, when Lindros was elevated, and properly so, into the Hockey Hall of Fame last fall. Back in 1997 at this time, when Saturday Night put Lindros’ gaze on the cover, you might have had your doubts that it would ever come to this. Brian Hutchinson, who profiled Lindros in the magazine’s pages, seems to have been all doubt, all the scathing way through. Lindros was 23, then. It was a year-and-a-half since he’d won a Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, six months since he’d notched 47 goals and 115 points, wrapping up what would end up being the most bountiful scoring season of his 13-year NHL career. Hutchinson’s profile isn’t what you’d call kindly, wandering through the whole sorry history of the Lindros’ refusal to report to the Quebec Nordiques and on into the story of all the Stanley Cups he’d failed to win as captain of the Flyers. “He has come close to fulfilling his destiny,” Hutchinson writes in the course of detailing the injuries and immaturities, the failures of Flyers management that had kept Lindros from it. “He may be the most well-rounded, physically imposing player in hockey history,” he writes. “Surprisingly quick for his size, with a tremendous reach that lets him gobble up loose pucks, he also, according to Flyers goalie Ron Hextall, has one of the hardest shots in hockey, a snap shot that comes out of nowhere, untelegraphed and accurate. But he’s no innovator. Unlike Orr and Gretzky, he doesn’t change the way the game is played, nor does he have a singular talent — like Mario Lemieux’s stickhandling or Guy Lafleur’s skating — that sets him apart.” Ouch.