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!

at rest, at the ready

The Tripod that St. Louis Blues’ captain Al Arbour is affecting here, above, circa 1970, may be the original hockey-player pose. Check your collection of Beehive hockey photos from the 1930s, or the NHL portrait-work of the Turofsky brothers in the 1940s: the Tripod is the default. It’s as natural a stance as there is for a skater (as opposed to a goaltender) lining up for the puck to drop — in a game that’s all motion once it starts, this is how you look (at rest but at the ready) in the moment before the chaos ensues.

If you do happen to find yourself standing still while the puck’s in play, and it’s the Boston Garden in May of 1970, then it may be that you’re St. Louis Blues’ defenceman Noel Picard, and Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins is airborne nearby, having scored his famous Stanley-Cup-winning goal. Not much Picard could have done, really — did I mention Bobby Orr? That’s Picard in repose below, around that time; he died in 2017 at the age of 78. According to Richard Labbé, writing this week in La Presse (here, in French), Picard was at peace with his famous failure to stop Orr, and would happily put his signature to copies of Ray Lussier’s iconic photograph when fans approached with Sharpies.

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.