the quondam kid

Sidney Crosby was home in Nova Scotia today, his 30th birthday. He spent the day showing the Stanley Cup around, joining a parade through Halifax first before travelling up to Rimouski, in Quebec, where he played his junior hockey, for a quick how-do. Asked this week about the ageing he’s undergoing, Crosby dutifully answered that 30 is “just a number.” Facing the inevitable follow-up — does he have any grey hairs? — the erstwhile Kid is said to have smiled.

Playing the numbers game isn’t hard with Crosby. After 12 exceptional NHL seasons, the man has plenty to recommend him, even if you agree to a birthday exemption on playing up the troubling tally of four confirmed concussions. Totted up his first 1,000 points in 757 games! Won three Stanley Cups! Two Conn Smythes! Collected manifold Art Rosses, Rocket Richards, Lionel Conachers, Lester B. Pearsons, Baz Bastiens! Not to mention Olympics and World Cups! The full list of notable statistics, trophies, and accolades runs much longer, of course. And for those who’d rather advance into the thickets of hockey analytics, help yourself.

If Crosby’s dominance of the moment isn’t in doubt, this latest Stanley Cup has fuelled an increase in discussions of the longer-term and more subjective question of where Crosby fits into the pantheon of all-time greats.

Can Crosby be considered one of the top five players of all time? I think we can all agree that if you posed the question to Crosby himself, he’d let it expire in small talk if not outright silence. And why not? Debates about the best of the best across the eras are all in good fun, causing no harm, I guess, but that doesn’t mean they’re not more or less ridiculous, given how short our memories are. Where once there were those who could (at least in theory) be counted on to judge the whole spectrum of NHL hockey talent because they’d personally witnessed the league’s entire history, there’s no-one, today, who has the personal experience to argue the merits of Howie Morenz over Mario Lemieux’s. It’s nobody’s fault, but it does help explain why, earlier this year, when the NHL paraded its list of 100 Greatest, the absence of players like Frank Nighbor, Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Boucher, and Aurèle Joliat (among many antique others) was barely noted let alone pilloried.

That doesn’t mean the top-five debate won’t go on, of course. In June, Rick Carpiniello got in on it at MSG Networks by declaring his leading men (in order): Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe.

And number 87? Whereas (Carpiniello wrote) “Crosby is the best player of his generation, without a doubt, a slam-dunk future Hall-of-Famer, and he will be among the short list of all-timers when he’s done playing, if not sooner,” he wasn’t ready yet to add his name to the uppermost echelon. Crosby is going to have to work for it, he says, over a number of years if he wants to supplant Mark Messier, the subject of a 1999 biography of Carpiniello’s called Steel On Ice.

Over at Sports Illustrated, Colin Fleming declared that Crosby has now “stormed the citadel of the top ten.”

We all know the top four: Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux. Put them in what order you wish, but have Gretzky first. After that, in no particular order, I’d stick in Bourque, Sawchuk, Béliveau, Harvey, Roy, and now Crosby. What’s more, I’m not sure that Crosby isn’t fifth. He’s the best player since Lemieux, truly generational. He’s not merely the best player since Super Mario: it’s not even close.

“I’d put Sidney Crosby right there at number five,” Brian Boucher was saying in June as the Penguins wrapped up their second straight Cup. “We’re watching greatness,” said the former NHL goaltender, now an NBC analyst. “For people to hate on it, I get it, because maybe you’re not a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But if you’re a fan of watching true greatness, to me, that’s it.”

Back in January, during the festivities leading up to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the NHL put together a press conference where Gretzky, Orr, and Lemieux shared a stage where they were lightly questioned by a parcel of reporters. As The Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger reported part of that went like this:

“Is the greatest hockey player of all time at this podium?” we wanted to know.

“No,” said Gretzky.

Then who?

The consensus of all three: Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

You can debate their answer. They weren’t about to.

Heck, if these three weren’t qualified to answer this, who then?

“Listen, we talk about this all the time,” Gretzky said. “That’s what makes sports great, and that’s what makes hockey wonderful. I think we’re all in pretty much agreement that Gordie was pretty special. These two guys here were pretty special, also. We all had so much respect for what Gordie did and what he accomplished that it’s not a bad thing to be named in the Top 100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe. I think we all feel the same way.”

“Absolutely,” added Orr. “Gordie is in my mind the best that ever played the game. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one. I sometimes sit and look at his numbers. As I sit sometimes and look at the numbers that these two guys put up, I think, how in the world did they do it.

“But no, Gordie was a special player and a special man in my mind, and I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever.”

Over to you, Mario.

“Absolutely,” Lemieux said. “I agree with these guys that he was a special player. He could play any way that you wanted out there and a great goal scorer; tough, as we all know, and always taking care of business. But he was truly a great ambassador for the game. He loved the game. He played until he was 51 years old, and that’s pretty rare these days except for Jagr, my buddy.”

Asked for an opinion on the best player still on skates, all three men agreed that it’s Crosby.

“I think his work ethic, first of all,” said Lemieux, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Crosby’s one-time landlord. “He’s the hardest — just like Wayne was when he played, he’s the hardest working guy out there, whether it’s at practice or a three-on-three game at practice, he wants to win, he wants to be the best.”

Added Gretzky: “I agree with Mario, everything he said. He’s the best player in the game. He’s earned that mantle, and his work ethic is as good or better than anybody in hockey.

“We encourage, and I know Bobby is very close to Connor (McDavid), that that’s the guy that he’s chasing, and Connor sees him in his vision, and that’s what makes the game wonderful is that you want to be as good as the best player.

“Right now Crosby is the best player, and you have to earn your stripes.”

(Image courtesy of Gypsy Oak, whose luminous work you can find here. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)

you naturally hope it can turn things around: a field guide to hiring and firing boston coaches

Rodden + Patrick 1935 Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Boards Meeting: Boston coach Frank Patrick, at his command post on the Bruin bench, confers with referee Mike Rodden at the Garden, c. 1935. This was still a time before coaches patrolled behind the bench and their players; mostly, they sat alongside them. (Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Claude Julien lost his job as coach of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday. GM Don Sweeney announced the news at 8 a.m. in a written statement, and then followed that with a press conference a few hours later. Whether or not they agreed with the decision to dump the coach, many Boston fans and commentators found the whole business distasteful if not outright insulting to the city and all it stands for: the New England Patriots, after all, were parading in Boston that very day to celebrate Sunday’s Super Bowl victory.

Sweeney, as you would, looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, in any historical period. He apologized for the poor timing, tried to explain. He wanted to give the new, interim coach — 51-year-old Bruce Cassidy, who’d been aiding Julien as an assistant — hoped to give him a chance to practice with the players before they had to play a game.

“So we have a real opportunity,” Sweeney said, “to sort of step back from the emotional piece of this, and allow our players to get away and vacate it mentally and physically. I thought it was a good opportunity, today and tomorrow, to get their feet on the ground in a practice environment, which we haven’t had playing 50 games in 102 days. The schedule has been challenging in that regard.”

Julien, who’s 56, started in Boston in 2007. That made him (up to the minute of his dismissal) the longest serving of NHL coaches. He departed the Boston bench as one of game’s most respected benchers, having steered the club to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011, the first for the Bruins since 1972. No coach has won more Cups than that in the team’s 93-year-history. Julien also coached the team through more games than anyone else, including the legendary Art Ross, while chalking up the most wins. Graded by winning percentage (regular season + playoffs), his .555 falls back of Tom Johnson (.670) and Cooney Weiland (.602).

Cassidy has two wins, so far, to his name, and a perfect percentage: the Bruins followed up Thursday’s 6-3 victory over San Jose with a 4-3 decision this afternoon versus Vancouver.

While he relishes those, maybe what we’d better do is review the hirings and firings of Cassidy’s 27 forebears on the Bruins’ bench, starting back when the Bruins started, in 1924. Art Ross came first, of course, serving as Boston’s everything in those early years of the club, stocking the roster, forging an identity, and coaching the team through its first 461 games, which yielded one Stanley Cup (1929).

That gets us to the spring of 1934. The Bruins had finished at the bottom of the American Division, out of the playoffs. “I am leaving for Montreal on the 8.45 o’clock train tonight,” Ross told Victor Jones of The Boston Globe a couple days after the team played their final game. “I shall do some scouting during my absence and I may take in part of the Stanley Cup series. And before long I shall engage a coach for the Bruins.”

After ten years at the helm, he was looking to focus his energy. He was 49 and he’d been ill with intestinal trouble. Candidates were said to include Lionel Hitchman, Eddie Powers, Cecil Hart, and Tommy Gorman — maybe Nels Stewart? In the end Ross hired Frank Patrick, also 49, a good friend who’d been working as the NHL’s managing director.

“In my opinion,” Ross said, “he is the best coach in the game today. He should bring Boston a winning team.”

The Bruins did win under Patrick, though they didn’t manage a championship in the two seasons he was in charge. Eric Zweig’s 2015 biography Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins is a good guide to Patrick’s exit in 1936. Ross thought that Patrick was too friendly with players and referees, plus he was drinking too much, and the two men had stopped talking.

Frank’s son Joe Jr. told Eric Whitehead alcohol was a problem, but so was Ross’ reluctance to give his coach autonomy. “Art simply couldn’t or wouldn’t let go of the reins,” Joe Jr. says in Whitehead’s The Patricks (1980), “and my father couldn’t abide that.”

Patrick wasn’t fired, exactly: he just wasn’t, in newspaper parlance from the time, “re-engaged.” Former Bruins’ captain Lionel Hitchman was coaching the team’s minor-league affiliate, the Boston Cubs, and he was once again mentioned as a possible successor. Asked whether star defenceman Eddie Shore might take on coaching the team from the blueline, Ross was non-committal.

“Personally I do not think it would be a wise move,” he said. “In the first place, hockey is too tough a game for a playing manager and in the second, Eddie is much too valuable a player to ruin him by loading so much responsibility on his shoulders. A defenceman these days has all he can do watching opposing forwards without having to keep an eye on his own.”

So Ross returned. He stayed on through to 1939, when he decided for a second time that he’d had enough.

“I can’t go through this any more,” he said this time. “For some time I’ve thought I ought to get off the bench. Lester Patrick of the Rangers and I are about the only men in the NHL who have tried to combine front-office work and bench managing for so many years. He told me after the Bruins-Rangers series that he couldn’t stand it any more, and I know I can’t.”

ross-cooney-version-2

He ceded the coaching to Cooney Weiland, the newly retired erstwhile captain of the Bruins who’d spent the last year of his NHL career as Ross’ playing assistant. Under Weiland, the Bruins prospered, and in his second year, 1940-41, they won a Stanley Cup — whereupon the coach left the champions to take over the AHL Hershey Bears.

Eric Zweig suggests another feud. In a chapter of his book in which he looks into Ross’ fallings-out with Eddie Shore, Bill Cowley, and Herb Cain (not to mention his blood-grudge with Conn Smythe), he concludes that Ross wouldn’t, couldn’t — didn’t — let his coach coach.

Again Ross was ready to get back to doing it for himself. He stayed on this time through 1945. “I’m through,” he declared that spring. “I’ll never sit on the bench again.” Another of his faithful captains had been acting as a playing assistant, 38-year-old Dit Clapper, who was now ready to retire.

Or maybe be retired. “We want Dit to quit before he is seriously hurt,” Ross said. Clapper himself wasn’t entirely sure he was through as a player. Not long before hewas appointed, he’d been telling Harold Kaese of The Boston Globe that he’d “hate to do nothing but sit on the bench.” And, true enough, he did continue to play for the first couple of years he coached, if mainly on spot duty, replacing injured players in the line-up.

Something else Kaese reported: “The manager said he liked Clapper as a coach because he was willing to take his advice, which other Bruins coaches (Frank Patrick and Cooney Weiland) were not.”

Clapper coached on through the 1948-49 season. At the team’s annual season-ending banquet,  owner Weston Adams stood up and quieted the crowd. “I’m sorry that I have to make the saddest announcement of my career,” he said. “Just this noon I learned that Dit will not be with us another year.”

Clapper, who was 42, was headed for home. His wife hadn’t been well, and he had a teenaged son and daughter, along with (as Ross, once, had had, in Montreal) a thriving sporting goods store. “My family and my business in Peterborough, Ontario, now demand all my attention,” he told the room.

Art Ross was overcome with emotion. As for the players, they had a gift to give: a hunting rifle.

“Being a coach is a pretty tough job,” Clapper said, “particularly for an old player. To be a really good coach you have to drive the guys. I just couldn’t do that. All these boys were really my friends.”

I don’t suppose anyone would have batted an eye if Art Ross, now 64, had returned one more time to the Boston bench. He didn’t, though.

“We wanted a man who didn’t know our players at all,” Bruins’ president Weston Adams advised in 1949 when he hired 52-year-old George (Buck) Boucher, famous Frank’s older brother. “Everybody now starts from scratch. They’ve got to make the team. It’s up to Buck to select the men he wants. I don’t think we will have to make apologies for next year’s Bruins.”

Art Ross was on the same page. “Yeah,” he said. “We were looking for a two-fisted guy and got one. He won’t be a yes man to me.”

When the Bruins let him go a year later, Boucher was surprised. He called it a “dirty deal.” Ross let him know as the team travelled to Toronto for the final regular-season game of the season. “It was a blow, and made it a rough ride,” Boucher said. “I had rather expected it but it was tough to take. Art Ross told me I’d done a good job, but the club had other plans for next season. I asked him, ‘If I’ve done such a good job, why am I being fired? I think I deserve another chance.’ And he told me, ‘We have other plans.’”

Art Ross had his side of the story to tell. He was up in Canada, acting as league supervisor for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but made a special trip home to Boston to clarify things for reporters.

“We haven’t lied to you people in 26 years,” he told them at a press conference where he sat alongside team president Weston Adams and a director named Frank Ryan.

Ross reminded everybody what good friends he and Boucher were. They’d discussed finding another coaching job for him. “We could have paid him off for the season — we all know his contract was for one year — several times after some mistakes, but we didn’t.”

Ross addressed charges that upper management had interfered with Boucher through the course of the season. “Regardless of what has been written or said by anyone, it’s not true that any of us interfered at any time with Boucher,” he said. “I called him on the phone once in the season during the course of a game and that was to tell him one of several kids we had brought up for a look was sick and maybe should not play any more.”

“I also suggested — only suggested mind you — perhaps the kids should be changed more often in the third period or we might get licked. We had a three-goal lead at the time. Well, we lost the game. But that’s the only time he was ever told anything by either of us at any time during a game, immediately before or immediately after.”

Boston’s players were sorry to see Boucher go. They presented him with “a powerful short wave radio.”

“This was no sympathy act,” said captain Milt Schmidt. “We planned this some weeks ago as a gift to a swell guy.”

Bun Cook would be the next coach. That was the word. Or Joe Primeau? But no. Instead, Ross lured 38-year-old Lynn Patrick in from the wilds of Victoria, British Columbia. Lester’s son, he’d coached the Rangers for one successful year then quit. He preferred, he’d said then, “to rear my family in some place other than a big city.”

Suburban Boston would work, too. “This is the kind of an opportunity I’ve been hoping and searching for,” Patrick said. “I’m ambitious to get ahead in hockey and don’t want to be a coach all my life.” And so a succession plan was in place: after two years of coaching, Patrick would ascend to replace a retiring Ross as general manager.

That didn’t go quite as planned. Ross kept going through the spring of 1954, announcing his retirement, in the Bruin way, at the team’s annual end-of-year banquet. Under the new plan, Patrick would take on the role of general manager while continuing to coach for one more year. By then, captain Milt Schmidt would be ready to retire and, in the Bruin way, turn himself into the coach.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

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Group of Seven Awkward Moments (Winter on the Don), digital photograph, 2007

River Risk: Elucidating her 2007 series “Group of Seven Awkward Moments,” Winnipeg photographer Diana Thorneycroft wrote that she was interested in combining “iconic northern landscapes, which have come to symbolize Canada as a nation,” with “ scenes of accidents, disasters, and bad weather.” And so she did. “Winter on the Don” is a warning, I guess, as much as anything else: stick to the slot, it advises, don’t be like Bobby Orr. “By pairing the tranquility of traditional landscape painting with black humour,” Thorneycroft notes, “the work conjures up topical and universally familiar landscapes fraught with anxiety and contradictions.” For more of her bracing views of our north, visit dianathorneycroft.com.

peter gzowski’s arbitrary list of hockey’s all-time greats

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

Stratford’s Own Streak: Howie Morenz in Hab finery in the 1920s. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.

These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.

There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.

It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.

Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.

This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).

In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.

To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.

Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.

The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.

And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.

Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.

The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:

Goal Scoring Ability
Strength (Roughness)
Speed
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
Flair (Color).

“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”

At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”

All of the nine wrote back.

“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.

“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.

I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.

I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.

Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:

Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.

Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”

Who else?

If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:

Red Kelly
Max Bentley
Bill Cook
Milt Schmidt
Eddie Shore
Dit Clapper
Harry Watson
George Armstrong
Bill Barilko.

Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.

Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:

My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.

Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?

Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:

I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.

Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”

I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.

I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.

Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).

When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:

  1. Howie Morenz
  2. Maurice Richard
  3. Bobby Orr
  4. Gordie Howe
  5. Bobby Hull
  6. Jean Béliveau.

fh

 

canada’s cup 1976: the greatest aggregation of hockey talent ever assembled

cccp76

The Olympics go out, as they tend to do, in a salvo of light and colour and national pride. The stadium, one observer writes, is filled with the overwhelming goodwill of youth. A streaker who takes the field cavorts near dancing girls. spectacle and the striving Was it worth all that money? The questions float up and flutter among the flags. One flame goes out, a new one flickers its fingers. Leave it, maybe, to the novelist Morley Callaghan to pronounce: the Olympics are madness, he says, “and madness is beautiful regardless of price.”

Time, when it’s all over, for the hockey players to stand to the fore.

This year, it was Rio’s Olympics that’s giving way to the end of summer and a hockey World Cup pitting nation against nation against — well, of course, there’s a pair of continental teams, too, one of which is U23, so it’s a strangely asymmetrical tournament, a format that we’re still getting used to. Maybe we’ll even learn to love it.

Forty years ago, it was the Montreal Olympics that a great Canadian novelist lauded as they ended in August. The hockey players in question that year were participants in a more traditional international tournament spread among six old-fashioned national teams in the inaugural Canada Cup.

With all due respect to this year’s edition, Canada ’76 was loaded with talent and savvy and experience — and that’s just the braintrust. Montreal’s genius GM Sam Pollock was in charge of the whole operation, with Keith Allen as a principal aide and Toe Blake standing by as counsel. Then there was Pollock’s advisory committee of wise men: Jean Béliveau, Gordie Howe, and Syl Apps. Scotty Bowman was the first choice to coach, but he said no, at first: his Montreal Canadiens had just completed a successful Stanley Cup campaign, and his wife was pregnant with twins.

There was a rumour that Fred Shero had agreed to the step up, but Pollock said he hadn’t, in fact, spoken to the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.

In the end, Pollock decided four heads were better than one. Bowman was back in, joining with Boston’s Don Cherry, Bobby Kromm of the Winnipeg Jets, Al MacNeil, coach of Montreal’s AHL farm team, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs. There was so much enthusiasm to generate, Bowman said. “I used up much of my adrenalin during the past season and have another season ahead. Having four coaches spreads it around a little and eases the pressure.”

“This will be the coaching style of the future,” was Cherry’s take on it. “Each of us will contribute something. We’ll work in harmony. There won’t be any friction. We all want to win. We’re going to be the favourites and there’s going to be nothing but pressure on us. It would be too much for one man.”

Picking a preliminary 31-man roster in June, Pollock selected 29 players from the NHL with three more drawn from WHA clubs. The coaches would trim the squad in August to 25, 20 of whom would dress for each tournament game. Injuries ruled out several significant players, including goaltenders Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent and defencemen Brad Park and Jim Schoenfeld.

There was uncertainty about Bobby Orr, too, coming off two 1975 surgeries on that troublesome left knee of his. He’d gone in for an arthroscopic exam in June, and his lawyer, at least, was hopeful. “Bobby is in A-1 condition,” reported Alan Eagleson, who also happened to be running the tournament as director, “and he’ll probably play in the Canada Cup.”

Even without the poorly, it was hard to see the Canadian roster as diminished, exactly.

Gerry Cheevers, Glenn Resch, and Rogie Vachon were among the goaltenders summoned to report to a 23-day training camp in Montreal in August. Defencemen included Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Denis Potvin, and Guy Lapointe. Guy Lafleur, Bob Gainey, and Reggie Leach were competing were jobs on the right wing, with Bill Barber, Bobby Hull, Bob Gainey, and Steve Shutt over on the left. At centre: Bobby Clarke, Darryl Sittler, Phil Esposito, Gil Perreault, Marcel Dionne, and Pete Mahovlich.

In Montreal, the players moved into the Bonaventure Hotel. August 10 they headed for the ice for the first time at the Forum. Morning drills led to an afternoon scrimmage. In the evening, the team headed to Jarry Park to watch the Montreal Expos play ball with the San Francisco Giants. The next day, and for the rest of the camp, they started the morning with a three-mile run up Mount Royal.

“It was easily the toughest training camp I’ve ever attended,” Dionne was saying by the time it was over.

Bobby Orr stayed at his summer place, in Orillia, Ontario, working on his own — and making progress. “Two months ago there was no way I thought I could play but in the last month the knee has felt just super,” he updated. “I will skating hard and if there isn’t a bad reaction I will be going to Montreal.”

Bobby Hull was 37. Shut out of the Summit Series in 1972, he was thrilled to be aboard this time out. He was pleased, too, to be playing in a tournament where the hockey had evolved beyond the intimidation inherent in his home and native WHA. “It will be a pleasure to play without the worry about being stabbed in the back. Everyone will be back to hockey’s basics, the way hockey should be played and was played before the goons took over.”

Phil Esposito was feeling renewed after the shock of the trade that had taken him from Boston to New York the previous November. “It affected me mentally,” he was saying, “and because of it I couldn’t function properly. It just devastated me.” But: he was ready now, he said. Don Cherry, for one, thought it showed. “Espo was showing the snap I hadn’t seen for a couple of years,” his former coach said after the team’s first workout.

He was one of the vets from ’72, Espo. Savard, Lapointe, Clarke, and Mahovlich had played in the Summit Series, . That epic series was even fresher in the national mind, of course, than it is today, with coaches and players vowing that they wouldn’t be making the same mistakes they’d made back then. Arrogance wasn’t a word they were using: mostly what they mentioned were matters of conditioning and team unity.

They wasn’t much joy, looking back. There was wariness, weariness , grim memories tinged at the edges by the unshakeable sense of just how near run a thing it had been. Even as he and his team readied this new challenge, Serge Savard talked to Montreal Gazette columnist Tim Burke about how very, very exhausted the Canadians were, four years earlier, how disarrayed, how downspirited, who knows what might have happened if they’d hadn’t left the country after the first four games.

Lessons had been learned. Exhibition games would help, this time around. “Mental preparation is also important,” said Harry Sinden, the coach in ’72. “We went into that series saying to ourselves we couldn’t lose. We now know what we’re up against and that’s in our favour.”

Not that we weren’t still having problems imagining anything other than victory. What else was there? Our game, our tournament. “If ever a team appeared to be invincible,” Tim Burke effused in that same Savard-quoting column, “I’d put my dough on this lot.” What we had here, he’d decided, no doubts, was “the greatest aggregation of hockey talent ever assembled.”

The Soviets, if they showed up, would be lacking in their line-up. Valeri Kharlamov was recovering for a summer car accident, Alexander Yakushev had a bad knee. Veteran Vladimirs, Petrov and Shadrin, weren’t coming, and nor was Boris Mikhailov. Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak was supposed to be staying home, too — to study for military exams, the word was.

Esposito, for one, wasn’t fooled. “A psyche job,” he warned in August.

“The Russians are clever. They’re leaking these stories in hopes it will throw us off our game. When they arrive, they will be tough.”

Team Canada sent Tom Watt, coach of the University of Toronto, across the Atlantic to scout the Soviets and Swedes. “Objectively,” he said on his return, “I think Team Canada has the talent to win. But sometimes you find a kid with a high IQ doesn’t do very well in math. Performance and talent are always two different things.

But maybe the Russians wouldn’t come at all — that was a possibility, for a while. As the Olympics drew to a close in early August, the Soviet Olympic Committee was threatening both to pull out of the Game’s remaining events, and there was talk that the hockey team would stay home, too. A 17-year-old diver, Sergei Nemtsanov, had asked for and been granted asylum in Canada — defected — and the Soviets were livid.

He’d been abducted, they said, maybe drugged, certainly brainwashed. There was a meeting involving the diver, his lawyers, and Soviet and Canadian officials that proved, to the Soviets, that he was not in his right mind. Why was his face so pale, his look so absent? Why did he repeat, “like a parrot,” “I want freedom, I want freedom.”

A Russian official charged that “a group of terrorists” had been roaming the Olympic Village, preying on Soviet athletes.

Other press reports noted that young Sergei had an American diver as his girlfriend, and that this was all about her, though the girlfriend’s family released a statement to say firmly that she wasn’t Sergei’s girlfriend.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau weighed in: he said it was up to the diver to decide what he wanted to do. Which he did: after a week or two in Toronto, concerned for his “aged and ailing grandmother,” he elected to go home. Continue reading

off the ice, though, howe was a peach

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Gordie Howe was quite possibly the nicest man you ever met — supposing you ever met him. Wayne Gretzky did, and has said just that, many times, including recently, during the sad week following Howe’s death on June 10. “A special man,” said Dan Robson, someone else who encountered Howe in person. He met a lot of people, over the years, and their consensus has been clear: he was a softspoken prince of man, funny and friendly, gentle, generous with his time, humble and cheerful.

Except at work. On the job, he was a different man: cruel and nasty, pitiless, a danger to navigation. “Mean as a rattlesnake,” Paul Henderson said in memoriam. “Tougher than a night in jail,” according to Brian Burke. Carl Brewer: “The dirtiest player who ever lived.”

“Everybody,” reminisced Rod Gilbert, “was scared of him.”

You’d think he hated his work. You’d guess he’d been forced into it, made to keep at it, couldn’t wait to escape. But no, of course not, quite the contrary — everybody knows that Gordie Howe loved the game that he was so dominantly (and malevolently) good at.

The meanness was a piece of the goodness, integral. Which is to wonder, also: could he have been quite so very good if he’d maintained his civilian decorum on the ice without turning on the viciousness?

No. Or, well — who knows. We assume not. If we ask the question at all, that is. Mostly, we don’t. Mostly we — Canadians especially — understand that this is a game, hockey, that demands a certain savagery. He did what he had to do. Howe talked about this, in his way. “Hockey,” he used to say, “is a man’s game.”

The second time Howe tried an autobiography, with Paul Haavardsrud’s assistance, he talked about self-preservation. “Not only was it hard to make the NHL, but once you broke in, you also had to fight like hell to stay there,” they wrote in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). “When there were only six teams, every player in the league came prepared to claw over his best friend the second the puck dropped.”

“I play tough,” is something else Howe said, in person, in 1974, “but I never hurt somebody.”

Gordie Howe wasn’t the first hockey player to be cast as a peaceable Jekyll who, donning skates, stepping to the ice, transformed into a remorseless Hyde. Not at all: hockey’s narratives note split personalities going back to the beginning of the organized sport. A few years ago, when I was reading all the hockey books, it became a bit of a hobby for me, collecting up variations on the trope. In most cases it’s framed as both an apology for bad on-ice behaviour. It also usually carries an implicit reassurance that a given player’s tranquil off-ice self is the genuine and governing one.

Don Cherry had another theory, which he framed for George Plimpton. Tiger Williams, Bob Kelly, Dave Schultz, Dan Maloney — they were very much alike in their personalities, he explains in Open Net (1981):

“… quiet off the ice, soft-spoken, and semi-shy. I’ve never seen a tough guy off the ice who was a wild man on, nor have I seen a wild man on the ice behave the same way out on the street. It’s one or the other. I guess if you were wild both on and off the ice, they’d park you away in a loony bin somewhere.”

Included in the pages of my book I had a former Leaf hardman, Kris King, talking about how, in his unintimidating time off the ice, he liked to fish and do a bit of charity work. My thick file also features citations of:

• the late Bob Probert, one of the most fearsome fighters in NHL history, “a classic goon,” in one writer’s phrase, who also had enough of a scoring touch to twice record 20-goal season with Detroit. “He was a teddy bear off the ice,” Jeremy Roenick wrote his autobiography, J.R. (2013), “and a fucking animal on the ice.”

When I played against Probert, he seemed like a wild-eyed, vicious thug. But when I played one season with him in Chicago, my attitude about him changed. He seemed like a gentle giant, a pleasant man with a big heart. If you met him in the dressing room, he would strike you as the guy you would want as your neighbour.

• Dave Schultz, one of the heaviest implements in Philadelphia’s toolbox during the bullyish 1970s. Asked for his opinion of Schultz in early 1975, NHL president Clarence Campbell didn’t hesitate: “He denigrates the sport.” An Associated Press feature from that same spring called Schultz “a Teddy Roosevelt type” who “speaks softly and wields a big stick.”

Off the ice, Schultz is a pussycat. He’s not an arguer. As a matter of fact the so-called ‘hammer’ of the Philadelphia Flyers is more of a peacemaker. His blonde wife, Cathy, says so.

If you were introduced to Dave Schultz without knowing he is a hockey player, you’d probably never guess his vocation. He could be a school teacher, an insurance executive. He comes off a low-key guy.

A year earlier, Dick Chapman of Montreal’s Gazette noted that back home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Schultz filled the hours “with things like jigsaw puzzles, building model ships and golf.”

• Ron Harris, a teammate of Howe’s and of Paul Henderson’s in Detroit in the 1960s. “By far the toughest guy in the league,” Henderson wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012). And:

… just like a lot of tough guys — guys like John Ferguson, for example — he was one of the nicest people in the world off the ice. But put a pair of skates on him, and he would get that glaze in his eyes. It’s kind of like Jekyll and Hyde — guys like that become crazy!

The toughness Ronnie added to our team made him really valuable.

Continue reading

that week: if he were a forest, he’d be a national park

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“There will never be another Gordie Howe,” is what Bobby Orr was saying last week, in the days following Howe’s death on June 10 at the age of 88.

“You couldn’t invent Gordie today,” Orr told Dave Stubbs from NHL.com. “If he was playing with today’s rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn’t take liberties with him. The way he played, he’d do real well.”

“He was everything to me,” Wayne Gretzky told NHL.com.

Adam Gopnik wrote a Howe tribute for The New Yorker. “Perhaps only Mark Messier, among players bright in our contemporary memory, combined the same qualities of grit, skill, desire, and accuracy,” he mused. “As Gretzky lived on the edge of his skates, Howe lived in his wrists: the accuracy, power, and quickness of his shot are the first things those who saw him up close, in his prime, often reference (after they reference the elbows that rose above those wrists).”

“My best Christmas ever, I was five years old and my dad — I mean Santa Claus — bought me a Gordie Howe sweater, which I wore for the whole year.” That’s Gretzky again, back in 1994. The same article, from Reuters, goes on to say that when young Wayne pleaded with his father, “a barber,” to cut his hair Gordiewise, Walter Gretzky had to explain that Wayne had too much hair and Gordie too little.

“His elbows were the best,” Joe Peacock wrote in 1997.

Gretzky, last week, helped to clarify that old Reuters story: “I was seven or eight years old and I’d go to the barber shop … and I’d say, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut.’ I was enamored by him at a young age.”

Eddie McCabe, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, circa 1979, said this: “Gordie is such a decent man, he makes up for the yahoos and the boors.”

Frank Selke said there was no-one better. “Gordie Howe is the greatest all-round hockey player I’ve ever seen,” he opined in 1961 when Selke was managing director of the Montreal Canadiens. “He’s a composite of some mighty fine players through the years, and I’ve been watching them all, amateur and professional, since the 1910s around my old hometown, Kitchener. I’ve never known any player combining so many faculties. He’s the greatest of them all.”

Gordie’s dad didn’t necessarily agree. Gordie wrote about this in his “authorized autobiography,” and … Howe! (1995):

According to my Dad, Vic was always the better player, better than me. He was so funny. And Vern, my oldest brother, was the best of us all, so Dad said. It wasn’t until Dad was old, on his death bed, that he finally gave me more credit. He was kidding me, and said, “Aw, I saw a few gams on television. I guess you were better than your brothers.”

“In street clothes, he looks quite slim, an impression heightened by his long arms, rather long neck and narrow face.” This is Peter Gzowski, from a famous Maclean’s profile of Howe from 1963. “His most outstanding physical characteristic is the slope of his shoulders; his trapezius muscles — the muscle you feel if you stretch your arm out to one side — rise into his neck at an angle not far from 45 degrees, while his deltoids, at the top of the arm, look scarcely better developed than the average dentist’s. The enormous strength he displays in hockey flows from him, rather than exploding, and the easy grace with which he moves on the ice, and which has given so many hockey fans pleasure over the years, is also evident in his loose, almost lazy walk.”

“He’s always at the outer edge of the rulebook,” Eric Nesterenko told Gzowski. “You never know when he’s going to slip over into what’s dirty.”

Howe’s longtime linemate concurred. “Gordie gets away with more than anyone else in hockey,” said Ted Lindsay. Andy Bathgate of the New York Ranger indicted Howe for “deliberately inflicting head cuts, of deliberately cauliflowering at least one ear, and of deliberately raising the puck at other people’s heads.” He did not spear, Bathgate said, nor butt-end. Gzowski: “He is a recognized master of ‘high sticking,’ an action that is almost impossible for the fans or even the referees to separate from an accident, and which has carved his signature on a good many faces around the league.”

Gary Ross wrote about Howe in 1978, the year Number 9 turned 50 playing for the New England Whalers, “If Gordie Howe were a building, he’d be sandblasted and declared an historic site. If he were a forest, he’d be made a national park. In an age of $100,000 flakes he’s the real thing. A hero, a wonder, a natural phenomenon.”

When a 45-year-old Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to play with sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who told him to go for it. “I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you’d find similar musculature,” Dr. Bailey said. “It’s a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That’s almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80.”

Herbert Warren Wind was first to profile Howe for the pages of Sports Illustrated. “When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone,” he wrote in 1955, “doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot. Also invisible is Howe’s great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete’s forearm.”

Mark Howe, in his 2013 memoir Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey: “He always regretted dropping out of school and felt that somebody from the hockey club should have stopped him. I think that’s why he took up crossword puzzles — a big-time passion of his — to improve his vocabulary.”

“His success is due in part to the fact that he has the ‘perfect body for hockey,’” Larry Bortstein was able to disclose in 1970. “His shoulders slope so sharply into his huge biceps, which flare out into huge forearms, wrists, and hands. His legs are very strong. ‘I conserve them by sitting down at places where I don’t have to stand,’ he says.”

“When Howe is on the ice,” Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964, “Detroit’s Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable.”

King Clancy was the one who suggested someone ought to bottle the man’s sweat: “It would make a great liniment for hockey players.” Continue reading