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)

a good game of growl

September’s calendar in 1972 made a Friday of September 22, just like ours today. Back then, Canadians and Soviets were playing hockey again after a two-week hiatus. Maybe you remember: the upstart Communists had dominated the Canadian leg of the eight-game series, winning two, losing one, tying another. Home in Moscow, they scored five third-period goals in a 5-4 win at the Luzhniki Palace of Sports.

As many as 3,000 Canadians had travelled with the team to cheer them in Moscow. If you were back home watching in the rec room, you might have had in hand Hockey Canada’s Official Home TV Program. The 16-page brochure included handy summaries, line-ups, and stats from the series to date, along with uplifting messages from the likes of NHLPA executive director Alan Eagleson and Team Canada coach Harry Sinden. “I’ll say this,” the latter assured fans on their couches: “I have complete confidence in the ability and determination of our players. I firmly believe they are the finest team ever assembled in the world. As we open the series in Moscow, I sincerely hope all Canadians share this confidence with me.”

Broadcasters also weighed in (above) on what they saw for the final four games. Johnny Esaw would, of course, be disappointed along all the rest of Canada: Bobby Orr wasn’t ready for any action, let alone lots of. Brian McFarlane got it just about right: Canada’s final edge could hardly have been sliced slighter. Most interesting, though, is Howie Meeker having his tetchy say. Nothing in here about winning. Ever the teacher, he just hoped for a Team Canada that would be returning home smarter about how to play the game we so desperately like to claim for our own. Hard to say, still, 45 years later, whether he got his wish.

hab fan bids kid hello: when jean béliveau met ted williams

On Wednesday, fans marked the birthday of the late baseball bravo Ted Williams. The Kid, who died in 2002 at the age of 83, made his debut in San Diego, California, on August 30, 1918. Today’s the day Jean Béliveau was born, in 1931, in Trois-Rivières; Le Gros Bill, as they’d come to call him, later, was also 83 when he died in 2014. No better time, in other words, to commemorate the coming together, above, of these two greats of their respective games (and Terry Sawchuk, too).

The question of when and where this might have taken place is a good one. As a boy, Béliveau was as keen on summertime bats and balls as he was in the winter with skates and sticks. He was, by no special surprise, good, too. In his 1994 autobiography, he recalls his mentor on the diamond, a Victoriaville electrician by the name of John Nault who was known as Mr. Baseball for his coaching enthusiasm. When Béliveau was 15, a scout thought highly enough of his fastball and homerun potential to offer him a minor-league contract with a team “somewhere in Alabama.” As willing as Béliveau may have been, “maman responded with an unequivocal non.”

A year earlier, Nault led a trip south. As Béliveau recalls it,

he packed four or five of us into his car for a Sunday excursion to Boston’s Fenway Park. We couldn’t understand a word of what was going on around us, but we needed o translation when Ted Williams hammered the ball more than four hundred feet, deep over the right centerfield fence.

It was a gruelling twenty-hour round trip, but I’ve never forgotten it. All the way back to Victoriaville, through Massachusetts and Vermont, a carload of wide-eyed young French Canadiens dreamed of playing for the Boston Red Sox, digging in against Allie Reynolds and other New York Yankee aces.

This must have been in the summer of 1946, when Williams was 27, back in Boston after a three-year stint as a U.S. Navy aviator. The Red Sox played in the World Series that year, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. The homerun Béliveau saw was one of 38 Williams soared that season.

It was 1953 before Béliveau joined the Montreal Canadiens full-time. Three years later, he led the NHL in goalscoring and won the Art Ross Trophy for accumulating the most points, along with a Hart Trophy, as MVP, as well as the first of ten Stanley Cups.

“For some reason,” he writes in My Life in Hockey, “the Canadiens always had an affinity for Boston’s teams.” Given a chance, Béliveau and his teammates would catch a Celtics basketball games on a Sunday afternoon at the Boston Garden before they took on the hometown Bruins. If they happened to find themselves in Boston during the baseball season, off they’d head to Fenway Park to watch the bats swing. He recalls (what must be) the moment we’re seeing here:

Once, Ted Williams invited me into the clubhouse, and we spoke privately for twenty minutes or so. When I came out, the local reporters clustered round, wanting to know what we’d discussed. Apparently I’d been more favoured than I knew; Ted never gave them anything more than a couple of sentences. In fact, he and I started off talking about baseball and hockey, then graduated to the Splendid Splinter’s great passion, fishing. Williams often travelled into the wilds of Quebec on fly-fishing expeditions. My friend Jacques Côté had a wonderful trout stream, and I knew it was his dream to have Williams join one of our fishing parties.

Doesn’t seem like that ever happened. Looking back, the mutual admiration isn’t hard to understand. These were two men, after all, whose talents lifted them to the very top of their respective sports; each in his own way has a claim on having been among the greatest ever to have played his own particular game. Is it worth pausing, for just a beat, on how different these two men were in public persona? Time has yet to diminish the legend of Béliveau’s quiet grace and regal good nature. “He treated everyone with such respect,” Ken Dryden wrote in 2014. “He said the right things, and in the right way — in French and in English — because that is what he believed, and that’s how he was. He made every occasion better. He made everyone who attended feel that their town, their organization, their province, their country, their event mattered. That they mattered. Appealing to their best selves, he reminded them of the best that was in them.”

And Williams? For the full (and brilliant) bible on his bellicosity, see Richard Ben Cramer’s 1986 Esquire profile. For our purposes here, John Updike will have to do. “Boston wanted to love the Kid,” he wrote in Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, “but he was prickly in its embrace. He was hot-tempered and rabbit-eared and became contemptuous of sportswriters and too proud to tip his hat after hitting a home run.” In ’46, the year a young Béliveau first set eyes on him, “he sulked, spat, threw bats, and threatened retirement.” And yet: “No sports hero — not Bobby Orr or Larry Bird or Rocky Marciano — had a greater hold over the fans of New England than Ted Williams.”

As for the timing of this clubhouse conclave, I was initially going to guess at 1957. Mostly this was pegged to Terry Sawchuk’s having spent just a pair of seasons with the Bruins, 1955 through to ’57. In ’56, Canadiens didn’t visit Boston during baseball season. A year later, turns out, is a case of closer but not quite: while Canadiens and the Bruins played two games of the Stanley Cup finals the Garden in early April, it was still several days before the Red Sox started into their season’s home schedule, by which time Canadiens were back in Montreal winning another championship. Also: ’57 is the year Sawchuk walked out on the Bruins in mid-January. He departed Boston for his home in Milford, Michigan — left hockey behind, too, he was saying at the time. Which means he probably wouldn’t have been on hand in the spring to visit with Williams and Béliveau on a spring day at Fenway.

Maybe it isn’t Sawchuk at all? Who’s to say a Sawchuk doppelgänger wasn’t in the house? Because while the actual Sawchuk had returned to the game for the 1957-58 season, he’d taken his talents back to Detroit by then. I guess it’s possible that he took a trip to Boston in April of ’58 to catch a bit of ball after Canadiens eliminated the Red Wings to reach the finals again. Again Montreal met the Bruins there, and again they beat them. The series went to six games this time, which means that the decisive tilt was at the Garden, on April 20. Before that the teams played there April 13 and 15 — coinciding (as it happens) with an early-season Red Sox series against the New York Yankees.

 

 

 

 

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