behind the boston blueline: safety first

In the catalogue of hockey-player poses, the First Pass falls somewhere between the static standard we’ve already seen on display in the Tripod and the showy effort of the Maximum Slapper. It’s your all-business, man-at-work option: what we’re looking at here, above, is a single-minded man on a mission to clear that puck from the defensive zone. Head up, eyes on the breaking winger, he won’t be waylaid, not even for a photo shoot.  Can there be any doubt that when Mr. Armstrong makes contact here, stick to puck, his pass will be crisp as Melba toast on its way to where it’s going?

Sorry: Bob. Bob Armstrong. He was a regular on the Bruins’ blueline through the 1950s and into the early ’60s, long before I knew him, in high school, in the 1980s. Lakefield, Ontario is where he settled after his hockey career ended, and it’s where he spent some 25 years as a beloved teacher and housemaster, and as a coach of hockey and football players. His First Hockey teams were very good in those years, which meant that I never quite cracked any of his line-ups — I was only ever a Second. In the classroom, where he taught history and economics, he did his best to guide my Grade 12 studies of Schlieffen plans and Keynesian multipliers. Big Bob we called him, too, though not, if we could help it, within his hearing. He was much mourned when he died at the age of 59 in 1990, much too soon.

Back in Boston, he’d worn number 4 for five years before Bobby Orr arrived on the scene. A dozen seasons he skated in the NHL, 542 games, a big, solid, no-nonsense, front-porch defender, which is to say (as I wrote in a book called Puckstruck) stay-at-home. On the Boston blueline his partners over the years included Hal Laycoe, Ray Gariepy, Fernie Flaman, and Leo Boivin, though mostly he paired with peaceable Bill Quackenbush. In 1952, Boston coach Lynn Patrick sometimes deployed a powerplay featuring forwards Real Chrevefils, Leo Lebine, and Jerry Toppazzini with winger Woody Dumart manning the point with Mr. Armstrong. He scored but rarely: in his twelve NHL seasons, he collected just 14 goals.

Bruising is the word that’s often attached to Mr. Armstrong’s name as it appears in old dispatches from the NHL front, which sounds like it could be a reference to his own sensitive skin, though mostly it refers to the welts he raised on that belonging to opponents. He didn’t only batter members of the Montreal Canadiens, but they do figure often in the archive of Mr. Armstrong’s antagonism, cf. his tussle with Goose McCormack (1952); that time he and Tom Johnson were thumbed off for roughing soon after the game started (1954); the other one where he and Bert Olmstead were observed roughing up each other (1955); and/or the night he and Andre Pronovost were sentenced to penalties for fighting but subsequently left the penalty bench to join in a disagreement Labine was having with Maurice Richard (1958), leaving Mr. Armstrong when it was all over with a large purple swollen area around his left eye.

Players who rarely found themselves fighting — Jean Béliveau, Max Bentley — somehow ended up throwing punches at Mr. Armstrong.

“A big fellow, he liked to dish it out,” the Boston Globe’s Herb Ralby wrote in 1953, looking back on Mr. Armstrong’s rookie season. If there was a fault to find in his game then, it might have been his hurry to rid himself of the puck — he was, Ralby wrote, “afraid of making moves that might prove costly.”

Playing alongside Hal Laycoe cured him of that: “a patient, painstaking tutor,” the six-year veteran helped turn his rookie partner into such a polished performer that by 1953 Bruins’ coach Lynn Patrick was ready to rate a 21-year-old Mr. Armstrong the third-best defenceman in the NHL, after Detroit’s Red Kelly and Bill Gadsby of Chicago.

He played in a single All-Star Game, in 1960, when the best-of-the-rest took on the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens at the Forum and beat them 2-1. “The best safety-first defenceman in the league,” Leafs’ assistant manager King Clancy called Mr. A that season. “He doesn’t fool around with that puck behind his own blueline. He gets it out of there in a hurry.”

Gadsby and Kelly were part of the All-Stars’ defensive corps, too, that night, along with Marcel Pronovost, Allan Stanley, and Pierre Pilote. Pronovost was roundly cheered by the Montreal crowd on the night, the local Gazette noted; Mr. Armstrong and Bruins’ teammate Bronco Horvath suffered “distinct booing.”

chicago stadium, 1929: keen ice, no boos

On the Thursday night that mid-December, the Chicago Black Hawks beat the Montreal Maroons 4-3 at the Coliseum on Wabash Avenue, their fourth victory in a row. They ran their streak to five games that Sunday — December 15, 89 years ago tomorrow — when they inaugurated the brand-new Chicago Stadium, on West Madison, with a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The crowd of 14, 212 that watched the proceedings was the largest — by 6,000 — ever to have seen a hockey game in Chicago. The baseball player and sometime boxer Art Shires was on hand to drop a ceremonial puck, though for some reason he did so at the start of the third period.  The new rink was an improvement on the old one, the local Tribune was pleased to report, including in its temperature: “It was cold enough to see your breath,” which meant that the ice was hard, and “far keener” that at the Coliseum. Ty Arbour and Cy Wentworth stood out for the Hawks, who got all their goals in the second period. Vic Ripley scored the first goal in Stadium history, then added a second for good measure. Frank Ingram added Chicago’s third goal, with Tex White eventually replying for Pittsburgh. The Tribune’s Harland Rohm lauded the referees, Cooper Smeaton and Bert Corbeau, for not making any terrible calls. The fans appreciated this, too, he said: “They even got the equivalent of a cheer from the crowd,” he wrote, “which was an absence of booing.”

fear and loathing in montreal

A rough night in Montreal last night: Canadiens lost 3-0 to the visiting Minnesota Wild. An optimist might point out that the home team was missing three of its best players in Jonathan Drouin (the club will only say he’s ailing in his upper body) along with Shea Weber and Carey Price (both damaged somewhere lower down). And, hey — woo + hoo — going into last night’s loss, the underperforming Habs had won three in a row.

Fans with a darker cast of mind might already be writing off the season. Balancing out their misery, is there an equal and opposite measure of schadenfreude — emanating, maybe, from Boston? Or Halifax?

Not to rub it (or anything) in, but it’s in times like these that I recall that the Nova Scotian capital was once, if just briefly, a centre of Canadiens antipathy insofar as Art McDonald lived there.

Maybe you know McDonald’s angry opus: the 1988 Montreal Canadiens Haters Calendar only ever appeared that one year, but its 26 packed pages make up a catalogue of bile and bitterroot that’s sure to sour the heart of even the biggest Habs backer. “366 Dismal Days in Canadiens’ History,” the cover promises, as well as “47 Lists Canadiens Haters Will Love.” The latter enumerate “Canadiens’ Three Worst Playoff Defeats” and “Five Canadiens Booed Regularly By Montreal Fans.” From January through December, there’s a grim Habs fact for every day — no loss or embarrassment or missed opportunity is too minor to escape McDonald’s derision. For example:

• March 5: Toronto defeats Canadiens 10-3 at the Montreal Forum. (1934)

• June 3: Bob Berry appointed coach of Canadiens. His teams would never win a playoff series. (1981)

• September 9: In a terrible deal, Canadiens send four regulars, including Rod Langway, to Washington. (1982)

• October 2: Robin Sadler, the Canadiens’ first draft choice, quits hockey to become a fireman. (1975)

• November 10: Gordie Howe breaks ex-Canadien Rocket Richard’s record for career goals scored. (1963)

Back in ’88, McDonald self-identified as a 34-year accountant, tax-consultant, and Habs-despiser-from-way-back. Here’s my theory: he wasn’t gloating so much as bleeding from the heart. He loved the Habs and this was his funny self-harming way of showing it. The Calendar was a one-off, with no follow-up editions. With Montreal’s season going the way it’s going, is it time for an update? 

(Top Image: “The Canadiens and Beer,” Aislin, alias Terry Mosher, 1985. Felt pen, ink on paper + photograph. © McCord Museum)

 

 

hockey smokers: captain bill durnan

smoker

There’s lots you could say about Bill Durnan. Maurice Richard volunteered that he was one of the nicest guys in the whole world — “He had a smile for everybody and never said a word against anyone” — not to mention that he was said to be the best softball pitcher in Canada during the time he was minding the nets for Montreal in the latter 1940s. He did that exceptionally well, of course, winning Vézina trophies in each of his first four campaigns, as well as two more subsequently: an amazing six in the seven NHL seasons he endured. He won two Stanley Cups with the Canadiens, in 1944 and 1946. In 1964 he ascended to the Hall of Hockey Fame.

And yet: they used to boo him at the Forum, hound him with jeers. After some games (Richard was one to recall), he’d return to the dressing room crying. “We want Bibeault,” the fans would holler the year of that second Cup, calling for Paul, the Montreal back-up. Another year, Dink Carroll reported, “the fans would deride him … with mock applause when he made a stop.”

All of which is to say, it’s no wonder the man had nerves. Not so shocking either that he sought to calm them with a post-game smoke. From our modern-day perspective, it is surprising, just a little, to find one of the man’s post-game cigarettes preserved in photographs: that’s something you do sometimes see in hockey scrapbooks and archives, but not so much.

La Presse ran the one above in the spring of 1947. It’s not a great reproduction, but if Durnan’s face is obscured, that’s largely due to the cloud of smoke he’s just exhaled. You can just see the cigarette in his right hand. It’s more obvious in the photo below, from the same night, wherein Durnan poses alongside teammates (from the left) Butch Bouchard, Roger Léger, Richard, Billy Reay, and Buddy O’Connor. The caption for the former reads:

The first thing he did upon entering the locker room was to take a cigarette and light it. He removed his pads only after his relaxation was complete.

durnan cigarette

It was the first game of the 1947 Stanley Cup final and not a particularly stressful one for Durnan, by all accounts. He’d shut out the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Forum by a score of 6-0. Tame, Montreal’s Gazette called it. “The boys got that for me,” the goaltender said — or in the paper’s telling grinned. “I had a good seat.”

Something else he’s supposed to have said (according to Dick Irvin, Jr. in his 1991 oral history, Habs), “How did the Leafs get this far?” They were eager to demonstrate, of course, and won the next game 4-0 and three more after that, too, to take the Stanley Cup. “I think it’s by far the toughest series I’ve ever played in,” Toronto’s Howie Meeker recalled, citing Turk Broda’s goalkeeping as the key for the Leafs. “I think when it’s all over and you have won the Stanley Cup, your goaltender has to be the best guy on your team. That year Broda was. I thought he was head and shoulders above Durnan, and Durnan was good. We were outplayed and outchanced in scoring chances, I would think, by about three to two. Turk Broda was the guy who won that series.”

Also worth a note is the C adorning Durnan’s sweater. The accepted wisdom is that he didn’t become a Canadiens captain until the 1947-48 season, specifically assuming the role in January of 1948 when the incumbent, Toe Blake, suffered the ankle injury that would prove the end of his playing career. That’s the timing suggested, as well, by modern references, from the Habs’ own historical website at Our History and the Hockey Hall of Fame’s to Wikipedia and Hockeyreference.com. From the photographs here, it’s clear that he was co-captaining the team a season earlier, too.

this week: once wayne gretzky told me stats are for losers

Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft’s 2007 digital photograph "March Storm, Georgian Bay" from her series "Group of Seven Awkward Moments." "By pairing the tranquility of traditional landscape painting with black humour," Thorneycroft says, "the work conjures up topical and universally familiar landscapes fraught with anxiety and contradictions." For more of her sublime northern visions, visit dianathorneycroft.com.

Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft’s 2007 digital photograph “March Storm, Georgian Bay” from her series “Group of Seven Awkward Moments.” “By pairing the tranquility of traditional landscape painting with black humour,” Thorneycroft says, “the work conjures up topical and universally familiar landscapes fraught with anxiety and contradictions.” For more of her sublime northern visions, visit dianathorneycroft.com.

Crosby Not Eating Well

was a headline this week at philly.com.

From up on the International Space Station, the commander of Expedition 35 tweeted that he was enjoying Leafs games on TSN. “I watch them while working out,” wrote Chris Hadfield. “Great to see their skill and grit. Go Leafs!”

In The Detroit Free Press, Red Wings’ coach Mike Babcock discussed some changes in line combinations he’d made to try to help generate more offense. “We feel,” he said, “with Fil and Bruns and Clears, that’s a pretty good line. Fil’s been a good centerman for us. We like what the Mule is doing, so we’re just going to spread our lineup out and go a little bit deeper.”

Gare Joyce had a dream he couldn’t fathom: “I was interviewing Sidney #Crosby but he was only 4 ft tall + had helium suffused voice.”

Viktor Stalberg looked in the mirror this week and tried to count the stitches. A shot from Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf had hit the Chicago winger, Crosbylike, near the mouth, although Stalberg’s jaw didn’t break. “There are still a couple you can’t really see,” he said, regarding the stitches.

The doctor said it was 50 to 60, something like that — 20 on the inside and a little bit more on the outside.

It doesn’t look great, but it doesn’t feel too bad, to be honest with you. You cut so many nerves, my face is still numb, and you can’t really move it like you want to. I’m sure when the swelling goes down and those nerves heal up it will feel a lot better.

“What happened?” said Pittsburgh’s James Neal after Michael Del Zotto of the Rangers knocked him cold for a moment with what one paper described as “a reverse-forearm/elbow.”

Boston’s Brad Marchand said he was pretty nervous the first time he skated on a line with Jaromir Jagr in practice. He felt compelled to pass him the puck. “I felt like every time I got it I had to give it to him and let him play with it. Guys were yelling at me because we’d be on a 2-on-1 and the defenseman would just stand by him and I had a breakaway but I would still give it to him.”

Toronto listed winger Joffrey Lupul as day-to-day, this week, with an ailment of the upper body that wasn’t a concussion. “You are the one that likes that word,” the coach, Randy Carlyle, told a reporter, “so you put the diagnosis you want on that.”

Of the Nashville Predators, Chicago goalie Ray Emery said, “That’s a team you have to really play some boring hockey against.”

Szymon Szemberg from the IIHF had a word, this week, for Ottawa’s 40-year-old captain Daniel Alfredsson: indelible.

Of Milan Lucic, The Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont reporter said, “Needs to play angry. Otherwise, passenger.”

Sidney Crosby met with reporters in Pittsburgh to tell them about his sore jaw. “Felt it but didn’t see it,” he said of the slapshot that hit him. Still unable to chew solid food, he said he’d been living on milkshakes for nine days. Keeping weight on, he said, was “impossible.”

He laughed. “It hasn’t been too enjoyable.” Continue reading

sincèrement désolé

Let me explain: Montreal defenceman Ken Reardon (left) meets Chicago steelworker George Grbich (bandaged) in 1949.

It’s a few weeks now since Montreal general manager Pierre Gauthier replaced his coach and started a storm in Quebec because (if you hadn’t heard) the new one doesn’t speak French. New year, same old weather: this week, Randy Cunneyworth pleaded that his commitment  to learning French is second only to winning hockey games — though, of course, the Canadiens have only managed to manage a single victory so far in the seven they’ve played for him. Meanwhile, Gauthier apologized for the whole big fuss. “If we have offended people, I am truly sorry,” he told a news conference on Monday. “It was not our intention.”

 Will it be enough to calm the clamour? Hard to say, though a win for the club over Winnipeg tonight might help the cause. While we’re waiting to see how that goes, a quick look at how Gauthier’s sorry rates in the annals of Habs apologies. To me, I don’t know that it rates in the top five, but you be the judge: Continue reading

firstsecondthird.3

FIRST. CBC launched Canada Reads 2012 last week with a raft of five non-fictional books we’re all supposed to read so we can be ready in February to decide, as a country, which is the best of them. With actor Alan Thicke carrying the torch for Ken Dryden’s The Game (1983), it’s time to cue the disembodied voices to remind us that it’s the Best Hockey Book Ever. Not to be quibbling, but is it, really? It’s so sharply thoughful and well-written that it may well be — though is it possible, too, that this is a case of a book reviewerly blurb being having been repeated so often, year after year, that it’s cured into something that looks like a fact? It will be good to hear the discussion. And maybe Thicke and the Canada Readers can get at, too, if they have some time on the radio, what it is about the phrase hockey book that can seem so reductive and dismissive, describing a distinctly lesser literary organism? Or is that just me? Continue reading