rewriting the game: ken dryden on no hits to the head, no excuses

A version of this post appeared on page B11 of The New York Times on January 4, 2018 under the headline “Hall of Famer Says N.H.L. Must Put End To Head Hits.”

Awareness is important — people need to know and acknowledge and understand — but at a certain point, it’s time to act.

That’s what Ken Dryden decided two years ago when he started writing the book he published earlier this fall, Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey.

A Hall-of Famer and six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, Dryden, who’s 70, was one of 15 goaltenders to be named earlier this year to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. In the years since he retired from the Canadiens, he has served as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and as a cabinet minister in Canada’s government. He’s never stopped thinking and writing about hockey. The book he wrote soon after he retired from the NHL, The Game (1983), may be the most insightful reflection on the sport ever published.

As the league continues to celebrate its centennial season this year, Dryden’s focus is now locked on hockey’s response to concussions and their devastating effects on the lives of its players. For too long, he believes, the NHL has failed to act decisively, content to let awareness be its watchword, and to treat brain injuries as issues to be rationalized and managed.

In Game Change, Dryden investigates the career of Steve Montador, a tough and capable, salt-of-the-ice journeyman defenceman who played for six NHL teams. “Hard-trying,” Dryden calls him, with respect; Montador prided himself on the importance of being “a good teammate.” Beloved by those who knew him, he saw his career ended by concussions —seven of them, at least, and probably more. After struggles with addictions, Montador died in 2015 at the age of 35. Post-mortem studies of his brain revealed that at the time of his death Montador was suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The book also skates deep into hockey history: underlying Montador’s story is Dryden’s compelling and comprehensive case on just how, for reasons cultural and otherwise, the game has failed to adapt to its own evolution in pace and equipment and tactics. For Dryden, it all comes down to this: now is the time for hockey to eliminate hits to the head outright, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is the only man who can make that happen. He’s called it a “test” — for himself, for Bettman, for hockey. And so in September, Dryden flew from his home in Toronto to New York to carry that message, along with his book, to Bettman. They met for lunch.

In December, Ken Dryden sat down in Toronto to talk about Game Change and his vision for hockey.

How did it go, that meeting with Gary Bettman?

It was a good lunch. We’ve known each other for a long time, we’ve worked together. I think we each know how the other thinks, and does things. I introduced it as a serious book about a serious subject and the next few months will be a challenge for both of us. But a worthwhile challenge. I just told him about what was in the book. I told him that he was the first person to receive a final copy of the book. He said he would read it.

I came away feeling that he would. And that he would think about it very hard.

Why was Steve Montador’s story the right one to build your book around?

I wanted to write about somebody who was an Everyman player. I didn’t want somebody who was a superstar, who was too unique and unrelatable in that way. And I didn’t want somebody who was a fighter-goon, for the same reason. I wanted somebody who, when people read about Steve, they would see themselves, see their kids. Coaches would see their players. He was somebody a lot like them. And whose experience was a lot like theirs. He was somebody who was not dismissible.

You’ve talked about what you’re trying to say in your title: not just that the game needs to change, but how it has been changing, always, and keeps changing. Is that why you think this all so eminently do-able?

It’s one change that’s needed: no hits to the head, no excuses.

At the core of the problem of brain injuries is hits to the head. So you focus your attention there. The increased speed of the game generates more collisions and more forceful collisions. It’s not hard to see how this happens.

You can think about dealing with it as a revolutionary change, or you can think about it as an incremental and really evolutionary change. Right from the beginning of hockey, we’ve recognized the danger of hits to the head. We created high-sticking penalties, we created the elbowing penalty.

What we’ve come to understand better, with the force and the frequency of the collisions now, is that the dangerous instrument is not the stick or the elbow, it’s the body as a whole. So you don’t call a penalty for a stick or an elbow and not call one for a shoulder or a fist. It’s not the cause, it’s the effect. It’s not whether it’s intentional or accidental. The brain doesn’t distinguish. The brain is affected similarly. So you think of it in those terms, and you approach it in those terms. You connect it to the very set of understandings that is already in place, and to the penalties that are already in place. You just extend them to the changed circumstances of the game.

As you point out, Gary Bettman never played the game. But he is surrounded in the NHL head office by plenty of smart, committed people who did play. Why haven’t they recognized the problems you’re identifying. What’s kept them from urging the changes you’re advocating?

They haven’t played this game. We know what we’ve learned, we’ve know what we’ve heard, and we tend to then apply both, as if everything else were constant. The myth and lore of a game like hockey is very difficult to undo and rewrite. And whether it’s in hockey, sports, or climate change — anything — we all have a certain set of understandings. We’re comfortable with them. We always believed in them, and believed deeply.

But it’s a question of going beyond what you know to what there is to see. We’ve stopped seeing what is there. We notice the speed of the game, we notice the frequency and the severity of the head injuries, but we haven’t quite made the connection that then generates the response that’s needed. There’s this gap that is almost always present in terms of decision-making.

In order to get somewhere and change circumstances, you have to undo a set of understandings that are already in place. All we need to do is just see, see the game that’s there on the ice. And it’s a game that’s played with far greater skill than was the case in the past. Players are faster, they’re using lighter sticks, which become precision instruments in their hands, so they’re developing a dexterity that in turn pushes their creative minds.

And in the game now, the idea is not to go in straight lines, you go to open ice wherever open ice is, and so the pass is more important than the rush. All of a sudden you’ve got this incredible freedom, this possibility. The excitement with which people talk about Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews — that’s how they play. That is the game that has emerged, and it’s the game that’s being developed and understood by 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds everywhere in the world.

You’ve been traveling with the book, talking about it across Canada. Do you get the sense that parents and coaches and the people who run minor hockey have an appetite for change? Is it coming from the bottom up, too?

Yes. But a bottom-up movement is not going to change things as much or as quickly as needs to happen. But I think that what it means to that decision-maker at the top is important: he can feel a kind of confidence that in fact a decision that he would make about hits to the head would be understood and accepted. The conditions are present.

You haven’t heard back from the commissioner yet. Not to doubt or pre-judge him, but what if he doesn’t see what you’re seeing as quickly as you’d hope for? Does the challenge — and your campaign for change — simply continue?

Something that’s been so powerful for me on my book tour has been talking to the hockey guys, the sports guys on the all-sports radio stations: a lot of them are thinking in these directions. This is not a matter of starting at zero and trying to argue or persuade your way to 100, they’re already at 60 or 70. They see the problem. And so do people in the game I’ve been hearing from.

So all of this just kind of builds. That’s not unimportant. It will be moving forward, a little faster or a little slower. Five years from now, the game will be extremely different. How much in advance of that the change happens is really up to Gary Bettman.

 

jaromir jagr: how I’ll tame you today, you plain of ice

Jaromir Jagr’s long lustrous NHL career ended yesterday with a waive. Offered up on Sunday by the Calgary Flames to any team that might want to take him on, the 45-year-old Czech winger went unclaimed, leaving the Flames free to loan him to HC Kladno of the Czech League — his hometown team and one he happens to co-own.

It’s not a proper farewell for a player so (as The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur wrote yesterday) preposterously talented, so outrageously coiffed, so effective for so long, so fun to watch. He deserves better. I’d read Arthur’s ode to him, if I were you. Then, if I (which is to say you) were still in a reading mood, I’d circle back to the Jagresque oral history that Kristina Rutherford, Ryan Dixon, and Gare Joyce put together for Sportsnet a couple of years ago — you would, I mean. You wouldn’t stop there, either: next up, necessarily, would be Rob Vollman’s statistical overview of Jagr’s career at NHL.com. Supplemented, maybe, by a look to ESPN’s review of some of the man’s amazing numbers? That’s on you.

I’m especially fond of some math that ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan reporter tosses into her appreciation of number 68. “Jagr,” she writes, “has reportedly been doing 1,000 squats per day since he was seven years old. That means he has done nearly 14 million squats.”

I can’t improve on that, but I can keep going with the reading recommendations. Browsing the Jagr bibliography, you’ll find Petr Cermak’s Člověk Jágr: Hokejova Bible (2003) and Jagr: An Autobiography (1997), the man’s own testament of himself, written with Jan Smid’s help.

Intrigued as I am by the title of the former — Jagr Man: The Hockey Bible is the translation I’m getting — I lack the Czech to get through it. The latter I’ve really only browsed. Again it’s a frivolous stat I’d like to draw your attention to: writing about fan mail in the pages of his memoir, Jagr mentions the 1,000 or so letters he was receiving a month, and how his mother did her best to answer them all. “Every letter I receive means a lot to me,” 21-years-go-Jagr writes, “even if I have to admit I don’t finish reading all of them. Sometimes a single letter will be about ten pages long, but I almost never get past the third page.”

This is a while ago, of course, and I’m assuming that the 1,000 is a number that can’t have remained consistent over the years, especially in these post-stamp times we live in. That doesn’t mean we can’t spin up some imaginary totals. If the mail did keep up, month after month, for all of Jagr’s 24 NHL seasons, he and his mother would be looking at a truly impressive career postal accumulation of some 288,000 notional letters.

Finally, can any haphazard miscellany of Jagriana really be counted complete without referencing everybody’s favourite hockey opera? I’m saying no, it can’t. It may be the only hockey opera, actually. As Czechs remember (and Canadians try not to), Canada didn’t win the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Japan, the Czechs did, beating Canada and Russia in succession. The operatic version, by composer Martin Smolka abetted by librettist Jaroslav Dusek, premiered in 2004 in Prague: it’s called Nagano. “At first glance there is a contradiction here,” Smolka has noted, “the aristocratic genre of opera” juxtaposed with hockey’s “profane spectacle with maximum appeal to the masses, with sweat, violence, yelling, and crudity.”

Does it work? It’s something to behold is what I’ll say here. Watch some of it, if you will. A couple of translated excerpts seem like they’re in order here, starting with operatic-Jaromir Jagr joining in duet with Ice Rink, sung by a women’s chorus:

JAGR:
What a chilly, chilly plain of ice.

ICE RINK (women’s chorus):
You’re mine, I’m yours. Mine, yours.

JAGR:
You can be treacherous, treacherous, oh plain of ice!

ICE RINK:
Jaromir is shivering and trembling.

JAGR:
How I’ll tame you today, you plain of ice!

ICE RINK:
You’ll writhe like a snake. What, are you afraid? Are you afraid you will have to give up the ghost?

JAGR:
In the NHL the rink is thirty meters at most. Chilly, treacherous.

ICE RINK:
Wrah-ee-ah-ee-ah-eethe

JAGR:
Treacherous plain.

ICE RINK:
My hero, my hero, my hero, mine, mine.

Later, as actual-Jagr did in 1998, opera-Jagr heads out at the end of the semi-final shootout to face a Canadian goaltender in the shoot-out. In life as in dramatic composition, he hit the post.

COACH:
Jagr!!!

JAGR:
I am Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne-ne, ne-ne, never never fear.

JAGR:
I am Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne-ne-ne, never…

JAGR:
I, I, I Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne-, never, never, ne…

JAGR:
I am, I, I Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne- ne-, never, fea- fea- fea- fear.

JAGR:
I, I, I Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne-, never, never, fea-fea-fear.

JAGR:
I am Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne-ne- never.

JAGR:
I am I!

 

 

headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take the temper of the game made it hard. At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1.

That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of common assault. Both had been find already by the referee, $15 a man, and at court that was enough for the magistrate: he said they’d been “amply punished.”

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to war Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

valeri kharlamov: love the game, for its beauty

Sylvan Scene: Valeri Kharlamov (left, showing a spectacular clog) with his Soviet national team line mates, Vladimir Petrov and Boris Mikhailov, in a forest, on a bridge.

“If you are talking about who is the greatest Soviet hockey player of all time, you’ll get an argument on whether it was Valeri Kharlamov or about five or six others. But if you’re talking about the most exciting player, there is no question. It was Kharlamov.”

That’s expert advice that Lawrence Martin received from a Muscovite contact in the fall of 1986 when Martin was stationed in the capital of the USSR for The Globe and Mail. Martin’s book on Soviet hockey, The Red Machine (1990), remains the best on that subject you’ll find in the West. If today, on what would have been Kharlamov’s 70th birthday, you’re on the scout for background reading on his talents and too-short life, start there.

Here, let’s just note in passing that Kharlamov was born on a Wednesday in Moscow, in 1948. He was 33 when he died in 1981 in a highway accident that also killed his wife, Irina.

My favourite phrase describing the verve and artistry with which Kharlamov played the game is Martin’s: “this Chagall of hockey,” he called him. If you go back watch that Montreal shocker of a first Summit game from September of 1972, the way Kharlamov spoons the puck around Canadian defencemen is enough to drop your jaw off its hinges. He had “the fakir’s ingenuity in handling the puck” Anatoli Tarasov said, by which I think he meant “dervish.” (I’m interested, either way, in learning where those ascetics acquired their pucks.) Harry Sinden, Canadian coach from ’72, was plainer in his Kharlamov praise: “He’s a helluva hockey player,” he conceded, later, after the series was over.

“I like to play beautifully,” is something Kharlamov himself said. Also, another thing: “For me hockey provides a chance for self-assertion. What are we worth? The answer to this question can be also found on the ice rink.”

There’s an argument (more or less sarcastic) to be made that the highest accolades conferred on Kharlamov by Canadians during his career involved elbowing him whenever the chance afforded itself, or slashing his ankle. Back in the 1970s, our admiration of his luminous skills was expressed in trying to erase them from the rink — we had no higher praise.

 But we won’t linger there. To end off the day’s Kharlamov miscellany, here’s an exchange he apparently had with Bobby Orr in late 1977. Orr was was not-quite-finally-retired from the Chicago Black Hawks at this point, though almost. Trying to rest his troublesome knees for one last effort to get back on the ice, he was serving the team as an assistant coach that winter when he travelled to Moscow to scout the Izvestia tournament. While he was there, Soviet Life set up an exchange between the two hockey greats. I don’t know how it went in person, but by the time it made it to the page, it was a stilted item indeed, and reads (fair warning) as though it were translated and possibly re-imagined by the dullest of overtired humourless staff propagandists.

waiting on gary bettman

Pre-Authorized: Ken Dryden back before he went into the book business, circa 1971.

“It is so extremely doable.”

That was Ken Dryden talking in December when I met him near his home in Toronto to discuss his book Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey. He was talking, as he was across Canada all through the fall, about the necessity of shifting the culture of hockey to eliminate hits to the head. An account of our conversation appears on the page in today’s New York Times — the online version is over here.

What’s not included in that exchange is a wider discussion of why Game Change and its careful reasoned, and eminently reasonable argument for urgent action isn’t at the fore and the front of the hockey conversation this winter. That’s not to say the book and its powerful message has been ignored: it’s been prominently amplified in The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s along with plenty of other Canadian media, and Game Change finished the year well up the list of national bestsellers. Others, too — TSN’s Rick Westhead is a notable and necessary follow, for one — are working hard to track hockey’s concussion crisis. But because the NHL continues to carry on as if all that were someone else’s business, it’s entirely possible that you could follow the league, with all the colour and excitement and history it broadcasts across all its many platforms, without hearing a serious mention of any of this. As Ken Dryden says, it all comes down to one man. Over to you, Gary Bettman.

 

my first hockey game: ken reid

In The Land of Escalators: In March of 1984, a few years before Ken Reid found his way there, Canadiens faced-off with Quebec’s Nordiques at their famous Forum. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM9442Y_019H2068)

Hockey cards or chocolate bars? Growing up in Nova Scotia, Ken Reid always knew the answer to the question.

 “I remember as a kid my grandfather giving me 25 cents and I’d walk down Union Street in Pictou,” Reid told Curtis Rush of The Toronto Star in 2014. “I’d go to Mr. Fraser’s corner store and the decision was always easy. I could look at candy or I’d look at a pack of cards. To me, it was always a pack of cards.”

Ken Reid

 Reid lives in Toronto now, where he co-anchors the weeknight prime-time edition of Sportsnet Central with Evanka Osmak. If his hockey-card collection has grown over the years — it’s an accumulation, now, of more than 40,000 — his love of sports is what it always has been: intense. In a career in media spanning 20 years, he’s covered Grey Cups and Super Bowls, Olympics, and Stanley Cup finals. His books are all hockey-minded: he followed Hockey Card Stories: True Tales from Your Favourite Players (2014) with One Night Only: Conversations with the NHL’s One-Game Wonders (2016). For his latest, published this fall, he collaborated with an eponymous prolific former Washington Capital on Dennis Maruk: The Unforgettable Story of Hockey’s Forgotten 60-Goal Man.

Today, as part of Puckstruck’s ongoing series, Ken Reid recalls his first brush with NHL hockey.

The thought of seeing real life NHLers live and in colour was always a childhood dream for me — and when I say dream I mean dream. I grew up in Pictou, Nova Scotia. Basic geography tells you that’s a long way from any NHL rink, especially for a hockey-obsessed 10-year-old.

In fact, my grade 5 teacher Mrs. MacLean, even wrote a message in my yearbook: “You’ll get to see the Canadiens at the Forum one day.”

It turns out that one day was a very long two years later. Two years is a snap of the fingers for an adult, but an eternity for a kid. After years of prodding, we finally broke my Dad down. He was going to take my brother Peter and me to the Forum to see our first NHL game. (I went to an exhibition game in Nova Scotia a year earlier, but it was in a local rink, so I considered this to be the real deal.)

Peter and I hopped on a plane for the first time. We flew to Montreal with Dad and checked in to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

That night, Saturday, March 14, 1987, we saw the Montreal Canadiens play the Philadelphia Flyers.

The ice was so white. And so far away. We were at the top of the Forum, way up behind one of the nets. I remember having to bend down to see the play at the other end of the ice.

But I was there. The NHL was right in front of me. I couldn’t get over how clean the Forum was. And the building had escalators. Escalators in a rink! I can’t recall who won off the top of my head — although a quick check on the web tells me the game ended in a 3-3 tie. More than just the game sticks out — things like strolling Saint Catherine’s Street with my brother and Dad quickly come to mind. My brother and I were terrified of the big city on day one. By day two, we couldn’t get enough of it. And Dad took us to eat at the famous Bar-B-Barn.

On the Sunday night we saw Team Canada ’72 and the USSR play in a 15th anniversary game at the Forum. Then Monday, we were in the expensive seats for the Habs and the New York Islanders. We didn’t have to bend down in our seats to see the action that night: it was all mere feet away.

I was 11 years old and in heaven at the Forum. Thanks, Dad.

•••

Saturday night’s Flyers game saw goaltender Ron Hextall play his best game in weeks, according to the Philadelphia papers. The Flyers were riding high atop the NHL’s Patrick Division; Canadiens were second in the Adams. Canadiens got goals from Mats Naslund, Guy Carbonneau, and Claude Lemieux. Dave Poulin, Mark Howe, and Scott Mellanby scored for Philadelphia to take the game into a fruitless overtime.

 The ’72 game that Ken Reid saw on the Sunday night was the middle game in a three-game series pitting an assemblage of oldtimers most of whom had played in the epic Summit Series against a similarly staffed touring team of Russians. The latter, featuring Vladislav Tretiak, Valery Vasiliev, and Aleksandr Yakushev, had trained for three months ahead of the rematch; the Canadians, coached by Winnipeg Jets’ GM John Ferguson, were described in several newspaper reports as “mostly overweight and over 40.” Paul Henderson was there from the original squad, along with Mavoliches Pete and Frank, Dennis Hull, Serge Savard, Ron Ellis, Bobby Clarke, Brad Park, Rod Gilbert, Bill White, Red Berenson, and Yvan Cournoyer. (Ken Dryden had offered to play defence, but management had turned him down.)

 The Canadians won the opening game in Hamilton by a score of 6-5, with Clarke, the 37-year-old Flyers GM, leading away with a pair of Flyer ringers as his wingers, Reggie Leach and Bill Barber. With Ken Reid watching in Montreal, a 41-year-old Jacques Lemaire took a break from his day job as Canadiens’ assistant GM to register a goal and two assists in a 6-2 Canadian win. The final game, in Ottawa, finished in a tie, 8-8. Yvan Cournoyer, 43, scored a hattrick for Canada. “After 15 years,” he said, “we realized that they are nice people, and maybe they realized that we are nice people.”

 The New York Islanders were running second to the Flyers in the Patrick Division. Monday night saw Canadiens blank them 3-0 on the strength of Brian Hayward’s first shutout in four years. Gaston Gingras, Ryan Walter, and Claude Lemieux scored for Montreal.