paging back through hockey’s pulp fiction with bumps cathaway, iceberg callahan, and beef mulligan

Problems? Star Chicago Condors centreman Vic Paulson has two pressing him, one of which you don’t often see in big-time hockey, while the other one is a concussion — a very hockey problem indeed. Vic, see, stands accused of writing an article in a big Canadian newspaper in which he rudely denigrates the game that’s given him so much — bites the puck that feeds — and now all the hockey world (his teammates included) is mad at him.

Jerry Moad of the Rangers has a concussion, too, thanks to a vicious blindside hit by Eskimos’ defenceman Cyclone Couture, but his main problem is love: the devotion he used to have for hockey has strayed to Nona Velmar.

Willie Tittus? A dandy defenceman for the Black Hawks, his only problem is a bad bout of self-doubt. The predicament for Clarence Tillingworth, new wing for the Blue Demons, is that everybody thinks he’s a coward because he … reads a lot.

Swede Hansen, husky left wing for the Detroit Red Arrows — I can’t remember what his problem is. Lost his memory, maybe, or his nerve, or his house key? Possibly, like Falcons’ centreman Blackie Magee, he has a father problem that’s also very much a coach problem, as in he plays for his hard-bitten dad and just can’t seem to please the old man, no matter how hard he tries.

Can Blackie turn it around? Any hope for Jerry’s head and/or heart? What about Clarence: will he repent his literary sins?

Like the trials and tribulations of all these beleaguered hockey players, the answers to these urgent questions can be found in a new self-published anthology of hockey-minded pulp literature originally published in the U.S. in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

Compiled by Cambridge, Ontario, historian Paul Langan, Classic Hockey Stories has as its core seven rollicking short stories by writers you’ve (almost certainly) never heard of, from magazines like Ace Sports Monthly and 12 Sports Aces, bearing titles like “Blue Line Blazers” and “Pardon My Puck!” wherein characters yell “Attaboy!” to encourage the hockey players who feature, and “Take him out of there! Smear him! Knock his ears off!” to intimidate them.

Classic Hockey Stories debuted in December; if you’re interested in acquiring a copy, steer over to Langan’s website, here.

Mining a mostly forgotten vein of hockey fiction, Langan lays bare a fascinating geology. T.W. Ford, Theodore Roemer, and Giles Lutz, et al: the (all American) authors included here aren’t exactly household names in the annals of hockey literature, but they were all prolific pulp writers who knew how to get from the start of a story to the end in prose as raw and furious as the action on their imaginary rinks.

Bumps Cathaway, Montreal Cassidy, Beef Mulligan, Iceberg Callahan. Whether they’re memorably named or not, the characters in these stories tend to be colourful, if only roughly rendered. The plotting isn’t always what you’d call sophisticated, and the values on display are often musty antiques. Dialogue from French-Canadian characters sometimes reads (unfortunately) like this outburst from Big Georges Flandreau in “Charge of the Ice Brigade:”

“Always I say to them fallers, Vic Paulson he belong in beeg hockey league. They play you dirty treek somewan, huh? We feex mebbeso, by gar!”

At least the hockey is … not always entirely clichéd and/or implausible in its details and mechanics. Say this: it can be hard to look away from the page once a story like “Blonde Bullet” or “Charge of the Ice Brigade” gets on its careening track.

In December, when I e-mailed Paul Langan to ask him about the book, he was good enough to answer. Our conversation went like this:

What inspired you to put this collection together?
Like most Canadians, I’ve always loved hockey, and I was researching pulp magazines and dime novels. Early on in my life, I read pulp westerns, and I knew there were many other genres of pulp fiction: sci-fi, detective stories, westerns, mysteries. They’re all available online as pdfs now at very low prices. I only came across a few sports pulps, and the vast majority of them were baseball, basketball, football, and boxing stories. Hockey-themed stories were even harder to come by.

What were the challenges of tracking down the stories? How many did you read and consider for the book?
Extremely challenging for me. There are two sides to this issue of finding them. On one hand, there are the easily accessible ones that people have converted to pdfs and offer online at really great — cheap — prices. Then there are the collectors who collect the original magazines in which the stories appeared. These are expensive. I could only find 25 hockey novelettes and stories, and of those I used nine for the book. Finding Canadian- themed stories, or stories with even a hint of Canadiana, was even more difficult. Eventually I gave up looking for inexpensive avenues of finding hockey-themed stories and novelettes from the pulp days and just went with what I had.

Many of these stories are written by American writers for American publications. Do you think they played a part in promoting the spread hockey in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century?

To me, the breakdown of number of stories written on particular sport at that time was representative of where hockey was at that time. If I remember correctly, I believe hockey-themed stories were number six or so among the sports pulps. I doubt the hockey stories influenced anyone.

What’s your opinion of the literary quality of these stories?
Honestly, the stories are not that great. I don’t think the vast majority of people reading the pulps back then bought them thinking this was going to be a great literary experience. It was pure escapism and entertainment before the popularity of TV destroyed them. They’re just like YouTube videos today, I think. If you read the book, just sit back and enjoy the fun.

Do you have a favourite story?
“Charge of the Rink Brigade” is a well-written novel by Joe Archibald, who had a long career and wrote more than 50 novels. They were not on hockey topics, but he was a good writer. I love this one because he has Canadian characters and includes cities like Winnipeg. As the old saying goes, a good story is one that paints a picture. This novel paints a clear picture.

Also, “Stooge for a Puck Pirate” by C. Paul Jackson. This is a sentimental favourite for me: I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, across from Detroit, Michigan. I used to go to Red Wings games in the 1970s and ’80s, some at the old Olympia Stadium.

What was the thing that surprised you most, putting together this project?
There’s a short section at the end of the book on the authors who wrote for the pulps. Researching them, I learned a lot about what writers had to do back then to make a living. They wrote and submitted stories for a variety of genres just to make some money to pay the bills. This definitely reflected in the quality of the hockey stories. With some of them, it seems like they didn’t really know the game. There’s one story where the author wrote several times that one player “blockered” another. He meant to say he “checked” him, but evidently was unaware of that term.

Classic Hockey Stories: From the Golden Era of Pulp Magazine, 1930s—1950s
Paul Langan
(Self-published, 240 pp., $13.66 in paperback)

This interview has been edited and condensed.

winterspiele 1936: the revenge of jimmy foster

True Brits: Back row, from left: Coach Percy Nicklin, Bob Wyman, Archie Stinchcombe, Carl Erhardt (captain), Jack Kilpatrick, Gordon Dailley, Gerry Davey, Chirp Brenchley, Johnny Coward. Front, from left: Jimmy Borland, Art Child, Jimmy Foster, Alex Archer.

So instead of referring to this game as the triumph of England it could be labelled “The Revenge of Jimmy Foster.” The stirring episodes at Garmisch yesterday could be woven into a movie scenario which would be sure of four-star rating in at least one section of the country.

If he never stops another puck in the Olympics, he has ensured his place in the hockey hall of fame so far as international honours are concerned — while he has probably ensured it forever in the Maritimes.

• Baz O’Meara, writing in the Montreal Daily Star on Wednesday, February 12, 1936, after goaltender Jimmy Foster and his teammates on Great Britain’s team handed Canada its first-ever loss at the Olympic Games, going to claim Britain’s first (and only) gold medal.

Columnist Baz O’Meara was mostly on the money. If Jimmy Foster’s stardom didn’t quite end up soaring into eternity, not even in Eastern Canada, he did find his way into a hall of hockey fame: the British one, into which Foster was inducted in 1950. This much, too, may be safe to say: Foster, who died at the age of 63 on a Saturday of this date in 1969, never had a better night in his long and distinguished puckstopping career than he did disappointing Canada in the winter of ’36.

That was indeed the year that Canada’s four-tournament, 16-year reign as Olympic champions came to a shocking (and, for Canadians, controversial) end. Foster was a leading character in that — even before Britain took on its hockey-mad colony at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen games.

Born in Glasgow, in Scotland, in 1905, Foster emigrated to Canada when he was six and his family relocated to Winnipeg. That’s where he took up hockey goaltending, and refined his craft. He resume from those early years includes stints with the Winnipeg Argonauts, the University of Manitoba, the Winnipeg Winnipegs, and the Elmwood Millionaires. When he wasn’t on the ice, he was raising a family of three with his wife while working in PR for a distributor of Orange Crush. That’s according to Rob Jovanovic, author of an exhaustive history of Britain’s 1936 hockey gold, Pride & Glory: The Forgotten Story of Great Britain’s Greatest Olympic Team (2011).

Foster broke a leg at some point and was told he’d never play hockey again. Wrong: in the early 1930s, the work he put in playing with the senior Moncton Hawks earned him a reputation as one of the best goaltenders not in the NHL. Jovanovic:

In four years with the Hawks, he was reckoned to have saved over 6,000 shots, missed only one of 220 games, and won two Allan Cups. During one spell he went 417 minutes without conceding a goal, almost seven full games.

There was a brief buzz to the effect that Foster might find his way to the Chicago Black Hawks, where the death of another Scottish-born, Winnipeg-raised goaltender, Charlie Gardiner, had left an absence that needed filling. But nothing came of that.

In 1935, at the advanced (hockey) age of 29, it looked like Foster would finally get his chance in the NHL: that February, the two amateur prospects Tommy Gorman was most interested in signing for his Montreal Maroons were reported to be Foster and a promising winger by the name of Toe Blake. Blake signed and Foster agreed to terms, according to Montreal’s Gazette. For the latter, it wasn’t to be: Foster denied that he’d committed to anything. By fall, word was that he’d signed to play for the Richmond Hawks of the newly formed English National League, where his old Moncton coach, Percy Nicklin, was in charge.

Born in Midland, Ontario, Nicklin had learned his hockey in Port Arthur, now part of Thunder Bay. Named to coach Britain’s entry into the Winter Olympics that would hit the ice in February of 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in the heart of Adolf Hitler’s Bavaria, Nicklin picked Foster as his starting goaltender.

For all the confidence the coach had in Foster, he was worried about the defence in front of him. “Nicklin fears that his team will be comparatively easy to score against,” a Canadian Press dispatch from England confided that January.

In the event, off-ice politics threatened to spoil the British effort in Germany as much as any hockey opposition. Most of the players on the British team had honed their hockey on Canadian ice; winger Gerry Davey was born in Port Arthur. Before the Games opened on February 6, Canada’s hockey delegation complained that two players, Foster and winger Alex Archer, had failed to seek releases from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association before migrating from Canadian club teams to British.

Hockey’s governing body sided with Canada, and the night before pucks were set to drop, the Ligue Internationale de Hockey sur Glace (as the IIHF was then known) ruled that Foster and Archer were ineligible to play for Britain. Irked, the British talked about withdrawing from the tournament. In the end, Canada withdrew its protest (if only for the duration of the Olympics), and the British played on with Foster and Archer in the line-up.

I’ve written elsewhere about the team representing Canada in ’36 (they were from Port Arthur, too). As Canadians, they were the clear favourites going into the Games, with the United States and hosts Germany seen as their strongest challengers.

Nicklin didn’t mind being counted out. Rob Jovanovic writes that he was focussed on preparing his team for the job ahead, insisting that his charges “were all in bed by 10 p.m., made no night-time telephone calls, smoked no more than two cigarettes a day, and didn’t drink any alcohol at all.”

The British campaign started with a pair of victories — and Jimmy Foster shutouts —over Sweden (1-0) and Japan (3-0). It was in the second round that the upset of the tournament — and Olympic hockey history — occurred, with Britain’s modest-smoking teetotalling squad pulling out a 2-1 victory over the favoured Canadians at the Garmisch Eis-Stadion. Gerry Davey was one of the British heroes that day, scoring Britain’s opening goal, and so too was Foster.

“His goaltending was superb, “Phil Drackett writes in account of British Olympic brio, Vendetta On Ice (1992), “as he outguessed the Canadian sharpshooters and coolly turned away bullet-like drives, the rhythmic motion of his jaws as he chewed gum being the only sign of emotion.”

A bad outcome for Canada only got worse: the way the tournament schedule was organized, the defending champions found that though both they and the British advanced to the final stage, the results of the earlier round carried over, and the two would not meet again.

That meant that while the Canadians went 4-0 after their historic loss — running up routs of Czechoslovakia (7-0) Hungary (15-0) along the way — the British were able to claim gold with the 2-0-2 record that they put together after beating Canada.

The winners’ glee was great. Britain’s “Ice Hockey Miracle,” London’s Daily Express called the team’s gold-medal performance. Canadians, meanwhile, groused and entertained excuses: nobody explained the tournament format beforehand, and anyway, it was ridiculous, and anyway, since all the Brits were more or less Canadians anyway, wasn’t this actually a triumph for Canadian hockey after all?

“England won because she was better coached,” the controversial Alex Archer told a reporter in Winnipeg that May, “and you can give all the credit in the world to our coach, Percy Nicklin. England played typical Nicklin hockey, the sort of hockey which he taught the double Allan Cup winners, Moncton Hawks. We went out to get a goal and when we got it we played a tight defensive game.”

Jimmy Foster stayed on in England, making a move (with Nicklin) to the Harringay Greyhounds, and helping Great Britain win back-to-back European championships in 1937 and ’38.

Home Cooking: A Canadian Press report from September of 1936, seven months after Jimmy Foster and his teammates upset Canada’s Olympic hopes in Germany.

Set to sign with the Brighton Tigers in 1939, Foster sized up the European forecast of war and opted for a return to Canada. He played three years of senior hockey, turning out for the Quebec Aces and, in Nova Scotia, the Glace Bay Miners and North Sydney Victorias before he retired in 1942.

A couple of last notes, to take us back to where this began: in all my reading about Jimmy Foster, I’ve never seen evidence that vengeance played a part in his perfromance in 1936.  As per Baz O’Meara’s reverie, I can report that the stirring episodes at Garmisch were indeed woven into a movie scenario in England in the wake of Britain’s glorious Winter Olympics.

Producer and director Monty Banks was the force behind Olympic Honeymoon, which was shot in the months following the tournament though never, as far as I know, released. Jimmy Foster didn’t participate, but three of his Olympic teammates featured, including Gerry Davey and back-up goaltender Art Child.

Jake Milford was in it, too: a winger for the Wembley Canadians at the time, he went on to serve as GM of both the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1984.

Milford’s Wembley coach wangled a part, too: fellow Hall-of-Famer Clint Benedict played a stylish referee in the movie, sporting plus fours and a silk scarf.

Golden Glaswegian: Jimmy Foster in 1936-37, when he tended the nets for the Harringay Greyhounds of the English National League.

non-fungible number 9

Elbow Room: “Gordie ‘Pow!'” by Detroit artist Zelley was offered for sale as an NFT earlier this fall by the Hoe Foundation. (Image: Howe Foundation)

I lost track of the bidding soon after the bidding started, in October, on the Gordie Howe NFTs. If there was bidding. Was there? I wasn’t bidding, but I think people were, if I’m not mistaken, people who saw an opportunity to acquire exclusive works of art depicting one of the greatest hockey players ever to have played, for the purpose of … not hanging them on the wall, or anywhere, due to the non-fungibility of the works in question, as I understand it, which I don’t, entirely.

I’ve been slow on the NFT uptake, I confess. Trying to catch up. Gordie Howe’s token efforts snared my attention because (i) Gordie Howe and (ii) I’m always interested in the artwork that hockey inspires. I didn’t need to be seeking to acquire any of the vaporous masterworks on offer to activate my curiosity in the subject-matter and the history on which they draw. That came naturally.

Howe’s grandson, Travis Howe, is the founder of this feast — Mark Howe’s son. There’s a video you can watch that has Travis explaining the whole concept behind The Gentl9man 2021 NFT Art Collection. The idea, in short, is to be sharing “some really special stories that have true meaning to the Howe family” while raising money for the good causes that the Howe Foundation has long believed in and supported. I can get behind that, even if I’m not bidding: the Howe Foundation does worthy work in aid of both getting kids active and in backing women aspiring to make their way in the world of sports business.

Along with a reproduction of a sketch of Mr. Hockey’s own, there were eight works originally on offer in October, by a Detroit artist, Matt Zelley, a.k.a. just plain Zelley. Among them is a great piece of puck-pointillism, reproduced at the foot of this post; another portrays Gordie Howe as an oncoming locomotive — at least I think that’s the concept. Promised as a premium bonus to the lucky buyer of the poppy Roy Lichtenstein-inspired piece at the top of the post: “a game-used pair of Gordie’s elbow pads” currently on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Zelley’s interpretations of some of the landmarks of Howe lore are to your taste or not; all the works are up for viewing at the Howe Foundation site.

It’s not the commerce involved with these NFTs that I’m interested in, particularly, nor Zelley’s decisions as an artist. What I’m here for (sorry if you’re not) is the storytelling that’s behind the project, and the messages it’s sending — and ignoring. While there’s plenty to consider and to discuss in each of these Howe Zelleys, the one that catches my attention in particular is the vivid one we’re looking at above, the one titled “Gordie ‘Pow!’”

Let me just disclaim, up front, any desire to mess with Gordie Howe’s legacy. He remains one of hockey’s undeniable greats — Maurice Richard himself will be testifying to that a little further down. Howe’s talents were mountainous, as was his strength and his durability. I’m not denying any of that. He played the game at such a high level for such a long time, was an idol to so many, worked tirelessly as an ambassador of the game he loved, seems to have been just a great guy, so long as you were meeting him in circumstances in which you weren’t trying to take the puck away from him or otherwise stymie his progress on NHL ice.

But also? There’s no getting away from the fact that, on that ice, he was a clear and present danger to anyone who got in his way. Gordie Howe was violent and he was mean.

You don’t have to take my word for it. “Meanest player in the league,” Andy Bathgate called him in 1959, “uses all the tricks plus.” A sampling of the press Howe got when he first retired in 1971 might include Dave Anderson’s verdict in the New York Times: “Sure, this soft-spoken man was dirty. Some say the dirtiest.” Son Marty has called him (with, I guess, affection) “the toughest, meanest guy I’ve ever seen on a pair of skates.” Howe was often injured, we know; he also did a lot of injuring. I’ve written about both, including here and here.

Hockey, which is to say hockey people, long ago found ways to reconcile itself to and excuse the violence it tolerates within the game. One of them is to insist that assaults that take place on the ice are somehow different from those that occur elsewhere, beyond the confines of arena boards. (That this fiction has taken hold and, mostly, been accepted in the wider world is a magic no-one truly understands.) There’s a rhetorical trick hockey people like, too, the one that seeks to detach hockey players from the anti-social behaviours they sometimes perpetrate by emphasizing what wonderful people they are away from the game. I’ve written about this before — specifically in reference to Gordie Howe, in fact — without ever really understanding the logic at work. The Howe Foundation’s NFT project blithely embraces the contradiction by including the concept of [sic] gentl9manliness in the title of a collection that includes portraits of our hero punching and knocking out opponents.

In those works, Zelley honours and adds to another tradition of hockey’s tendency to downplay its own brutality, whether or not he’s actually aware it. “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is an actual cartoon, so it’s hard to blame it for doing (and doing well) what cartoons are meant to do: brighten, distort, exaggerate, spoof the real world for entertainment’s sake.

Here’re the rubric accompanying the piece in the Howe Foundation’s online gallery:

Gordie “Pow!”

“It’s better to give than to receive.”
— Gordie Howe

With playful colors and a comic-inspired style, a smiling Gordie Howe uses one of his infamous elbows on Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Contrary to popular belief, there was no bad blood between the two players. That myth began when Howe hit Richard coming across the line, and according to Howe, “he spun like a rocket and fell down.” Howe went on to explain, “He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.”

Where to begin? Also: how to begin, without sounding like a serious finger-wagging pedant? I guess maybe would I get going by pointing out that elbowing, infamous or otherwise, is a penalty, following up to ask why the act of knocking out an opponent, even rendered with a playful palette, would be one you’d want to spotlight? Yes, I think that’s how I’d do it.

Definitely looks like a headshot, too, that grinning Gordie has delivered here. We’re late to the scene, but I’d say that the Richard we’re seeing is unconscious, even before he’s down — which won’t be good for his head when it does hit the ice in the next (purely notional) panel. I guess if you were aiming to portray both Howe’s cheery nature and his grim record of administering concussions to opponents, this is how you’d do it, but again I’m going to fall back on questioning: why?

I know, I know: it’s comic-inspired, not an accurate portrayal, what’s the big fuss, why do I hate fun?

It just strikes me as stoutly strange that (i) this is the one of the (quote) really special stories that has true meaning to the Howe family and (ii) that no-one involved in the project saw any dissonance in turning hockey head trauma into a cartoon for a Howe-related project.

Mr. Hockey, after all, spent the last years of his life with dementia that, as son Marty talked about in 2012, was surely related to the injuries he suffered in his hockey-playing years. “You play 33 years at that level without a helmet,” the younger Howe told the Toronto Star’s Mark Zwolinski, “and things are going to happen.” Did he have CTE? It’s not clear; as far as I know the family didn’t donate Howe’s brain for study after his death in 2016 at the age of 88. In 2012, Marty Howe said that the Howes had no plans to do so.

Marty and Mark and their two other siblings, Murray and Cathy, did write an afterword to the autobiography that Howe published in 2014. My Story is a bright and entertaining package, written in the confident first-person; only on a back-end acknowledgments page does Howe credit Calgary writer Paul Haavardsrud for helping “to take the thoughts in my head and put them down on paper.” As John Branch wrote in a review of the book for the New York Times, the whole enterprise raises “at least two questions, both unanswered: What kind of damage did hockey do to Howe’s brain? And how does someone with dementia, which severely impacts memory, write a memoir?”

The afterword, which the Howe children presumably penned themselves, does actually attempt to rationalize the punishment and pain that were such prominent parts of their father’s professional brand. It’s almost endearing.

“How can someone who’s so kind and soft-spoken at home become so remorseless once he puts on skates,” they ask. Answer: “It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde duality that’s not easy to reconcile.”

It comes down to his professionalism. That’s what they believe. His job was to win; he did his job.

“He decided early in his career that to be successful in the NHL he’d need to give the opposition a reason to slow down when they came to get the puck. If that meant throwing an elbow or putting some lumber on a guy, then it seemed like fair game to him. After all, everybody in the NHL was being paid to be there, and the odd cut or bruise was just the cost of doing business.”

Here’s where differ from those earlier (and forthcoming) witness statements. “Ironically,” the Howe siblings propose,

it was the respect he had for other players that made him feel like he had a license to play as ruthlessly as he did. He wasn’t mean-spirited or dirty; he just figured that a few stitches or a knock to the ribs didn’t cause any real harm. If it gave him the extra split second he needed to make a play, then that was justification enough for him. In his mind, playing any other way would be shortchanging the team. Some people might not approve, but his tactics gave him the space he needed to operate for more than 30 years. There was definitely a method to his madness.

I can’t decide if the generosity of this reading outweighs its naïveté, or whether do they just cancel each other out? That the Howe children decided to address their father’s on-ice vehemence at all should be recognized — but then so should the fact that they then so studiously avoid any serious discussion of the head trauma that Gordie Howe suffered and administered even as they’re leading up to their mention of his “cognitive impairment” in the last few pages of the book.

The jolly anecdote that Zelley and company have attached to “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is, if nothing else, of a piece with the reputational reset that Mr. Hockey proposes.

I know, I know: the quote about the supposed bad blood between Detroit’s most famous number 9 and his Montreal counterpart is accurate: it’s something that Gordie Howe did indeed tell Dave Stubbs, then of the Montreal Gazette, in 2007. They were in Montreal, at a gala celebrating the charitable works of a mutual acquaintance Howe knew as “John” — Jean Béliveau. Most of the account Stubbs wrote focussed on the amicable relationship that those latter two enjoyed through the years. Here’s a fuller excerpt:

They fought hard, but within the rules during a time of bitter rivalries, when teams met each other 14 or more times per season. Neither recalls ever dropping the gloves against the other.

It was the late Rocket Richard, a fellow right-winger, that lore has Howe detesting.

“There was no dislike,” Howe said. “I respected him. I’d watch every move he made, if it could benefit my hockey. …

“They always thought there was bad blood because I hit him once coming across the line and he spun like a rocket and fell down. He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.

“I felt sorry for the Rocket. I never felt he enjoyed the game. If he wasn’t having a good night, he’d just as soon explode. That fellow didn’t know when to stop, did he? But I admired him.”

So much so that Howe named his dog for Richard. Surely the four-legged Rocket is a ferocious, brooding beast?

Howe leans in close.

“A toy poodle,” he whispered, his playfulness worn in a grin.

A great party piece, that last bit, if a little cruel. The pity, just before that, is interesting. As for Howe’s assertion that there was no antipathy between the two superstars — I’ll grant that it’s entirely likely and unsurprising — allowable, even — that at that late date, when Howe was 79, with almost half-a-century gone by since the two men last met on NHL ice, that’s how he chose to remember the way it once was, benevolently, generously, electing to settle back on the comforting chimera that as old rivals they two had engaged in honourable sportive struggle against one another with reverence and esteem as their mutual watchwords.

The historical record isn’t entirely contradictory — let’s just say that it has a finer grain to it.

Howe and Richard were fighting each other on the ice as early as 1949, when Richard was 27 and Howe was 20. Detroit and Montreal had a bad-tempered meeting that January at the Forum wherein Richard engaged in what the local Gazette rated as “determined slugfests” with Howe and Red Wing captain Sid Abel. In both cases, the Gazette decided, he was “on the short end of the punch-throwing.” The Rocket was hurt, too, in one of those melees, tearing a muscle in his hip.

Red Wing defenceman Red Kelly later recalled that the referee on the night, King Clancy, skated in to adjudicate when Howe and Richard first began to scruffle, calling off the players who were trying to separate the two. “Let ’em alone. Let ’em fight. Let’s see who is the best fighter,” Clancy said, by Kelly’s 1970 account. (Before it was all over — accidentally or not — Richard ended up punching Clancy, too.)

That wasn’t the only occasion on which Howe and Richard brawled. There was this time, too, which I don’t have a precise date for, though the details of the respective uniforms would seem to say it’s pre-1956:

Howe v. Richard: An undated photo of Detroit’s number 9 and Montreal’s. That’s Red Wing Marty Pavelich sitting atop the boards, which suggests that the photo was taken in 1956 or earlier.

However warmly Howe and/or members of his family have spoken of Richard in recent years, both men did see, in their time, see fit to putting some pricklier feelings on the page.

Here’s the Rocket writing about Howe in his 1971 Stan Fischler-mediated autobiography:

He was big and strong and skated with great ease. He could do what no other player in the league could do, shoot the puck from either the left or right side. I noticed Howe when he first joined the Red Wings in the late forties and he impressed me as a good, but not a great, hockey player.

That changed, with the years. “Looking back,” Richard says, “I would say that Howe is the best all-around hockey player I’ve ever seen, and that includes Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.”

The next paragraph, I guess, counts as … praise?

Another thing about Gordie that I experienced firsthand was that he was a dirty hockey player, not tough, mind you, but dirty — and he would take absolutely nothing from anybody. If you gave him a bad check, you could be sure he’d get even with you, in spades! But he wouldn’t start it. In that sense, Howe and I were the same. I would never hit anybody first if he hadn’t done anything to me before.

In their 2000 book, 9: Maurice Richard, Reluctant Hero, Chris Goyens, Frank Orr, and Jean-Luce Duguay quote Richard near the end of his career. “Howe is a great player, the best I ever played against, but he should hustle more. He doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as he could. He was a better all-round player than I was, maybe the best ever. But I think he should have scored more big goals, like in the playoffs.”

Finally, the 1995 memoir Howe produced with Tom DeLisle’s help is instructive, too, and offers more nuance on the relationship than what we’re getting from the Howe Foundation’s NFT catalogue. Billed as “an authorized autobiography by Gordie and Colleen Howe,” And … Howe! includes a chapter called SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT. Here’s the salient sub-head followed by Howe’s reminiscence as it appears on the page:

THE ROCKET AND GORDIE HAVE NEVER BEEN FRIENDS SINCE GORDIE BROKE THE ROCKET’S GOAL RECORD OF 544.

GORDIE: Things have changed but, at the time, I hated the old (bleep). Of course, he hated me too. There were a few guys he hated worse than me, like [Ted] Lindsay and Stan Mikita. But that was then. Now, Rocket and I are pretty good friends. We do a few things together, and he and his now deceased wife, Lucille, were our first choices to be included in a book Colleen produced a few years ago about former players and their families, entitle After The Applause. So I think that shows our respect for him.

Rocket said once in the paper that “Gordie might have more goals, but my goals were more important.” I told somebody, “I don’t want to fight with Rocket, but I’d like to say that his goals meant bugger-all to me.” Essentially he’s such a proud man. He was a goalscorer, I was a goalscorer. I had to take him out, he had to take me out. That was our job from the blueline in. Rocket was such a powerful man. He had one habit I perceived, however, he would come down and cut across the blueline because he liked to get to the center of the ice and shoot. Everything was quick wrist shots. So one time, as he came across the blueline, I really nailed him. We ended up in a fight.

This is the 1949 clash described earlier. As the Detroit Free Press saw it, “Richard and Howe met heavily inside the Detroit blueline and came up fighting. They kept swinging lustily with bare fists and tumbled to the ice.”

Back to Howe’s telling:

There was a flurry of people around. Somebody pushed me from behind and I went down on one knee. And for some reason, Rocket was under my left knee. I waited, and when he looked up, I popped him. I whacked him a pretty good one. Then all hell broke loose, and when they got us apart we were yapping like jaybirds at one another. Then Sid Abel poked his nose in, and said to the Rocket, “Aw, you big frog, you finally got what you were asking for.” And Rocket goes — BAM! — and breaks Sid’s nose. Then I started to laugh, it looked so darn funny. Then Sid went in an did a job on the Rocket, again.

Rocket was talking about that episode a little while ago. He said, “I took on your whole damn team, no wonder I lost.” Even in a loss, he could be so proud. The guy is unbelievable.”

Full Count: Zelley’s “1,071 Pucks,” another NFT that went up for sale earlier this fall, with the number recognizing the goals Howe scored in the NHL and WHA.(Image: Howe Foundation)

spectres of the maple leaf bookshelf

Hopefullessness: A Toronto bookstore shelf, circa 2018, showcasing some literary highs and lows. From left, Gare Joyce’s Young Leafs: The Making of a New Hockey History (2017); Christopher Gudgeon’s The Sound of One Team Sucking (2017); and Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto: Life as a Maple Leafs Fan (2012) by Peter Robinson.

You may not like it — it is a little cruel — but you have to at least, I think, pay grudging respect to the commitment to the bit: mockery on this scale takes time and planning and diligence.

A Twitter accounting of the (long) arc of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ futility when it comes to winning Stanley Cup championships is one thing, and impressive in its own way.

To go to the trouble of self-publishing a 200-page book to troll the team and (I guess) its faithful: that’s on a whole other level.

Today might not be the best day for all this: I apologize if there’s a sting to it, on the morning after another dispiriting Leaf loss, last night’s 7-1 debacle at the gloves of the undermanned Pittsburgh Penguins. Friday night, of course, Toronto lost another one, at home to the San Jose Sharks. That leaves the team with a record of 2-3-1 to start the new season, just five points out of first in the Atlantic Division, tied for 21st overall in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the presiding Stanley Cup champions, so … chin up?

Still the mood around the team is a little worrying.

The jeering from the bookshelf isn’t going to help that, I’m guessing. Still, it is my duty to report that this very fall, somebody has gone to the trouble of publishing a paperback called The Complete History of Toronto Maple Leafs Championships (in the Last Five Six Decades). The author is given as … Stan Lee Slump. Beyond an author’s note, table of contents, and page of wry blurbs, the pages are (yes, that’s right) … blank. It retails for C$14.95.

When it comes to anxiety and quick-settling despondency, only the devotees of the Montreal Canadiens can match those of the Leafs. I think that’s fair to say. The literary front is something else entirely: bookswise, no team has seen its tail so thoroughly snapped at by fans and followers over the years.

Some (not blank) exemplars from the calamitous (and ongoing) past:

Al Strachan’s Why The Leafs Suck (2009) was recently re-issued as Why The Leafs Still Suck.

Leafs AbomiNation: The Dismayed Fan’s Handbook to Why the Leafs Stink and How They Can Rise Again (2009) by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange

Old-School: Toronto Maple Laffs (1980), cartoonist Patrick Corrigan’s cartoon guide to another woeful era.

 

 

 

a broad street bully reconsiders: regrets, he had a few

Born in Waldheim, Saskatchewan, on a Friday of this date in 1949, Dave Schultz is 72 today. He scored some goals in his 11-year NHL career, but mostly the man they called the Hammer is remembered as the muscle behind the Philadelphia Flyers’ back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in the early 1970s, which is to say the fist. In helping his team claim their second straight Cup in 1975, Schultz amassed 472 minutes in penalty minutes, a single-season record in NHL annals.

“The Flyers’ home, the Spectrum, is on Broad Street in Philadelphia,” Dick Brown wrote in Weekend Magazine the summer before that spree, “and newspapers have referred to Dave Schultz as ‘Broad Street’s biggest bully.’ Okay, then, what is it that goes into the making of a bully? As far as Dave is concerned, the answer is obvious: his fighting is his success. With all that it’s done for him, it would be big news if he decided not to fight.”

Schultz was 24, then, with a five-year contract in hand and “a fine, five-bedroom home across the river from Philadelphia in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.” He was “at an all-time heavy, all-time healthy 196 pounds on a frame of six feet one.” He smoked two or three cigarettes a day during hockey’s season, Brown reported, more in the summer; he liked beer and rye. “A star’s life,” the story went, “for a guy who might not be a star if he didn’t fight.”

After Philadelphia, Schultz carried on to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, where he continued to hammer away as a King, a Penguin, a Sabre.

So surprise was general across the hockey world when Schultz published his autobiography in 1981, a year after his retirement from the NHL. Schultz had Stan Fischler shaping his sentences for The Hammer: Confessions of a Hockey Enforcer, and together they questioned hockey’s propensity for violence, exploring the regrets Schultz now felt for the hockey life he’d led and weighing the question of what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. (They also, incidentally, accused Schultz’s former Philadelphia captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.)

“Hockey can be the most exciting sport on earth and the most artistic as well,” Schultz declared, to sum up his 200-page case, “but only when properly played and administered. Tragically, it has degenerated into a sloppy, brawl-filled mess. I certainly do not deny my own contribution to the problem, which I have tried to spell out as clearly as possible in this book. I hope that I succeeded and that the NHL will, in the future, sell hockey, not blood.”

 

the spy who came into the cold

Cold Warriors: Moscow Dynamo, 1977-78, poses with their famous British double-agent sports psychologist. Front row (left to right): Vasili Pervukhin, Valeri Vasiliev, Alexander Maltsev, Kim Philby, unidentified KGB officer, head coach Vladimir Yurzinov, KGB officer, assistant coach Vitali Davydov. Middle row: Valeri Nazarov, Alexei Frolikov, Mikhail Slipchenko, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Anatoli Sevidov, Sergei Babariko, Anatoli Motovilov, Alexander Filippov, Vladimir Orlov, Vladimir Polupanov, unidentified masseur (?), equipment manager Alexander Steblin. Back row: Vitali Filippov, Alexander Golikov, Ravil Gataulin, Vladimir Devyatov, Prtr Prirodin, Vladimir Semenov, Vladimir Golubovich, Yevgeny Kotlov, Vladimir Golikov. Wall: Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin.

He was, as Margaret Atwood said, “a towering writer;” historian Simon Sebag Montefiore called him “the titan of English literature.”

“As a writer he transcended mere genre,” John Banville told The Guardian, “showing that works of art could be made out of the tired trappings of the espionage novel — The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of the finest works of fiction of the 20th century. As a deviser of plots and a teller of stories, he was at the same level of greatness as Robert Louis Stevenson. His books will live as long as people continue to read.”

John le Carré died of pneumonia on December 12 in his native England at the age of 89. If you’ve been a reader of his, your sorrow at the news may have, like mine, been mixed with the awe at his legacy as a storyteller, and with the anticipation of getting back to his books to revisit it.

“Writers and spies [share] the same ‘corrosive eye,’ as Graham Greene put it: that wish to penetrate the surface to the centre and truth of things.” That’s from an Economist eulogy earlier this week for the man who was born David Cornwell. It was under that name, of course, that he had a career as an intelligence officer for Britain’s MI6 before he started publishing stories of spies in 1961 as le Carré.

And the hockey connection? With thanks to Denis Gibbons, the distinguished hockey journalist, author, and fellow member of the Society of International Hockey Research who alerted me to the photo here, I’ve got one of those to shop.

Cornwell’s career in intelligence came to an end in 1964. Working out of the British Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, he was one of the agents whose cover was betrayed to the KGB by the infamous British double agent Kim Philby, a member of the Cambridge Five.

Philby was the inspiration for le Carré’s most famous novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), the first work in his Karla trilogy.

As for the man himself, Philby defected to Moscow in 1963. As Ben Macintyre details in his 2014 book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, he spent his initial years more or less under house arrest, writing his memoirs. Eventually, in the early 1970s, the KGB put him to work, mostly in the service of their disinformation departments, making stuff up to confound Western spy agencies.

Philby also, it seems, had a gig as a sports psychologist. As Macintyre writes:

He did odd jobs for the Soviet state, including training KGB recruits and helping to motivate the Soviet hockey team — even though, as [his former friend, the MI6 intelligence officer Nicholas] Elliott once noted, he was addicted to cricket and “showed no interest whatsoever in any other sort of sport.”

I’d love to know more about the hockey motivation, of course. Macintyre’s phrasing, so far as it goes, seems to suggest he worked with the Soviet national team, which would make sense. Did he also consult for CSKA Moscow, the so-called Red Army team, or others? The team he’s shown with here, Dynamo Moscow, was in Soviet days associated with the Ministry of Interior and the KGB, so maybe did they alone command Philby’s counsel?

For the record, the year this photograph was taken, 1977-78, Dynamo finished second that year in the Soviet championship, 13 points behind CSKA. North American browsers of the Dynamo line-up will recognize the names Valeri Vasiliev, Alexander Maltsev, maybe a few others. CSKA’s manpower included Vladislav Tretiak, Valeri Kharlamov, Vladimir Petrov, Helmut Balderis, Viacheslav Fetisov, Boris Mikhailov, and Vladimir Lutchenko.

On a visit he made to Moscow in 1987, le Carré had a chance to meet Philby. “It was tough to resist,” the writer told George Plimpton in a 1997 Paris Review interview, “but I did. The invitation was renewed and I still wouldn’t go. Then a British journalist, Phil Knightly, went and saw Philby right at the end of his life. Philby knew he was dying. Knightly said, What do you think of le Carré? Philby replied, I don’t know. I quite like the books, but the fellow doesn’t care for me. He must know something about me.”

Like Mikhailov and Tretiak, Kim Philby was a recipient of the Order of Lenin, the Soviet Union’s highest reward for meritorious service. When Philby died in 1988, a postage stamp was issued to commemorate his life. He was accorded a grand funeral with a KGB honour guard.

Kim Philby’s grave is in Kuntsevo Cemetery, outside Moscow. As it so happens, Valeri Kharlamov and Vsevolod Bobrov are buried there, too.

cleveland’s dr. no

Stitch Up: Gerry Cheevers on the cover of an Edmonton Oilers program from November of 1975. “Cleveland’s Dr. No” the accompanying story was headlined. On the ice, the Oilers won the game, 4-1.

A birthday today for Gerry Cheevers, born in St. Catharines, Ontario, on a Saturday of this date in 1940: he’s 80. He launched his NHL goaltending career with a pair of games for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1961 before he got into the Boston Bruins’ net in 1965. Steering over to the WHA in 1972, Cheevers played parts of four seasons with the Cleveland Crusaders. He won the Ben Hatskin Award as the league’s best goaltender in his first season there, and anchored the Canadian net when the WHA selects took on the Soviet Union in 1974. He returned to the Bruins in 1976, playing a further five NHL seasons before he retired at the end of the 1979-80 campaign. His famous mask was designed and built by a former plumbing superintendent in Boston, Ernie Higgins, though it was Bruins trainer Frosty Forristall who gets the credit for its famous decoration. Here’s Cheevers telling the tale in Unmasked, the 2011 memoir he wrote with an assist from Marc Zappulla:

The protection the mask afforded me gave me more time on the ice and less time in the locker room getting stitched up, which was nice. However, I hated the color of that thing. It was white. I hated white. I seldom even wore white socks. And if I happened to look down when I did, I felt a fright as if I was exposed to something with ill consequences. Call it what you want: a phobia, or outright disdain for this wholesome shade. The sight of this glimmering, shiny, white mold engaged to my facial pores drove me nuts. The color itself is a sign of purity and that wasn’t me. I was quite the opposite. In fact, I was driven by an unconventional thought process and a wayward nature my whole life; the white had to go.

And so?

One morning I tried to get out of practice, which, again, was the norm for me, not the exception. I was in net when a puck flipped up and grazed mask. The puck’s force was so softly propelled, that, had I not been wearing the mask I seriously doubt I’d have so much as a scratch on my face. It was weak, but I faked like it wasn’t. I winced in pain, came off the ice, and headed into the dressing room. I sat down and sparked up a cigarette when [Bruin coach] Harry Sinden came in and said, “Get you ass out there, you’re not hurt!”

So, before I collected myself and got back on the ice, Frosty the trainer said, “Here, hold it.”

Frosty broke out a sharpie and drew in four or five stitches where I had undoubtedly been hit, right above the eye, I believe it was. Everyone got a kick out of it, so I told Frosty, “Fros, every time I get hit with a puck, or the stick comes up, take care of it.” He did, and all the marks were legit.

my first hockey game: bill fitsell

Big Bomber Command: Bill Fitsell still has the notebooks he kept as a boy in the 1930s to celebrate his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Open on his desk at home in Kingston, Ontario, is his record of the first NHL game he ever attended, when he was 12, in 1936.

Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.

Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.

With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.

I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.

Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.

Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.

That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.

One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.

That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?

Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.

I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.

Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.

Sew It Is: Leaf physician Dr. J.W. Rush stitches King Clancy on the Saturday night in ’36 that Bill Fitsell saw his first NHL game.

Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”

The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.

By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.

Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.

Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.

“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”

“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”

“In other words … it was a great game!”

For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.

January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”

Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.

The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.

“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.

Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.

Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”

Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”

Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.

“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.

Hockey Captain, Colonel, & King: With the Leafs’ famous Kid Line over his shoulder, Bill Fitsell at home in Kingston in 2019.

Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12. 

owning up: don delillo comes clean

Cover Story: The cover of the 1982 British mass market edition of DeLillo’s hockey classic.

It’s a stretch of years now since Keith Gessen, a writer I’ll gladly follow into any paragraph he chooses to lead me, wrote his New York Times Book Reviewessay on hockey’s literature and its lacks, and I’m trying to remember whether, in 2006, I embraced his premise that when it comes to hockey books, two tower above all the rest —No question about Ken Dryden’s 1983 classic The Game— but what about Amazons (1980), the Cleo Birdwell novel that Gessen declared “the other monument of hockey literature thus far”?

You can read the Gessen here. I don’t think that I quite agreed with him on Amazons then, and still don’t, though the novel does tell a feisty, funny, bawdy, insightful story about the first woman to play in the NHL.

You’d expect that, the funny and the insight, of course, given that Birdwell was a masquerade and that the actual author was in fact Don DeLillo. It’s no secret that the man who gave us Libra and White Noise and Underworld has never openly acknowledged that he actually wrote Amazons, nor that he’s reportedly been adamant in his refusal to allow the novel to be reprinted: the mystery, if there is any, is in why he’s been so silent all this time in his spurning of his hockey romp.

No more. DeLillo, who turns 84 this month, has a new novel out, The Silence. Last month, in a New York Times Magazine interview with David Marchese, DeLillo finally came clean. I don’t know why this wasn’t bigger news, though I guess we did have our distractions in October. Anyway, the exchange came halfway through Marchese’s and DeLillo’s back-and-forth. The latter had already dangled a lure, earlier, mentioning Amazons in passing. DeLillo, it’s noted, laughed, but didn’t bite.

A little later, Marchese changed bait, bringing up a prominent DeLillo character. Here’s the exchange:

You know who else shows up in two of your books? Murray Jay Siskind. Both times described as having an “Amish” beard. Murray Jay! Remind me, what book is he in?

White Noise. And where else?

Amazons. Oh god. How do you remember that. Idon’t remember that.

I think I just got a scoop. I don’t know if you’ve ever publicly acknowledged that you wrote Amazons. I probably did, somewhere or other. [Laughs.] Maybe to an interviewer from Thailand.

And there it is. Boom.

I e-mailed David Marchese to congratulate him on his catch. I was also, I guess, hoping for an outtake or two, the rest of the conversation that he’d had to edit out, wherein DeLillo unpacked just how he’d come to write the book, and what he felt about the late-70s Rangers.

Alas.

What was there in the Times was all there was on Amazons, Marchese told me. “He just sort of laughed and changed the subject,” he wrote. “I didn’t really follow up on it because it seemed a little bit too much inside baseball (to mix metaphors) for the general reader.”

The novelist previously known as Cleo Birdwell

Ah, well. DeLillo’s admission doesn’t really change anything. Whether he wants to talk about it or not, the book’s prose is his, along with its vision, and that’s worth paying attention to. For all the hockey in Amazons (not to mention all the sex), the novel’s particular subject is, as Keith Gessen points out, America, “the dark schizy heart of it.” It’s a book, he writes, that’s “not about hockey in just the right way.”

At one point, Cleo, who at 23 has just made the Rangers, is talking to the blusterous Kinross, president of Madison Square Garden, who hates hockey, doesn’t understand why he should bother to host it in his building.

“It’s a fuggin shit-ass game,” he tells her, “for my money. You don’t have a black or Hispanic element. It doesn’t reflect the urban reality. Who wants to see two white guys hit each other? The violence has no bite to it. It’s not relevant. It doesn’t reflect the streets and I come from the streets.”

Cleo isn’t fazed. “It reflects the Canadian streets,” she says. “It’s a Canadian game. It reflects ice and snow, that’s what it reflects.”

“Well and good,” he says. “I understand that. But this is New York, New York. Where’s the fuggin criminal element? Who do we root for? Escapist violence is all right in the movies. But this is live. Real people swinging sticks. Without any relevance, it’s kind of disgusting. If it doesn’t reflect the streets, you wonder what these guys are doing it for. What’s the point?”

Rookie Move: The cover of the 1980 U.S. first edition.

 

 

 

 

howie meeker, 1923—2020

Sorry to hear the news today that, just days after his 97th birthday, Howie Meeker has died. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1923, Meeker broke into the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1946. He won the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, just three years after he’d been injured in a training accident involving a grenade while he was serving in the Canadian Army. Meeker went on to play eight seasons on the Toronto right wing, winning four Stanley Cups for his efforts. He was elected to Canada’s Parliament in 1951, while he was still skating for the Leafs, and served two years the Progressive Conservative MP representing the southern Ontario riding of Waterloo South.

Meeker’s tenure as coach of the Leafs lasted just a single season, 1956-57, and when the team fell short of the playoffs, Billy Reay replaced him as he took on duties as Toronto’s GM. He started job with a bang, signing 19-year-old Frank Mahovlich to a contract on his very first day in office. The thrill didn’t last: Meeker was dismissed before the pucks dropped to start the new season. He upped skates, next, for Newfoundland: Premier Joey Smallwood wanted him to come and help develop the province’s youth hockey program, so he did that.

As a player, the adjectives that adhered to Meeker were speedyand pugnacious. If you’re of an age to recall his fervent years at the Telestrator on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada, you might remember that his style as a broadcaster was much the same, and how he shook the nation weekly with his barky sermonizing. His enthusiasm for teaching hockey fundamentals extended to summer skills camps as well as to books.

Howie Meeker’s Hockey Basics (1973) was influential enough to have been the only hockey-minded volume to be included in The Literary Review of Canada’s 2006 listing of Canada’s all-time Most Important Books. The author himself professed some shock that his modest 1973 paperback was mingling in the company of Margaret Atwood, Stephen Leacock, Jacques Cartier, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. “You’re kidding,” Meeker said when he heard the news. “That’s sensational.”

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under review: reading your way through a hockey hiatus

Is it really 50 days since the pandemic stopped hockey, and everything else, except for in Belarus? Yes, that’s right, it was, this Thursday past — two score and ten scoreless days since the rinks closed up on March 12. Does it feel like a hundred days? Two hundred? As David Remnick was saying on The New Yorker’s podcast a couple of weeks into this strange spring, the loss of big-league sports is not — by far — the worst we’ve sustained, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bitter.

In the absence of hockey, and everything else (except in Belarus), it’s the questions that multiply to fill the ever-expanding void. They’re bulky and awkward, mostly unanswerable, and all but impossible to shepherd out of mind: How did this happen? Will everything be okay? When does it end?

Some of them are smaller, too, with a mosquito’s whine, no less nagging for being non-essential. Does hockey matter? What, really, are we missing? Were this year’s Leafs any good, does anyone recall? How do I know if my sourdough starter is still alive? Did you see those 1980s Oilers on Sportsnet the other night — how great were they? Not to mention Don Wittman on the play-by-play. Also: should I wash my hands again now? Also: anybody been able to zoom in on Ron MacLean’s good-looking bookshelves to see just what he’s got back there?

Hockey did focus itself on books in the first late-March weeks of isolation, back when we were still getting used to distracting ourselves. Remember? Back when we were focussed on tricks with rolls of toilet paper, before advent of multi-paned Zoom conclaves of housebound NHLers really got going? I suppose that people are still reading books, quietly, thoughtfully, off-screen, but in those days, the hockey world seemed to be as intent on talking books, hockey and otherwise, as much as zone starts or PDO.

San Jose Sharks captain Logan Couture started a book club.

Washington’s goaltender-on-hiatus Braden Holtby made a steeple of the books he’d been reading, or his wife Brandi did — she was the one, anyway, who tweeted out the photo:

In Seattle, the NHL’s newest franchise revealed … no, not the team’s much-anticipated name, that’s still to come — when “the mood is right,” as Greg Wyshinski of ESPN reports. The should-be Metropolitans did proffer some literary advice, even if it wasn’t exactly adventurous.

Hockey Canada weighed in:

Others turned their cameras to their shelves to advocate for hockey-minded favourites, historian and L.A. Kings writer Mike Commito had some counsel:

To which some of us answered back:

I added a novel to this massif of mine; I could have elevated more. I’ve written elsewhere about hockey fiction, superior and not-so-much. Ranking the novels I’ve enjoyed most of all, and learned from, the ones that rise above the regular, I tend to back up Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season (1985) with books like Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (1987), The Divine Ryans (1990) by Wayne Johnston, Fred Stenson’s Teeth (1994), and Mark Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya! (1997). Pete McCormack’s sweet and underappreciated novel Understanding Ken(1998) would be on it, and so would The Good Body by Bill Gaston (2000). And, from 2011, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist.

So much for the best. What about the rest? A couple of years ago, when I was working hard to read allthe hockey books, every one of them — well, I didn’t do that, is what happened: I failed. It turns out that there are just too many, and not enough time, plus while a whole lot of them are vivid and insightful and even beautifully rendered, many others are … not.

I did read a lot, though. And for all the hockey narrative I made it through, I acquired a whole lot more, much of which I have shelved here behind me, with the fiction closest to hand, in case of emergency. It’s not all novels; this is a library rich with juvenile and genre editions, mass-market, pulp, serialized, and self-published sagas, too. Colonizing three shelves and part of a fourth behind the desk I’m sitting at, they’re all here, the great and the good and the just-entertaining mixed in with the middling, the muddled, the dumbly offensive, the merely harmless. It’s some of the latter that I’m thinking of paying some attention to here, in this space, over this next little stretch of our Great Hiatus, with a particular focus on the made-it-halfway-through and the couldn’t-get-myself-past-the-second-page. If now’s not the time to take a walk on the pulpier, predictable, prosaic side of hockey’s library, when is?

That’s not to say that some the fiction that comes under consideration in this upcoming series isn’t deftly done, incisive, insightful. We’ll look for that, without necessarily counting on finding it. The cover-art we’ll see along the way will be, I’ll mention, as fantastic as this. How far will we wander, through just how much turgid prose, down how many clichéd plotlines? We’ll see. No judgment … unless, no, I guess it’s too late for that. No harm, then — that’s what I’ll say: no harm intended. I’m not here to blame or berate or bicker. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the books discussed here, I forgive you. Same thing if you happen to have written any of them. So: stay tuned.