floral’s glory

It was on a Saturday of this date in 1928 that the peerless Gordie Howe was born in Floral, Saskatchewan. Of that source, Don O’Reilly (unkindly) wrote this in his 1975 biography, Mr. Hockey: The World of Gordie Howe: “Floral, Gordie’s birthplace, was once described by the New York Times as a granary on the grim high plains of Saskatchewan, settled by homesteaders somewhere out between Saskatoon and futility.” Advising up-and-comers in a 1963 instructional book, Mr. H himself offered this counsel to youngsters eager to follow him to the NHL.   “A priest once told me something I’ve never forgotten,” Howe wrote in called Hockey … Here’s Howe. “He said that you can have two of the following three things — hockey, social life, and education. You must have an education — so that leaves a choice between a social life or hockey.” The portrait here, painted by Jacques Tremblay, dates to 1965. Gordie Howe died at the age of 88 in June of 2016.

 

 

sliding, diving, falling down, jumping up, falling down again

“Anyone seeing Roger Crozier for the first time probably wouldn’t think he was watching just about the best goalie in the National Hockey League,” Tom Cohen wrote in the pages of his slim, admiring 1967 Crozier biography. “For one thing, Roger was short and skinny and looked a bit like a timid bank clerk. And he was always flopping around on the ice, sliding, diving, falling down, jumping up, falling down again. He didn’t use his stick as much as other goalies in the League used theirs. He stopped the puck with his legs or used his catching glove instead. And he had a habit of roaming far out in front of the goal. It didn’t seem possible for him to be able to get back in time if an attack came quickly. But Roger Crozier had become famous for doing the impossible. He made unbelievable saves, turned certain defeats into victories and played with injuries that should have put him in hospital.”

Born in Bracebridge, Ontario, on this date in 1942 (when it was also a Monday), Crozier played 14 seasons in the NHL, tending the twine for the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, and Washington Capitals. He never did win a Stanley Cup, but he was named a First Team All-Star in 1965, the year he also earned the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 1965. A year later, when his Red Wings fell to Montreal in the Finals, he was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. Roger Crozier died at the age of 53 in 1996.

henri richard: a reader’s companion

16 + 9: John Taylor’s 1960 still life with skates and sweaters, left behind by brothers (and Canadiens legends) Henri and Maurice Richard.

“Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, doesn’t want to be a little gale in the wake of a rumbling hurricane. He wants to swirl through the National Hockey League under his own power, creating his own storms, if any, and reaping the respect of his rivals strictly on his own merits.”

That was the opening to a Vince Lunny cover story for Hockey Pictorial in March of 1956, towards the end of the younger Richard’s rookie season in the NHL. It didn’t take long, of course, for Henri, who died on Friday at the age of 84, to skate up a storm of his very own alongside Maurice, 14 years his elder. It was only two years later that Milt Dunnell took to Hockey Pictorial’s columns with Maurice’s take on how Henri was faring in the league. “The Rocket gives the opinion faster than he breaks over a blueline,” Dunnell wrote in April of 1958: ‘Henri is a better skater than I ever was. He’s a better stickhandler, he’s a better puck-carrier. Henri is a better hockey player.”

Rocket’s view wasn’t, perhaps, universal at the time — Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake, for one, wasn’t yet willing to declare Henri supreme among Richards. All these years later, the question of which brother was the more valuable player might well still start a debate that wouldn’t necessarily finish. What we do know is that Henri played 20 seasons with Montreal, amassing 1,175 points in 1,436 games, regular season and playoffs, winning an unmatched 11 Stanley Cups along the way. He captained the Canadiens from 1971 through to his retirement in 1975. The team retired his number, 16, that year; he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

It’s true that Henri’s literary legacy doesn’t measure up to Maurice’s. A quick check of the bookshelf tells the tale: the elder Richard’s life and riotous times have been the focus of at least 12 books over the years, from Gerry Gosselin’s Monsieur Hockey (1950) to Jean-Marie Pellerin’s Maurice Richard: L’Idole d’un Peuple (1998) to The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard (2009) by Benoît Melançon. No-one (to date) has published Henri’s biography or devoted a volume to his place in hockey or Quebec history.

That’s not to say the younger Richard doesn’t figure in more general histories of the game. Stan Fischler’s 1971 Hab history The Flying Frenchmen, for instance, delves into the brothers’ relationship during Henri’s early days in the NHL and offers up this telling anecdote:

The Canadiens were in the midst of a workout when Henri rounded the net at full speed from one side and Maurice approached on the same track from the other direction. They collided violently and both fell to the ice unconscious. When they were finally revived, both were escorted to the first-aid room where Maurice needed 12 stitches to close his wound and his kid brother, six stitches.

Then, in a masterful understatement, Maurice intoned: “You’d better watch yourself. Henri. You might get hurt.”

Henri rates a chapter in Michael Ulmer’s Canadiens Captains (1996). And he’s a voice throughout Dick Irvin the Younger’s 1991 oral history, The Habs. That’s where you’ll find Henri doing his best to explain his infamous 1971 outburst wherein he called Al MacNeil the worst coach he’d ever played for:

“I didn’t really mean it, but it came out because I was mad. Al was a good guy. But I was just mad, and they made a lot of things about that in all the papers. Even Guy Lafleur, in his book. He said I said to MacNeil that he shouldn’t coach the Canadiens because he didn’t speak French, and all that shit. I never said that in my life.”

Trent Frayne’s Henri essay in his 1968 anthology of hockey profiles, It’s Easy, All You Have To Do is Win is worth seeking out. While you’re arranging that, maybe settle in with the inimitable Frayne’s 1958 Maclean’s Henri profile, which is archived here.

So far as odes and obituaries published in the days since Henri’s death, recommended readings would start with this piece by Dave Stubbs at NHL.com, which includes reflections from Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer.

Tom Hawthorn’s Globe and Mail obituary is deftly done and deserves a read, along with Roy MacGregor’s reminiscence, also in the Globe, which is here.

If you read French, take a look at Gaétan Lauzon’s coverage in La Presse, ici. Richard Goldstein wrote a New York Times obituary, published Saturday — that’s here.

If you missed Friday’s broadcast of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, you can download the March 6 podcast here (and should) to listen to Carol Off’s conversation with Henri’s Canadiens teammate Ken Dryden. It gets going at the 37.40 mark.

On Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada opened with Ron MacLean’s conversation with Dick Irvin, which includes his thoughts on the origins of the nickname Pocket Rocket. There’s tape of that here, and worth your attention, if you didn’t catch it on the night.

One more? That would be Michael Farber’s Richard tribute at TSN, which you can find over this way.

(Top image: John Taylor, about 1960, silver salts on film, gelatin silver process, MP-1999.5.5032.4, © McCord Museum)

in the crease, behind the bench: ken dryden on scotty bowman

Habs Helmsman: Scotty Bowman patrols the Canadiens bench, circa the early 1970s.

A version of this post appeared in the Books pages of The Globe and Mail on Saturday, January 4, 2020.

In 1983, Ken Dryden wrote a bit of a ballad, if not quite an ode, about a former coach of his.

“Scotty Bowman is not someone who is easy to like,” Dryden confided in The Game, the memoir he published after retiring from his NHL career, a book that’s still roundly recognized as the most insightful reflection on hockey ever written. “He is shy and not very friendly. … Abrupt, straightforward, without flair or charm, he seems cold and abrasive, sometimes obnoxious, controversial, but never colourful. … He is complex, confusing, misunderstood, unclear in every way but one. He is a brilliant coach, the best of his time.”

Together, as younger men in the employ of the Montreal’s then-mighty Canadiens, Dryden and Bowman reached hockey’s heights during the 1970s, when they coincided on five of the six Stanley Cups the team won in nine years. There were other key players you could name from the Canadiens’ decade of dominance, but none who played a more important role than the coach or his first-choice goaltender.

Both men departed Montreal in 1979, Dryden for retirement, Bowman to continue coaching in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Dryden’s post-playing career has included stints as a teacher, a TV commentator, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a federal MP and cabinet minister. By the time Bowman retired from the bench in 2002, he was hockey’s (in sports parlance) winningest coach, with more victories to his name, regular season and playoffs, than anyone else in NHL history. All told, he’s been involved in the winning of 14 Stanley Cups in his career — second only to Jean Béliveau’s 17.

The most plentiful Cup years came in the ’70s, when the coach and his goaltender helped propel Montreal to six championships in nine years. Now, 40 years later, Dryden and Bowman have collaborated on Dryden’s seventh book, Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other.

It’s a singular work in its own right: a biography, yes, but an unconventional one that also folds in a lively fantasy hockey playoff series. It’s a contrivance that allows Dryden to frame in the hockey history around Bowman by challenging him to choose the best eight NHL teams of all time, to explore how it might go if they were to face-off across time.

For Dryden, the relationship the men have shared since they first met at the Canadiens’ training camp in 1971 has remained consistent. “I think it’s essentially never changed,” he said in an interview. “I think we always got along. I think he sensed that I thought that he was absolutely the right guy to be the coach of our team and I think he felt sort of similarly about me. And we trusted each other.”

How the relationship expressed itself has, Dryden allows, been different at different times. In Montreal, in the ’70s, “Scotty was somebody who was never comfortable with a conversation that lasted more than 30 seconds.” Later, in the ’80s, working on his first book, Dryden sought Bowman out in Buffalo. “I thought we would be an hour or so — we talked for four hours.”

Dryden thought about writing about his former coach for a decade before he asked Bowman in 2015 whether he’d be interested. He was. Two things that Dryden understood about Bowman: he has a prodigious memory, but he’s no storyteller. That’s where the historical fantasy came in: Dryden had to find a way of allowing the coach to look over the players on a roster, understand what each one could or couldn’t do  — he had to find a way to let him coach.

So two of the great hockey minds came up with a list of the teams they considered to be the greatest in NHL history, including the 1951-52 Detroit Red Wings and the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers along with their own 1976-77 Canadiens.

Armed with with contemporary accounts and statistics, this was how they immersed themselves in the hockey past that Bowman had lived and helped to shape. The talking went on for a year, mostly over the phone, Dryden in Toronto, Bowman at home in Buffalo or else in Florida, where he and his wife, Suella, spend their winters.

As the book makes clear, Bowman, who’s 86, is very much still in the game. Working asan advisor to the Chicago Blackhawks, the team his son Stan manages, he studies the NHL as attentively as he ever did, players and analytics, systems and tactics, what works, what doesn’t.

“The conversations were easy,” Dryden said. “I think they would have grown tired for both of us if it was just recollections. At a certain point, it’s not enough. It’s not interesting enough.” Bowman’s voluminous memory, Dryden realized, is more of a thriving depot than a dormant repository. “He remembers everything, but it comes to be in the service of whatever he’s doing now and whatever he might be doing in the future.”

For the coach who’s never really quit coaching, memory isn’t about nostalgia. “It’s an exercise of having learned and of continuing to learn and of fitting even more pieces together to learn even more.”

•••

I arranged to meet Dryden one morning last fall near his home in midtown Toronto. Early to the rendezvous, I watched a passerby recognize and intercept him, shake his hand. At 72, the erstwhile goalie doesn’t look like he’s lost any of his playing trim, or the 6’4” stature with which he made a career of fending off pucks, and it’s just possible to imagine him stepping in to relieve Carey Price in a crisis. In fact, the only time he’s suited in goaltending gear since he retired 40 years ago was in pads he borrowed from Price for a Bell Centre celebration of the team’s centennial in 2009. The incumbent Canadiens goaltender has otherwise superseded him: Dryden notes that both of his young goaltending grandsons wear Price’s number 31 on their sweaters rather than the famous familial 29.

Ken Dryden (Image: Sergey Smirnov)

Don Cherry spent three decades broadcasting hockey’s blustering id. Through most of those same years, Dryden has approached the game more, shall we say, methodically and coherently. He’s celebrated its variety and beauty; he’s attended it with a restless curiosity and a public intellectual’s broadness of perspective and willingness to engage. In no-one else’s biography do the adjectives erudite and Conn-Smythe-Trophy-winningcoincide. He published The Game the same year he was ushered into hockey’s Hall of Fame. (Bowman joined him there in 1991.)

As Rick Salutin once pointed out, questioning and self-doubt come naturally to goaltenders, and in classrooms and lecture halls as well as on the pages of books and newspapers, Dryden has never stopped pondering the game’s finer points, riddling its riddles, questioning its verities, calling out its contradictions, trying to plumb — and, from time to time, restore — the game’s conscience.

 In 2017’s Game Change, Dryden fixed his focus on hockey’s response to the concussion crisis, positing a comprehensive plan to re-imagine the culture of the game in order to eliminate hits to the head. Appealing directly to the man who has the power to lead the way, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Dryden was, as he’s said, trying to  — create the conditions “by which he and hockey might make better decisions.”

Two years have passed since he personally presented a copy of the book to Bettman over lunch in New York. He’s still waiting for a response.

•••

If in Scotty Dryden shifts from Game Change’s pointed advocacy, it’s no less passionate in its embrace of the game. With Bowman as his prompt and guide, he unpacks more than 70 years of hockey history, delving deeply into Bowman’s early years in Verdun, exploring the legacies of his mentors in Montreal, legendary Canadiens coach Toe Blake and Sam Pollock, who’s widely acknowledged as the greatest GM in NHL history.

Growing up on the southern verge of the island of Montreal, Bowman was a fan of the Boston Bruins. He was a good player, not a great one. He was skating for the Junior Canadiens in 1952 when a rival defenceman swung his stick and fractured Bowman’s skull. He recovered and continued to play, but as he told Dryden, “I was no longer a prospect.” Continue reading

mike marson goes to washington

Capital M: Mike Marson featured on the cover of the NHL’s Goal magazine in October of 1975.

Mike Marson was a high-scoring 18-year-old left-winger for the Sudbury Wolves when the expansion Washington Capitals selected him in the second round of the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft, three spots ahead of future Hall-of-Famer Bryan Trottier. When Marson, born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario, made his debut as a 19-year-old with the Capitals that October, he became just the second black player to take the ice in the league’s 57-year history, the first since Willie O’Ree played for the Boston Bruins between 1957 and 1961. When, in December of ’74, Washington called up Amherst, Nova Scotia-born winger Bill Riley, it was, as the Associated Press noted at the time, “the first time in the NHL that two black players played in one game.”

“Yeah, I heard of Willie O’Ree,” Marson told a writer for The New York Times that fall, “but I never saw him play. That was way before my time. But I think it’s time to end all this ridiculousness: the first to do this, the second to do that. No only for blacks, but for a Russian going to the moon or a Chinese pole-vaulter or whatever. It’s childishness.”

The ridiculousness persisted, and (of course) worse, too. As much as Marson tried to focus on playing hockey in his rookie season and beyond, much of the media’s attention continued to focus on his race, how he’d ended up in hockey, why. Mostly they didn’t talk about the racist abuse he faced, on the ice and off, from opponents, teammates,  so-called fans, total strangers, but all that is specified in dispiriting detail in Cecil Harris’ 2007 book Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey.

Mike Marson played parts of five seasons for Washington and one final year with the Los Angeles before departing the NHL in 1980.

paul henderson: born on the ice (or close enough)

Born on a Thursday of this date in 1943, Paul Henderson — do we even need to say it? — scored the end-of-September Game-Eight goal that decided the 1972 Summit Series. Remarkably, he also notched the winning goals in the two previous games in Moscow, including the one depicted here. The disappointed goaltender is, of course, Vladislav Tretiak; the floundering defenceman, number 6, is Valery Vasiliev.

On the subject of his hometown, Henderson, who’s 77 today, is most often attached to Lucknow, Ontario, near the Lake Huron shore. He wasn’t born there, though. Just where he did debut back in ’43 is … well, let’s just say the folk tale of his mother’s having given birth out on the midwinter ice of Lake Huron is a tantalizing one if not entirely likely.

Three different Henderson memoirs offer three slightly different versions of how Henderson’s birth went down. The Fans Go Wild: Paul Henderson’s Miracle was an authorized biography that appeared in 1973, hot on the heels of Henderson’s Soviet heroics. As author John Gault tells it, the fact that a blizzard of historic proportions had left western Ontario snowed under didn’t stop a pregnant Evelyn Henderson (“young and healthy and youthfully silly”) from hiking out 5 kilometres from her in-laws’ farm and back on January 27.

Her husband, Garnet, was overseas, serving with the Canadian Army. When labour pains began that night, Evelyn’s in-laws hitched up horses to a sleigh to make the dash for the hospital at Kincardine, 16 kilometres away. “At the bottom of the second-to-last hill, at a point where she could see the lights of the hospital in the first light of dawn, she began to give birth,” Gault writes. “Actually, Paul’s grandparents were not called upon to make delivery because they reached the hospital before the boy was completely born.”

By 1997, Henderson was telling his own story, with Mike Leonetti’s help. Shooting For Glory mentions a journey across frozen Lake Huron that didn’t appear in Gault’s telling, with the arrival at Kincardine’s hospital somewhat amended: “About 1,000 yards from the front door my mother gave birth, and when they finally got me into the hospital, I had started to turn blue.”

Roger Lajoie shaped Henderson’s 2012 memoir, The Goal of My Life, which sticks with the colourful outdoor birth over the indoor: “Mom gave birth to me on the sleigh before we made it to the hospital, and by the time they finally arrived, I had started to turn blue. Quite the first day of my life, to be sure, but I made it.”

(Image:  Frank Lennon/Library and Archives Canada/4169297)

 

born on this day, in 1929: hockey’s headgear icon

Unmasked: Jacques Plante poses in December of 1959 with the mask he first donned in an NHL game a month earlier. (Image: Weekend Magazine/Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada)

In Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, Quebec, not far from Shawinigan, Jacques Plante was born on a Thursday of this date in 1929. He remains, of course, an icon of hockey headgear, renowned for tuques and masks that his coaches (Dick Irvin and Toe Blake, respectively) didn’t want him wearing on the ice. In The Jacques Plante Story, a 1972 memoir he collaborated on with Andy O’Brien, the goaltender is quoted telling an interviewer, “My business is getting shot at.” By the end of the 1970-71 NHL season, O’Brien suggests, the 42-year-old Plante had faced 28,545 big-league shots in 865 games. “That does not include the ‘friendly shots’ — possibly 100,000 of them — fired at him in practice,” O’Brien writes, “but they can’t be ignored be ignored because they twice put him in hospital.” Add a few thousand more to the final tally: beyond the book’s telling, Plante played a further two seasons in the NHL, along with a final year with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers. He died in 1986, at the age of 57.