Baseball’s Opening Day yesterday, which is all the reason as I need to invoke the venerable name and prose virtues of Roger Angell who, at 96, remains the finest, most exacting of the game’s expressionists. I trust he watched the New York Yankees succumb on Sunday, 7-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays, and that he’ll be soon be weighing in at The New Yorker on Masahiro Tanaka and the flaws in his fastball.
Baseball, it’s true, has been Angell’s bread and … batter. But he knows his hockey, too. He’d tell you so himself, and there’s plenty of evidence in The New Yorker’s archives. Around this time of year in 1967, for instance, he penned a long “Sporting Scene” review of the up-and- down season of the New York Rangers as the team prepared to depart the third Madison Square Garden in favour of the brand-new fourth. “The Last Flowers in the Garden” finds Angell in a mood for nostalgia, recalling the heroes of good old days (Don Raleigh + the Gumper), even as he coddles hopes for the future (maybe they can hang on to second place as the playoffs loomed).
In the here-and-now of late-season ’67, Angell likes the team that GM Emile Francis has wrought, muscled as it is with Reg Fleming and Orland Kurtenbach, sped by forwards Rod Gilbert, Bob Nevin, and Phil Goyette, veteran’d with a 36-year-old Boom-Boom Geoffrion. Maybe the Rangers’ recent history has been one of failing at the finish, but Angell is feeling good: Francis, he feels, has “rebuilt their quaint, four-cylinder interior engine that used to poop out on every winter hillock.” The Rangers have been healthy and playing well: who knows what might happen once the Stanley Cup is in play?
It’s in this spirit that Angell keys in on another veteran, a 34-year-old son of Hamilton, Ontario, pictured here above. “The sudden and absolute apotheosis of Harry Howell, the handsome gray-haired defenseman who has been with the team since 1952 and has played in more Ranger games than anyone else in club history” is, in Angell’s eye, one of the best stories of the season. As he says, memorably:
Over the years, Harry’s sincere, fatherly competence had won him more admiration from the ladies at the Garden than from the sportswriters, but early this season it became apparent to everybody that at last, at the age of thirty-four, he had developed into the best defenceman in the league. Enemy bombers arriving in Howell’s territory are rarely shot down; they seem, rather, to fly into a wall of wet Kleenex and stick there, kicking. When carrying the puck through a cloud of opposing forecheckers and up to the safety of center ice, Howell has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic. This year, relieved by better defense and goaltending, he is no longer burdened with the notion that he must hurry back instantly, and help out at the steam tables, and his low, accurate shots from the blue line have brought him more goals and assists than most of the team’s forwards. In the midseason balloting, Howell was a unanimous choice for the league’s all-star team.
Sunday night, March 13 of 1955, after Boston beat Montreal 4-2, Canadiens caught a night train north.
“The big rhubarb in Boston Garden,” The Gazette’s Dink Carroll called what had gone on, specifically in the third period.
“Richard came off his hinges,” was one view, from a French-language paper.
Neither Maurice Richard nor Canadiens coach Dick Irvin slept on the journey home
NHL president Clarence Campbell was in New York meeting league governors to discuss play-off dates. With Monday morning came the news that he would be convening a hearing at the league’s Montreal headquarters at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning. Richard and Laycoe were to appear before Campbell and referee-in-chief Carl Voss, along with representatives from the respective clubs, and the three officials involved, referee Frank Udvari, linesmen Cliff Thompson and Sam Babcock.
Boston GM Lynn Patrick believed that Richard had to be suspended for the playoffs. “I don’t see how Campbell can stickhandle around that.”
“This is only the most recent episode in a string of violent incidents that have marked the 13-year career of Richard, the scoring genius who currently leads the league’s individual point standing.” That was Tom Fitzgerald in The Boston Daily Globe.
The Gazette sketched out the defendant’s record to date. Three times now he’d gone after officials. Earlier in the season, end of December, 1954, in Toronto, he’d slapped another linesman, George Hayes, in the face. He paid a $200 fine for that. And in New York in 1951, in a hotel lobby, he’d grabbed referee Hugh McLean by the neck. That cost him $500.
“The most heavily fined player in hockey history,” the United Press called Richard. All told, he’d paid some $2,500 in “automatic and special fines” for his various offences.
I’m not sure whether that tally includes the cheque he’d deposited with the NHL in January of 1954 as vow of good behaviour after he used his weekly column in Montreal’s Samedi-Dimanche to call Campbell “a dictator.”
“Should I fail to keep my promised this $1,000 is to be lost to me,” Richard’s letter of apology said. “If you find me worthy of your indulgence I trust it will be returned when I finish as a player.”
With three games left in the regular season, Montreal sat atop the NHL standings, leading the Detroit Red Wings by two points. The two teams would meet twice in the last week of the schedule. Monday morning also found Richard leading the NHL scoring race, with 74 points, ahead of teammates Bernie Geoffrion (72) and Jean Béliveau (71).
If he were to be suspended and thereby lose the scoring title, Richard would miss out on a pair of $1,000 bonuses, one each from the NHL and Canadiens.
If the team were to finish second to the Red Wings, Bert Souliere of Le Devoir wrote, Dick Irvin’s players would share in a sum $9,000 instead of $18,000. Should they fail to win the Stanley Cup, they would further miss out on the $20,000 bonus that went to the winners. All in all, he concluded, losing Richard could cost Canadiens close to $30,000.
Boston Record columnist Dave Egan advocated mercy. Let Richard be fined, maybe suspended for the first 20 games of the season following, but let him play in the playoffs.
Not that I am advocating the fracturing of skulls and defending the swinging of sticks and applauding attacks on officials, for no man in his right mind would do so. What I am saying is that Hal Laycoe’s first name is not spelled Halo, nor is there anything angelic about him. He plays needling hockey behind his eye-glasses. He hands out plenty of bumps, sometimes skating out of his way to do so. He has been in the league long enough to know that Richard erupts like Vesuvius. He knew what he was playing with, and it wasn’t a marshmallow. So the inevitable inevitably happened, and Hal Laycoe, I suppose, should be considered an accessory before the fact.
No man should be sent to Elba for offering his heart, his soul, his gizzards, and the very fibre of his being to a sport. That is what Laycoe does, and it is what Rocket does far more brilliantly. … Much must be forgiven a man like Rocket Richard, not because he is an immortal hockey star but because he is one of those few men whose value never can be measured by the amount of salary he receives. He is one of the remarkable ones who spends more in genius than he ever can get in money.
In The Toronto Daily Star, Milt Dunnell called Richard “the atom bomb that walks like a man.” His guess? Clarence Campbell (“who carries law books around inside of his head”) would suspend him for the remainder of the regular season.
Following Sunday’s game, Tom Fitzgerald went to ask Richard what happened.
Richard’s answer: “Ask Laycoe.”
Laycoe said that he’d had a brush with the Rocket in the first period. The Rocket was upended and Laycoe was given a penalty for charging. There was nothing further until
Dick Irvin pulled his goalkeeper off with six minutes of the final period left to play. …
Laycoe said he was skating alongside of the Rocket after a faceoff, following the puck, when all of a sudden the Rocket brought up his stick like a pitchfork. He said it was just as if Rocket was pitching hay. The stick hit him on the bridge of the nose. He says it stung him and he reacted by swinging his stick at the Rocket. He says he didn’t think about it and that it was an automatic reaction.
Laycoe dropped his stick, gloves and eye-glasses, and that’s when Cliff Thompson, the linesman grabbed the Rocket. The Rocket threw an uppercut that landed on Thompson’s face. Then he picked up his stick and went after Laycoe with it, though Laycoe hadn’t retrieved his and was making motions to the rocket to fight with his fists. The Rocket lost caste with Boston fans by refusing Laycoe’s challenge to fight with his fists. There was blood all over the Rocket and all over Laycoe and all over the joint. It was an awful mess and a lot of people were disgusted.
Tuesday morning when Richard showed at the Forum for practice, Dick Irvin called in the doctor.
“I noticed that the Rocket was pale and he looked tired,” Irvin said. “He confessed that he had a headache and that he hadn’t slept. He was suffering from headaches on his return from Boston on Monday morning, but he didn’t say a word to anyone.”
Irvin told reporters that Richard had lost at least a pint of blood during Sunday’s fracas.
Along with headache, and he was suffering stomach pains now. Canadiens club physician Dr. Gordon Young took him to Montreal’s Western Hospital for an x-ray and further tests. Reporters who followed him there weren’t allowed to see him. By evening he’d been moved to another room where they couldn’t disturb him.
There was talk that Wednesday’s hearing would be postponed. A Canadiens official: “Chances are Richard won’t be able to attend tomorrow’s hearing.”
Clarence Campbell said proceedings would definitely not be moved to Richard’s hospital room. Richard was not suspended, he said, too, which was why it was important that the hearing take place before Montreal’s Thursday game.
Dr. Young finally gave the okay: Richard would be there Wednesday.
Dick Irvin: “We don’t know the results of the examinations so far, but since Richard is able to be at the hearing we might as well get it over with. We want to know what the decision will be. We have a big game here Thursday night.”
A reporter asked Dr. Young if the cut on Richard’s head had been caused by Laycoe’s stick. He smiled. “The Rocket was certainly not injured in a railway accident,” he said.
The slap that Shea Weber puts into his shot has a history of wreckage. Pucks he’s propelled have torn through nets at the Vancouver Olympics and busted out endboards in Nashville. He’s broken Chris Osgood’s mask. Bones, too, several of which have belonged to teammates whose dangerous duty it was to stand in front of a net Weber was aiming at. Martin Erat broke a leg that way when Weber played for Nashville, and Jordin Tootoo a foot. Weber is in Montreal now, and the breakages continue. Last week, his slapshot smashed Brendan Gallagher’s hand. He’s out for eight weeks.
Investigating Weber’s assets earlier this month, The Globe and Mail’s Sean Gordon described his on-ice demeanor as “Mars, the god of war, maybe, only with a migraine.” Heavy and high-flying, Weber’s shot, Gordon wrote, is “terrifying” and a “demoralizer.” He asked Carey Price about it. “So fluid and smooth,” the Montreal goaltender said, “and just so, so hard.”
Rod Gilbert once noted that Boom-Boom Geoffrion and Rocket Richard would sometimes bash pucks off the boards so hard that you’d have to cover your ears. Weber’s shot, Gordon writes, has a similar quality — “it sounds different than other players’ hitting the boards on the occasions his rangefinder is off.”
What is it that makes the Weber shot so powerful? Size (6’4” and 230 pounds) matters, and muscle. Montreal captain Max Pacioretty told Gordon that you have to be a very fast skater to have a shot like that, and also mentions “body control.”
Weber himself isn’t much help. He can’t really say how he acquired the shot. “Just repetition, I guess,” he told Gordon.
His stick is a factor, its stiffness in particular. Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel, famously, uses a customized Easton that’s believed to have a flex rating down around 70, which gives the shaft the pliability of a whip and makes his shot (as James Mirtle has written) one of the hardest-to-stop in the world. Winnipeg’s exceptional rookie Patrick Laine uses an 87 flex.
Many NHLers tend toward a stick in the 100 flex range. Weber’s is well beyond that. In a game this month against Toronto, Weber broke a stick with a flex of 122 cross-checking a trespasser Leaf in the Montreal slot. “You need to be a strong man to use that thing,” Carey Price told Sean Gordon.
There are heavier sticks in the NHL, but not many. Zdeno Chara’s, for one. His, as you might guess, is longer than anyone else’s in the league. On skates Chara towers almost seven feet over the ice, which is why he gets an exemption from the NHL’s limit on stick-length. Fifty-three inches is the rulebook maximum; Chara’s Warrior is said to wander on for 65.
On the ice, that means it’s ubiquitous, as Jonathan Toews told Nicholas Cotsonika of Yahoo! in 2013. “I don’t know what to compare his reach to,” the Chicago captain said. “It’s tough to get away from him. On his half of the rink, he’s going to get a piece of you somehow.”
At that length, Chara’s sticks have to be exceptionally stiff. According to Boston’s equipment manager, Keith Robinson, they’re typically 150 to 155 flex. If Weber’s stick is unyielding, Chara’s (as Justin Bourne has written for The Score) “is basically a gigantic piece of rebar.”
All of which leads, inevitably, to a headline from The Vancouver Daily World in December of 1921:
Sounds like a salacious euphemism. Maybe that’s as the sub-editor intended. In fact, it’s a faithful description of the story it tops. As is this one, from The Ottawa Journal, across the country:
Newsy Lalonde was 34 that year, and pretty much at the end of his playing days. He’d been a superstar in both hockey and lacrosse for years by then. On the ice, he was Montreal’s almost-everything: coach, captain, primary offensive weapon. If he was slowing down as an NHL force, it wasn’t obvious: when the 1920-21 season came to an end, he led the league in scoring.
Senators’ manager Tommy Gorman tried to pry him from Montreal in the fall of ’21, bring him west to play for Ottawa, but that didn’t work out. The news of his newfangled stick surfaced, if only briefly, just as the new season was about to get underway. Just how it all worked out, and whether he was permitted to use it, isn’t clear: I can’t find any follow-ups to these original articles.
What they say is that Lalonde had designed and built his own stout stick. The description isn’t much: “Lead is filtered in,” the papers tell us, “and it is balanced to an ounce when held from the centre.” With no evidence to the contrary, I say we have to accept that this was all about improving his puckhandling. Lalonde does sound like he wishes the news had never leaked: he wouldn’t say, The Globe mirthlessly reported, “what this stick would do in a game.”
Last we know, the league was studying the case. I’d surmise they nixed Lalonde’s bespoke stick, but I don’t know for certain.
Canadiens opened their season a few nights later in Toronto against the St. Patricks, a.k.a. the Irish. They lost, 5-2. The goal Newsy Lalonde scored in the third period on a pass from Didier Pitre was the least of the news he made, whatever stick he had in hand.
In a game that featured (said The Globe) “much ill-feeling and rough play,” Lalonde was “the storm centre.” Lou Marsh told the tale for The Toronto Daily Star and in his lively narrative next morning, Lalonde was both “wily” and a “human pest.” Early on, he clashed with Toronto defenceman Harry Cameron. There was an encounter, too, with centreman Reg Noble, in which the two men “sassed each other with the good old ash.”
In the second period, Toronto winger Corb Denneny cross-checked Lalonde across the stomach, which provoked the Montreal captain, a few minutes later, to charge Denneny from behind. Marsh’s description is the vivider:
In an Irish rush on goal [Bert] Corbeau knocked Denneny kiting and the Toronto lad spilled Lalonde. Both went sliding into the nets like a varicolored avalanche, with Lalonde riding the prostrate Denneny. In the melee Lalonde’s stick lovingly caressed Denneny’s neck, and Denny did the possum act in the corner. Lalonde was booted for a major penalty despite his protests that it was all an accident. Lalonde shouldn’t have accidents with his truncheon caressing the vicinity of the other fellow’s collar button. It doesn’t seem reasonable.
In the third, before Lalonde scored his goal, he ran into Toronto’s Babe Dye. I’ll let Lou Marsh take it out:
Lalonde spilled Dye and Dye gave a correct imitation of a corpse. While the first aiders were doing resuscitation business and Lalonde was standing around weeping crocodile tears, Denneny sailed across the pond and pucked the famous Canadien one in the famous puss. Lalonde looked as surprised as a bulldog bitten by a gold fish.
Nobody said it was easy, the life of a hockey referee. Russell Bowie was one of the best players to play the game before the NHL got started, winning a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Victorias in 1898. After he hung up his stick, he quite naturally took up a whistle, though that didn’t last too long. In 1911, mid-season, he quit. “The continual nagging of the players all through the season has bothered me a lot,” is what he told reporters. “I have decided that there is nothing in it for me. I have had enough hockey refereeing to last for the rest of my natural life.”
It’s not just the carping, either, that officials have to endure. “A referee has to be fast on his skates,” confided Cooper Smeaton, who wielded a whistle in the early days of the NHL. “He may at any moment be forced to hurdle sticks, climb on the fence, or instantly reverse his direction in order to get out of the way of a play. At that, we get plenty of cracks on the shins — perhaps not all of them strictly accidental.”
Fast isn’t always fast enough, of course, as referee Eddie Powers (above) learned in November of 1959 in a game at the Chicago Stadium between the hometown Black Hawks and the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs. In what we’ll call an unfortunate mishap, he found himself “slammed” into the boards by players fighting for a puck. “After three minutes of rest,” the papers reported next day, “Powers was able to continue.”
Four years and a few months later he was in Montreal. February. At 45, he was a veteran by then of seven NHL campaigns. He walked into NHL headquarters in the Sun Life building where he called Carl Voss, chief referee, out of a meeting to tell him, “I quit as of now.” He didn’t stay to see NHL president Clarence Campbell. According to Voss, Powers left after saying that the two secretaries present could serve as witnesses of his resignation.
Voss was surprised. Campbell regretted the loss — Powers was one of the most experienced referees in the league. “But we’ll get along without him.”
Powers had refereed a game on the last day of January, Toronto at Montreal. That was the start of it. The Maple Leafs shot down the Canadiens, 6-3 (Red Burnett’s view, in The Toronto Daily Star), or else erased a 2-0 Montreal lead and ran away with the game on four third-period scores (Pat Curran in the hometown Gazette). Either way, the Leafs’ Red Kelly scored a hattrick. He was playing centre; also, as widely reported, as an opposition Liberal MP for the riding of Toronto West, he was missing a tumultuous day in Parliament as Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s government tottered on the edge of dissolution over its nuclear arms policy and what the United States thought about it.
In Montreal, the Canadiens were close to detonation by force of sheer disgruntlement. Kelly’s second goal, they thought, was scored while the Leafs’ Bob Nevin was in the crease. Montreal goaltender Jacques Plante chased after referee Powers to remonstrate and, eventually, to demonstrate how to smash a goalstick to flinders.
The Gazette reported that the Habs thought that Nevin had kicked the puck into the net. Coach Toe Blake screamed so much that Powers gave him a bench minor.
That was in the second period. The third was no calmer. Powers doled out misconducts to Montreal’s Bernie Geoffrion and Toronto’s Carl Brewer followed by a game misconduct for Geoffrion, along with a $75 fine (Brewer’s was $25). Montreal’s Bill Hicke was also charged with a $25 misconduct for (as Red Burnett wrote it) “questioning linesman Ron Wicks’ eyesight and ancestry.”
There was a penalty shot, too, for Red Kelly. That’s how he completed his hattrick. There was the Montreal crowd, stirred to a frenzy (the Gazette said), chanting “We Want Storey.”
Common decency prevented Pat Curran from printing much of what Toe Blake had to say after the game. Red Burnett quoted directly on what he thought of Powers. “He’s too inconsistent. Some of his calls were bad and he missed so many that you have to say his work was putrid. The whole league is getting bush all around.”
Montreal-Matin had Blake saying that the NHL should investigate the officials because they gave the impression of having bet on the outcome of the game. “Don’t tell me he’s not working against us,” The Montreal Star contributed to vituperative quote-quilt. “He let’s everything go and then he calls a chippy penalty against us.”
La Presse checked in with Montreal’s PR director, Frank Selke, Jr.: “I don’t know how much referees get for each game, but if he got more than $10 for tonight’s game he was overpaid.”
Blake wasn’t pleased with his players, either. “Our guys quit like dogs after they tied it up,” he said. “Maybe I used the wrong tactics in blaming the referee. That gave them an excuse and they folded.”
NHL president Clarence Campbell weighed in, of course. He was going to check with Blake; if he admitted to saying what he was supposed to have said, the fine could run to $1,000. Continue reading
Handmedown Hab: Danny Geoffrion was three years old in March of 1961; his father, Bernie, had just turned 30. Boom-Boom, as Geoffrion père was better known, was in the midst of his best scoring season, one in which he’d score 50 goals for the Canadiens and lead the NHL with 95 points. Sporting his dad’s number 5 here, Danny would, in time, earn a Habs’ sweater of his own: after GM Sam Pollock drafted him in 1978, he made the team as a 20-year-old right winger the following season, wearing number 20 and an uninspired nickname: Little Boomer. The defending Stanley Cup champions got a new coach that year, too: Bernie Geoffrion.
It didn’t go so well, familywise. In December, though the team was at the top of the Norris Division, Boom-Boom resigned as coach, handing the reins to an assistant, Claude Ruel. It was a few months before Geoffrion talked publicly about the pressure of coaching his son. Frank Brown of the Associated Press was one of the writers who told the story:
“I should have been like the other coaches and give a chance to my son,” said Bernie Geoffrion, “but I was afraid I’d be criticized for putting him in too much.”
So he barely put him in at all. As time passed, things worsened.
“For three weeks, we didn’t talk — not a word. Can you imagine that?” said Bernie Geoffrion. In the Montreal Forum, on the buses, in the airports, in the hotels, they would walk past each other as strangers. “It was unbelievable.”
It got to be too much. One day, Bernie Geoffrion walked into his home and sat with his wife of 29 years, Marlene. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m 50 years old. I don’t need the money. I want my kid back.’”
The two reconciled after Bernie quit. “I’ve got my son back,” the ex-coach said, “and that’s all that matters.” Danny still didn’t play much, however. He went without a goal during his Hab tenure: in 34 games before he left the team at the end of the unhappy season, Boom Minor recorded six assists and 19 minutes in penalties. The following season, playing for Winnipeg, he scored a respectable 20 goals and 46 points. But that was his last turn in the NHL.
Bernie Geoffrion does tell a bit of a different tale in Boom-Boom (1997), the autobiography he published with Stan Fischler’s help. It was Ruel and maybe vice-president Toe Blake — anyway, “the organization” — who didn’t want Danny to play. Bernie would try to put him into the line-up and he’d be told no. “Nobody,” he writes, “could give me a good explanation of why I couldn’t play Danny. I could never find the answer.”
He’d dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup as coach of the Canadiens: the dream, he writes, turned into a nightmare. His Marlene is the one, in this telling, who sees his unhappiness and tells him to quit. He did it, Ruel took over, Montreal ended up losing in the playoffs to lowly Minnesota. Finis.
Back to the photo: that’s Marlene up there on the wall, below the Stanley Cup, off to the right of the big smiling Boom-Boom portrait. She was a very good figure skater when she married Boom-Boom; she was 19 and he was 21. Her father is up there, too, on the end: the late Howie Morenz, Streak of Stratford. Marlene didn’t remember him: she was just two when the legendary Montreal star died in 1937 after a career-ending leg injury complicated (as the tale’s told, at least) by a heart broken by the news that he’d never play another game for his beloved Canadiens.
I have no idea what Boom-Boom Geoffrion thought of Random Harvest, but I can say this: none of the reviewers was too impressed. None that I’ve read. One of the nicest things that Charles Poore, writing for The New York Times, could summon up to say was that it was like an artichoke, layered.
James Hilton’s fourth novel was a big deal when it was published in 1941. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity big? That sort of thing, I’m thinking. Six years had passed since the English author had published his previous blockbusting book, Goodbye Mr. Chips, which in turn had followed on the heels of Lost Horizon, the book with which he made his name and gave the world (and the word) Shangri-La.
The new novel told the story of a soldier of the First World War, shell-shocked, with no memory of the rich, high-born man he used to be. Charles Poore warned that he was sticking by his rule of never to give away the ending of a book; what he was willing to say was (i) it wasn’t a plausible plot and (ii) he preferred the parts to the whole. It was, he was willing to declare in his end-of-January column, the most dilemma-strewn, plot-clotted story of the year.
In Toronto, the estimable William Arthur Deacon gave it a look for The Globe and Mail. He felt that Hilton had turned his back on — well, everything of significance, in favour of being a mere purveyor of entertainment. He advised the thoughtful reader to leave it alone. “After the inevitable movie, it will pass, slowly at first and then rapidly, into the void of eternal forgetfulness, because there is really nothing much to it.”
It was a bestseller, on both sides of the Atlantic. Deacon was right and also, wrong. A movie did follow, in 1942, starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. It made a lot of money, too, while failing to charm the critics.
As for the perpetual void, Boom-Boom Geoffrion obviously braved it long enough to pluck himself the copy with which he’s seen relaxing here. Based on this photo, which dates to the late 1950s, it may have been bedtime fare for two of his young children, too, daughter Linda and elder son Bob. Never mind the critics: the Geoffrions appear to have made it nearly all the way to the end.