jean ratelle: among stooges and pirates and marx brothers madness, a stylist supreme

The New York Rangers stowed away Rick Nash’s sweater today, numbered 61, when they traded him to the Boston Bruins ahead of tomorrow’s NHL trade deadline. Jean Ratelle knows what that’s like. It was November of 1975 when the Rangers shipped him and Brad Park to the Bruins in a seismic exchange that brought Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais back the other way. Tonight, Ratelle, who’s 77 now, is back in New York to see the Rangers retire the number he wore for most of the 14 New York seasons he played before that. Ratelle’s number 19 will rise to the rafters of Madison Square Garden in a ceremony ahead of the game in which the modern-day Rangers go Nashless against the Detroit Red Wings.

“The trade began a seven-season seminar in poise and determination.” That’s from a 1980 editorial in The Boston Globe just after Ratelle announced his retirement at the age of 40 to move back of the Boston bench as an assistant coach. That’s right: the Globe saluted him with an editorial when he finally ended his playing days. As revered as he was in New York, Ratelle was, very quickly, beloved in Boston. In both cities the affection had to do with his skill and scoring prowess, and the trophies he won — a Masterton in 1971 along with two Lady Byngs (’72 and ’76) — but there was more to it than that.

Everybody knew how good he was, Globe columnist Leigh Montville effused on another page in 1980. “Not so much how good he was as a player — though he was very good indeed — but how good he was as a person.” He continued:

In the arms-and-elbow game in which the best disposition might be that of a pirate, Jean Ratelle was able to play 20 years on top of a pedestal. He was religious. He was a family man. He was a gentleman. He scored 491 goals and collected 776 assists and totaled 1267 points. He was a hell of a player.

On an ice surface filled with Marx Brothers madness and Three Stooges shenanigans, he was Fred Astaire in full glide. He was the maitre’d of hockey, the stylist supreme, top and tails and ease. The ragged and well-publicized fringes of the game never interested him or bothered him. He worked its heart, goal to goal, back and forth, follow the puck. He was a purist, an artist, a painter of perfect miniatures doing his job on a street filled with car horns and busy shoppers.

Rod Gilbert was a childhood friend of Ratelle’s in Montreal long before they ever played together in New York. He thought he could have been an actual artist. “He would really have excelled in any area of his life,” Gilbert said in 1981. “He showed beauty. If he was a writer or a painter, he would have done well.”

Also: “In all the time I’ve known him, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Jean Ratelle swear. Not once. Never.”

“It’s amazing, really, that he was able to play the game,” Brad Park said. “That might be the most amazing thing of Jean Ratelle’s career. That such a tranquil man could play such an aggressive game and survive.”

Not that he was fragile. Back in that editorial-page endorsement, the Globe maintained that for all his Astaire-ness, Ratelle was also “as tough as John Wayne,” as “eager young defencemen found out after bouncing off Ratelle’s strong forearms intent on guiding the puck to a teammate.”

“Others skate,” the Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote in 1976, “but Ratelle glides.” His passes? “Feather-soft, accurate, and there’s only one thing to do if you’re playing on a line with him: keep your stick on the ice because he’s going to put the puck on it.”

A year before he hung up his skates, Steve Marantz from the Globe was marveling how good he still was at the age of 39: “no slippage, no coughing an sputtering, no sudden gasp and wheeze.” Bruins’ coach Fred Creighton: “He does things with the puck that young players coming up don’t even know about.”

The highest praise you’ll come across in all the annals of Ratelle-related enthusiasm? I’m going to go with Bobby Rousseau’s ode from 1973. He’d skated the Montreal Canadiens’ wing for ten years in the 1960s, of course, before joining the Rangers in 1971.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career to play with two of the greatest centreman in the National Hockey,” Rousseau said, “Jean Béliveau at Montreal and Jean Ratelle with the Rangers.”

I’ve played against Jean Ratelle, I’ve played on a team with him the past two years, and for the past few games I’ve played on a line with him. He’s the same height, same personality, same temperament, same talent as Jean Béliveau. Because of the way he is, Ratty will probably be annoyed with me for saying these things. I don’t think Jean Ratelle has ever been given the credit he’s deserved.

(Image: Library and Archives Canada / PA-057285)

cat tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a lot can happen in thirty-four seconds

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It’s been coming around every year on this day, since 1972, and every year we duly give bow our heads and give our thanks while observing the anniversary with small gestures of national relief (whew, we almost lost) and self-congratulation (wow, are we great). Yes, that’s right, on this day, September 28, 44 years ago, 34 seconds remained in the final ill-tempered game of the long grim Summit Series pitting many of Canada’s best hockey players against a squad of the Soviet Union’s. The clock at the Palace of Sports of the Central Lenin Stadium stopped at 19:26 of the third period, you’ll recall: that’s when Paul Henderson scored his timely goal to give the Canadians a 6-5 lead in the game. Accounts of the series describe the euphoria of that moment; they also tell of how the remainder of the game unfolded. A sampling of the latter, including a touch of the former:

Roy MacSkimming
Cold War: The Amazing Canada-Soviet Hockey Series of 1972 (1996) by Roy MacSkimming

The Canadian bench empties. Even Dryden goes lumbering all the way down the rink to join the ecstatic mob of white sweaters hugging, patting, squeezing and slapping Henderson.

The Soviets skate sluggishly about, stunned, their faces drained of hope, their cause apparently lost. Yet thirty-four seconds remain to play, and the Soviets are gifted with the power to score a sudden goal. It’s easy to imagine them tying this one up in thirty-four seconds, thus tying the series, and going on to claim victory on goal-differential.

Sinden stays with Stapleton, who was on the ice for the goal along with Savard. He sends out White and his two steadiest defensive forwards, Ellis and Peter Mahovlich, to join the indefatigable Esposito. The five don’t let the Soviets anywhere near Dryden. Even the Soviets themselves go halfheartedly through the motions, as if they don’t really expect to score. As if it were somehow ordained the Canadians would win.

With Gusev the last Soviet player to touch the puck, with the Canadian fans absolutely roaring out the countdown of the final seconds, Dryden hands off to Stapleton. Carefully, Stapleton carries the puck behind his net and passes up the boards to Mahovlich as the final horn sounds. Mahovlich lets the puck go by, Stapleton races after it, and the fans, as Foster Hewitt says, go wild.

Brad Park
Straight Shooter: The Brad Park Story (2012) by Brad Park and Thom Sears

When Paul Henderson scored the winning goal, I was on the bench. I had just got off the ice, maybe 20 seconds before. When he scored the winner, I was jumping out of my jockstrap!

Dennis Hull
The Third Best Hull (2013) by Dennis Hull and Robert Thompson

After Henderson scored, the whole team jumped out on the ice, but the game wasn’t over and Harry knew it. There were still 34 seconds remaining, but the Russians never really tried after Paul scored. They were finished. They didn’t pull the goalie, they didn’t rush, they didn’t give it all their effort.

Paul Henderson
Shooting For Glory (1997) by Paul Henderson with Mike Leonetti

I skated back to the bench and told Sinden, “Harry, I’m done.” I knew I couldn’t play those last 34 seconds. I was physically and emotionally drained. In any event, we held them off to win 6-5 and take the series four wins to three wit one game tied.

Ron Ellis
How Hockey Explains Canada: The Sport That Defines a Country (2012), by Jim Prime and Paul Henderson

When Paul scored that goal, I was one of the first guys over the boards. We were all huddled together. We started chanting, ‘We did it, we did it …’ but we still had 34 seconds to kill off. I was actually very honoured. Harry Sinden sent Pete Mahovlich and myself and Phil Esposito on to kill off that final 34 seconds. I remember Paul saying to me when the game was over, ‘That guy wasn’t going to go anywhere.’ I had him so wrapped up! For me, for myself I was pleased that Harry had enough confidence in me because a lot can happen in 34 seconds.

Jack Ludwig
Moscow Diary (1972) by Jack Ludwig

In time the game began again, but it was all count-down, the longest loudest triumphant cry-out numbers may have ever received. “O Canada” roared out suddenly: Canadians for this moment softened, and gave up trying to sound like a lynch mob.

In the final seconds it was the tour’s end, wedding, anniversary, christening, bar mitzvah, birth, birthday, New Year’s Eve, carnival, Day of Misrule — yes, and the Dieppe that ended with V-E Day!

Paul Henderson
The Goal of My Life (2012) by Paul Henderson with Roger Lajoie

I went back to the bench exhausted. I said, “Harry, I’m done, the tank is empty!” There was no way I was going back out there for the final thirty-four seconds. We killed those seconds off, the clock wound down, and we had the greatest victory of our lives. We were desperate to win and it showed, and that was the difference really. We didn’t want to go don in history as the team that couldn’t lose to the Russians but did … and thanks to that third-period rally, we didn’t!

Phil Esposito
Thunder and Lightning: A No B.S. Memoir (2003) by Phil Esposito and Peter Golenbock

After Pauly scored, we were ahead for the first time with only thirty-four seconds left in the game. I figured Harry Sinden wanted me to come out, but I looked at him like, Don’t you dare take me out. I was determined not to let them score.

I never left the ice. I was not going off until the whistle blew. I was bad that way, but I could not help myself. I felt I had to stay out there.

The puck came around the back of our net, and I got it, and I looked up to see that the time was running out, and when the horn blew, I looked up and cheered, and all the Team Canada players on the ice went crazy. The trumpeter from the Montreal Forum was sitting in the stands blowing loudly, and the Canadian fans in the stands — three thousand of them — were going crazy.

When the game ended I found myself right beside Ken Dryden, and I grabbed him. All the guys came over. The emotion we all felt more than anything else was relief.

I skated past the Russian coach, Kulagin, a big fat guy with a fat face who we nicknamed “Chuckles.” I said, “Too fucking bad, you fucking Commie prick.”

Harry Sinden
Hockey Showdown: The Canada-Russia Hockey Series (1972) by Harry Sinden

As I remember it now, we didn’t believe it for a split second. Our bench seemed to freeze. Maybe it was too good to be true. Suddenly, all the players were over the boards smothering Henderson. I looked at the clock — 34 seconds. I thought we had more time left than that, but I wished it were only four. I got the players who were going to be on the ice for the final half minute — Ellis, Espo, Peter — and told them not to take any chances. Just dump the puck out of the zone and keep them at center ice. The Russians never came close. When the game ended, Fergie, Eagleson, and I threw our arms around one another and ran across the ice like little kids. It’s a wonder we didn’t break our necks. I kept telling them, “Never in doubt, was it, fellas?”

Ken Dryden
Face-Off At The Summit (1973) by Ken Dryden with Mark Mulvoy

Then I realized there were still thirty-four seconds to play. The Russians had scored twice in nine seconds the other night. It was, without doubt, the longest thirty-four seconds I have ever played. It seemed like thirty-four days, but after everything we had been through, we weren’t going to let anything crush us now. We checked furiously and they never got off a decent shot. It was over. 6-5. The Canadians were singing “O Canada” in the stands and waving their miniature Canadian flags. And then they started that incessant cheer: “We’re No. 1, We’re No. 1.”

We are.

34

(Top photo: Frank Lennon, Library and Archives Canada, e010933343; Headline: The Globe and Mail, September 29, 1972)

jet blue

The American artist LeRoy Neiman didn’t get to the rink until he was well into his career as a painter, but he did keep coming back once he’d arrived. This 1972 serigraph, “Blue Hockey,” was his first hockey work; others include this one and this. Above, that’s Bobby Hull, numbered nine, in Chicago garb of fanciful blues, on his way to the New York Rangers’ net. The goaltender there would be, I suppose, Ed Giacomin, with Jean Ratelle, 19, attending. Could be anyone at the far post, most likely a defenceman. Brad Park? Jim Nielson? Might as well make the other Hawk Pit Martin. By the time the hammer fell on this particular signed edition at a sale last June of hockey art and artifact by Montreal’s Classic Auctions, the bidding had reached US$711. (Image: Classic Auctions)

the steaks of 1972: everybody suspected sabotage

Scan 18In Canada, all that matters is this: we won.

It was 40 years ago today that the best of our hockey best beat the Soviets in Moscow in the final and deciding game of the 1972 Summit Series. It could have gone either way, as the sportscasters say: a last-minute goal by Paul Henderson was the difference. And not even a glorious goal, at that. It was more of a desperate shunting of the puck over the line, after which a show-shovel raised high in celebration might have been more appropriate than a stick.

Doesn’t matter. Canadians know now, as they always have, why their team won: the game is ours + Canadian heart (almost) always trumps foreign skill + in the battle between our way of life versus theirs, no contest + Henderson, in Moscow that week, nobody was going to stop the guy.

And yet. In the flurry of this month’s 40th-anniversary commemorations, are we forgetting what may have been the fiercest of fuels in Team Canada’s Moscow fire? Isn’t it time, now, to acknowledge that the greatest of Canadian hockey triumphs boils down to this: they never should have messed with our chow. Continue reading

trademarked

Call It Macaroni: Trades made Phil Esposito depressed and angry. Here, in happier times, he makes the case for Kraft Dinner at the airport. Out on the tarmac. With a side salad.

Brett Hull grinned when he was traded from Calgary to St. Louis in 1988. “Yesssssss,” he said, and I quote. A few months later and a little to the north, Wayne Gretzky departed for Los Angeles amid a storm of shock and tears, anger and accusations. That, the latter, is probably closer to the norm when it comes to what hockey players go through when they’re swapped, one team to another. A lot of the time they feel what Arnie Brown felt when the New York Rangers sent him to Detroit in 1971: “depressed, bitter, and shocked.”

Dave Schultz was dazed. His head felt heavy. He never thought it would come to this. Traded for draft choices! This was in 1976 when Philadelphia sent him south to do his hammering in L.A. He was angry. He blamed Bobby Clarke. After all he’d done for the Flyers in the way of punching their opponents! Not to mention them punching him! Humiliating. He said some things, which a reporter heard and published. There was a furor. “It’s dislocation pure and simple — and rejection,” he’d wax later. “You don’t think that someone else wants you; you think that somebody doesn’t.” Continue reading