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)
Sixty years ago today, Montreal was minus-nine and snowed under, cloudy overhead, with light flurries expected and a risk of freezing drizzle. Normal, then, for a Saturday in January. Marlon Brando’s new movie, Sayonara, was playing at Loew’s downtown. In Ottawa, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was feeling better. Having spent the week confined to his bed with a strained back, he was up and out for a short walk. All was well in the local hockey cosmos: the Montreal Canadiens, Stanley Cup champions for two years running, were once again a top the NHL standings. Coming off a 5-2 Thursday-night win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs were preparing to host the Boston Bruins and their newly promoted winger, 22-year-old Fredericton, New Brunswick-born Willie O’Ree.
This week, the NHL is remembering that 1958 night, the first to see a black player play in the league. O’Ree, who’s 82 now, was honoured last night and roundly cheered at Boston’s TD Garden when the modern-day Canadiens played (and lost to) the Bruins. Earlier in the day, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had proclaimed today Willie O’Ree Day across city. That was at a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in O’Ree’s honour.
Called up in a manpower emergency, O’Ree played only a pair of games during his first NHL stay. It would be three more years before he returned to score his first goal.
Back in ’58, the Bruins and Canadiens were spending all weekend together. Following Saturday’s game, they’d meet again Sunday in Boston. The then-dominant Canadiens were, as mentioned, cruising atop the six-team NHL, 18 points ahead of second-place Detroit, 24 clear of the languishing fifth-place Bruins.
With Leo Labine out with the flu, Boston GM Lynn Patrick summoned 22-year-old O’Ree from the Quebec Aces of the minor-league QHL. In 32 games there, he’d scored 7 goals and 18 points.
“It is believed that O’Ree is the first Negro to ever perform in the National Hockey League,” Montreal’s Gazette ventured, with nods to other black hockey talents, including Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre, star Aces of the early 1950s, as well as to O’Ree’s teammate in Quebec, centre Stan Maxwell.
Elsewhere, across North America, the headlines were bolder. “Young Negro Star Makes NHL History,” a California paper headlined a United Press story in its pages, noting “the lowering of the last color line among major sports” while also deferring to “most hockey observers” who were said to agree that the only reason there had been such a line was “the fact that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make” the NHL.
O’Ree wore number 25 playing the left wing on Boston’s third line alongside Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini.
“His debut was undistinguished as Boston coach Milt Schmidt played him only half a turn at a time,” The Boston Globe recounted, “alternating him with veteran Johnny Pierson.” The thinking there? GM Patrick explained that Schmidt wanted to “ease the pressure” on O’Ree and “reduce the margin of errors for the youngster.”
Dink Carroll of Montreal’s Gazette paid most of his attention on the night to Boston’s new signing, the veteran Harry Lumley, “chubby goalkeeper who looks like a chipmunk with a nut in each cheek.” O’Ree he recognized as “a fleet skater” who had one good scoring chance in the third period in combination with Toppazzini. “He lost it when he was hooked from behind by Tom Johnson.”
Lumley’s revenge was registered in a 3-0 Bruins’ win. “I was really nervous in the first period,” O’Ree said, “but it was much better as the game went on.”
“It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. It’s the greatest thrill of my life.”
Also making an NHL debut at the Forum that night: Prince Souvanna Phouma, the prime minister of Laos, was on hand to see the hockey sights at the end of a North American visit.
Sunday night at the Garden, O’Ree got one opening, early on, when Don McKenney fed him a leading pass. This time, O’Ree shot into Jacques Plante’s pads. With Canadiens re-asserting themselves as league-leaders with a 6-2 win, O’Ree didn’t play much in the game’s latter stages.
So that was that. Afterwards, O’Ree was reported to be grinning, sitting amid a stack of telegrams from well-wishers back home. He described himself as a “little shaky.” “I’m just happy to get a chance up here, that’s about all I can say.” Leo Labine was back at practice next day, along with another forward who’d been injured, Real Chevrefils, so after another practice or two, O’Ree returned to Quebec.
It was three years before he got back the NHL and scored his first goal. Canadiens figured prominently again, starting in the summer of 1960, when the Bruins agreed to loan the winger to Montreal. O’Ree was duly assigned to the Hull-Ottawa edition of the Canadiens, in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, where Glen Skov was the coach. The team had a good autumn, but as happens with farm teams, they paid the price in having their best talents stripped away. In November, Canadiens called up Bobby Rousseau and Gilles Tremblay while Boston beckoned O’Ree, now 25, back to the fold. The Bruins were still down at the wrong end of the standings, just a point out of last place, while also suffering adjectivally in the papers where, if they weren’t “listless” they were “punchless.”
Starting off his second stint as a Bruin, he was numbered 22, assigned to a line with Charlie Burns and Gerry Ouellette. As in 1958, newspapers (like Pittsburgh’s Courier) took due note that the “fast, aggressive forward” was “the first of his race to play in the National Hockey League.”
“The Speedy O’Ree” The New York Times annotated him when he made his Garden debut; in Chicago, the Tribune’s Ted Damata was particularly attentive. “The first Negro” was “on the ice four times, three times as a left winger and once as a right winger. He touched the puck twice, losing it each time, once on a hefty body check by Jack Evans of the Hawks.” Continue reading
Boston’s surging Bruins play in Montreal tonight, where (in case you hadn’t heard) their old rivals the Canadiens continue their season of struggles. The two teams meet again next Wednesday before returning to Montreal to complete their mini-series a week from tonight.
The two teams have played 34 playoff series against one another since 1929, with Montreal having prevailed in 25 of those. Tonight’s game is the 739th regular-season meeting. Canadiens are ahead by (almost) a century on that count, with a won-lost-lost in overtime record 360-267-8 and 103 ties.
The first time the teams clashed was December 8, 1924, a Monday night, in Boston. That was the first year there were Bruins, of course, and in just the third game of their history, Canadiens spoiled the evening by beating them 4-3. The ice was a little soft at the Boston Arena; the crowd numbered 5,000. Aurèle Joliat notched a hattrick for the defending Stanley Cup champions from Montreal, with Howie Morenz adding a goal of his own. Scoring for Boston was Bobby Rowe and Carson Cooper, with a pair.
Is it fair to say that Tex Coulter caught the spirit of the rivalry in his 1959 painting of a couple of belligerents ignoring the referee? That’s one question. Another: who were his models? Fern Flaman and Leo Boivin were up atop the pile of leading Bruin penalty-takers that season, but Coulter’s Bostonian doesn’t look like either of them, to me. The haircut kind of suggests Jack Bionda. The Hab in question is numbered 2, which would make him Doug Harvey. I don’t see that, though, either. Could be 20, I guess, which was Phil Goyette. Ian Cushenan was 21 and Don Marshall 22 and … I don’t know. Safe to say it’s not Jean Béliveau. Let’s just leave it there. Game’s on.
Going into the NHL’s 1959-60 season, Phil Watson stitched his confidence to his sleeve. “I predict that we will finish in the play-offs for the fourth time in the five years that I have been coach of the club,” he said. At 45, he had charge of the New York Rangers, the team for whom he’d made his mark through the 1930s and ’40s as a feisty forward. But Watson’s September optimism didn’t translate into October wins in ’59. “I’m worried,” Watson was saying a month later,” but I can’t put my finger on the reason for four losses. This is one of the best clubs I’ve ever had.”
By November, with the Rangers having won just two of 14 games, Watson headed to New York’s Polyclinic Hospital for treatment of a peptic duodenal ulcer. The surgery was a success, but he was out of a job: Rangers GM Muzz Patrick stood in for a game before appointing one of Watson’s old Ranger teammates to succeed him on a full-time basis, Alf Pike.
At 34, Doug Harvey, meanwhile, was doing what he’d done for years: anchoring the Montreal Canadiens’ blueline, winning Norris trophies as the league’s primo defenceman. He won his fifth the following spring, and another one the year after that, in 1961. But that was it for Harvey in Montreal: at the end of May, Muzz Patrick lured him to New York to play for and coach the Rangers. Alf Pike had lasted just a single (losing) season.
Harvey wasn’t sure, initially, that he wanted to move — until he was. He’d been making $20,000 or so a year in Montreal; his Rangers’ contract was reported to be worth $27,000. Patrick was convinced he’d lead New York out of the wilderness. “Each time I have talked to Harvey,” he said, “I’ve become more and more impressed with the fact that he is an ideal choice to become coach of the Rangers. He knows hockey, commands attention, is intelligent, and doesn’t jump to rash decisions.”
Phil Watson had been coaching Providence in the American Hockey League, but in June he got a new job, too, coaching the Boston Bruins. Under Milt Schmidt, the Bruins were worse than the Rangers in ’60-61, and both teams missed the playoffs. Watson got a three-year contract that would pay him (so it was said) $15,000, $17,500, and $20,000 in successive years. This time around, Watson tempered his optimism. “We may not win too many games at first,” he said. “I’m no miracle man.”
And so to this encounter, above, which dates to July of 1961, when the new coaches met and dressed up in Montreal during the NHL’s annual meetings.
Come October, it so happened that Boston and New York would open the new campaign with a home-and-home series. On a Wednesday night in Massachusetts, the Rangers won 6-2. They did it again the next night, too, in New York. This time the score was 6-3.
“I’ve been around too long in hockey to know you can’t win ’em all,” a wary Harvey said after that second win. “I just hope the New York fans treat us well when we have a bad night.”
Though he played on, Harvey would coach just a single season in New York before Muzz Patrick replaced him behind the bench. Harvey did get the Rangers to the playoffs, to his credit, where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions from Toronto. Phil Watson? His Bruins couldn’t climb out of the basement. Watson started the ’62-63 season as coach again, but he didn’t finish it: after a 1-8-5 start, he was out, and Boston got a new coach, which is to say an old one, in Milt Schmidt.
(Image: Weekend Magazine/Library and Archives Canada)
Staredown: Those of us who studied under Bob Armstrong recognize this glare as the same one he used in his post-hockey career to quell classroom uprisings during his time as a popular teacher of History and Economics at Lakefield College School in Lakefield, Ontario. Big Bob, we called him, except when he was within a kilometre of possibly hearing us. He wasn’t so stern as all that, actually: we loved him at the Grove. I tried out year after year for First Hockey, the team he coached to so much success, but I was never good enough to make the cut. That didn’t keep me from conjuring a notion that because he’d faced Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe and Max Bentley during his 12 years as a Bruin rearguard, hadn’t I also, sort of, too … by extension? Mr. Armstrong, who died on this day in 1990 at the age of just 58, was only ever a Bruin. For much of his tenure in Boston, partnered with Bill Quackenbush, he wore the number 4 on his sweater years before Bobby Orr showed up to claim it. Here, in March of 1960, he schools Chicago’s Ted Lindsay, numbered 7, and a formidable glarer in his own right, though looking apologetic here. But then everybody but Mr. Armstrong is looking kind of sheepish, aren’t they? Number 5 for the Black Hawks is contrite Jack Evans.