The St. Louis Blues aren’t there yet, but they did beat the San Jose Sharks 5-0 Sunday in the fifth game of the NHL’s Western Conference, which means that one more win would put the Blues into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1970. That could happen tonight: the two teams meet again in St. Louis.
Coached by Scotty Bowman (and by, a little bit, Lynn Patrick), the Blues reached the finals in each of their first three NHL seasons, falling twice in succession to the Montreal Canadiens and then, 49 years this month, to Bobby Orr’s mighty Boston Bruins. The core of the Blues’ line-up in the latter series was steeled by a remarkable collection of veterans that included goaltender Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall (aged 41 and 38 respectively), centre Camille Henry and defenders Jean-Guy Talbot and Al Arbour (all 37.) That’s Arbour pictured here, alongside another distinguished NHL elder, Doug Harvey, who manned the St. Louis line at the age of 44 in his final season, 1968-69. Arbour captained the team in all three of their early Stanley Cup appearances. Arbour handed the C to Barclay Plager at the 1970-71 season when he took over as coach of the Blues while Bowman turned his attention to GM’ing.
The arrangement didn’t last: by February of 1971, Arbour was back on the St. Louis blueline and Bowman was back to the bench. “I think I can help more in a playing capacity,” Arbour said at the time. As for Bowman, he insisted the arrangement was only temporary. “I had, nor have, no aspiration to return to coach on a permanent basis,” he said. “Coaching is not for me. But I decided to come back because it is good for the good of the team. We’re building for the future and one man can’t spoil it all.”
The future burned brilliantly bright for both men, of course, though not in St. Louis. While Bowman went on to coach the Montreal Canadiens, Arbour ended up behind the bench of the New York Islanders. In the 11 seasons that followed the year Bowman and Arbour shared coaching duties in St. Louis, their (non-Missouri) teams would lay claim to nine Stanley Cups.
Harry Howell’s adjectives as a Hall-of-Fame NHL defenceman included smart and steady, efficient, and unostentatious, but it’s Roger Angell’s description of his late-career blueline style in 1967 that I hold dear: “Howell,” he wrote in The New Yorker, “has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic.”
Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1932, Howell died on Saturday at the age of 86. Appreciations of his life and times that you might want to attend: Scott Radley’s for The Hamilton Spectator and, at NHL.com, this one by Dave Stubbs.
Howell was 20 when he joined the New York Rangers in 1952. Three years later, he was appointed captain of the team, though he relinquished the role after two seasons, handing the C to Red Sullivan. “Handsome Harry voluntarily gave up the post,” The New York Daily News reported at the time, “agreeing that the weight of the job had affected his play.” It couldn’t have helped that the fans in New York had started to boo him and his relentless (if not exactly electrifying) competence.
“It was quite a relief,” Howell said, years later. “I added about ten pounds to my playing weight and I turned my game around right away.”
The fans forgave, or forgot, or learned to appreciate Howell’s game. In all, he skated in 17 seasons for the Rangers, and he remains the club’s all-time leader in games played, with 1,194. He ended his NHL years on the west coast, serving with stints with the Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, and California Golden Seals. He played three years in the WHA, for the New York Golden Blades/Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners, and the Calgary Cowboys.
He was 35 in 1967 when he won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman, edging out Chicago’s Pierre Pilote and Boston’s 19-year-old rookie Bobby Orr. “I’m glad I won it this year,” Howell said when he took the trophy in hand, “because I think some other guy is going to win it for the next decade.” He was close: Orr would win the Norris in each of the next eight years. They would enter the Hall of Fame, as it happened, together, in 1979.
In January of 1968, the Rangers celebrated Howell’s stout service ahead of his 1,002nd NHL game. New York was playing Boston that night at Madison Square Garden, and would beat them by a score of 2-1. Ahead of the hockey, Howell, along with his wife Marilyn, and the couple’s two children (11-year-old Cheryl and seven-year-old Daniel), stood at centre ice to receive a shower of gifts. Other NHL teams had organized nights like this, for it was a first for the Rangers. I promise you I’m not inventing any of this. As reported in the press that week, the inventory included:
A set of Ben Hogan woods and irons
A golf-club membership (“paid-up”)
A three-piece set of luggage
A cartoon of Howell (“laminated”)
Kent cigarettes (“cartons of”)
Cigars (“from 21 Club”)
A pool cue
A razor and a year’s supply of blades
A set of encyclopedias (32 volumes)
A dozen Gant shirts
Two pairs of custom-made golf slacks
A ski outfit
A bespoke mohair suit
Thread (50 spools)
Roses for Mrs. Howell before every Rangers’ game played on a Wednesday night
Ten beauty-parlor appointments for Mrs. Howell
A vacation at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, near Liberty, New York
Dinner at a Hamilton, Ontario hotel
A month’s stay at Glen Oaks Village, in Queens, New York
A night at the Upstairs at the Downstairs nightclub, New York
A two-week vacation in Palm Beach, Florida
Swimming-pool privileges at Loew’s Midtown Hotel, New York
Dinner at Toots Shor’s restaurant, New York
A pair of children’s bicycles
A gas barbecue
An electric frying pan
An electric blender
A dishwasher (also “electric”)
An portable stereo (RCA)
25 record albums
A portable TV
An 8mm movie camera and lighting equipment
An 8mm projector and screen
A colour film of the evening’s proceedings
A hairdryer (“women’s”)
A Christmas tree (“seven-foot artificial”)
A year’s supply of cheese (“from Finland”) and hams (“Polish”)
A week’s rental from Avis Rent-A-Car
The final gift, driven out on the ice by two of Howell’s former teammates, Red Sullivan and Lou Fontinato, was a 1967 Mercury Cougar.
(Top image: Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)
Joe Primeau said he was the toughest player he ever faced. The big fellow, you sometimes see him called in contemporary dispatches (he was 6’1,” if only 170 pounds), as well as a fearless blocker; this lone hockey wolf; and the stone wall on which Montreal’s hopes were dashed.
Toronto-born, defenceman Lionel Hitchman got his NHL start with the old Ottawa Senators, but it was with Boston starting in 1925 that he made his name, pairing with Eddie Shore on the fearsome Bruins’ defence for years not to mention captaining the team to its first Stanley Cup in 1929. “There is no smarter hockey brain than Hitchman’s,” an admirer in the press wrote in 1931, “and there isn’t a man playing with a bigger heart in the sport.”
Why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame? That’s been a pertinent question without a good answer for some years, and it’s one that the estimable Dave Stubbs has taken up this week. Stubbs, late of Montreal’s Gazette, now resident columnist and historian at NHL.com, makes the case in a column, here, calling for the wrong to be righted. Which calls for more, differently spelled hears: hear, hear.
The list of those overlooked by the Hall is a long one, of course, in which Hitchman’s name lines up with … Well, in the matter of Hall absentees, the question isn’t one of where to start, it’s where you stop. Lorne Chabot, Paul Henderson? Claude Provost, Reggie Leach? What about Rogie Vachon, and Herb Cain? Why aren’t they in?
Is the Hall listening? Inscrutable at the best of times, the selection process doesn’t seem to favour candidates from the distant past. So maybe Leach and Henderson ascend before Chabot (who retired after the 1936-37 season and died in 1946) or Hitchman (retired 1934; died 1968)? Maybe.
Meanwhile, while we wait, a few further Hitchman notes:
• He wasn’t first the first Boston captain, but he was the second. Dave Stubbs suggests that the Bruins played their first three years without a skipper when in fact they were only leaderless on the ice for their inaugural season, 1924-25. In the fall of ’25, manager Art Ross brought in veteran marauding defenceman Sprague Cleghorn, who was the captain for two seasons ahead of Hitchman, who you’ll see sometimes referred to as vice-captain in newspaper accounts from that time.
• Fred, as he was often called — he was born Frederick Lionel in 1901 — Fred was often injured, of course; in other words, he was a hockey player. In 1924, still an Ottawa Senator, he was rushing the puck at the Montreal net when Canadiens’ Billy Coutu hit him and he went down, a stick must have done the slicing, he was prone on the ice and had to be carried off with a big gash on his forehead. He returned to the Ottawa bench, with a big plaster on the wound, but didn’t play again that game. In 1928, he was pretty sure he’d broken a shoulder bashing up against the New York Rangers, though x-rays showed it was only separated, and he was back on the ice after missing just a single game. In 1930, teammate Eddie Shore hoisted a puck to clear it but hit Hitchman in the jaw instead, fractured it. That put him out for a while. When he returned, for the playoffs, he was wearing a helmet — though a different one, I think, than the one pictured above.
He had a poor season the following year. The jaw hadn’t healed as it should have, got infected, and (as Victor Jones explained in The Daily Boston Globe) “this poison running through his system is what has been responsible for his mediocre play.” Another report mentioned the unhappy effects of “the puss [sic] in his teeth roots.”
• Hitchman resigned the captaincy ahead of the 1931-32 season. He’d tried to do it a year earlier, during that off-season of his, but Art Ross wouldn’t let him. Not sure how much he was going to play, or at what level, Hitchman was insisting now. This was the year, too, that NHL president Frank Calder made it clear that no longer would managers (looking at you Messrs. Ross and Smythe) be permitted to talk to referees during games, only captains would be able to remonstrate. Ross had appointed Cleghorn and then Hitchman as his captains; this time, he decided to let the players to elect a successor. Hitchman nominated another defenceman, George Owen, and Eddie Shore seconded that, and so it was. Ross said he was so pleased by this that he vowed that all his future captains would be chosen democratically rather than be handpicked by him.
• A 1929 rumour had him going to the Montreal (along with $50,000) in exchange for Howie Morenz. Canadiens manager Cecil Hart was quick to douse that one. “Put this down,” he said, Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.” That would prove to be true, strictly speaking: after a short odyssey that took him to Chicago and New York, Morenz did of course return to Montreal, where he died a Canadien in March of 1937.
Other rumours circulated the year of his jaw infection. Was he headed to Detroit to succeed Jack Adams as manager of the Falcons? Other whispers had Hitchman going to Montreal in the fall of 1931 in exchange for Tommy Cook, a pair of young brothers called Giroux, and cash. This time it was Bruins’ owner and president Charles Adams who did the kyboshing. “It is not the policy of the Bruins to sell any player who is of value to the club.”
• So he played on. I don’t think he ever returned to his old form, though. In January of 1934, the Montreal Gazette was reporting that “his days of effectiveness as a player were numbered,” the only question was would he hang up his skates to take a job as an assistant coach under Art Ross or head down to steer the minor-league Boston Cubs? The Bruins weren’t going to make the playoffs, but they still had eight games remaining. They were already missing Eddie Shore, still serving his suspension for ending the career of (while nearly killing) Toronto’s Ace Bailey. On the night of February 22, Hitchman played his final game, going out in style — that is, “Lionel Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden saw the Bruins lose 3-1 to the Ottawa Senators after a ceremony in which the man of the moment received plaques and cheques and flowers and a chest filled with silverware. His parents were on hand, too, and they were rewarded with their venerable son’s sweater and stick.
• The Bruins did retire Hitchman’s number 3 that night. Just about a week earlier Conn Smythe had vowed that no other Maple Leaf would ever wear Bailey’s number 6 again, so that would seem to make Hitchman’s the second number to be taken out of circulation in professional sports. In Hitchman’s case, the retirement seems to have taken some time to stick. Myles Lane wore Hitchman’s 3 at some point in 1934, and it was back on the ice a couple of years later, worn (if only briefly) by both Bert McInenly and (below) Flash Hollett.
In the 1940s, Hollett got Eddie Shore’s number 2 when the legendary Bruins’ defenceman moved on, under stormy circumstance, to the New York Americans. Some fans in Boston were outraged, said the Shore’s 2 should be withdrawn post haste with even more (as one Shore loyalist wrote) ceremony than Hitchman’s 3.
The Bruins did eventually get around to it, but not until 1947, the year they also retired Dit Clapper’s number 5.
Boston players lobbied hard, apparently, in 1938 to get Ross to honour Tiny Thompson’s number 1, but Ross refused. Thompson was still playing, for one thing — he’d been traded to the Detroit Red Wings to make room for young Frank Brimsek — and, two, Ross was said to be worried about running out of numbers.
Blanket Statement: Members of the doubly captained 1947-48 Canadiens show off blankets (in Habs colours, of course) given by Ayers Limited, the famous woolen mill in Lachute, Quebec. At the back are, from the left: Glen Harmon, Billy Reay, Butch Bouchard, Toe Blake, Roger Leger, Bill Durnan, Elmer Lach, and (on quality control) Maurice Richard. Bedspreaded up at the front are Ken Reardon and Bob Fillion.
There seem to be three main types of Béliveau fans; perhaps the types are general. There are the ones who want to do what is expected of them; they ask for an autograph and are invariably polite. Then there are those who need physical contact; they want to shake hands or stand close to Jean for a picture. And there’s a third group who stand off from him as though stunned. They stand quite still, at a little distance, and stare. Then all of a sudden they’re apt to do or say something quite unpredictable, amusing or touching, like the lady of the golf course who played through his foursome one afternoon. She came striding along, passed this quartet of players, took a long, slow look over her shoulder as she went — a look mingled bewilderment and pleasure, very familiar to anybody who spends some time with Jean in public — and then spilled her dignity all over the place.
“I never saw you alive before,” she said. It just seemed to pop out.
Jean grinned at her. “I’m alive all right,” he said.
Perhaps the tremendous amount of television exposure has something to do with this phenomenon — the fan who is temporarily stunned by seeing the hero in the flesh. Jean says, “They act like they know me personally; it’s a wonderful feeling. Not just as if they’ve seen my picture in the papers over and over again, but more as if we’d spent a lot of time together, somewhere that they couldn’t quite remember. As if they were meeting an old friend they hadn’t seen for a long time. … They stop and stare; then they get that look of recognition, and they’re apt to say funny things very spontaneously, or start talking as if we’d been having a conversation that had been interrupted. It’s a very personal thing.”
• Hugh Hood, Strength Down Centre: The Jean Béliveau Story (1970)
(Photo: Weekend Magazine, 28 December, 1963/Louis Jaques/ Library and Archives Canada/e002505688)