game on, again, 2020: fist bumps no, fist fights fine

Wrasslemania: Art Coulter of the New York Rangers fights Joe Cooper of Chicago’s Black Hawks at Madison Square Garden in January of 1941. Looking on at left is Chicago goaltender Sam LoPresti, along with an unidentified press photographer and (at right) his New York counterpart, Dave Kerr. Working on separating New York’s Muzz Patrick and John Mariucci of Chicago is referee Bill Stewart.

Like everybody, Gary Bettman was housebound at the end of May. Unlike the rest of us, the NHL commissioner was broadcasting live from his New Jersey home, announcing the plan his league would be following in the hope of rebooting a 2019-20 season that the global pandemic had so brusquely interrupted in mid-March.

It was another strange scene in this strange and scary year we’re in, and at the same time as familiar as yesterday’s Zoom call. The image was medium-res at best, and Bettman was looking slightly startled, though smartly turned out in his quarantine-formal blue jacket and open-necked white shirt. He was in his dining room, with a formal-looking high-backed chair sitting empty behind him, maybe to signify the absences we’ve all been enduring. Over his left shoulder the camera caught the corner of a painting rendered in greens that don’t naturally occur in hockey. The room itself was a hue that, if I’m reading my Sherwin-Williams colour chart correctly, sells as Decisive Yellow. Cacophonous and yet somehow consoling was the background percussion accompanying Bettman as he said his scripted piece: nearby, in the commissioner’s kitchen, his three-year-old grandson was happily hammering pots and pans.

“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said at one point in a 15-minute explanation of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan that laid out formats, match-ups, and a tentative calendar. While there were blanks yet to be filled in — just where games would be played still hadn’t been determined, for instance — on the well-being front, the commissioner was adamant. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”

In a 2020 context, it was the right thing to say. In a COVID-19 context, there was no not saying it.

There’s another context that applies here, too, a broader hockey framework in which proclamations of how seriously the NHL takes the health and safety of its players are rendered ridiculous even as they’re spoken by the fact that the league still — still! — insists that fighting is a fundamental part of the game.

Tweakings of rules have, in recent years, contributed to a reduction in fights. Coaching attitudes and strategies have shifted as the game has sped up, and intimidation no longer plays the part it did even five years ago.

The reasons why the NHL prefers this fading-away over an outright embargo on fighting remain opaque. Fans still love it, it’s always said, some of them, and cheer when the gloves drop. Bettman takes cover, when he’s cornered, by insisting that the players think it’s fine.

Otherwise, the league hasn’t bothered to renovate its rationale since Clarence Campbell was president almost 50 years ago. Fighting is a safety valve by which players release the pressure that builds up in such a bumptious game as hockey, he used to argue: without it players would be maiming one another with their sticks. That’s one of Gary Bettman’s go-to defences, too, though it’s a thermostat he likes to talk about.

Advances in medical science continue to reveal links between head trauma and the grim tolls of CTE, but that news hasn’t impressed the NHL, which wants more proofs before it decides that the safety of its players might be improved by not having them punch one another in the head.

The contradiction the league embraces when it comes to fighting remains baked into the rulebook. Which part of Rule 21 doesn’t apply to fist fights on the ice? “A match penalty,” it reads, “shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.”

Earlier this month, The New York Times imagined how major sports might have seized the opportunity of our global lull to re-imagine the way they go about their business. What about dispensing with baseball’s DH, the Times blue-skyed. Or, for the NBA, introducing a 4-pointer for really long-range shooters? And for hockey:

Though that was never going to happen.

Returning to the ice after a four-and-a-half months hiatus is no easy enterprise. You can understand why a league like the NHL, trying to get back to its business in extraordinary times, would seek to keep things as normal as possible, as familiar, as unchanged.

The times, though — they’re different. COVID-19 has sickened millions worldwide. Tens of thousands have died. Mid-pandemic, the movement against racial injustice and police brutality that grew after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman was such that it’s even shaken the NHL out of the complacency it’s preferred to shelter in for so long. (Granted, the response has been a little stilted, a little clumsy, but the fact that the league is getting around taking a stand on issues of systemic racism, equality, and social justice is, I suppose, a something in itself.)

As the NHL lurches back into action — the verb there is Michael Farber’s, from a TSN essay this week, and I think it’s the right one — as hockey goes lurching into its unprecedented and unpredictable future, we’ve learned all about the safety measures the league has put into place for the 24 teams hubbed away in a pair of Canadian bubbles, Toronto and Edmonton, from testing players every day for COVID-19 right down to counselling them to wash their hands frequently while singing “Happy Birthday.”

The league’s playbook on all this is available to any and all who might like to browse it, in two documents, neither one of which is exactly a riveting read. The 65-point Return To Play FAQ is the more accessible of the two; the Phased Return To Sport Protocol: Phase 4 Secure Zone is 28 pages of deeper detail, covering everything from the in-bubble roles of Hygiene Officers and what happens if a player or official tests positive for COVID-19 to Hotel Amenities and Dining Options.

It’s all very thorough, as it should be. But what about on the ice? How is that going to be affected, if at all? Looking in on European soccer over the past few weeks and even some Test cricket, I’ve been interested to see how pandemical conditions and precautions have changed the way games are actually being played.

Not a whole lot, as it turns out. Most of the adjustments have been of a peripheral sort.

Cricketers were told not to apply sweat or saliva to the ball.

The handsome guide issued by England’s Premier League, which resumed play in June, included these provisos:

Closer to home, North American Major League Soccer offered a short plan for “In-Match Prevention,” outlining “general hygiene measures [extending] to the field for official matches.”

Players, coaches and officials were asked, for instance, “to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose;” they were also “asked not to exchange jerseys or kiss the ball.”

Health and safety guidance governing the NBA’s bubbly restart in Florida was contained in a 113-page guide disseminated among teams, though not, as far as I can tell, released in any public way. It does, USA Today reported, mandate that players to “Avoid Gross Habits on the Court,” namely:

No spitting or clearing nose on the court; wiping the ball with jersey; licking hands (and touching other items such as shoes or the basketball); playing with or unnecessarily touching mouthguard (and touching other items.)

Baseball, benighted as its efforts to get back to bats and balls have proved, issued a detailed guide in its 101-page 2020 Operations Manual, which includes a section on the rules MLB has modified for its pandemic return-to-play as well as guidelines for best behaviours on-field. Those include wherein “players all other on-field personnel” are exhorted to “make every effort to avoid touching their face with their hands (including to give signs), wiping away sweat with their hands, licking their fingers, whistling with their fingers, etc.”

Not allowed: any spitting, “including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco.” (Chewing gum is okay.)

Also, says MLB:

Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action. Violations of these rules will result in severe discipline consistent with past precedent, which discipline shall not be reduced or prorated based on the length of the season.

Compare that to what the NHL is offering. As far as I can tell, the NHL’s guidance for what players should and shouldn’t be doing on the ice in the time of COVID-19 is limited to a single bullet-point on page 10 of the aforementioned Protocol, down at the bottom of the section headed “Safety Precautions.” It reads, in its entirety:

Avoid handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps.

So no more handshake lines, I guess, to finish off hard-fought playoff series? What about kissing the Stanley Cup, when it’s finally presented? On that and other matters the NHL seems to be keeping its own counsel. Maybe more advisories are to come. For now, not another word does the league have to say on how players might be advised to conduct themselves on the ice in a time of a highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Teams, I’ll assume, have their own careful systems to make sure water bottles aren’t shared; maybe they’re in charge, too, of reminding players not to be blowing noses or spitting. It may be that, like the NBA, the NHL — or maybe the NHLPA? — has issued comprehensive handbooks to teams to cover this whole tricky territory, they just haven’t been made public.

I guess it’s possible, too, that the league has been talking to players on an individual basis — putting in a call, maybe, to remind Boston’s Brad Marchand, for instance, not to be licking anyone for the next few months at least.

What seems just as likely is that it was decided at some point that short of rewriting the way game is played, there’s no way to govern or even guideline hockey into a safer, socially distanced way of doing things, so why even bother drawing attention to the awkward truth?

There’s nothing social about the game once it gets going on the ice, and no distancing. Players stand shoulder-to-shoulder at face-offs, they jostle, they bump. Once the puck drops, the game is a festival of mingling and milling, of sweaty human pushing and crowding and collision. That’s the game.

And the punching that sometimes ensues? Maybe you could direct players to disperse after whistles blow, to stand back a bit at face-offs. But if you did that, how could you not say something about the closer contact of bodychecking and fighting? While baseball might have no problem with explicitly forbidding melees, the NHL feels safer in silence, maybe, which is why it defaults to pretending that none of this is worth discussing.

The fighting that hockey has failed to inhibit didn’t make sense a year ago, long before COVID had capitalized its threat, and it doesn’t make sense now. But it’s not going anywhere: it’s firmly ensconced inside the NHL’s bubble for as long as this outlandish season lasts.

Even if you missed the exhibition games earlier this week and the several scuffles that happened there, if you tuned in this afternoon to the real thing, you didn’t have to wait long to see the new NHL meld with the old in Toronto.

When Carolina’s Jacob Slavin scored an early goal on Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, once he’d gathered with his linemates for a hug, he headed, as you do, to the Hurricanes’ bench to bump fists.

There was more of that a few minutes later, under angrier circumstances, as Carolina’s Justin Williams felt the need to drop his PPE to punch New York’s Ryan Strome in the head, and vice-versa.

Strome was bleeding from the nose by the time they’d finished. He headed for the Rangers’ dressing room, while Williams sat himself down in the penalty box. A couple of bemasked members of Scotiabank Arena’s rink crew skated out with shovels to scrape away the blood from the ice.

Game on, I guess.

Contact Tracing: Boston’s Brad Marchand showing how it’s not supposed to done in the Eastern Conference finals of 2018. Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan was the unfortunate recipient of the Boston winger’s attentions. The NHL’s handling of Marchand’s lick? The league told him if he did it again he’d be “subject to supplementary discipline.”

 

 

from obscurity to the glare of the calcium: getting to know moe, the emergency goaltender whose last nhl appearance came 26 years after his first

Hats Off To Moe: Morrie (or Maury?) Roberts looks for the puck in one of his 1933 NHL starts, when he guarded the New York Americans’ goal in a 7-3 loss to Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. That’s Red Dutton on the left in New York stars and stripes, with an unidentified teammate on the ice nearby; number 4 is Allan Murray. For the Leafs, that’s Charlie Conacher (9) facing Busher Jackson with Buzz Boll (17) waiting by the net.

A glorious episode for the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night — unless, possibly, was it was the most embarrassing loss in the entire history of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Either way, Carolina’s 6-3 win over the faltering Leafs at Scotiabank Arena was a memorable night for 42-year-old emergency goaltender (and sometime Zamboni-driver) David Ayres, who stepped in to make eight saves and earn the win after the Hurricanes lost netminders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to injury.

Ayres’ achievement was roundly celebrated, and rightly so. In the giddy aftermath, some of the history surrounding emergency goaltenders in the NHL was trundled out, in TV studios and on social media. The league’s PR account was quick to proclaim Ayres’ debut as the most elderly in all the (regular-season) annals … before posting an update a few minutes later, recognizing Lester Patrick aged playoff appearance … before deleting the Patrick amendment.

On the embarrassment side of the ledger, there was mention, too, that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the first team in NHL history to lose to an EBUG — an emergency back-up goaltender.

Not so. Neither is Ayres the first emergency goaltender to win an NHL game, as has been reported.

While the acronym didn’t exist nine decades ago, the tendency for goaltenders to fall to injury goes back (of course) to the earliest days of the NHL. In those early years, of course, teams carried but a single goaltender. So when your mainstay took a puck to the face, say, as Lorne Chabot did in the New York Rangers’ net in April of 1928, while facing the Montreal Maroons the Stanley Cup Finals, quick decisions were called for.

In that case, when Chabot couldn’t continue, it was the aforementioned Lester Patrick, the Rangers’ 44-year-old coach and GM, who stepped into the breach. He’d previously subbed in on the Rangers’ defence, but this was his goaling debut in the NHL. He won it, 2-1, which meant that the Maroons lost.

But before that, Montreal lamented Maroons had already lost, previously, in the regular season, to an emergency goaltender.

And as compelling as David Ayres’ story may be, Moe Roberts’ may be more remarkable still.

Actually, I don’t know about that — just seeing now that in addition to being a Zamboni driver whose last competitive service was (per The Hockey News) “an eight-game stint with Norwood Vipers of the Allan Cup Hockey League where he allowed 58 goals with a .777 save percentage and a 0-8 record.” And, also, he’s a kidney transplant survivor.

Roberts’ is a pretty good chronicle all the same, starting with his 1925 journey (as rendered in the Boston Post) “from obscurity to the glare of the calcium in the short space of 28 minutes.”

Identified, generally, at the time we’re talking here as Maurice, he seems actually to have been born Morris— so maybe we’ll just go with Moe, the diminutive he’d go by later in life. One of the first Jewish players to skate in the NHL, he was about to turn 20 in December of 1925, a son of Waterbury, Connecticut, who’d attended high school in the Boston suburb of Somerville, played goal for the hockey team, the Highlanders. He’d worn the pads, too, during the 1924-25 season for the Boston Athletic Association, backing up Frenchy Lacroix, who’d later find himself stepping into the Montreal Canadiens net vacated by Georges Vézina.

NHL teams mostly carried just a single goaltender in those years, of course, though spares and back-ups did start to become more common toward the end of the decade. Wilf Cude would eventually be designated league back-up, available to any team that needed an emergency replacement, but that was still several years in the future, and wouldn’t really have helped in the Boston Arena this night in any case. Whether Roberts was on hand at the rink on Tuesday, December 8, or had to be summoned in a hurry — I don’t know. He seems to have been unaffiliated at this point — one contemporary account styles him as the Boston A.A.’s former “substitute and inactive goalie.”

Either way, the NHL’s two newest teams were playing that night, early on in their second campaign. With the score tied 2-2 in the second period, Maroons’ winger Babe Siebert collided with the Bruins’ goaltender, Charlie Stewart, who was also a dentist and so, inevitably, nicknamed Doc. Here’s the Boston Globe’s view of the matter:

Dr. Stewart in stopping a shot by Seibert [sic], was bumped by the latter as he raced in for the rebound. The two players went down in a pile. Dr. Stewart was unable to get up. After a long delay it was discovered that he had been so badly injured he would be out for the rest of the game and possibly for some time. Young Roberts was found and did yeoman work.

Montreal’s Gazette diagnosed Stewart’s trouble: “Doc Stewart was led off the ice with his left leg hanging limp. Later it became known that he had a bad cut, requiring several stitches ….”

Roberts got “a big hand” as he warmed up, the Gazette reported, “with all the Bruins firing testing shots at him.” The first hostile shot he faced was a long one from the stick of Maroons’ centre Reg Noble, and the stop “met with loud acclaim.”

There’s no record of how many shots Roberts faced in his period-and-a-bit of relief work — the Gazette has him “under bombardment” in the third — just that he deterred them all. Winger Jimmy Herberts scored for the Bruins, making Roberts a winner in his emergency debut.

His luck didn’t last. With Stewart unable to play, Roberts started Boston’s next game, three days later, in Pittsburgh, when the local Pirates overwhelmed him by a score of 5-3.

With Doc Stewart declaring himself ready to go for Boston’s next game, Roberts’ NHL career might have ended there and then. On the contrary, it still had a distance to go — across three more decades.

Moe Roberts eventually caught on with teams in the minor Can-Am Hockey League, guarding goals for Eagles in New Haven and Arrows in Philadelphia through the rest of the 1920s and into the ’30s. Towards the end of the 1931-32 NHL season, when the New York Americans were visiting Montreal, when regular goaltender Roy Worters fell ill, the Amerks borrowed the Maroons’ spare netminder, Dave Kerr, for their meeting with (and 6-1 loss to) the Canadiens.

Worters still wasn’t available two days later when the Amerks met their New York rivals, the Rangers, at Madison Square Garden, so they called up 26-year-old Roberts from New Haven. Maury and also Morrie the papers were calling him by now, and he was brilliant, stepping into Worters’ skates. From the Brooklyn Times Union:

He filled them capably at all times, sensationally at some, bringing down volleys of applause from the assemblage during the play and receiving ovations when he came on the ice for the second and third periods.

The Americans won the game 5-1.

While Roberts didn’t see any more NHL action that season, he did return to the Americans’ net the following year, starting five games in relief after Roy Worters broke his hand, and recording his third career win.

That still wasn’t quite the end of Roberts’ NHL story. Flip forward to 1951. Five years had passed since Roberts had played in a competitive game, in the EAHL, and he was working, now, as an assistant trainer and sometime practice goalie for the Chicago Black Hawks.

When the Detroit Red Wings came to town that November, Harry Lumley took the Chicago net to face Terry Sawchuk down at the far end. Neither man had been born when Roberts played in that first NHL game of his in 1925. Now, 26 years later, he was about to take shots in his ninth (and finally final) big-league game.

Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe had put pucks past Lumley by the end of the second period; the score was 5-2 for the Red Wings. Suffering from a bruised left knee, the Black Hawks’ goaltender stayed put in the third, ceding his net to Moe Roberts. Chicago continued to lose right up until the end — but Roberts stopped every shot he faced.

More Moe: A fanciful ’52-53 Parkie for Moe Roberts in Chicago gear, created by (and courtesy of) collector Kingsley Walsh.

At 45, Roberts was making history, then and there, as the oldest player ever to have suited up for an NHL game, exceeding Lester Patrick’s record of having played for the New York Rangers in a famous 1928 playoff game in 1928. Roberts, who died in 1975 at the age of 69, remains the oldest man to have played goal in NHL history, ahead of Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley, though a couple of skaters have surpassed him since 1951: Chris Chelios played at 48 and Gordie Howe at 52.