won’t you come back, dave keon

Legend of A Leaf: Born in Noranda, Quebec, on a Friday of this date in 1940, Dave Keon is 81 today. Does it seem wrong to frame him as anything but a Maple Leaf? A little bit, yea, but it is true that he ended his 18-year NHL career with three seasons, circa 1980, as a Whaler in Hartford, and had stints, too, in the WHA with the Minnesota Fighting Saints, Indianapolis Racers, and New England Whalers. In his 15 years in Toronto, Keon won Calder and Conn Smythe trophies and a pair of Lady Byngs, while helping the Leafs win four Stanley Cup championships. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986. In 2016, the Maple Leafs recognized Keon as the best player in club history.

phil esposito: frankly, I had my doubts

Call It Macaroni: From the early 1970s, Phil Esposito makes the case for Kraft Dinner at the airport. Out on the tarmac. With a side salad.

Hall-of-Fame centreman Phil Esposito is 79 today, so many happy returns of the rink to him. Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on a Friday of this date in 1942 a year before his goaltender brother Tony made his debut, Phil was the first NHLer to score 100 points in a season (ending up with 126 in 1969). In 1971, he set a new mark for goals in a season, with 76. Along with a pair of Hart trophies and five Art Rosses, he won two Stanley Cups, both with Boston. He played 18 years in the NHL, mostly with the Bruins, though he was a Chicago Black Hawk before he was traded to Boston 1967 and then, after another trade, this one in 1975, he joined the New York Ranger.

When hockey writer Andy O’Brien visited with Esposito’s parents in 1970 for a profile for Weekend Magazine, Patrick Esposito confided that, early on, he wondered whether his elder son had what it took to make the NHL.

“Frankly, I had my doubts,” he said. “He was big and tall but he was weak on his ankles. However, he could handle the puck, and even when he was playing juvenile he led the league and had everybody talking about him. He kept on leading leagues but, no, I never felt quite certain he would make it.”

Test Drive: Esposito suggests a Volkswagen in 1980.

hockey with a grin

Children’s books featuring Bobby Clarke proliferated in his hockey-playing heyday in the 1970s; I’d even say they abounded. Fred McFadden’s Bobby Clarke (1972) should not be confused with Edward Dolan’s Bobby Clarke (1977); only the former, take note, belonged to the Superpeople series of mini-biographies, which also featured slim volumes profiling Jean Béliveau, Ken Dryden, Bobby Orr, Norman Bethune, Alexander Graham Bell, and Karen Kain, among others. John Gilbert’s An Interview With Bobby Clarke (1977) postulated that Clarke never bragged, whined, forgot a friend, or quit, also that he was too small to be a dirty player, Montreal coach Scotty Bowman just called him that to psych him out. Julian May’s 1975 Clarke bio, Hockey With A Grin, studied the love that Philadelphia fans quickly developed for their superstar centre and concluded this:

He was that rarity — a smiling hockey player. He enjoyed what he was doing and let the whole world know it. With his handsome, boyish face and gap-toothed grin, Bobby won the hearts of the fans.

Born on a Saturday of this date in 1949 in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Clarke turns 71 today. His popularity as a literary figure, of course, has to do with the hockey successes he helped engineer in the mid-1970s, when he captained the Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cups while also winning Masterton and Selke trophies for himself, as well as (three times) the Hart Memorial Trophy.

It’s also founded on the inspiring story of how he succeeded despite having been diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager. “You’d better give up hockey,” is what the doctor in Fred McFadden’s bio tells young Bobby when he first breaks the news; in Julian May’s telling, the doctor says, “It would be best if you did not play hockey.”

Dolan boils it down this way:

Bobby’s doctors said that he might be able to play the goaltender spot but that he could never skate all over the rink in a game and still keep his health.

Whereupon, of course, he showed them, and everybody.

Along with our hero’s health, his smile, his refusal to quit, the Clarke oeuvre examines the man’s modesty; the qualities that made him such a great leader; how deeply Flin Flon was ingrained in his personality; and just what happened back in ol’ ’72 when he swung his stick in Moscow and broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle.

Clarke’s ongoing Flin Flon-ness, McFadden maintains, was apparent in the ’70s in the Flyers’ captain’s insistence on “driving a pick-up and listing hot dogs as his favourite food.”

On Kharlamov, the accounting of Clarke’s intent to injure the Soviet Union’s best player in Game Six of the Summit Series is surprisingly straightforward. All the bios take more or less the same shrugging view of the incident — no big deal, what’s all the fuss? In his Superpeople summing-up, McFadden allows that Clarke’s willingness to break the rules to win did cause “some people” to question his sportsmanship.

That’s as close as any of the Bobby-Clarke-for-young-readers books come to grappling with the ethics of the thing. Otherwise, Julian May’s take in Hockey With A Grin can represent the rest:

… Bobby was trailing Kharlamov. He suddenly realized: “This guy is killing us!” And almost without thinking, Bobby lashed at Kharlamov’s ankles with his stick.

Bobby got a two-minute penalty for slashing. The Russian was out for that game and for the next. “It’s not something I’m proud of,” Bobby recalled later, “but I honestly can’t say I was ashamed to do it.”

Flyerdelphian: Readers of John Gilbert’s 1977 bio-for-young-readers, An Interview With Bobby Clarke, learned that the Flyers’ captain never bragged, whined, or quit.

 

espo 65

Making A Meal of It: A son of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Phil Esposito was born on a Friday of this date in 1942, which means he’s celebrating his 78th birthday today. Remember him, sure, for his years as a dominant goalscorer for the mighty Boston Bruins, and the man, too, who organized the salvation of Canada’s pride in 1972 during the Summit Series, but Esposito started out a Chicago Black Hawk. Here he is at 23 in the fall of 1965, on the eve of his third NHL season, lunching with teammates (from left) Len Lunde, Chico Maki, and Fred Stanfield. The crop-marks are a newspaper editor’s from ’65; the cola is Diet-Rite, sugar-free.

frank boucher: his noodle is packed with hockey savvy

Breadliners: Frank Boucher between his long-time Ranger wingers, brother Bill (right) and Bun Cook.

Here’s to Frank Boucher, born in Ottawa, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1901, one of the greatest centres the NHL has ever seen, even if — outrageously — the league forgot him when it dreamed up an anniversary list of its 100 best players in 2017, and despite the fact — are you kidding me? — that the Rangers have only seen fit to recognize the number Boucher wore in New York, 7, in Rod Gilbert’s honour.

Frank was one of four Boucher brothers to play major-league hockey: in 1923, while he was starring for the PCHA’s Vancouver Maroons, his elder brother Buck was anchoring the Ottawa Senators’ defence while two other siblings, Billy and Bobby, were forwards for the Montreal Canadiens. Following a two-year career as a constable with the Northwest Mounted Police, Frank had made his professional debut with Ottawa before making his way west to Vancouver. When the western league dissolved in 1926, Boucher’s rights were sold to Boston. It was on Conn Smythe’s short-lived Ranger watch that Boucher came to the Rangers before playing a single game for the Bruins. Having made his debut in New York in 1926, he soon found himself skating between brothers Bill and Bun Cook on the famous “Bread Line.”

With their help, New York raised two Stanley Cups, in 1928 and 1933. Seven times he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, and by the time he retired (for the first time) as a player in 1938, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in assists. Succeeding Lester Patrick as coach of the Rangers in 1939, he steered the team to another Stanley Cup in 1940. He wasn’t quite finished playing: in 1943, aged 42, he returned to the Rangers’ line-up for 15 games. Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1958, Frank Boucher died in December of 1977 at the age of 76.

Arranging a Boucher miscellany, I’d make sure to mention:

• His adjectives. If you look him up in old newspapers, you’ll find that these included scintillant (1925) and burglarious (1923). The latter refers to his skill in stealing pucks from opponents, the art of which he studied playing alongside the master himself, Frank Nighbor, when they were teammates in Ottawa. Hence Boucher’s nickname, Raffles, borrowed from the novels of E.W. Hornung, and most eagerly applied by newspapermen when Boucher was playing in Vancouver. As the local Sun explained in 1924, “The original ‘Raffles’ was the most gentlemanly burglar known to fiction and Vancouver’s ‘Raffles’ is the most picturesque and polite puck thief in hockey.”

Here’s Ed Sullivan hymning his praises in a 1931 syndicated column — yes, that Ed Sullivan:

Boucher has been up in the big leagues of hockey for ten years now. He could stay up in the top flight for ten additional years. Even if his speed were to desert him, Boucher could get by on his smartness. His noodle is packed with hockey savvy.

• Boucher’s recollection that the contract that manager Tommy Gorman of Ottawa’s (original) Senators signed him to in 1921 paid C$1,200 for the season — about C$17,000 in today’s money. “I leaped at the chance,” he later recollected, “little knowing what a terrible year was in store for me. I spent practically the whole season on the bench.”

The problem was the Ottawa line-up. In front of Clint Benedict’s goal, the Senators lined up Frank Nighbor, Punch Broadbent, Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, and Frank’s brother Buck. “They were all 60-minute men. In those days you didn’t come off the ice unless you were carried off.”

Dey’s Arena in Ottawa was, in those years, unheated, so along with fellow spares Billy Bell and King Clancy, Boucher petitioned Gorman and coach Pete Green to allow them to wait in the warmth of the Ottawa dressing room until they were needed. Management wasn’t keen on that, but they did finally relent, installing a buzzer system by which the bench could call forth replacements as needed. Boucher:

One buzz meant Clancy, two buzzes meant Bell and so on. So, for the balance of the season we sat in the dressing room, in full uniform, playing cards, with the roar of the crowd and the stamping of feet over our heads.

• The circumstances under which Boucher came to own the original Lady Byng Trophy in 1935. Nighbor was the first to win it, in 1925 and again in ’26, followed by Billy Burch in ’27. Boucher was next, and next, and next, and … next. Joe Primeau relieved him of his crown in 1932, but the following year Boucher was back for another winning run, this one lasting three consecutive years.

After Boucher won his seventh Lady Byng in 1935, Ottawa Journal columnist Walter Gilhooly wrote an open letter to the trophy’s donor patron respectfully suggesting, well, “that the cup be withdrawn and your trustees be instructed to turn it over to Frank Boucher to become his permanent possession” as a “well-earned keepsake of his time and his achievements in the National League.”

And so it happened. Within a week, the wife of Canada’s erstwhile governor-general had written from England to express her desire to see it done. NHL President Frank Calder saw to it. That’s how a new Byng came to be born in 1936, when Doc Romnes of the Chicago Black Hawks was voted the winner. We’ll never know whether, on merit, Boucher’s reign should have continued: having collected the original trophy for his mantelpiece, Boucher voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration for future Byngs.

• A partial inventory of the swag presented on “Frank Boucher Night” in February of 1951, when the Rangers celebrated the man and his service to the club at Madison Square Garden.

“Boucher had enough gifts to make a jackpot on a radio quiz program,” the Globe and Mail reported. “The fans gave him a 1951 Studebaker, the team a television set. The hockey writers presented him with a typewriter. His hometown friends at Mountain, Ont., contributed an oil burner for his farm.”

• A coda: in 1962, February, fire swept through the farmhouse, burning it to the ground. Boucher was in Regina, where he was serving as commissioner of the Saskatchewan Junior League; his son Earl and family escaped the flames. Not so Boucher’s hockey mementoes, most of which were destroyed, including the original Lady Byng Trophy.

The cause of the fire was thought to be mice chewing through electrical wires.

Bench Boss: Frank Boucher, hatted at left, coaches the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship in April of 1940 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. On the bench before him, that’s Neil Colville (6), Muzz Patrick (15), and Alex Shibicky (4).