March of 1964 was a busy month for Gordie Howe. To finish up his 18thseason with the Detroit Red Wings, he scored four goals in 10 games, giving him 26 on the season and 566 for his career. He ended up, again, as Detroit’s leading scorer, fifth overall in the NHL. Both The Hockey News and the Associated Press voted him to their Second All-Star teams, which is where he’d end up when the official NHL version was named in April. What else? As his 36th birthday loomed, on March 31st, and Howe was signing a 10-year promotion deal with Eaton’s department store, he mentioned that he planned to play two more years of pro hockey before he retired and went looking for a coaching job.
Also: on this very date in ’64, another Sunday, deep in Chicago Stadium, Gordie Howe asked a young fan a question that — just guessing here — he thought of as rhetorical. Did the fan, Howe inquired, want a punch in the mouth?
Having just helped his team even its first-round playoff series with the Chicago Black Hawks at a game apiece, Mr. Hockey might or might not have gotten the answer he was or wasn’t looking for: we just don’t know.
What’s clear is that Howe put down the bags he was carrying to deliver the aforementioned punch — “a good one,” as he described it, later, to reporters.
Robert Rosenthal, 20, was the fan. He and his friend George Berg had gone down after the game to wait outside the Red Wings’ dressing room. This we know because the next day, Monday, Rosenthal presented himself at Chicago’s Monroe Street municipal court with an idea of obtaining a warrant for Gordie Howe’s arrest on a charge of assault.
“When the player came out,” Rosenthal recounted, “I said, ‘Why don’t you learn to play a little cleaner?’” Howe’s reply: “You want a punch in the mouth?”
To that, Rosenthal told the court, he said this: “You’re good at fighting guys smaller than you.”
Howe hit him.
Rosenthal testified that he’d retreated south, to nearby Cook County Hospital, where he’d taken on eight stitches to close the cut to his mouth.
Judge John Sullivan wasn’t impressed. “I will not,” he told Rosenthal, “perform a useless act.”
“On the basis of the evidence you’ve given me, any judge in my opinion would find Mr. Howe not guilty, since you admitted that you provoked him.”
Back in Detroit, Howe told reporters what he knew — and added several new punches to the mix-up.
“This guy got in the way and said to me, ‘The ref called ’em right for you?’ I said, ‘Sure, all right.’ Then he said, ‘Oh, he didn’t call them right, huh?’” He wasn’t making much sense.”
“I asked him if he was looking for trouble. Then he stepped into me and I let him have a light punch on the nose.”
“I took another step toward the bus and he hit me on the back of the head, so I put down both travelling bags and let him have a good one.”
“I don’t think they have the right to swear at you,” Howe said, summing up, “and I’m not going to stand for it when they use my mother’s and father’s name in vain.”
In the aftermath of Rosenthal’s dismissal at court, his mother, whose name may have been Veronica but is given in at least one account as Veronia, mentioned that lawyers would be consulted. Sure enough, before the week was out, just in time for Howe’s birthday, Rosenthal filed a lawsuit seeking US$25,000 for damages from number 9 and the Red Wings, claiming “Howe’s unprovoked attack humiliated, embarrassed, and held him up to public ridicule.” He noted, too, that his wound had become infected and swollen to three times its regular size.
Howe and/or Wings may have settled the suit — whatever happened, the incident vanished from the press. They had largely, true to Rosenthal’s claim, sided with the hockey player over the man who accosted him. A scrapbook of not exactly sympathetic headlines from that week, 56 years ago, might include:
Detroit Hockey Player Socks Annoying Fan
Fan Learns What NHL Players Know — Don’t Mess Around With Gordie Howe
Gordie Howe Decks Abusive Fan
Fist in Face Worth $25,000, Figures Fan
As for the NHL, president Clarence Campbell said he’d investigate, though he didn’t expect anything to come of it. “I’m not too excited about it,” he said, “and I doubt there’ll be any league action against Howe. After the game is over and he’s out of the rink, it’s not really an NHL affair, although these incidents can’t do anything for our public image.”
Stop Action: Born on a Wednesday of this date in 1912 in the now ghostly hamlet of Victoria Mines, Ontario, near Sudbury, Toe Blake was a famous left winger for the Montreal Canadiens before he got around to coaching them. For all that, he won his first Stanley Cup playing for Montreal’s other team, the lost, lamented Maroons, in 1935. With the Habs, of course, he lined up with Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard on the Punch Line. He won a Hart Trophy in 1939, the year he also led the NHL in scoring. He won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1946. Blake captained the Canadiens from 1940 until an ankle injury forced his retirement in 1948. That stretch saw Montreal win two further Cups, in ’44 and ’46. For all this, he was elevated, in 1966, to hockey’s Hall of Fame as a player. His coaching wasn’t so shabby, either: between 1956 and 1968, he steered the Canadiens to eight more Cups.
Here, above, stymied, Blake is in white, wearing a 6. Making contact is Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert; up front, that’s winger Mush March fleeing the scene. Montreal was at Chicago Stadium on this night in January of 1944, and they’d battle the Black Hawks to a 1-1 draw. Fido Purpur opened the scoring for the home team before Canadiens’ defenceman Butch Bouchard tied it up. Three months later, when the teams met in the Cup finals, Canadiens prevailed with emphasis, sweeping the Black Hawks four games to none.
The Chicago Black Hawks played their second game at the new-built Chicago Stadium on the night of Sunday, December 29, 1929. The team had just returned from a middling (2-3) five-game road trip. Up against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Hawks ended up on the losing end of a 4-3 decision, with the Leafs’ Charlie Conacher scoring the winning goal. The Chicago Tribune’s man on the scene opened his dispatch by noting a “prophetic” pre-game anthem “faux pas” by the Stadium organist, who played “The Maple Leaf Forever” before “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Harold Rohm doesn’t name him, but I think the man at the keys must have been Al Melgard who, so far as I can tell, was on the job at the Stadium’s enormous instrument right from the start. He continued at it for 45 years, retiring in 1974.
On the Thursday night that mid-December, the Chicago Black Hawks beat the Montreal Maroons 4-3 at the Coliseum on Wabash Avenue, their fourth victory in a row. They ran their streak to five games that Sunday — December 15, 89 years ago tomorrow — when they inaugurated the brand-new Chicago Stadium, on West Madison, with a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The crowd of 14, 212 that watched the proceedings was the largest — by 6,000 — ever to have seen a hockey game in Chicago. The baseball player and sometime boxer Art Shires was on hand to drop a ceremonial puck, though for some reason he did so at the start of the third period. The new rink was an improvement on the old one, the local Tribune was pleased to report, including in its temperature: “It was cold enough to see your breath,” which meant that the ice was hard, and “far keener” that at the Coliseum. Ty Arbour and Cy Wentworth stood out for the Hawks, who got all their goals in the second period. Vic Ripley scored the first goal in Stadium history, then added a second for good measure. Frank Ingram added Chicago’s third goal, with Tex White eventually replying for Pittsburgh. The Tribune’s Harland Rohm lauded the referees, Cooper Smeaton and Bert Corbeau, for not making any terrible calls. The fans appreciated this, too, he said: “They even got the equivalent of a cheer from the crowd,” he wrote, “which was an absence of booing.”