duke keats: more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played

Ante-Oiler: Duke Keats, star of Edmonton’s WCHL Eskimos and future Hall-of-Famer, takes a ramble through the Alberta countryside during the 1921-22 season. (Image: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-8095)

Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.

Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.

Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”

Edmonton Eskimos, 1925-26. Back row, left to right: Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Spunk Sparrow, Lloyd McIntyre. Front: Bobby Boucher, Bobby Benson, Herb Stuart, Art Gagne, Ernie Anderson, Johnny Shepard. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3136)

In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.

I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”

Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.

In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.

What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”

“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”

“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”

Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?

Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.

With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:

Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.

In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.

Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”


net absence

Bad tidings from Chicago: the Blackhawks lost again last night, shut out by Tampa Bay, which leaves them mired at the bottom of the NHL’s Central Division. As of this morning, Hockey Reference has the team’s chances of making the playoffs at a gloomy 15.6 per cent.

Slightly better news, though maybe not really: goaltender Corey Crawford was seen headed to the Blackhawks’ dressing room at the United Center last night. Crawford, whose upper body has been injured in a not-divulged area, in an undisclosed way, such that he hasn’t played since December 27, was in civilian clothes, wearing a cap. He didn’t get into anything resembling the goaling garb depicted above let alone out on the ice, but his presence at the rink did give rise to plenty of speculation that he might be close to — maybe? — returning, whereupon he can get to work rescuing his team’s season by hauling them into the playoffs. This follows a report from two weeks ago from until Mark Lazerus of the Sun-Times, who found three sources to tell him that Crawford’s symptoms are “vertigo-like,” and that he’s probably out for the season. John Dietz of Chicago’s Daily Herald was on hand last night to hear Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville tell reporters … not much. Crawford is “getting better.” It was, Quenneville confessed, “good to see him.”

Toronto illustrator Dave Murray worked up this Crawford portrait last spring, as a part of a series focussed on 2017 playoffs. For more of Murray’s work, visit http://davemurrayillustration.com/


cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

this week in 1957, when hockey debuted on american television: show ’em everything, clarence campbell said

Clarence Campbell was in the house: he declared the game a “pretty good show.” If that sounds a little lukewarm, well, maybe we’ll presume that the NHL president was doing his best to spare the feelings of the Chicago Black Hawks, losers on the day to the hometown New York Rangers by a score of 4-1.

January 5, 1957, was the day, a Saturday. The game was a matinee, with a 2 p.m. face-off at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Five years after René Lecavalier narrated the NHL’s first televised game from the Montreal Forum on Radio-Canada, this marked the coast-to-coast broadcast debut for NHL hockey across the United States. Launching a 10-Saturday series of games that CBS cameras would beam across the nation in coming weeks, the Rangers and Black Hawks may not have been the thoroughbreds of the league at the time — New York was skulking only eight points up on basement-bound Chicago. Marshall Dann of The Detroit Free Press wondered in a preview whether these “chronic tailenders” were the best teams with which to try to lure the attention of those potential fans who’d never seen hockey before. “But who will know the difference,” he wrote, “in such way points as Atlanta, New Orleans, Amarillo, Las Vegas, or San Diego?”

CBS estimated that the broadcast could reach as many as 10-million viewers. Sixty-five U.S. stations carried it that day, with another 35 scheduled to join in for future feeds. All of the ’57 TV games, the NHL decided, would be played in the afternoon. League-leading Detroit was scheduled for five appearances in the succeeding weeks, as were Boston and New York, with Chicago showing up four times. (This first broadcast didn’t, notably, play on Chicago TVs.)

Montreal’s Canadiens were traditionally at home on Saturdays, but they would take one network turn south of the border in Boston. “Some one will have to tell the TV watchers that it is a six-team league,” Marshall Dann quipped — the Toronto Maple Leafs figured not at all in that season’s broadcast schedule.

Campbell, for his part, didn’t want anyone mistaking this venture into TV as a cash grab by the clubs. “The amount of money each club will receive,” he said, “is intended to compensate it for changing from night to afternoon. The real value from a hockey standpoint is that we can create an interest in hockey in areas where the game is practically unknown.”

A crowd of 9,853 watched the game live at the Garden. The New York Times’ Joseph Nichols wasn’t as generous as Campbell in his review: he remarked on its lack of speed, action, and heavy bodychecking.

Al Rollins was in goal for Chicago, Gump Worsley for the Rangers. Andy Bathgate opened the scoring for New York with a shorthanded goal. If the second period was dull, Nichols thought he knew the reason: maybe “the skaters were self-conscious because of the television cameras.” (Did they not know about them for the game’s first 20 minutes?) Larry Popein did increase the Rangers’ tally* before the final period came around and the teams relaxed: they were “a little more sprightly,” at least, in the third. The period opened with a goal by Chicago’s Glen Skov before Bruce Cline and Danny Lewicki added to New York’s count.

For the play-by-play, the NHL had angled for Foster Hewitt or (as Milt Dunnell said) a reasonable facsimile thereof. CBS went instead with Bud Palmer, the former New York Knicks’ star who’d moved over to microphones once his basketball career ended. Between periods, Campbell stopped by to chat. The entertainment also included introduction of hockey’s rules and a chalk talk from Rangers’ GM Muzz Patrick.

The following week, the Rangers starred again, beating Detroit 5-4 at the Olympia. That week’s intermission distractions for those watching at home featured a pre-recorded segment with Gordie Howe showing viewers how he shot the puck, and a visit to the Red Wings’ dressing room. George Puscas from the Free Press reported that at the end of the first period, the players, having trooped off the ice, were paused in the corridor for fully two minutes while CBS aired a commercial.

They had to wait, for the script called for the camera to catch them as they entered the locker room chanting how nice they were going out there.

Then, too, things had to be tidied up a bit. Some of the players had hung their underwear on hooks. So their dress slacks were hung on top of the underwear.

It was pretty tame — frankly, it was pretty dull — but that’s the way locker rooms are when you breeze away to a 2-0 lead.

While “the players sipped tea and munched oranges,” Detroit GM Jack Adams defended their docility. “Our locker room is always quiet,” he said. “This is a place for rest and relaxation and that’s what we do here.”

Showman: NHL President Clarence Campbell and friend, in 1957.

Another production note of interest from that first foray onto American airwaves: Campbell apparently instructed the production crew that if a fight broke out on the ice, the cameras shouldn’t shy away. This was “a healthy switch,” one commentator felt, from the pro football playbook. A few weeks earlier, NFL commissioner Bert Bell had explained why he mandated that broadcasters of games from his league should turn their cameras away from the unpleasantness of fights and on-field injuries.

“We are selling our game just as the sponsor is selling his product,” Bell argued, “and that’s the way I instruct the TV people. We are selling football, not fights.”

“Anyway, if there were only one wife or mother of a player viewing the game, I would not want her to suffer while her boy is on the ground. We don’t stress fights because we want to sell good sportsmanship, and not brawls.”

Back in New York in January, Milt Dunnell was on hand to see the spectacle. The reasoning behind Campbell’s laissez-faire approach to televising whatever mayhem might evolve, he said, was “that if the people in the Garden can see it, then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be shown on television screens.”

As it turned, referee Frank Udvari called only minor penalties that day. Dunnell:

There was no blood-letting to shock the millions of new shinny lookers who doubtless had been told that hockey is a tong war which takes place on the ice. The closest thing to head-whacking was a minor flare-up involving Harry Howell and Gerry Foley of the home side, and Glen Skov of the harried Hawks.

As often happened in games involving the Rangers’ goaltender Gump Worsley, the future Hall-of-Famer did go down hard, suffering a — possible? probable? — concussion. As is so much the case in what’s turned into an ongoing accounting of Worsley’s historical head injuries, I don’t have any clinical evidence to go on here, only the anecdotal. Could have been negligible, I guess, but one account had Worsley going down “head first on the pond.” In another he was “felled during the second period when struck on the right side of the head by a stick.”

I don’t know if Bud Palmer was thinking back to Bert Bell’s comments or not. “I’m sure,” he did say, as Worsley was down, “if his wife is watching, it’s nothing serious.”

Worsley did finish the game. To some of those uninitiated seeing the action across the wide open expanses of the continental U.S., he was the star of the show. “He reminded me,” Tom Fox wrote, “of Yogi Berra guarding home plate in Yankee Stadium. Nobody gets by unless he hits a home run.”

Fox was working as he watched, actually. A sports reporter for The New Orleans Item-Tribune, he was one of several correspondents across the nation whose assignment for the afternoon was to watch both TV hockey and those who were watching TV hockey and report on it for Sunday’s paper.

“Ice hockey is more exciting than any other sport I’ve ever witnessed,” was Fox’s verdict.

In Miami, Herald reporter Luther Evans stopped by at several local bars where the game was showing to poll the clientele.

“They talk about jai-alai being fast,” offered June Overpeck, a secretary, “why this hockey is much faster and very interesting.”

“My opinion,” a Miami Beach prosecutor named Wilson McGee testified, “is that TV doesn’t give you the true picture of the game. The camera is following the puck and you miss the most exciting action of the checking.”

LeRoy Henderson, porter: “I’d rather watch Sugar Ray Robinson fighting on TV, even as bad as he’s going.”

* Contemporary newspaper summaries of the game all put Larry Popein’s goal at 14.54 of the second period. In his New York Times account, Joseph Nichols’ note about how dull that middle frame continues: “The highlight of the session was the goal scored by Popein at 14.54, with the help of Bathgate and Harry Howell.” That’s not what the NHL says, though: at NHL.com, the summary has the goal in the first period. After several years of collating, checking, and inputting, official summaries of the league’s 100 years of regular-season games went online back in October. No game-sheets survive from the NHL’s inaugural season in 1917-18, but otherwise the league has the originals on file. A tiny discrepancy, of the minorest possible clerical importance if any at all? Sounds like it needs pursuing. Stay tuned.

(Top image: 1961-62 O-Pee-Chee #65, courtesy of HockeyMedia/The Want List; Clarence Campbell: Chris Lund, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/e011176459)


smith’ll sit

Mythical Mario: The colourful 30-page graphic biography that Revolutionary Comics published in 1993 to tell Mario Lemieux’s story takes a meandering (and occasionally fanciful) tour of 66’s hockey exploits. Here, right at the end, it’s all the excitement of the 1992 playoffs packed into one page. The bottom panels depict a notorious scene from the opening game of the Stanley Cup finals, Chicago at Pittsburgh. “I can’t respect Mario for diving,” Blackhawks’ coach Mike Keenan did rail after the game, which (spoiler alert) ended with Lemieux scoring an overtime powerplay winner after Steve Smith went to the penalty box. “It’s an embarrassment, an embarrassment to the game, an embarrassment to the players he plays with. Mario has got the Mario Rule. He’s a protected player and therefore they don’t call the dives on him.” The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported that TV replays showed that Lemieux was truly tripped and “didn’t try to draw the penalty.” Also, Lemieux’s response: “I actually didn’t dive that time.”


Flyboy: Like Frank Brimsek and Mike Karakas (and … well, Bob Dylan, too), Sam LoPresti hailed from Minnesota’s Iron Range. He guarded Chicago’s goal for two seasons in the early 1940s before volunteering himself out of hockey and into the U.S. Navy. Posing here in 1940-41, he puts Emile Francis to shame, I’d say, sailing across his net in search of a puck that may or not ever show up.


far flung

It’s said that Frank Brimsek hated having his photograph taken for fear that the flash would harm his eyes and thereby his puckstopping prowess. I don’t know how true that is — he does seem to have posed unblinkingly for a whole lot of (very handsome) portraits during his NHL career, in several classic poses, including the Standing Tall and the Pucks Have Been Known To Feint Dead Away, Facing My Icy Glare. Those aren’t the only ones available to the goaltender facing a photographer, of course. Roy Worters perfected the Ennui I’m Projecting Oughta Stop At Least A Few. And as Emile Francis demonstrates here, in 1947, there’s also the No Way That Puck Is Going To Dip Down Under The Crossbar, But Oh Well, Best Maybe To Fling Myself Across The Net Just In Case. Now 91, Francis is maybe best remembered now as a long-time and even legendary coach and general manger of the New York Rangers, but his career as a guardian of NHL nets lasted six years before that. Brimsek and Chicago’s Mike Karakas are generally credited with introducing a pocketed catching-glove to the goaltender’s armour in the late 1930s, but it was Francis who adapted a first-baseman’s mitt into what we recognize today as the goaltender’s trapper. In Francis’ first season as a Black Hawk, Detroit coach Jack Adams tried to have the glove banned as oversized and therefore illegal. He wasn’t successful, and after NHL president Clarence Campbell took a look and deemed it permissible, the Francis trapper became standard gear in NHL creases. The man they called the Cat would play two seasons in Chicago Black Hawks before a trade took him to the Rangers, where he served mostly as a back-up to Chuck Rayner.