the mothers of hockey players worry about injuries and, sometimes, freeze the living-room carpet for their sons to skate on

Home Ice: Pierrette Lemieux wields her spatula as goaltender to her sons Richard, Alain, and Mario, as seen by illustrator Nick Craine. (Image: HarperCollins Canada)

The fathers of hockey players write books, sometimes, about sons of theirs who’ve made it to the NHL, while mostly the mothers don’t — other than Colleen Howe, who perhaps deserves a bright asterisk for having published in her time books both as a hockey mother and a wife. I wish they’d write more books, hockey’s mothers, share their stories. As it is, in the hockey books, they’re mostly reduced to a few mentions, mostly in the early chapters. If you read all the hockey books, there’s a certain amount you can glean about hockey’s mothers, and a whole lot more you can’t. Herewith, some of the gleanings. Numbers in the text link to the list identifying the various mothers in the endnotes.   

Hockey mothers are descended from Sir Isaac Brock [1], some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England [2]. Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby [3] and Grace Nelson [4], Rose Pauli [5] and Agnes Mather Bell [6]. The former two have been described, respectively, as “charming” and “demurely pretty.” The third wanted to be a nurse, but found that she fainted whenever she got near a surgery. The latter married a cheesemaker.

Other mothers are described, sometimes, in biographies written about their sons’ lustrous careers as “the soft-spoken daughter of German immigrants [who] worked as a domestic before her marriage.” [7] Sometimes, as the daughters of cattle farmers from Saskatchewan, they’re waitresses who see their future husbands for the first time at a bowling alley. [8] In other cases, the mothers of hockey players meet their husbands in Pristina, in what’s now Kosovo, before they emigrate to Canada without knowing a word of English. [9] Or else they arrive in Canada from Ukraine at the age of 16 and end up in Fort William, Ontario, in 1912 where they soon meet their future husbands, who don’t necessarily tell the truth about how wealthy they are, such that after the wedding the young bride finds that her husband rents a tiny house with six boarders for whom she’s expected to cook and do laundry and, plus, also, he’s abusive, beating her for any reason at all, or none, including when she talks to other men, including when she fails to walk behind this husband on the way to church on Sunday,  causing the son of such parents to write, years later, “My father was a very cruel person.” [10]

The mothers of hockey players have an old six-string Spanish guitar they like to play. In 1928, they’re outside chopping wood when they feel the labour pains coming on. Having already given birth five times, they know what to do: drew water from the well, put it on the wood stove to boil, make themselves comfortable in bed. They’ll deliver their boy themselves, cut the umbilical cord, then suffer a serious hemorrhage that’s almost the end of them, but then they get help, just in time. “The strongest woman I have ever known,” is what the son of a mother like that will say, in time. [11]

You were a mistake, hockey mothers will sometimes tell their sons when the sons are grown and playing defence for the Detroit Red Wings, but you were a wonderful mistake. [12] Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. [13]

Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller. [14] They’ll pass on to their sons an inner strength by way of, when they’re in the country sometimes, they’ll pick up a snake, or play with spiders, while never betraying any fear. [15]

The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner. [16] They teach their boys to knit. [17] They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30. [18] They wash floors and make gallons of soup, and have their own version, some mothers, of fish and chips that consist of big slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-friend, served with French fries on the side. “We thought we were having fish and chips,” their sons will write in their autobiographies, “but actually they were potatoes with potatoes.” [19]

In 1922, when their sons are budding 19-year-old hockey stars but haven’t yet made it to the NHL where they’ll blossom into one of the league’s first genuine superstars, the mothers of hockey players will, sometimes, tragically, drown in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” as a Toronto newspaper reports it. [20]

King Clancy’s father was the original King, and while he was a very good football player, he may have been the only person in Ottawa who couldn’t skate a stroke. Not so Dolly Clancy: no-one, said King Jr., could match her grace on the ice, and he learned his skating from her.

Esther Dye (Essie, they called her) was the one who flooded the backyard rink when her Cecil was a boy, on Boswell Avenue in Toronto, got out the sticks, tied her son’s skates on, taught him the game. This was when skates were tied onto shoes; Cecil, of course, was better known as Babe, ace goalscorer and one-time captain of the Toronto St. Patricks. “My mother could throw a baseball right out of the park,” he said. “Or a hammer, or anything at all. She could run the other women right off their feet, and some of the men as well.”

Jeanne Maki’s boys, Chico and Wayne, were playing for Chicago and Vancouver respectively in 1971 when she was asked about their boyhoods. “Wayne used to imitate Foster Hewitt and got on everybody’s nerves,” she said. “Oh, he used to give me a headache, and even the neighbours threatened to kick his rear end.”

Here’s Edith Plager, mother of St. Louis Blues legends Barclay, Bob, and Bill:

They were never really indoors much, except to be in the basement and play hockey there — or sometimes they shot BB guns. Once Billy went off and broke about 50 jars of my preserves with his BB gun, and then another time, oh my, I was peeling potatoes and I started finding BBs in them. He’d been shooting into the bag, ha ha ha. Anyway, they had an understanding mother.

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straight outta قْنيطره

Jet Set: Chicago's Bobby Hull greets the Pasha of Kenitra on-ice at the Stadium in January of 1962.

Jet Set: Chicago’s Bobby Hull greets the Pasha of Kenitra on-ice at the Stadium in January of 1962.

You don’t have to be too familiar with the northern Moroccan province of Kenitra to know that they don’t play a lot of hockey there. Even when there was a U.S. naval base and air field in the capital, also called Kenitra, I’m going to venture that it’s baseballs that were being struck locally more than pucks. U.S. servicemen were in the area starting in the 1940s and they stayed around until the early 1990s, but there were never more of them in situ than in the 1950s, when close to 10,000 personnel were Kenitra-based, more than anywhere else in the world that wasn’t the U.S. itself or Japan.

All of this comes by way of explaining how the Pasha of Kenitra found himself at a Chicago Black Hawks game in late 1962. Maybe Abdelhamid El Alaoui would have preferred to view the White Sox or the Cubs, but it was January when the 56-year-old governor, a cousin to Morocco’s King Hassan, visited Chicago, so hockey it was.

He was a guest in the U.S. of the Navy and the State Department. Before Chicago, he went to New York and Disneyland, both of which were said to impress him. Illinois showed him the Inland Steel Co., the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. He met with Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, too.

At the Stadium, he saw Terry Sawchuk, Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings take on a Hawks’ team featuring Glenn Hall, Stan Mikita, and Bobby Hull, not to mention the first penalty shot to be attempted on Chicago ice in 28 years.

Charles Bartlett of The Chicago Tribune was on hand to see both Pasha and penalty shot. The latter was the first to have been awarded since December 16, 1934, when Earl Robinson of Montreal’s old Maroons beat Lorne Chabot of the Black Hawks. This time, Detroit centreman Bruce MacGregor headed for goal and, in what Bartlett deemed “a good defensive play,” Chicago defenceman Dolly St. Laurent “overhauled the onrushing MacGregor and rassled him to the ice.”

Referee Eddie Powers called the penalty shot; MacGregor skated in alone from centre. Eighteen feet out, he fired a shot, hard and knee-high, which Hall was seen to kick away with his right pad. Not so, said the goaltender, later: hit the post.

Chicago won the game, 4-1, with goals from Hull, Mikita, and Chico Maki, who scored a pair. Norm Ullman scored for Detroit. As the Pasha, none of the reporters seems to have asked him for his impressions of the game. Chicago’s Daily News reported that “he wore Western clothes except his red fez” and “spoke in Arabic through an interpreter.” He said that the people of Kenitra “get along beautifully with the Americans in Morocco.”

 pasha

 (Photos: Chicago Daily News)