Born in Sutherland, Saskatchewan, on a Wednesday of this very date in 1920, Charlie Rayner played a couple of seasons with the New York/Brooklyn Americans before he made his mark with the New York Rangers through the late 1940s and into the ’50s. For all his heroics in those years, they were mostly strugglesome for the Rangers, though the team did make it to the Stanley Cup final in 1950, the year Rayner won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, outpolling Ted Kennedy and Maurice Richard. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973.
To play goal in the early decades of the NHL was to be cut, contused, and concussed, by even by the painful standards of the profession, Rayner stands out for his suffering. In a feature published midway through the 1950-51 NHL campaign, The New York Post noted that Rayner had already been carried from the ice eight times to date.
“So far this season, he’s lost five front teeth and required a total of 20 stitches.” Several of the latter were applied in an October game at the Montreal Forum, when Rayner was cut once (on the nose) and then a second time (on the back of his head) by skates belonging to Canadiens forward Frank King.
All in all, the Post calculated, Rayner’s 12 years of hockey goaling had cost him four broken noses and “innumerable stitches” along with fractures of the jaw and cheekbone. It was a knee injury that put an end to his NHL career, in the winter of 1953, when he was 32. A 23-year-old Gump Worsley was his successor in the New York net.
Phil Watson’s hair was wavy brown, and parted in the middle; his eyes were alert and green. This was in 1947, when Watson was 32 and a prominent right winger and sometime centreman for the New York Rangers, a talented, tireless, and conspicuously belligerent veteran of a dozen NHL seasons. According to Robert Lewis Taylor, Watson was one of the best-looking players in the game in those years — and it is true that he was, a decade earlier, recruited to double for Clark Gable in a hockey movie that was never released. Watson’s smile, Taylor wrote, was “uncommonly pleasant,” if “largely synthetic” — to replace the four top front teeth he’d had knocked out in the line of duty, the Rangers bought him the dental bridge he wore when he wasn’t doing battle on the ice.
Watson was born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1914; he died in 1991 at the age of 76. The man they called Phiery Phil got his name of the Stanley Cup twice — with the Rangers in 1940 and, in 1944, when wartime restrictions kept him home in Canada, as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. In 13 NHL seasons, he proved himself to be a skilled defensive player as well as a first-class annoyance to his opponents. He also contributed offensively, and led the league in assists in 1941-42.
As a coach, he got two cracks at steering the Rangers during the 1950s and another, in the ’60s, behind the Boston Bruins’ bench. He coached two seasons in the WHA in the ’70s, guiding the Blazers in Philadelphia and subsequently in Vancouver.
For views of Watson’s background, unruly prowess on ice (think Brad Marchand before he reined himself in), and surpassing eccentricity, I recommend the long, droll, eventful profile Robert Lewis Taylor published in The New Yorker in 1947 under the title “Disorder On The Rink.” I count it as a bit of a lost classic of hockey non-fiction, well worth your while, particularly if you’re looking to round out your understanding of just how outlandishly unrestrained the excesses of NHL hockey once were.
It doesn’t extend to Watson’s coaching years, and it bypasses several key episodes in the Watson story. It doesn’t delve into the circumstances under which Watson annoyed his own Ranger goaltender so thoroughly that Chuck Rayner attacked him in the team’s dressing room. Also missing: his brief 1938 brush with Hollywood stardom wherein he served as Clark Gable’s skating and puckhandling stand-in opposite Myrna Loy in an ill-fated feature called The Great Canadian.
A taste of what Taylor does offer up in his portrayal of Watson’s tempestuous tenure in the NHL, in three excerpts:
The two most effective methods of taking a puck away from an advancing opponent are probing for it with a stick, which is known as “poke checking,” and slamming into the man bodily, which is called “body checking.” At these two arts, Watson has no master. A head-on collision with any moving object smaller than a pick-up truck provides him with the sort of comfort that some bankers get from foreclosing on a valuable farm.
Most hockey players consider it bad form to strike a referee with a stick, and the rules are explicit on the subject — the striker is subject to a fine or to suspension from the league. Watson, displaying a kind of instinctive legal ingenuity, has detected loopholes in the code: there is no mention of spitting in a referee’s face. In moments of extreme urgency, he performs this act and generally draws a severe penalty, under whatever rule the referee feels may be stretched to cover the case.
On one occasion, when he was relating an anecdote to Lew Burton, the Journal-American sportswriter, in the Rangers’ dressing room after a game which had featured a really spectacular brawl between him and the Detroit Red Wings, Burton interrupted to ask, “How’d it get started, Phil?” Watson jumped up, cried, “I tell you, Lew, they started it like this!,” and brought a hockey stick crashing down on Burton’s head, benching him for about twenty minutes. “It was the wrong way to tell that story,” Watson frequently says, with a gloomy inflection.
Google Canada has been showcasing Jacques Plante today atop its search page, backing it up (here) a broad overview of his career that’s worth a browse, if mostly for the George Silk photographs that illustrate it. Those, from Life magazine’s archive, depict Plante as he looked (reversed Habs logo notwithstanding), which I’m not sure Google’s daily doodle quite manages. I’m not complaining — even in error (mask and bleu, blanc et rouge aside), Google’s gesture makes for a perfectly adequate salute to Chuck Rayner’s Hall-of-Fame career in the New York Rangers’ net.
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.
Gordon Sparling directed Hockey Stars’ Summer, a 1951 ASN “Canadian Cameo,” with Andy O’Brien contributing the script.
The Boston Bruins honoured their late captain, coach, and GM Milt Schmidt this week with a video tribute ahead of Thursday’s meeting with the Edmonton Oilers. On their sweaters, Bruin players wore a patch blazed with Schmidt’s 15 to commemorate the man they call the Ultimate Bruin.
With Schmidt’s death on Wednesday at the age of 98, the oldest living NHLer is Chick Webster, who’s 96. He lives in Mattawa, Ontario. If his hockey CV is 848 NHL games shorter than Schmidt’s and also lacks its Stanley Cups, it’s long and varied and entirely commendable in its own right. Born John Webster in Toronto in 1920, his NHL career spanned all of 14 games, all of which he played with the New York Rangers during the 1949-50 season.
On Friday, I exchanged e-mails with Rob Webster, Chick Webster’s son. He’d just spent the afternoon visiting his dad who, he said, had been saddened to hear about Schmidt. Never one to seek attention, he’s been taking this week’s sudden burst of interest in his brief stint in the NHL in stride.
“As far as his career goes,” Rob Webster wrote, “I think he just never really got the breaks at the right time.” Chick Webster was in his early 20s as the Second World War was metastasizing and just as his hockey career was getting going, he joined the Canadian Army. He had no regrets there, his son says. “He wanted to go. Not skating much for over two years was hard … so I guess still making it to the NHL original six was somewhat of a nice goal to achieve.”
As a teenager, Webster senior played for teams in Toronto called the Stockyard Packers and (as an OHA junior, with Baldy Cotton as his coach) the Native Sons. He wasn’t big, 5’11”, 160 pounds, but he was a good skater and a proficient playmaker.
As a 19-year-old in the fall of 1940, he took his trade to the Boston Bruins’ training camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania. That’s where he skated on a line, for as long as it lasted, with one of the team’s young veterans: Milt Schmidt. Webster told didn’t make the cut, but The Boston Daily Globe noted that he was a “simon pure” (i.e. amateur) coveted by all six NHL clubs. He played the year with the Baltimore Orioles of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, leading the team in scoring. (Update: having talked to Chick Webster himself this week for a piece in The Hockey News, Eric Zweig reports that at one of Webster’s Bruin camps, he took Kraut duty, centring Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart when Schmidt went down with an ankle injury. I recommend Eric’s full account of Webster’s career , which is here.)
Like Schmidt and many other hockey players during, Chick Webster decided he had another job he’d better do. Enlisting in the Canadian Army, he ended up skating for the Army’s Petawawa Grenades before shipping out for deployment overseas. Serving with the 13th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artlliery, he saw duty in England, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany before the war’s end.
Back in hockey, he returned to the EAHL before graduating to the AHL’s New Haven Ramblers. It was from there that he launched into the NHL, called up by the New York Rangers in December of 1949. Coached by Lynn Patrick, the Rangers were up with Detroit and Montreal at the top of the league standings. Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Conner featured bright among the team’s forwards that year, and Fred Shero was on the defence. In goal, Chuck Rayner was backed up by Emile Francis.
Webster played his first game in Boston, helping the Rangers to beat Schmidt’s own Bruins 3-1 in a game distinguished by … well, no, according a local report, the game was as undistinguished as they come, “sluggish,” “sleepy,” “boring:” all in all, “one of the dullest exhibitions of hockey played on Garden ice in quite a spell.”
Christmas Day, in Toronto, he left a game against the Leafs charley horse’d. In mid-January, in a game with Detroit at Madison Square Garden, he broke a couple of bones in his left hand — unless someone else broke them for him. (Another Ranger winger, Ed Slowinski, also finished the game with a fractured hand). Either way, it was Webster’s 14th and final appearance on NHL ice. Playing left wing, he’d recorded no goals or assists while sitting out two minor penalties. When he’d healed a bit, he returned to the New Haven ice wearing a soft cast, finishing the season in the AHL while the Rangers went on to defeat in the Stanley Cup finals at the hands of the Red Wings.
Don Webster, Chick’s younger brother by four years, had his own NHL stint: he played 32 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs across the 1943-44 regular season and playoffs, scoring seven goals and 13 points. Don Webster died in 1978 at the age of 53.
I asked Rob Webster to ask his dad who were the players he’d admired in his playing days and the answer that came back included Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, and teammates Laprade, O’Connor, and Rayner.
The latter years of his hockey career took him around the minor-league map — Tacoma, Cincinnati, Vancouver, and Syracuse (where he played, unhappily, under Eddie Shore) — before he made his return to the Toronto area. He continued to play after he went to work for de Havilland Aircraft of Canada, before retiring, in 1969, to Mattawa.
“Been there ever since,” Rob Webster wrote, and skating all the while: he organized an oldtimers team with the Mattawa Legion and played until he was nearly 80. The nickname? From the gum Chiclets, his son says. “He always chewed gum as a kid. He thinks his aunt was the first to give it to him. As long as I can remember he always chewed when he played.”
(All images courtesy of Rob Webster)
Gaye Stewart was the last Toronto Maple Leaf to lead the NHL in goalscoring: in 1945-46 he finished the season with 37 goals. Maybe that’s how you know the name. He was also the first NHLer to win a Stanley Cup before he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie, long before Danny Grant, Tony Esposito, or Ken Dryden got around to doing it. The Cup came in the spring of 1942, when he was 18; the Calder came the following year. He won a second Cup with the Leafs in 1947, then later the same year found himself on his way to Chicago in the big trade that brought Max Bentley to Toronto.
Stewart did fine for himself in Chicago, even as the team struggled. He was named captain of the Black Hawks for the 1948-49 season. It was in January of ’49 that he was photographed, above, with his goaltender’s son: Tom Henry was Sugar Jim’s two-and-a-half-year-old.
Stewart, 25, was only just back in Chicago following a hospital stay in Toronto. Struck by another puck, not the one depicted here, he’d left the Hawks’ January 8 game, a 3-3 tie with the Leafs, a few days earlier. Jim Vipond of The Globe and Mail was on hand to watch. In the second period, as he told it,
The ex-Leaf left winger was struck over the right eye by a puck lifted by Garth Boesch as the Toronto defenseman attempted to clear down the ice.
Stewart returned to action after a brief rest but collapsed in the shower after the game. After being removed to the Gardens hospital, his condition became so serious that a rush call was put in for an ambulance and arrangements made for an emergency operation.
Fortunately the player rallied soon after reaching Toronto General Hospital and surgery was not necessary. His condition was much improved last night [January 9], with the injury diagnosed as a bruise on the brain.
“I forgot to duck,” he was joshing by the time he was back in Chicago, as hockey players did, and do. Brain bruises, The Globe was reporting now. “I’m feeling fine,” Stewart said. “The accident was just one of those things. I expect I’ll start skating next week.” The Associated Press called it a concussion, and had the player’s side of the story to offer:
Stewart said that he when he returned to action in the game he felt tired. He remembered his mates coming into the dressing after the game, but then blacked out until he woke up in hospital.
There wasn’t much news, after that, of Stewart’s head or his recovery — not that made it into the newspapers, anyway. It was three weeks or so before he returned to play, back in Toronto again at the end of January, having missed six games. The two teams tied this time, too, 4-4. They met again in Chicago the following day. The Black Hawks won that one, 4-2, with Stewart scoring the winning goal.
All in all, it was ended up another fruitless year for Chicago. When the playoffs rolled around in March, they were on the outside looking in for the third consecutive season. When Tribune reporter Charles Bartlett buttonholed coach Charlie Conacher before he departed for Toronto, he asked him how he felt about his players.
“I’m not satisfied with any of them,” he answered. “It never pays to be satisfied with any team in sports. Creates a weak attitude. What I am pleased with, however, is the morale of the Hawks. I think their fifth place finish, and the fact that they won only won game less than Toronto will mean a lot when we start training at North Bay in September.”
He thought the team had played pretty well through December. But then Doug Bentley got sick and Stewart concussed, and Bill Mosienko and Metro Prystai had played that stretch of games with their wonky shoulders …
Conacher was headed home to his summer job — his oil business, Bartlett reported. A couple of Hawks were staying in Chicago for the duration, Ralph Nattrass to work in real estate and Jim Conacher at an auto agency. The rundown on their teammates as went their separate ways looked like this:
Goalie Jim Henry will join with his Ranger rival, Chuck Rayner, in operating their summer camp in Kenora, Ont. Red Hamill will go a talent scouting tour of northern Ontario. Doug Bentley and brother Max of the Leafs will play baseball and run their ice locker plant in De Lisle, Sask. Mosienko will return to Winnipeg, where he owns a bowling center with Joe Cooper, former Hawk defenseman.
Roy Conacher, who received a substantial bonus from the Hawks for winning the league’s scoring title, is headed for Midland, Ont., where he plans to open a sporting goods store. Gaye Stewart will run a soft drink agency in Port Arthur, Ont. A fish business will occupy Ernie Dickens in Bowmanville. Doug McCaig is enrolled in a Detroit accounting school. Adam Brown will assist his dad in their Hamilton filling station.
The New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1940, it’s true, but mostly their standing during the years of the Second World War was lowly: from 1943 through the spring of 1945, the team finished last in the NHL every time. The worst ever to have worn Ranger sweaters, GM Lester Patrick called those teams. Heading into the post-war, he had reason, at least, for hope. Returning from military service were many of the stalwarts of that Cup-winning team from back in ’40, including Alex Shibicky, Mac and Neil Colville and Patrick’s own sons, Muzz and Lynn. Lesser lights back from the wars included the wingers shown above expressing their pleasure at being back on NHL ice at Madison Square Garden: left is Hal Brown, 25, from Brandon, Manitoba and, on the right, and Toronto-born Alan Kuntz, 26. In goal, the Rangers had Jim Henry and Chuck Rayner coming in to replace the ’44-45 partnership of Ken McAuley and Doug Stevenson. And rookies looking to make the team for the first time included Edgar Laprade and Cal Gardner. It took another whole year, as it turned out, for the Rangers to ascend from the basement, moving into fifth ahead of Chicago in 1946-47. Another year after that, they even made the playoffs. By 1950, they were improved enough to play for the Stanley Cup — though they did, of course, lose in the finals to Detroit.