a code of his own: colliding head-on with phiery phil

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.

a hundred years hirsute: the nhl’s first moustache (and other moustaches)

Lanny McDonald and Moustache: “Put a handle on it and you could clean your driveway.”

Start with Andy Blair. Talking hockey moustaches, you had to start with him: for a long time in the early years of the NHL, his Toronto Maple Leaf lip was the only one in the entire loop to be adorned with any growth of hair. Or so we thought. Turns out hockey wasn’t quite so clean-shaven as we were led to believe. In fact, Blair wasn’t even the first Toronto player to skate mustachioed. Puckstruck exclusive: the NHL’s first recognized moustache made its debut as early as the league’s second season.

Jack Adams was the man to wear it. Better known for his later (smooth-faced) exploits as coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Adams was an accomplished player in his time, too, of course, winning two Stanley Cups in the NHL’s first decade. The first of those came in the spring of 1918 with Toronto.

It was when he returned to the team — now the Arenas — later that year that he changed his look. We have just a single source on this so far, but it’s persuasive: Adams, an astute Toronto reporter took note, boasted

a tooth brush decoration on his upper lip. You’ve gotta get pretty close to Jack to see it, as he is a blonde.

Andy Blair’s moustache was much more distinctive, not to mention very well documented. A Winnipeg-born centreman, Blair made his NHL debut in 1928. As best we can trace, he came into the league smooth-faced. The evidence isn’t conclusive but as far as we know he did get growing until the early 1930s.

When we think of classic Leafian moustaches, it’s Lanny McDonald’s full-frontal hairbrush that comes to mind, or maybe Wendel Clark’s fu manchu. Blair’s was trim. A teammate, Hap Day, described it as “a little Joe College-type.” Trent Frayne preferred “Charlie Chaplin.” It even rates a mention in Blair’s biography in the Hockey Hall of Fame register of players — even though it didn’t survive the end of his NHL career.

After eight seasons with the Leafs, Blair and his laden lip went to Chicago in 1936 for a final fling with the Black Hawks. Blair, at least, lasted the year: “I see the boys got together and made him shave off his Clark Gable moustache,” former Leafs teammate Charlie Conacher noted that year. “That is something more than we could get him to do when he played in Toronto.” The story goes that it disappeared under duress: only after his Chicago teammates repeatedly threatened to do the job forcibly did Blair get around to shaving the moustache away.

Lucky for Blair that it hadn’t happened sooner: like his Canadiens counterpart Pit Lepine, Conacher actually headed up a fervent anti-moustache campaign through the ’30s. Well, maybe that’s a bit strong: Conacher was a paid pitchman through for Palmolive Shave Cream (Giant Size Double Quantity 40 cents!). I don’t doubt that he used the stuff himself. I do wonder whether he actually said, of his own free will, “Palmolive knocks my whiskers for a goal every time I use it.”

It was another Leaf who picked up where Blair left off, though it took a few years. In the fall of 1945, The Globe and Mail introduced rookie defenceman Garth Boesch as the man sporting “the most impressive crop of lip foliage in a major hockey dressing room since Andy Blair.” Columnist Bobbie Rosenfeld was willing to go even further: if you left the Calder Trophy voting for NHL rookie-of-the-year to women, and Boesch would win hands (face?) down. “That Garth moustache,” she wrote, “which is a la Caesar Romero, has the femmes swooning every time the Leafs’ defence star steps on the ice.”

“I started growing it when I was 18 and I still have it,” Boesch told the Globe’s Paul Patton in 1975, when Boesch was 54. Red Dutton was supposed to have watched him as a young prospect, declaring, “With that moustache, he’s got two strikes against him before he starts.”

“I never heard that,” Boesch said. “Nobody ever complained to me.” He was proud to say he never lost a tooth in his five years playing in the NHL. He did acquire an honest share of stitches, though. “Lots on my lower lip, but never on my upper lip. I always had a big nose and I guess it protected my moustache.” Continue reading