sylvio mantha: montreal’s coaching captain (and vice-versa)

Non-Playing Coach: After 13 Hall-of-Fame seasons with Montreal (and four games as a Boston Bruin), Sylvio Mantha went on to coach the Montreal QSHL, Concordia starting in the late 1930s.

Doug Harvey. Larry Robinson. Serge Savard. Guy Lapointe.

So no, maybe Sylvio Mantha’s name isn’t the first to skate to mind when the subject of Hall-of-Fame defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens arises, as it does. But let’s agree to agree: Mantha belongs in the conversation. Born in Montreal in 1902 on a Monday of — yes, well, this past Tuesday’s date, April 14, Mantha was a stalwart of the Montreal defence in the first decades of their NHL history, a key contributor to three Stanley Cup-winning campaigns, and a long-time Canadiens captain. He also coached the team … while he was still playing.

Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1960, Sylvio Mantha died at the age of 72 in 1974. Descriptions plucked live from contemporary newspaper accounts of his playing exploits use the words able and always steady (from earliest 1924); rugged and dangerous (1927); the only Italian playing the Canadian national game (an Atlanta paper, also from 1927); sturdy the Red Devils’ goal-getting defenceman  (both 1929).

In 1942, six years after Mantha’s last spin through the NHL, a Montreal writer fondly defied any true Canadiens’ fan to forget “the weaving rushes of Sylvio Mantha, who skated with his legs wide apart and couldn’t be shoved off balance — or off the puck.” For much of his career, his brother Georges, younger by five years, played with him in Montreal,  sometimes on defence, sometimes as a forward.

Other stuff you maybe once knew about Sylvio Mantha but then, perhaps, unaccountably, let slip from memory? Here you go:

•••

He was not, despite what you may have read in reputable published histories of the Canadiens, the first native-born Montrealer to play for the team. Preceding him in the team’s pre-NHL days were local products Joseph Seguin and Alphonse Jetté, among others. Post-1917, Montrealers Sprague and Odie Cleghorn were both already with the team when Mantha arrived in the winter of 1923.

•••

He was 20 when he made his NHL debut in Toronto that December. Alongside another rookie, he proved himself immediately. Here’s what the Montreal Gazette had to say in the aftermath of that 2-1 loss to the St. Patricks:

The newcomers to professional hockey, “Howie” Morenz of Stratford and Mantha of Montreal, made good. Morenz fitted right into the Canadien machine, and the manager [Leo Dandurand] thinks so well of his ability that he started him at centre in place of Odie Cleghorn. Mantha was used for about thirty minutes on the defence, and his showing indicates that he will be a star in a short time.

Mantha scored his first NHL goal a little over a month later, on another visit to Toronto that ended in another 2-1 Montreal loss. From Toronto’s Globe:

Mantha went at top speed throughout. It was the best game that he ever played, amateur or professional, and such a veteran as Sprague Cleghorn was enthusiastic. Mantha is a fast skater and a clever stick handler. He scored Canadiens’ only goal after outguessing the whole St. Patricks’ team. He has the weight and ability to be one of the stars of the circuit.

•••

Playing, as he did, in a ruthless and an often outrightly violent hockey age, Mantha wasn’t known for his coarse play in the way that, say, Sprague Cleghorn was, or Billy Coutu, another chaotic Montreal defenceman. But looking him up, I find that Mantha did lose tend his temper, good sense, and freedom on a fairly regular basis, to the extent that (a) referee Art Ross penalized and summarily fined him $15 for swinging his stick at Cy Denneny’s head during a 1924 game against the Ottawa Senators and (b) by the end of the 1929-30 season, he stood third in the NHL in accumulated penalty minutes, back of Ottawa’s Joe Lamb and Eddie Shore of Boston. So there’s that.

•••

He scored the very first goal at the brand-new Boston Garden.

This was in November of 1928. Saturday the 17th saw the Garden inaugurated with a featherweight boxing bout, Honey Boy Dick Finnegan getting the decision over Andre Routis. Then on Tuesday the 20th Canadiens were in to take on the Bruins in front of a crowd of 17,000, the largest ever to see a hockey game in Boston up to that time, fans (reported the local Globe) “filling every inch of standing space and almost bulging out onto the ice.”

The game was goalless through to the last moments of the second period. From the Montreal Gazette:

Mantha did it all alone. He skated down the centre lane with Pete Lepine, understudy for the great Howie Morenz, flanking him on the right. At the defence Mantha swung to the right and as Captain Lionel Hitchman, of the Bruins, went to check him, cut loose a hard shot for the right side of the cage. It bounded off the pads of Cecil Thompson into the side of the net.

No-one else scored in the third, so that was it, Mantha 1, Bruins 0.

•••

The inimitable Jean Béliveau served the longest stretch as captain of the NHL Canadiens, 10 seasons. Next in the longevity line are Saku Koivu and Sylvio Mantha, each of whom led the team through nine campaigns. Mantha’s tenure began in 1926, when he succeeded Billy Coutu, and he carried on from there, through 1932, when goaltender George Hainsworth took a turn for a year. Mantha was back at it in 1933.

Two years later, at the age of 33, he was still captain of the Canadiens and playing a regular shift when the new owner of the team, Ernest Savard, named him coach, too. Think of that. Think of Shea Weber taking over from Claude Julien behind the Montreal bench, except for, he wouldn’t be behind the bench, he’d be on it, and out over the boards, onto the ice. It wouldn’t happen today, but it did in earlier NHL days, with some frequency: in 1935-36, in fact, with veteran defenceman Red Dutton steering the ship for the New York Americans, two of the league’s eight teams had playing coaches.

Opening night 1935 was a festive affair, with Canadiens entertaining the New York Rangers at the Forum. Mantha was front and centre during pre-game ceremonies that saw loyal fans representing the Millionaires Club present the team with (1) a floral horseshoe and (2) a floral hockey stick. The captain and new coach received the gift of (3) a handsome leather travelling bag.

The season that unfolded thereafter wasn’t quite so fulfilling for anyone involved with the team. After losing to the Rangers, the Canadiens continued to struggle, ending up dead last in the NHL, far adrift from the playoffs. This very month in ’36, the Gazette was suggesting that Mantha would probably be back as coach, though he maybe wouldn’t continue to play.

In fact, when Savard announced that he was bringing in a new coach in Cecil Hart, the word was that Mantha would be welcomed back as a player, if he wanted to play. Hart, of course, wasn’t so new as all that: he’d coached the team for years, going back to 1926, and presided over their 1930 and ’31 Stanley Cup triumphs.

•••

Many happy returns, ca. 1937.

Mantha did go to camp in the fall of 1936, but he couldn’t crack the opening-night line-up when the new season rolled around in November. As well as bringing Howie Morenz back into the Forum fold, the Canadiens had acquired a big-name defenceman in the off-season in a deal with the Boston Bruins. Babe Siebert was two years younger than 35-year-old Mantha, and had been named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team for 1935-36. He not only supplanted Mantha on the defence, he succeeded him as captain.

That November, after 13 years, Sylvio Mantha’s Canadien career came to an end when he was released outright. His career as a Boston Bruin got going the following February, when Art Ross signed him to fill in for Eddie Shore, out for the season with an injured back. He was a good fit, by all accounts, but Mantha’s stay in Boston only lasted four games before a cracked elbow put a full stop on his season and his playing career.

Mantha did subsequently do some refereeing, including in the NHL, but it was as a coach that he concentrated most of his post-playing hockey efforts, starting in the fall of 1937 with the Montreal Concordia of the QSHL and junior teams in Verdun and St. Jerome.

 

montreal’s most

Montreal’s dismal season ends on Saturday, when they play in Toronto, just before the playoffs get going, Canadiens-free. As a gloomy season wraps up, the stories in the city’s sports pages are structured around phrases like “a boring — and losing — brand of hockey” and “empty seats at the Bell Centre.” Asked at practice in Brossard what he’d like to tell fans, coach Claude Julien said he’d have to go with “thank you.” The Gazette’s Stu Cowan was on hand for this, and if it sounds like Julien was in fact trying to say “sorry,” no, apparently not — he was just grateful fans didn’t jeer more than they did this season. “There’s no doubt,” he said, “we got booed a couple of times because we weren’t a good hockey club. But I think they’ve actually been pretty patient to come to the games and cheer us on. I think they’ve recognized a solid effort as far as guys working hard and competing hard and realizing that right now we’re not good enough and that’s why we’re not in the playoffs.”

On the brighter side, Carey Price is back in the net, and seems to be healthy. On Tuesday night, he was celebrated for his Montreal longevity: the Canadiens’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets saw him play in his 557th NHL regular-season game. With that, he surpassed Jacques Plante as the man who’s minded Montreal’s nets most since the league got going in 1917.

It’s no small achievement, even if Plante does (as should be noted) remain atop the statistical heap if you factor in playoff games: he played 90 of those for Canadiens, for a total of 646 games played, while Price’s 60 playoff games get him to 617.

Canadiens have looked to 83 men to guard their nets, all told, though a few — like Charlie Sands, Battleship Leduc, and Sprague Cleghorn — were skaters subbing in on a strictly emergency basis.

In terms of successes, Plante and Ken Dryden would have to top the pantheon, having each helped the team to six Stanley Cups. Plante is the winningest of Montreal goaltenders, (314 regular season + 59 in the playoffs = 373), followed by Patrick Roy (289 + 70 = 359) and Dryden (258 + 80 = 338), then Price (286 + 25 = 311). Among bona fide goalies, Price also rates fourth in scoring — his 12 all-time assists have him trailing Roy (32 points, season and playoffs), Dryden (23), and Michel Larocque (17).

Straying from statistics, I might just mention that I happened to be talking to Dryden in Toronto earlier this season. Two of his young grandsons are hockey players, goaltenders both. I asked their Hall-of-Fame, Calder-and-Conn-Smythe-winning, many-Vézina’d grandfather what numbers they wear, assuming there could be just one answer, 29.

I was wrong: for Ken Dryden’s grandsons, Carey Price is the incumbent in their imaginations, and it’s his 31 that both boys show on their sweaters.

(Image by Toronto illustrator Dave Murray. For more of his work, hockey and otherwise, visit www.davemurrayillustration.com)

the sorry condition in which the canadiens have found themselves

On The Rise: A Montreal pre-season line-up from October of 1942. Times were tough, but hope bloomed eternal. Back, left to right: Jack Portland, Bobby Lee, Paul Bibeault, Ernie Laforce, Red Goupille, Maurice Richard, Butch Bouchard. Front: Bob Carragher, Glen Harmon, Buddy O’Connor, Gerry Heffernan, Elmer Lach, Tony Demers, Jack Adams. (Image: Library and Archives Canada / PA-108357)

There’s a howling you’ll hear when the Montreal Canadiens start an NHL season with a run of 1-6-1. Fans lend their fury to the high machine-buzz of hockey-media frenzy, and and there’s an echo down there in the NHL’s basement where the Canadiens and the three sad points they’ve earned to date languish. The whole din of it gets amplified, as everything does, when you put it online. And history can’t resist raising a nagging voice, too.

Today its refrain is this: should these modern-day Canadiens lose tonight’s game at the Bell Centre to the visiting Florida Panthers, they’ll match the ’41-42 Canadiens for season-opening futility. That was the last time Montreal went 1-7-1 to start a season.

Lots of people have lots of good ideas. Captain Max Pacioretty should either start scoring/lose his C/get himself reunited on a line with centre Philip Danault/see to it that he’s traded to Edmonton as soon as possible, maybe in exchange for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. GM Marc Bergevin needs to address the media/find a sword and fall on it/reverse-engineer the trade that sent P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber.

Amid the clamour, coach Claude Julien was calm, ish, yesterday. “We’re all tired of losing, I think that’s pretty obvious,” he told reporters circling the team’s practice facility at Brossard, Quebec. “You know we really feel that we’re doing some good things but we’re not doing good enough for 60 minutes and we need to put full games together.”

Back in ’41, sloppy starting had become a bit of a Canadien tradition. With Cecil Hart at the helm, the team had launched its 1938-39 campaign by going 0-7-1. A year later they got going in 1939-40 with an encouraging 4-2-2 record before staggering through an eight-game losing streak followed by twin ten-game winless runs. In 1940-41, getting underway for new coach Dick Irvin, Canadiens sputtered out to a 1-5-2 start.

Irvin had just coached the Leafs to another Stanley Cup final when he quit Toronto for Montreal in the spring of ’41. He’d started his Leaf reign by winning a Cup in 1932 and in eight subsequent seasons, he’d steered his teams to six Stanley Cup finals.

Why would he want to take charge of a team that The Globe and Mail’s Ralph Allen called “a spent and creaking cellar occupant”?

For the challenge, presumably. Better money? Main Leafs man Conn Smythe was, in public at least, magnanimous — strangely so, to the extent that The Gazette ran his comments under the headline “Smythe in New Role/ As Aide to Canadiens.” It quoted him saying that Montreal had asked his permission to offer Irvin the job. “The Maple Leaf club’s reaction,” he continued, “was that we hated to see Irvin go but we felt that the sorry condition in which the Canadiens had found themselves wasn’t doing any team in the league any good.”

Smythe wanted to help, what’s more. “We are going to give him whatever help we can in player deals.” Maybe Irvin and the Canadiens could use Charlie Conacher, for instance, or Murray Armstrong?

“If he figures Conacher or Armstrong will fit,” Smythe prattled away, “then he can have them, and also two or three other players on our roster.”

Irvin must have figured otherwise. He went about reshaping the Canadiens without his former boss’ aid. In November, his new Montreal charges started off by tying Boston 1-1 at the Forum. They followed that up with four losses and an overtime tie before powering by the New York Americans 3-1 on November 23. The teams played again in New York the next night and Montreal lost by a score of 2-1.

“The rearguard has been the main grief of the made-over Habitants,” Harold C. Burr opined in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Rookies Alex Singbush, 19-year-old Ken Reardon, and Tony Graboski were inexperienced, liked to rush the puck too much. Star winger Toe Blake was in slump, too — that didn’t help. The best part, Burr thought: these Habs never quit fighting. “That’s one of the attributes of this young team — the old scrappiness.”

Irvin had vowed that the team would make the playoffs in ’41. The season was shorter then, of course, 48 games, so the margin for error was tight. Then again, six of the league’s seven teams got qualified for the post-season, so all Montreal had to do (and did) was to go 16-26-6 and edge out the woeful (and soon-to-be-extinct) New York Americans for the final playoff berth. (Facing the Chicago Black Hawks, Montreal fell in three games.)

Montreal would eventually get themselves turned around. In the fall of ’42, Canadiens added a young rookie named Maurice Richard to the fold. Two years after that, the team was at the top of the NHL standings when the season ended in March. And in April of 1944, they defeated the Chicago to win the Stanley Cup.

Before that, during the bleak years, hope does seem to have been more eternal in its bloom than in modern-day Montreal.

Concern was in order in November of 1938: from Montreal’s Gazette.

Deep into November of 1938, English Montrealers awoke to read in The Gazette that Canadiens had lost their sixth straight game in New York the previous evening, 2-1 to the Rangers. Never mind: even the New York papers were said to be reporting that Montreal had played the Rangers off their skates for a good part of the game. Jim Burchard of The Telegram said the visiting team lacked only luck, while The Herald-Tribune felt they just needed a bit more polish in their finishing. “They muffed half a dozen scoring chances,” Kerr Petri wrote. Coach Cecil Hart was certain his boys would beat the Americans in the next game, that very night. “On the basis of last night’s form, we can do it,” he said. “We’re going to win plenty of games after that one, too. And if we had any of the breaks last night, the first victory might be ours already.” (The Americans whomped them, instead, 7-3.)

Four years later, almost to the day, Dick Irvin was telling the hockey writers that the 2-1 loss in Detroit that left the Canadiens adrift at 0-4-2 was cause for … encouragement. “One can’t be satisfied by obtaining only two points out of a possible 12, but they are improving. They played good hockey in Detroit, had more chances, I think, but the other guys got the decision — and that’s what counts.”

A year after that, November of 1941, and the 0-4-1 Canadiens had the Rangers coming in. “Despite the fact Canadiens have not yet won a game,” The Gazette noted, “the box-office at the Forum reported yesterday prospects for a big crowd tonight are bright.”

Montreal lost that one, 7-2. Still, as he’d done a year earlier, Irvin did guide the team once more into the playoffs. Think of that as Max Pacioretty and Carey Price lead their 2017 Canadiens out onto the ice tonight.

 

you naturally hope it can turn things around: a field guide to hiring and firing boston coaches

Rodden + Patrick 1935 Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Boards Meeting: Boston coach Frank Patrick, at his command post on the Bruin bench, confers with referee Mike Rodden at the Garden, c. 1935. This was still a time before coaches patrolled behind the bench and their players; mostly, they sat alongside them. (Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Claude Julien lost his job as coach of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday. GM Don Sweeney announced the news at 8 a.m. in a written statement, and then followed that with a press conference a few hours later. Whether or not they agreed with the decision to dump the coach, many Boston fans and commentators found the whole business distasteful if not outright insulting to the city and all it stands for: the New England Patriots, after all, were parading in Boston that very day to celebrate Sunday’s Super Bowl victory.

Sweeney, as you would, looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, in any historical period. He apologized for the poor timing, tried to explain. He wanted to give the new, interim coach — 51-year-old Bruce Cassidy, who’d been aiding Julien as an assistant — hoped to give him a chance to practice with the players before they had to play a game.

“So we have a real opportunity,” Sweeney said, “to sort of step back from the emotional piece of this, and allow our players to get away and vacate it mentally and physically. I thought it was a good opportunity, today and tomorrow, to get their feet on the ground in a practice environment, which we haven’t had playing 50 games in 102 days. The schedule has been challenging in that regard.”

Julien, who’s 56, started in Boston in 2007. That made him (up to the minute of his dismissal) the longest serving of NHL coaches. He departed the Boston bench as one of game’s most respected benchers, having steered the club to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011, the first for the Bruins since 1972. No coach has won more Cups than that in the team’s 93-year-history. Julien also coached the team through more games than anyone else, including the legendary Art Ross, while chalking up the most wins. Graded by winning percentage (regular season + playoffs), his .555 falls back of Tom Johnson (.670) and Cooney Weiland (.602).

Cassidy has two wins, so far, to his name, and a perfect percentage: the Bruins followed up Thursday’s 6-3 victory over San Jose with a 4-3 decision this afternoon versus Vancouver.

While he relishes those, maybe what we’d better do is review the hirings and firings of Cassidy’s 27 forebears on the Bruins’ bench, starting back when the Bruins started, in 1924. Art Ross came first, of course, serving as Boston’s everything in those early years of the club, stocking the roster, forging an identity, and coaching the team through its first 461 games, which yielded one Stanley Cup (1929).

That gets us to the spring of 1934. The Bruins had finished at the bottom of the American Division, out of the playoffs. “I am leaving for Montreal on the 8.45 o’clock train tonight,” Ross told Victor Jones of The Boston Globe a couple days after the team played their final game. “I shall do some scouting during my absence and I may take in part of the Stanley Cup series. And before long I shall engage a coach for the Bruins.”

After ten years at the helm, he was looking to focus his energy. He was 49 and he’d been ill with intestinal trouble. Candidates were said to include Lionel Hitchman, Eddie Powers, Cecil Hart, and Tommy Gorman — maybe Nels Stewart? In the end Ross hired Frank Patrick, also 49, a good friend who’d been working as the NHL’s managing director.

“In my opinion,” Ross said, “he is the best coach in the game today. He should bring Boston a winning team.”

The Bruins did win under Patrick, though they didn’t manage a championship in the two seasons he was in charge. Eric Zweig’s 2015 biography Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins is a good guide to Patrick’s exit in 1936. Ross thought that Patrick was too friendly with players and referees, plus he was drinking too much, and the two men had stopped talking.

Frank’s son Joe Jr. told Eric Whitehead alcohol was a problem, but so was Ross’ reluctance to give his coach autonomy. “Art simply couldn’t or wouldn’t let go of the reins,” Joe Jr. says in Whitehead’s The Patricks (1980), “and my father couldn’t abide that.”

Patrick wasn’t fired, exactly: he just wasn’t, in newspaper parlance from the time, “re-engaged.” Former Bruins’ captain Lionel Hitchman was coaching the team’s minor-league affiliate, the Boston Cubs, and he was once again mentioned as a possible successor. Asked whether star defenceman Eddie Shore might take on coaching the team from the blueline, Ross was non-committal.

“Personally I do not think it would be a wise move,” he said. “In the first place, hockey is too tough a game for a playing manager and in the second, Eddie is much too valuable a player to ruin him by loading so much responsibility on his shoulders. A defenceman these days has all he can do watching opposing forwards without having to keep an eye on his own.”

So Ross returned. He stayed on through to 1939, when he decided for a second time that he’d had enough.

“I can’t go through this any more,” he said this time. “For some time I’ve thought I ought to get off the bench. Lester Patrick of the Rangers and I are about the only men in the NHL who have tried to combine front-office work and bench managing for so many years. He told me after the Bruins-Rangers series that he couldn’t stand it any more, and I know I can’t.”

ross-cooney-version-2

He ceded the coaching to Cooney Weiland, the newly retired erstwhile captain of the Bruins who’d spent the last year of his NHL career as Ross’ playing assistant. Under Weiland, the Bruins prospered, and in his second year, 1940-41, they won a Stanley Cup — whereupon the coach left the champions to take over the AHL Hershey Bears.

Eric Zweig suggests another feud. In a chapter of his book in which he looks into Ross’ fallings-out with Eddie Shore, Bill Cowley, and Herb Cain (not to mention his blood-grudge with Conn Smythe), he concludes that Ross wouldn’t, couldn’t — didn’t — let his coach coach.

Again Ross was ready to get back to doing it for himself. He stayed on this time through 1945. “I’m through,” he declared that spring. “I’ll never sit on the bench again.” Another of his faithful captains had been acting as a playing assistant, 38-year-old Dit Clapper, who was now ready to retire.

Or maybe be retired. “We want Dit to quit before he is seriously hurt,” Ross said. Clapper himself wasn’t entirely sure he was through as a player. Not long before hewas appointed, he’d been telling Harold Kaese of The Boston Globe that he’d “hate to do nothing but sit on the bench.” And, true enough, he did continue to play for the first couple of years he coached, if mainly on spot duty, replacing injured players in the line-up.

Something else Kaese reported: “The manager said he liked Clapper as a coach because he was willing to take his advice, which other Bruins coaches (Frank Patrick and Cooney Weiland) were not.”

Clapper coached on through the 1948-49 season. At the team’s annual season-ending banquet,  owner Weston Adams stood up and quieted the crowd. “I’m sorry that I have to make the saddest announcement of my career,” he said. “Just this noon I learned that Dit will not be with us another year.”

Clapper, who was 42, was headed for home. His wife hadn’t been well, and he had a teenaged son and daughter, along with (as Ross, once, had had, in Montreal) a thriving sporting goods store. “My family and my business in Peterborough, Ontario, now demand all my attention,” he told the room.

Art Ross was overcome with emotion. As for the players, they had a gift to give: a hunting rifle.

“Being a coach is a pretty tough job,” Clapper said, “particularly for an old player. To be a really good coach you have to drive the guys. I just couldn’t do that. All these boys were really my friends.”

I don’t suppose anyone would have batted an eye if Art Ross, now 64, had returned one more time to the Boston bench. He didn’t, though.

“We wanted a man who didn’t know our players at all,” Bruins’ president Weston Adams advised in 1949 when he hired 52-year-old George (Buck) Boucher, famous Frank’s older brother. “Everybody now starts from scratch. They’ve got to make the team. It’s up to Buck to select the men he wants. I don’t think we will have to make apologies for next year’s Bruins.”

Art Ross was on the same page. “Yeah,” he said. “We were looking for a two-fisted guy and got one. He won’t be a yes man to me.”

When the Bruins let him go a year later, Boucher was surprised. He called it a “dirty deal.” Ross let him know as the team travelled to Toronto for the final regular-season game of the season. “It was a blow, and made it a rough ride,” Boucher said. “I had rather expected it but it was tough to take. Art Ross told me I’d done a good job, but the club had other plans for next season. I asked him, ‘If I’ve done such a good job, why am I being fired? I think I deserve another chance.’ And he told me, ‘We have other plans.’”

Art Ross had his side of the story to tell. He was up in Canada, acting as league supervisor for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but made a special trip home to Boston to clarify things for reporters.

“We haven’t lied to you people in 26 years,” he told them at a press conference where he sat alongside team president Weston Adams and a director named Frank Ryan.

Ross reminded everybody what good friends he and Boucher were. They’d discussed finding another coaching job for him. “We could have paid him off for the season — we all know his contract was for one year — several times after some mistakes, but we didn’t.”

Ross addressed charges that upper management had interfered with Boucher through the course of the season. “Regardless of what has been written or said by anyone, it’s not true that any of us interfered at any time with Boucher,” he said. “I called him on the phone once in the season during the course of a game and that was to tell him one of several kids we had brought up for a look was sick and maybe should not play any more.”

“I also suggested — only suggested mind you — perhaps the kids should be changed more often in the third period or we might get licked. We had a three-goal lead at the time. Well, we lost the game. But that’s the only time he was ever told anything by either of us at any time during a game, immediately before or immediately after.”

Boston’s players were sorry to see Boucher go. They presented him with “a powerful short wave radio.”

“This was no sympathy act,” said captain Milt Schmidt. “We planned this some weeks ago as a gift to a swell guy.”

Bun Cook would be the next coach. That was the word. Or Joe Primeau? But no. Instead, Ross lured 38-year-old Lynn Patrick in from the wilds of Victoria, British Columbia. Lester’s son, he’d coached the Rangers for one successful year then quit. He preferred, he’d said then, “to rear my family in some place other than a big city.”

Suburban Boston would work, too. “This is the kind of an opportunity I’ve been hoping and searching for,” Patrick said. “I’m ambitious to get ahead in hockey and don’t want to be a coach all my life.” And so a succession plan was in place: after two years of coaching, Patrick would ascend to replace a retiring Ross as general manager.

That didn’t go quite as planned. Ross kept going through the spring of 1954, announcing his retirement, in the Bruin way, at the team’s annual end-of-year banquet. Under the new plan, Patrick would take on the role of general manager while continuing to coach for one more year. By then, captain Milt Schmidt would be ready to retire and, in the Bruin way, turn himself into the coach.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

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this week: out there at twilight with a big machete, chopping up a beaver dam

As the Toronto Maple Leafs approach their centennial, the team is thinking of maybe updating, altering, or otherwise rejigging their logo — possibly. That was the news today, from the website sportslogos.net, quoting “sources” and hinting at plans for new sweaters, some of which may or may not be St. Patricks-green.

“Centennial plans will be announced in the New Year,” Dave Haggith, senior director of communications for Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, was telling Kevin McGran, from The Toronto Star. “We won’t be commenting until that time. There’s some fun stuff planned.”

Erik Karlsson is the most game-changing defenceman since Bobby Orr, said Adam Gretz this week at CBS Sports. And he is only getting better. (Italics his.)

The city of Edmonton commissioned artist Slavo Cech to fashion a small steel sculpture of a bison to present to former Oilers coach and GM and dynasty-builder Glen Sather this week. Cech, an Oilers fan, was honoured. “It’s not hockey-related,” he said, “but he’s more than hockey, right?”

“It’s difficult for me to put in my words the gratitude I feel for this honour,” Sather said on Friday night as a banner bearing his name lifted to the rafters of Rexall Place. “My sincere wish is that every one of you in this building gets to experience something, anything in your life that makes you feel like I’m feeling right now: the luckiest person on earth.”

New-Look Leafs: A Globe and Mail correspondent browsed the aisles at a Jordanian refugee camp earlier this week.

Brand New: A Globe and Mail correspondent browsed the aisles at a Jordanian refugee camp earlier this week.

“I say,” tweeted Don Cherry, “what kind of a world would we live in without the police?”

Everyone who paid attention to the New York Rangers’ advanced stats saw their struggles coming, said someone, on social media, somewhere.

On the ice in Boston a week or two back, it’s possible that a Bruin winger, Brad Marchand, may have kneed a Ranger goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, in the head. Boston coach Claude Julien said that Lundqvist was acting.

“Who would you rather have as a son,” said his New York counterpart, Alain Vigneault, “Henrik or Brad Marchand?”

David Akin of The Toronto Sun reported this week that hockey historian Stephen J. Harper has been sighted just twice in the House of Commons in Ottawa since he lost his day-job as prime minister of Canada in October. Akin writes:

His front-row seat is immediately to the left of the Speaker. That location lets the former prime minister enter and exit the House with little fanfare and without having to go near the press.

Paul Martin used the same seat after his Liberals lost the 2006 election.

To pass the albeit brief time he’s spent in the Commons, Harper arrived last time with a book: A just published biography by Eric Zweig of Art Ross, the Hockey Hall of Famer, NHL founding father, and long-time member of the Boston Bruins. Harper is a big hockey history buff.

Speaking of the Speaker, there’s a new one, Harperside: Nova Scotia Liberal MP Geoff Regan. He was on CTV’s Question Period today comparing the House of Commons to a hockey game.

“Only certain people get to play and it’s shaped in a lot of ways like an arena, with the two sides,” said Regan.

“And the people who aren’t actually in the game, they’d like to be in the game, and sometimes want to react to something, want to say something, the way you’d see at a game. But we’re not in a rink. We’re in the House of Commons.”

“I just love anything Michael Keaton is in,” Don Cherry told Jim Slotek of Postmedia.

Sather was a master psychologist: that’s what a defenceman who worked his blueline, Steve Smith, told Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal. “You can take Roger Neilson, maybe the best Xs and Os guy, but he didn’t win, maybe because he didn’t have the players elsewhere. But Glen managed all these personalities in Edmonton. That’s a special art to manage all those guys and keep them happy. It’s like Phil Jackson in basketball. He understood his players in Chicago and what buttons to push.”

“It was the managing of people that made Glen really good.”

No Logo: Leaf fans weighed in at The Toronto Star earlier today, hours after word of a possible new logo emerged online.

No Logo: Leaf fans weighed in at The Toronto Star earlier today, hours after word of a possible new logo emerged online.

Fighting is on its way out of the NHL, mostly everybody agreed this week — as they have been agreeing, more or less, since the season started in early October.

A kinder, gentler NHL is taking shape, said Dave Feschuk of The Toronto Star:

Given the rise in concern about the permanent nature of head injuries, there is also, in some eyes, a growing mutual awareness of the ultimate fragility of the human condition.

“Back in the day it used to be pretty malicious,” said Nazem Kadri, the only Leafs player who’s been penalized for fighting this season. “I think guys now respect the game and respect each other’s bodies and hope nobody gets seriously injured. I mean, anytime you see someone go down, it’s a frightening feeling because you know it could be you.”

Back in October, The Globe and Mail ran an editorial at that time to bid farewell to the age of the goon, noting that the NHL might even be showing signs of getting serious about dealing with its concussion problem. And yet:

… if players are still allowed to punch each other in the head during prolonged, staged fights, what’s the point? It is hypocritical to express concern for concussions on the one hand, and allow fighting on the other.

Pierre LeBrun of ESPN was wondering the same thing this week. “Shouldn’t we be asking why the NHL still allows bare-knuckle fighting?” he wrote in a piece you’re advised to read for yourself. “I’ve said this before, but it just seems so hypocritical to have introduced Rule 48 (illegal hit to the head) in 2010 but still allow bare-knuckle punches.”

More required reading: writing at Vice Sports, Dave Bidini’s take on the complicated cultural significance of fighting is a smart, counterintuitive view you haven’t heard before.

“My big heroes,” continued Don Cherry, “are Sir Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson, and Lawrence of Arabia. I really loved Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”

A latterday Oiler, Taylor Hall, on Sather:

“He was a guy who brought everyone together; he seemed like a great button-pusher. Having that much skill and that much talent on your team isn’t an easy thing.”

Blackhawks preternatural confidence rubs off on new players

was a recent headline on a Mark Lazerus feature in Chicago’s Sun-Times in which the coach praised his captain, Jonathan Toews:

Joel Quenneville calls it a “competitive” nature, that the Hawks, perhaps more than any team he’s ever played for or coached, are better physically prepared and better mentally equipped to handle any situation. And he said it starts at the top, with the captain.

“As a coaching staff, you’re in a good spot knowing that the message is always there [about] doing things the right way,” Quenneville said. “Guys definitely notice Jonny’s intensity and professionalism right off the bat.”

 Don Cherry gave another Postmedia interview, this one to Michael Traikos:

Q: Is it OK that enforcers have been run out of the league?

A: I never ever believed in guys that should sit there for two periods and then get thrown out there for a minute and fight. I never believed in that. I call that ‘Mad Dog Thinking.’ I remember with my Boston Bruins, we had more tough guys than any team and every one of them got 20 goals. That’s what they have now. Every one of them can play the game. And that’s the way it should be. You should never have a guy sitting on the bench like a mad dog.

A Nashville rookie named Viktor Arvidsson used his stick to neck-check a Buffalo defenceman, Carlo Colaiacovo. The former left the game with a five-minute major and a game misconduct on his record; the latter departed with what the Sabres at first classed, inevitably, as an upper body injury.

His coach, Dan Bylsma, had an update following the game: “Carlo is doing OK. He got the cross check to the throat. He did go to the hospital; he’s there now. I guess they’re saying he has a dented trachea.”

Bryan Trottier wrote a letter to his youthful self and posted it at The Player’s Tribune for himself to read, along with everybody.

When you tell people how you learned to skate later in life, they’ll think you’re messing with them. They’re not going to believe how your handyman father would clear off the frozen creek across from your house after a snowstorm. You know how he walks out there at twilight with a big machete and floods the creek by chopping up a beaver dam? That’s not a normal thing. Other kids’ dads have Zambonis, or at least a hose. Your dad has a machete and some Canadian know-how. Thanks, Mr. Beaver.

Sometimes you just have to go out to the beaver dam with a machete and start chopping wood.

Brandon Prust of the Vancouver Canucks paid $5,000 last week to spear Boston’s Brad Marchand in the groin.

“Best money I’ve ever spent,” Prust told reporters.

Why did he do it? “It was frustrations,” Prust explained. “It happens out there. I wasn’t trying to injure him. I was just coming back as the puck was coming back up the boards. On my swing by, I got my stick active.”

 “It wasn’t that hard,” he said. “He sold it pretty good. I saw him laughing on the bench afterwards.

Marchand, for his part, was only too glad to talk about what happened to Amalie Benjamin of The Boston Globe. “I think it was Prust,” he said. “I didn’t really see who did it when it happened, but just kind of gave me a jab, got me in the fun spot.”

Assuming it was who it may have been, Marchand understood. “Honestly,” he continued, “even if he wasn’t fined, I wouldn’t have been upset. It’s fine that he is, but I wouldn’t want to see him lose that much money over what happened. I think suspensions are worthy when guys get hurt or it’s a really bad shot. Like I said, I’ve done that before, lots of guys do that all the time. It is what it is. It’s part of the game.”

On he went, and on:

“It clearly doesn’t feel good,” Marchand said. “It hurts, so whether you’re upset at someone or you want to take a shot, it’s an easy place to target. You know it’s going to hurt. I think that’s why a lot of guys do it.

“A lot of guys take cheap shots, when there’s that much emotion in the game and it happens all the time. If you’re down by a few goals, if you’re having a bad game, someone takes a shot at you, someone says the wrong thing, guys get upset and they take shots at guys. I think it’s just human nature.

“There’s a lot of good players that take jabs at guys. People can say whatever they want. I’m not overly upset about what happened. It’s part of the game. I’ve done it. I’m sure he’s done it before. I’m sure it won’t be the last. It won’t be the last time I do it. It is what it is. It’s part of hockey.”

prust fine

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this (last) week: a busted gumball machine of loose pucks

Keep Calm and Carey On: "Target Legacy" is what Victoria artist Brandy Saturley calls this painting of Carey Price, which she finished in May of this year. "An homage to Habs goaltenders," is how she describes it, "and to an iconic Neo-Dadaist artist. Can you guess which one?" For more of her work, hockey and otherwise, visit www.brandysaturley.com.

Keep Calm and Carey On: “Target Legacy” is what Victoria artist Brandy Saturley calls this painting of Carey Price, which she finished in May of this year. “An homage to Habs goaltenders,” is how she describes it, “and to an iconic Neo-Dadaist artist. Can you guess which one?” For hints and more of her work, hockey and otherwise, visit http://www.brandysaturley.com.

Gordie Howe got rousing get-wells from all around the league after word started to circulate last week that he’d suffered a “serious” stroke. He was recovering — improving, the family said — at his daughter’s home in Texas.

“One of the game’s true legends,” Matt Larkin from The Hockey News called him, taking note of the “outpour of nostalgia and people sharing their favorite memories of him, from his dominant play as the original power forward to the way he always took time for others and never minded being adored, as he understood what it felt like to be on the other end.”

With the man himself looking on via iPad, the Detroit Red Wings paid tribute to 86-year-old Mr. Hockey ahead of their Friday-night home game against Los Angeles.

Slava Malamud from Sport Express told Pavel Datsyuk that Howe was always a big fan of his. Datsyuk: “Don’t say was. Hope he still is. Hope I’ll see him in the room again real soon.”

Among the many odes sung as the week went by were several to Howe’s hands. The Leafs’ Cody Franson shook one of them about ten years ago. “He’s just got those worker hands. That leather skin. Those very big fingers.” Allan Muir from Sports Illustrated cited “a hearty clasp from a hand the size of a canned ham, accompanied by a smile.” Another Leaf, Stephane Robidas recalled meeting Howe in 2009: “It was a real handshake. Huge hands. Even at 81, I wasn’t going to mess with him.”

Former NHL referee Paul Stewart said, yes, he was Babe Ruth of hockey but also? “He is an even better man off the ice as a true family man.”

Back to the rink, though:

In terms of his play on the ice, even apart from his nearly superhuman longevity, Gordie was the prototype for playing a hard-nosed physical game that also incorporated a tremendous level of skill. As genuinely nice and laid back as he is off-the-ice, that’s how mean and competitive he was as a player.

Stephen Whyno of The Canadian Press talked to a goaltending great, Grant Fuhr, who has an autobiography out in which he talks about, among other things, the drugs he used to take when he was playing for the Edmonton Oilers.

Looking back on it, Fuhr doesn’t believe drugs hurt his performance.

“The hardest part of goaltending is to stay focused,” Fuhr said. “So the fact that you get a mental break away from the game is almost refreshing.”

Montreal went to Edmonton and lost 3-0. Canadiens’ fan Alan Doyle from Great Big Sea saw what they were doing there:

Showing the discipline of Champs, Habs resist the urge to score any goals at all against Oilers. Opponents seriously confused. Brilliant.

The Toronto Maple Leafs ailed. Were ailing. Okay, losing. Writer Stephen Marche wondered whether this is the worst Leaf team ever. “Emotionally this team feels like the most dispiriting,” he keened. Continue reading

this week: ya gotta step up to the thing

big bob

Hockey Night In Canada opened, this week, with a rousing rendition of Paul McCartney’s new song, “Save Us,” backing the usual montage of shooting and scoring and punching, and more punching, and some passing, and punching, building up to the big Nelson Mandela finish. Ron MacLean paid tribute to the late South African president’s geographical savvy with quotes involving the road to forgiveness and how, once you climb a hill, there’s always another hill to climb. In the rink in Ottawa, where the Leafs were visiting the Senators, a moment of silence in Mandela’s honour was broken by hardly any partisan bellowing.

That was Saturday night, just before all hell broke loose in Boston. Which is worth coming back to. First, though, in other news:

@Bernieparent tweeted a bulletin on Wednesday:

Your smile will give you a positive countenance that will make people feel comfortable around you.

… while Dave Bidini (@hockeyesque) called out his local librarian:

hey @torontolibrary ‘Keon and Me’: 16 copies, 76 holds. Stephen Harper? 177 copies. 13 holds. ‪#Moremelesshim

Meanwhile, in Moscow, R-Sport fretted about a crisis for the Russian hockey team playing host at the Sochi Olympics in February: with Ilya Bryzgalov going down this week with a concussion, all six Russian goaltenders playing in the NHL are now ailing. Sergei Bobrovsky’s lower body is stretched, strained, sprained, and/or smarting. Anton Khudobin’s ankle is his problem, while Evgeny Nabokov and Nikolai Khabibulin are troubled by groins. Sorry, that’s not quite right: what they’re saying is that they have “groin problems.” Semyon Varlamov has those, too; he also faces charges of third-degree assault for (allegedly) beating up his girlfriend.

R-Sport:

In Sochi, four-time world champion Russia is under great pressure to win gold following Vancouver 2010 failure, when the team was destroyed 7-3 by Canada in the quarterfinal.

“A Bobby Hull howitzer it wasn’t,” wrote The Calgary Sun’s Randy Sportak of a Mikael Backlund goal that won a game for the Flames over Phoenix.

“I didn’t get too much on the puck, so I didn’t think it would go in,” Backlund said while a teammate in the dressing room referred to his shot as a “muffin.”

Buffalo captain Steve Ott (born in Summerside, P.E.I.) had monetary policy on his mind this week, broadcasting his dismay about the new Canadian five-dollar bill, which replaces an illustration of hockey-playing kids with one showing the Canadarm at work in outer space. @otterN9NE:

A little disappointed in the new Canadian 5’s … Never knew we had a space program? #Nasa or #Hockey 

Hue and cry ensued on Twitter, as you’d guess, until @otterN9NE returned (sheepishly?) to his smartphone:

It was cool to watch Com Chris Hadfield drop a puck from space last year but I believe Hockey should have stayed on the 5. Maybe the 10?

At The Toronto Star, Damien Cox wondered whether Edmonton’s Taylor Hall wasn’t talking himself into the Team Canada conversation.

Talking to Sports Illustrated, Boston coach Claude Julien didn’t deny that as a boy, he’d worshipped the Montreal Canadiens. Times change, though. “Right now I don’t like them,” he said.

Prediction from former New Jersey defenceman Ken Daneyko, now a broadcaster for the Devils: the NHL will expand to Quebec and Seattle within “a couple years.”

The NHL paid Wayne Gretzky the $US8-million it owed him this week, parking instant speculation that he’ll be back soon in an active management role in, maybe, Washington or perhaps (possibly) Los Angeles, though of course how can you rule out Toronto?

As for the mess in Boston Saturday night, here’s how the NHL page on Yahoo! Sports told the tale next morning:

Brooks Orpik attacked by Shawn Thornton

Penguins’ defenseman was stretchered off the ice after being jumped from behind by Bruins’ winger

Ugliness erupts in Boston

Bruins win late, add insult to injury Continue reading