aide-mémoire: a short history of nhl assistant coaches

Mike Nykoluk was an up-and-coming 21-year-old forward when he played for the Winnipeg Warriors of the old WHL in 1955-56, a team loaded with former NHLers, including goaltender Ed Chadwick, defenceman Bill Juzda, and forwards Bill Mosienko and Paul Masnick. Also manning the Warrior blueline that year was a former New York Ranger, 30-year-old Fred Shero, who was just about to launch a coaching career that would take him to Philadelphia in the early 1970s.

It was there, of course, that Shero would contriveto guide the Flyers to successive Stanley Cup championships, in 1974 and ’75. Nykoluk was there for those, too, you might remember: following his brief NHL career (32 games with the ’56-57 Toronto Maple Leafs) and a longer cruise (16 seasons) in the AHL, Shero had hired him as an assistant coach in June of 1972.

Mike Nykoluk, I’m sorry to say, died last week at the age of 87. In 1978, he followed Shero when he went to New York to coach the Rangers. Mostly he was referred to (again) as an assistant, though Shero preferred to call him a co-coach. Eventually, between 1981 and 1984, Nykoluk got his chance to be the boss, seeing service through parts of four seasons as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Something he was not: the NHL’s first assistant coach.

That’s a claim that has been often repeated over the years, with confidence. Eric Duhatschek, for instance, in a 2017 Globe and Mail feature about the evolution of the role of coaches in the NHL declared that Shero had “hired the first official full-time assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk, in 1972.” History doesn’t agree.

Reminders of Nykoluk’s (supposed) trailblazering resurfaced last week, too, so maybe time for some clarifying. For all his achievements through the years, Nykoluk wasn’t even close to being the NHL’s original assistant coach.

Jeff Marek, Sportsnet’s esteemed hockey broadcaster, keeps a careful eye on hockey’s history, and he was attentive in seeing the record corrected …

… up to a point.

Because while Al McNeil and Doug Harvey did indeed precede Nykoluk as NHL assistants, others went before. Many others. Onward into the obscurity.

The first? That distinction would seem to belong to Dick Carroll, in Toronto, all the way back in the league’s inaugural season, 1917-18. There’s some cloudiness to this, so bear with me, if you will.

To start with, some straightening out of terminology is in order: in those early decades of pro hockey, teams tended to have one man who both coached and took care of player personnel, and he was usually called (in the baseball way) the manager. This was true, for example, in the mid-1920s, with icons like Art Ross in Boston, Lester Patrick of the New York Rangers, and Jack Adams in Detroit.

Toronto’s manager for the 1917-18 season was Charlie Querrie, who happened to be the man who ran Toronto’s Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, home to the new team. Querrie was appointed in early December of ’17, two weeks before the NHL’s opening night. Dick Carroll’s appointment as Querrie’s aide was announced at the same time.

So there it is: Dick Carroll was the NHL’s first assistant coach.

Ottawa’s Journal reporting the news (and misspelling the name) in December of 1917.

If that’s clear enough, here’s some cloud to obscure things: as the modern-day Maple Leafs recount it, Carroll was head coach in 1917, steering the team through its first 40 games and onward through to 1919. Querrie’s 1917 service is recognized in the team’s list of GMs; as a coach, he’s recognized for two later tours he served in the ’20s, by which time the team had turned into the St. Patricks.

Got that?

Wrong, I’d say, in my nitpicking way, with a kicker to the effect that, by failing to acknowledge the way things used to be, the Leafs have (not for the first time) muddled their own history.

Further fogging things is the fact through the course of the 1917-18 season, Toronto’s bench was anything but settled.

Charlie Querrie had taken the job in Toronto on the understanding that he’d be free to operate without the interference of Eddy Livingstone, the NHA owner, Toronto hockey eminence, persona non grata — it was to ostracize and spite Livingstone that the NHL was formed in the first place in November of 1917. Livingstone’s ongoing meddling seems to have prompted Querrie’s resignation at the end of December, after Toronto had played just three NHL games, leaving Dick Carroll in charge: the assistant coach was now the coach.

Unless Querrie didn’t quit.

Newspapers that had reported that Querrie was finished were soon correcting the record to say that he was still on the job, or would be again as soon as the team’s owners at the Montreal Arena Company guaranteed him that Livingstone would really, truly, be kept away from the team. Querrie also seems to have sought to download some of the coaching he was doing to Carroll.

This all seems to have taken some negotiating, leaving Carroll in charge. Querrie did return to the fold, but as of January of 1918, Carroll does seem to have assumed day-to-day — and game-to-game — control of the team, with Querrie moving more into the realm of — well, yes, what we would today recognize as GMing.

That April, when Toronto won the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era, accounts of the final series only confirm this division of labours: Carroll was coach, Querrie was manager. Glory to them both, along with a footnote or two: Querrie’s NHL’s coaching record should include those first three games that he coached, the very ones that constitute Carroll’s entire tenure as the league’s original assistant coach.

Hawk’s Nest: Helge Bostrum (left) and Clem Loughlin in May of 1934. The caption on this photo, as it appeared in the Chicago Tribune: ‘Loughlin’s appointment as the new manager of the Chicago Blackhawks was confirmed yesterday morning. Helge Bostrum, former Hawk defense star, will be his assistant.”

Next in the NHL’s long line of assistant coaches? A non-definitive listing might look to Boston.

Sprague Cleghorn was 37 in 1927, playing out the last year of his long, distinguished, and very brutal career with the Boston Bruins. He was team captain again that year, as he had been previously, and he had a new role, too, as manager Art Ross’s (playing) assistant. Cleghorn was running practices and stood in as interim coach for several games in early 1928 when Ross was home with a stomach ailment. So he seems to have been second among assistant coaches.

Born in Copenhagen, Emil Iverson went from head coach of the University of Minnesota hockey team in the 1920s to being hired as the NHL’s first full-time physical director when Major Frederic McLaughlin brought him on with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1930. Iverson was appointed head coach after that (the league’s first European-born pilot), only to be replaced in 1933 by Tommy Gorman … whom Iverson continued to serve as assistant.

Gorman departed in 1934, having won the Stanley Cup. When Clem Loughlin was named his successor, the newly retired Chicago defenceman Helge Bostrum signed on as his assistant.

More and more teams in the ’30s were hiring deputies, a review of newspaper archives shows, some of them who were still playing, some others fresh off hanging up their active careers. To wit:

Bill Cook aided Lester Patrick with the New York Rangers in 1936-37, with Frank Boucher stepping in to take up the same role the following season, ’37-38.

Frank Boucher’s Ranger role was reported in September of 1937.

Larry Aurie served as a playing assistant to Jack Adams with the Detroit Red Wings in 1938-39.

Paul Thompson was Chicago coach Bill Stewart’s playing assistant that same season.

When the Montreal Canadiens shifted coaches in the latter stages of that season, swapping in club secretary Jules Dugal to replace Cecil Hart, Babe Siebert was named captain and playing assistant.

In Chicago in 1938, Carl Voss was hired to assist Paul Thompson, now the coach of the Black Hawks. And in 1941, Helge Bostrum resurfaced as an assistant to Thompson.

The Bruins had a run of distinguished assistants through the ’40s and ‘50s, with Dit Clapper, Jack Crawford, and Milt Schmidt all appointed to the role at one point or another.

In 1958-59, Bert Olmstead served as a playing assistant to Toronto Maple Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach. King Clancy, too, served Imlach and the Leafs the same role in Toronto in the ’60s, as well as working as assistant GM.

This is, again, no official register, but it does make clear that at least 17 men served as assistant coaches in the NHL before Mike Nykoluk started in Philadelphia in 1972.

I don’t know exactly how the Nykoluk glitch get into regular rotation, but it seems it started at the source. Discussing the hiring that June, 50 years ago, Flyers GM Keith Allen is quoted in several newspaper reports as confirming Nykoluk as a pioneer, with Fred Shero weighing in on the breakthrough, too. Why not add an assistant? “Football and baseball have assistant coaches,” Shero opined, “and those sports are not as physical or mentally demanding as hockey.”

The error was enshrined early on in the local literature. The Flyers’ 1975-76 yearbook, for instance, casually mentions it.

In Full Spectrum, a comprehensive history of the team from 1996, Jay Greenberg scales it back a bit: Nykoluk is identified there “one of the NHL’s first assistant coaches.”

Keith Allen is quoted as crediting Flyer owner Ed Snider for the hire. “Eddie came from football, where they had assistant coaches, and thought Freddie could use some help,” Allen recalled. “Mike had never been fast enough to play in the NHL,  but he was a smart player and I had a lot of respect for him.”

Helpmeet: A team-issued photo of Al McNeil, who appointed an assistant to Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Ruel in 1970 and, a few months later, succeeded him.

 

sons of sea-captains, butchers, hod-carriers, haberdashers: a short history of managing in montreal

My Back Pages: In his dotage and his dressing gown, Léo Dandurand surveys (with Mme. Dandurand?) the scrapbooks of his past, circa the early 1960s.

The Montreal Canadiens fired GM Marc Bergevin yesterday, two dismal days after the team made some unhappy history: Friday’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres meant that Montreal’s 12 meagre points in 22 games are the fewest the team has gathered to open a season in all of the 104 years it’s played in the NHL.

Bergevin, who lasted nine years in the job, ended his tenure with a gracious statement. “The last years have been high in both emotions and learnings,” it read, in part. “You have witnessed my journey leading the organization. You won’t be surprised to hear me say it has not been a long, quiet river, and at times, it felt like we were living in a TV show. Despite the challenges, the organization I led with passion always fought back. For me, each experience, good or bad, made me a better leader.”

Seventeen men have now managed the Canadiens since the club was founded in 1909. For those keeping count, 12 of Montreal’s historical GMs were born in Quebec, four in Ontario, while one (Léo Dandurand) originated in Illinois. Five of them played for the team before they moved into the team’s executive suite, Bob Gainey being the most recent of those.

Before owner Geoff Molson names an 18th GM, here’s a quick journey back down the river with Bergevin’s predecessors in the job, going back to Montreal’s NHA start:

• Joseph Cattarinich was a goaltender, the Canadiens’ very first, in 1910, though he didn’t last long between the Montreal posts: he was soon supplanted by Teddy Groulx and, the following season, Cattarinich and Jack Laviolette signed up Georges Vézina, a stripling goaltender from Chicoutimi, to take care of future Montreal’s puckstopping. Son of a Croatian sailor, Cattarinich was an owner, subsequently, of racehorses and the tracks they ran on, Laviolette was known in business, apparently, as The Silent One and also Silent Joe. He was co-owner of the Canadiens between 1921 and 1935; in the ’30s he was in on a brief effort to put an NHL team in Cleveland.

Jack Laviolette, Hall-of-Fame defenceman, was a playing manager when managers were also, sort of, coaches, too. His on-ice career ended when he lost a foot in a car accident in 1918. According to the Hockey Hall of Fame, that didn’t keep him from refereeing the benefit game that was organized on his behalf in 1921.

Grapple Group: George Kennedy, on the left, alongside Belgian wrestler Constant Le Marin, circa 1910.

• George Kennedy, son of a sea-captain, was born George Kendall: he changed his named when he got into wrestling. He was good at that, a Canadian amateur champion before he turned to managing other wrestlers, and lacrosse teams, and buying the Canadiens, which he did in 1910, paying Ambrose O’Brien $7,500.

As manager Kennedy shaped the team that won Canadiens’ first Stanley Cup in 1916. “A natural humorist,” he was called in 1921, alongside a tale of a retort of his from a year earlier, during a particularly feisty spell in the NHL rivalry between Ottawa and Montreal. When the Senators’ secretary wired to wonder how many tickets the Canadiens would require for an upcoming game in Ottawa, the reply Kennedy sent back was: “None. None of my friends want to see you or your yellow team again.”

Kennedy was sickened in Seattle in 1917 in the outbreak of Spanish flu that killed Joe Hall and stopped the Stanley Cup finals. He never really recovered his health after that: Kennedy died in 1921 at the age of 39.

• With partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau, Léo Dandurand bought the Canadiens in 1921 (for $11,500) after George Kennedy’s untimely death. Dandurand  was, in his time, a busy man, the owner of many horse racing tracks, a boxing and wrestling promoter, and (in 1946) founder of the Montreal Alouettes.  In his 14 years managing the Canadiens, Dandurand oversaw three Stanley Cup championships. Among other things, he’s remembered as the man who brought Howie Morenz to Montreal and the owner of a restaurant called Drury’s. Dandurand forbade his players from driving cars because of the risk of leg and hand cramps.

Silverwear: Canadiens owner and sometime GM Ernest Savard receives the Kennedy Cup from NHL president Frank Calder in March of 1938. Named for Montreal’s original owner/GM, the Kennedy recognized the annual winner of the season series between Maroons and Canadiens. With the demise of Maroons in ’38, this was the trophy’s last hurrah. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Ernest Savard was a stockbroker and sometime owner of Montreal’s baseball Royals, who headed up the syndicate that bought the Canadiens for $165,000 in 1935 from Dandurand and Cattarinich. An “expert golfer,” the Gazette called him that year, and “outstanding sportsman.” He served as GM for just a year before handing over to Cecil Hart; one of Savard’s first moves was to name Canadiens captain Sylvio Mantha as the team’s (playing) coach. The appointment, intoned the Ottawa Journal, “was believed to be the start of a re-organization program which it is hope will make the club a dangerous factor in the coming campaign.”

In 1937, when talk arose of Montreal’s two teams possibly amalgamating, Savard said that the Canadiens would never change their name.

• Cecil Hart, an insurance man, coached the Canadiens to a pair of Stanley Cups before he came back to manage them in 1937, insisting that he’d only take the job if the team brought back Howie Morenz to play. Lester Patrick called him “one of the best managers who ever sat on a hockey bench.”

• Jules Dugal was the Canadiens long-time secretary and business manager in 1930s who did some stand-in coaching when Leo Dandurand was indisposed. In 1938, the Montreal Gazette reported that he crossed words with Chicago Black Hawks owner Major Frederic McLaughlin during a heated game at the Forum and also “whipped off his glasses and prepared to trundle into battle” when Bill Tobin, Chicago’s business manager, taunted him.

As Canadiens GM, Dugal got into a hoo-ha in 1940 with Bill Stewart in a game in New York after the referee claimed that Dugal had sent out the Canadiens to “get me” because “I put him out of the arena five years ago and he’s never forgotten.” After the game, Stewart stormed into the Habs’ dressing room, furious about the curses Dugal had been yelling at him and challenging him to a fight, which Dugal didn’t accept. About sending players after the ref, Dugal said, “I’d be crazy to do anything like that. Much as I dislike the man, I would not do a thing like that.”

Tommy Tune: Canadiens GM Tommy Gorman added a musical note to hockey games at Montreal’s Forum, installing a Hammond organ and hiring Ray Johnson to play it. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Tommy Gorman won a gold medal in lacrosse at the 1908 Olympics. He was a sportswriter and editor at the Ottawa Citizen, too, not to mention, before that, a parliamentary page, at the age of nine. “The other boys used to stuff me in wastepaper baskets,” he recalled. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier is supposed to have seen him bloodied from the bullying and told him to keep the peace.

Gorman started his management career with his hometown Ottawa Senators in the 1920s, winning three Stanley Cups along the way. In 1934, he coached the Chicago Black Hawks to their first Cup; the following year, he was at the helm of the Montreal Maroons when they won the Cup. He coached the Maroons until they folded in 1938 before joining the Canadiens in 1940, overseeing more Cup wins in 1944 and ’46. All in all, Gorman won seven Stanley Cups with four teams.

Desk Job: Frank Selke at work in his Forum office in 1946. Note the photos of Maurice Richard and Bill Durnan adorning the wall at his back. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Frank J. Selke stood 5’4” in skates. In the later 19th century, his parents emigrated from Poland, when it was still a part of the German Empire. In Berlin, Ontario — it’s Kitchener, now — Selke’s father worked as a labourer and a hod-carrier on construction sites. Selke worked construction himself, and as an electrician; later on, when he wasn’t rearing hockey teams, he raised fancy chickens, Patridge Wyandottes and Golden Pencilled Hamburgs.

For years he worked for Conn Smythe in Toronto, but then they fell out, and in 1946 Selke resigned and joined Montreal as GM. “I’ve never liked the Leafs since we left Toronto for Montreal,” his wife, Mary, told Vern DeGeer in 1964, “but we won’t go into that. Just say I’m a dedicated rooter for the Canadiens. I stand up and cheer like everybody else when we score a goal. And I don’t mind telling you I can boo the referees, too, when they make a mistake.” In Montreal, Selke was on the job for nine Stanley Cup championships. In 1948, he said in a speech that if the boys of Europe had been taught team games and learned how to make national heroes of men like Howie Morenz, “there would be no Hitlers or Stalins necessary for them.”

Draftee: In 1973, Montreal GM Sam Pollock (left) drafted Peterborough Petes winger Bob Gainey eighth overall in the NHL’s amateur draft. Thirty years + a month + four GMs later, Gainey would take over as Canadiens’ GM.

• Sam Pollock, another nine-time Cup winner, was an English haberdasher’s son. Appointed to the job of Montreal GM in 1964, he was described as a roly-poly little man, as well as a nervous one who often chews on a handkerchief during an interview or a meeting. At 16, when he showed up try out for the Montreal Junior Royals, the coach took one look at him and told him to go home. Everybody assumed that Ken Reardon would be Selke’s successor, but no, wrong. Pollock brought Ken Dryden to Montreal and wangled the trade that allowed the Habs to draft Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, and Larry Robinson.

Change Of Chair: Sam Pollock and his successor in the GM’s chair, Irving Grundman, circa 1978. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

• Irving Grundman spent seven years as managing director of Montreal’s Forum before he took over from Pollock. Many people thought that Scotty Bowman would get the job, or maybe Ron Caron, but wrong, no. Before he got into rink-running, Grundman ran bowling alleys. He was 50 when he succeed Pollock, described in a profile that years as “a medium-built man” with “gray hair and blue eyes.” His clothes were “handsomely tailored;” his office, on the Forum’s second floor, featured “beige carpeting and beige drapes and several mighty modernistic and expensive paintings on the walls.”

“I grew up near the intersection of Pine and Saint-Laurent in the northeast end of the city,” Grundman attested. “It’s a tough neighbourhood. He was a butcher. I worked for him for 14 years, getting up early in the morning, going to the meat market and plucking chickens. When I look back on those days, running the Canadiens is not a tough job.”

• Serge Savard’s grandfather, Adélard, was a buttermaker in Landrienne, Quebec, who some Sundays refused to eat his supper, as a recent Savardian biography tells it, “feeling that he hadn’t accomplished enough on the weekly day of rest.”

Serge Savard’s association with the Canadiens began as a top prospect when he was 15, and he went on to win eight Stanley Cup championships playing on the team’s defence, overseeing another two as GM. In May of 1995, five months before Savard lost his job, team president Ronald Corey wrote him a memo that began, “The season that ended May 3 was certainly the most disappointing in the history of the Canadiens. We took a step backwards and also suffered significant financial losses.”

• As a player, Réjean Houle’s adjectives were exuberant and effective. As general manager in Montreal, he traded away Patrick Roy, Mike Keane, Mark Recchi, Vincent Damphousse, and Pierre Turgeon. He had tears in his eyes in 2000, when he was fired. “I did the best I could to put together a team within the budget I had,” he said, “and I think we’re in the middle third of the NHL.”

“When a team loses,” he went on, “the coach and the general manager are held responsible, but I think the players have to look themselves in the mirror and ask whether they did the job.”

“I’m 51 and this is the first time in my life I’ll be getting up and I won’t have a job to go to. I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t have any hobbies. I’ve always enjoyed working.”

• The Boston Bruins picked André Savard, sixth overall in the 1973 NHL amateur draft, two spots ahead of Montreal’s choice, Bob Gainey. A centreman, Savard played a dozen NHL seasons for the Bruins, Sabres, and Nordiques. As Montreal’s GM, he brought in Jan Bulis, Andreas Dackall, and Doug Gilmour, among others, and discarded Brian Savage, Trevor Linden, Shayne Corson. After three years as Canadiens’ GM, Savard went into a meeting with club president Pierre Boivin to present his plan for the future of the team and came out having agreed to step down.

• “Gainey’s back? Yes! It’s going to be different now.” That was a Montreal taxi driver, quoted in 2003, en route to the South Shore on the June day that Savard stepped aside to make way for the Habs’ legendary winger to make a Montreal return. Gainey’s mother worked at his hometown newspaper, the Peterborough Examiner; his father spent 40 years in shipping and receiving for Quaker Oats. Gainey’s playerly adjectives were hardworkingpainstakinghonest, flawless. He won five Stanley Cups and captained the team. In 1981, Viktor Tikhonov said he was the best player in the world. In Peterborough, as a junior, he got a job putting up TV aerials after he quit the one at a clothing store. “I didn’t sell too many clothes,” he said. “I guess I didn’t have the gift of the gab.”

“I can’t separate myself from my history,” he said when he took over as GM. Yes, he’d played on some famous teams in his time. “But this is new. The city has changed since I left Montreal. The team has changed. I’ve changed. We’re going to have to get to know one another.”

His plan? “We’re going to take the younger players and we’re going to improve them and we’re going to make them better. We’re going to push the players to do the things that need to be done to be a good team. It’s about tomorrow. It’s not about the 1970s … the 1980s or the 1950s.”

Seven years later, 2010, Gainey stepped down mid-season. “I’ve done my best,” he said, “and now it’s time for me to pass the torch.” Was it too soon? “If I had to choose between leaving a little earlier or a little later, I’d prefer earlier.”

• Pierre Gauthier was next. He’d co-managed the Canadian team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and oversaw hockey operations in Ottawa and Anaheim before returning to Montreal, his hometown. In California, when he was assistant GM of the fledgling Mighty Ducks, he fined team employees and players $100 each time they used the word “expansion,” because he thought it sounded like an excuse for losing.

When he arrived in Ottawa, he objected to players wearing big numbers on their sweaters, and caused Radek Bonk (76), Alexandre Daigle (91), and Stanislav Neckar (94) to reduce to 14, 9, and 24, respectively. Otherwise, he kept enough of a low profile with the Senators to earn the nickname The Ghost. “He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Gauthier,” an Ottawa reporter, Wayne Scanlan, wrote in 2012, a vegetarian in a steak-and-beer fraternity.” The flow continued when Gauthier got to Montreal, where columnist Jack Todd called him “a pint-sized bottle of vinegar.” As Canadiens GM, Gauthier was the man who fired the coach, Jacques Martin, who spoke French to hire another one, Randy Cunneyworth, who didn’t.

• Gauthier himself was fired in May of 2012. Introducing his replacement that month, team owner Geoff Molson said that the hiring of Marc Bergevin “represents the first step in re-establishing a culture of winning in Montreal.” Asked at the same press conference just how long it would take to turn the Canadiens’ fortunes around, Bergevin said, “I don’t have a time frame, but my vision of this team is that it has a good nucleus. To rebuild something, you start from scratch. I believe the pieces we have are good.”

Drafting: Alongside (from left) Canadiens director of player personnel Claude Ruel and coach Jacques Lemaire, GM Serge Savard announces a pick at 1983 draft at the Forum. Canadiens picked Alfie Turcotte in the first round that year; Claude Lemieux and Sergio Momesso in the second; John Kordic in the fourth round; and Vladislav Tretiak in the seventh. (Image: © Serge Savard)

 

 

 

 

snub club

Contentious D: J.C. Tremblay takes a stand for his 1970-71 hockey card.

With the Hockey Hall of Fame set to announce its 2109 class today, the hour is now for all those with an impassioned plea or petition for a player who might have been, to date, overlooked or grievously slighted. Who have you got? Jennifer Botterill or maybe Kim St. Pierre? Sven Tumba, Alexander Maltsev? You could make a reasonable argument for Herb Cain or Lorne Chabot, even if the Hall probably won’t any time soon. What about Kevin Lowe? Theo Fleury? Paul Henderson’s name comes up annually; this year, on the January day he turned 76, he even got a birthday boost from Canada’s House of Commons when MPs unanimously resolved to “encourage” the Hall to induct him ASAP “in recognition of his incredible contribution to Canadian hockey and its history.”

One cold night last November a distinguished panel of hockey pundits played the Hockey Hall parlour game at a rink of renown in midtown Toronto. In front of a small audience not far from the ice of St. Michael’s College School’s Arena the panel parleying who should be in the Hall of hockey’s Fame but isn’t featured historian Todd Denault; Ken Campbell, senior writer for The Hockey News; Steve Dryden, senior managing hockey editor for TSN and TSN.ca; and Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons.

While there was some due given builders who deserve the Hall’s attention — Cecil Hart, Claude Ruel, and Bill Tobin got mentions — most of the talk was of players. Male players — arguments for outstanding women candidates like Maria Rooth or Kim Martin weren’t on the table.

There was plenty of discussion of just how measure greatness and of what constitutes a Hall-of-Fame career. It’s particularly difficult, the panelists agreed, to evaluate players from the distant past — “guys,” as Steve Dryden put it, “you haven’t seen.” Does Sid Smith deserve a place, with his three Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1940s and ’50s, two Lady Byngs, and a First Team All-Star selection? What about Herb Cain of the wartime Boston Bruins, the only player in history to have led the NHL in scoring not to have been elevated to the Hall?

Statistics tell a certain tale but not a complete one: how, for instance, do you properly appraise the career contributions of defensive defenceman (cf. the unrecognized likes of Lionel Hitchman, Bob Goldham, and Kevin Lowe) or of forwards who made a name as tenacious checkers and penalty-killers (hello, Claude Provost and Guy Carbonneau).

And what about Henderson? When his name came up, as it always does, the hero of the Luzhniki got both a hard nay and a robust yay. He was, Steve Simmons said, no more than a very good NHLer who had a great week in Moscow in September of 1972. Maybe so, but to historian Paul Patskou’s way of thinking, the cultural significance and legacy of his Summit Series performance is more than enough to earn him a place.

As the evening went on and the panelists made their presentations favouring particular players whom the Hall has (so far) failed to call up, the names of the missing kept coming: Lorne Chabot, Bernie Nicholls, Theo Fleury. Steve Dryden argued Keith Tkachuk’s cause while Simmons flew the flag for Rick Middleton.

Todd Denault made a compelling case for J.C. Tremblay, Montreal’s stellar defenceman who was a First Team All-Star in 1971 and helped Canadiens win five Stanley Cups. Asked once by Denault for the name of the one player he thought deserved a place in the Hall, Jean Béliveau didn’t hesitate to name Tremblay. Béliveau did, of course, serve on the Hall’s Selection Committee from 1981 to 1995, so it may well be that he did his best to make it happen. Tremblay jumped to the Quebec Nordiques of the WHA in 1972, and was one of the players dropped from the original roster of the Canada’s Summit Series team for that reason. At the confab at St. Mike’s, there was speculation that maybe the politics of a lingering bias against the WHA may have affected Tremblay’s chances for getting the Hall’s call.

But maybe not. What we do know is that deliberations by members of the Selection Committee are more or less opaque, and for all the clamouring we do here beyond the confines of their consultations, clamour is mostly what it amounts to. Still, once you’re committed to reading the runes, it’s hard to stop. Along with your Cains and Chabots and Provosts, the recognition that J.C. Tremblay fails to get may just be a matter of time: it’s 40 years now since he retired.

Starting in 1998, the Hockey Hall of Fame did have a category for Veteran Players that saw the likes of Buddy O’Connor, Fern Flaman, Clint Smith, Lionel Conacher, and Woody Dumart plucked from the far past. But since that was curtailed in 2000, the Hall’s view of the past has dimmed. Willie O’Ree’s induction last year came 57 years after he played in the NHL, but he’s something of a special case, and thereby an outlier. Beyond him, only twice in the past 19 years have players who’ve been retired more than 30 years been inducted. In 2006, Dick Duff was recognized 34 years after he’d stowed his skates, and the gap was the same in 2016 when Rogie Vachon finally got the call.

Hallworthy? Seen here in 1977-79, Rick Middleton is often mentioned by those of us who aren’t on the Selection Committee, which probably means he won’t be called.

 

(Images: Hockey Media & The Want List)

pacemaker

4 Beliveau, 6 Ralph Backstrom, 8 Dick Duff, 16 Henri Richard, 15 Bobby Rousseau

Benchers: Claude Ruel on the prowl during his first reign as Canadiens coach, which lasted from 1968 nearly to the end of 1970 and included a Stanley Cup championship. Seated from left that’s (half of) Jean Béliveau alongside Ralph Backstrom, Dick Duff, Henri Richard, and (counting goals or maybe periods) Bobby Rousseau.

the gump’s tale

gump

In January of 1957, Boston goaltender Terry Sawchuk announced he was quitting the NHL, for a bit, or maybe for always. He ending up coming back, of course, but at the time that was very much in doubt. “My nerves are shot,” he said, “and I’m just edgy and nervous all the time.”

So that’s what Gump Worsley was talking about, in April, when the New York Rangers’ goaltender was coverboy (along with his eldest son, Lorne Jr.) for Hockey Blueline. Inside, as told to Dave Anderson, he got right down to business: people thought it was funny, now, to wonder about his nerves.

“When are you going to crack up?” they say. First of all, it’s not funny because Sawchuk is a sick guy. Second of all, I’ll never crack up.

I don’t believe all this talk about “nerves” because a goalkeeper is under fire all the time. If that’s the case, I should be the first one to crack. They shoot more at me than any goalkeeper in the National Hockey League.

If the number of shots at a goalkeeper is so important, then why hasn’t Al Rollins cracked up? Or Harry Lumley? They’ve been around longer than me and had a lot of shots taken at them. But they’re all right. Maybe they’re like me. They don’t worry about something they can’t do anything about … a goal.

Worsley, 29, had been in the NHL for three-and-a-half seasons at this point. That was the key to keeping cool as a netminder, he found — failing to worry. “My wife, Doreen,” he confided, “tells me nothing bothers me.” He made a study of this, and always had. Never looked up his goals-against average, paid no attention to rumours that he was destined for the minors.

Some goaltenders worked themselves into such a state that they couldn’t sleep, or eat. Not Gump:

My wife will tell you how I eat before a game. And how I sleep two-and-a-half, three hours. I usually eat a real big meal — two filet mignons, baked potato, green vegetable, salad, toast and tea. And then I take my nap. Sometimes she has trouble waking me.

After a game — win, lose or tie — I come home and eat another big meal. Not a sandwich, a meal.

That’s what worked for him. But while he may have maintained the same appetite at a steady level as his hockey career went on, his worrying evolved. Ten years later, playing for Montreal now, he may have had occasion to recall that old vow. As detailed in They Call Me Gump, his 1975 Tim Moriarty-assisted autobiography, things had changed. “I finally wound up with the goaltender’s occupational disease during the 1968-69 season with the Canadiens,” he’d write. “I suffered a nervous breakdown.”

At the age of 39, he was playing well in the Montreal net, but he was suffering emotionally. He didn’t like flying. That was a big part of it. Also, the Canadiens had changed coaches: Toe Blake was out, replaced by Claude Ruel. The new boss thought Worsley didn’t practice properly, just went through the motions. Blake had tolerated Worsley’s reluctance to extend himself on the understanding that he’d stay in shape and be ready when the games came around. Ruel was different: he liked to “blow his damn whistle and bark orders. … This got under my skin, and by the time the season was a month old we weren’t speaking.”

Fans, too, were taunting the Gump. That was something else. On November 26, 1968, the Canadiens were en route to Los Angeles by way of Chicago. The first leg of the flight was turbulent, and that was enough for Worsley, which is to say too much. At O’Hare Airport, he left the plane, telling Jean Béliveau that he was retiring. He took a train back to Montreal.

As Worsley recounts it, the breakdown wasn’t severe: “I got over it quickly.” Montreal GM Sam Pollock arranged for him to see a psychiatrist, and he did, and they talked about “everything.” Late in December he started skating on his own at the Forum. By January, he was back in the Canadiens goal.

The Globe and Mail reported that he’d conquered his fear of flying. The pudgy goalie, they called him. “There were a lot of things,” he said. “My nerves were gone. “I had a lot of problems, personal things.”

“I didn’t say anything to the guys. I kept it all inside. I guess you could say I was carrying a lot of worries on my shoulder. Perhaps unnecessarily, but that’s the way it was.”

boom-boom and minor boom

b'boom

Handmedown Hab: Danny Geoffrion was three years old in March of 1961; his father, Bernie, had just turned 30. Boom-Boom, as Geoffrion père was better known, was in the midst of his best scoring season, one in which he’d score 50 goals for the Canadiens and lead the NHL with 95 points. Sporting his dad’s number 5 here, Danny would, in time, earn a Habs’ sweater of his own: after GM Sam Pollock drafted him in 1978, he made the team as a 20-year-old right winger the following season, wearing number 20 and an uninspired nickname: Little Boomer. The defending Stanley Cup champions got a new coach that year, too: Bernie Geoffrion.

It didn’t go so well, familywise. In December, though the team was at the top of the Norris Division, Boom-Boom resigned as coach, handing the reins to an assistant, Claude Ruel. It was a few months before Geoffrion talked publicly about the pressure of coaching his son. Frank Brown of the Associated Press was one of the writers who told the story:

“I should have been like the other coaches and give a chance to my son,” said Bernie Geoffrion, “but I was afraid I’d be criticized for putting him in too much.”

So he barely put him in at all. As time passed, things worsened.

“For three weeks, we didn’t talk — not a word. Can you imagine that?” said Bernie Geoffrion. In the Montreal Forum, on the buses, in the airports, in the hotels, they would walk past each other as strangers. “It was unbelievable.”

It got to be too much. One day, Bernie Geoffrion walked into his home and sat with his wife of 29 years, Marlene. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m 50 years old. I don’t need the money. I want my kid back.’”

The two reconciled after Bernie quit. “I’ve got my son back,” the ex-coach said, “and that’s all that matters.” Danny still didn’t play much, however. He went without a goal during his Hab tenure: in 34 games before he left the team at the end of the unhappy season, Boom Minor recorded six assists and 19 minutes in penalties. The following season, playing for Winnipeg, he scored a respectable 20 goals and 46 points. But that was his last turn in the NHL.

Bernie Geoffrion does tell a bit of a different tale in Boom-Boom (1997), the autobiography he published with Stan Fischler’s help. It was Ruel and maybe vice-president Toe Blake — anyway, “the organization” — who didn’t want Danny to play. Bernie would try to put him into the line-up and he’d be told no. “Nobody,” he writes, “could give me a good explanation of why I couldn’t play Danny. I could never find the answer.”

He’d dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup as coach of the Canadiens: the dream, he writes, turned into a nightmare. His Marlene is the one, in this telling, who sees his unhappiness and tells him to quit. He did it, Ruel took over, Montreal ended up losing in the playoffs to lowly Minnesota. Finis.

Back to the photo: that’s Marlene up there on the wall, below the Stanley Cup, off to the right of the big smiling Boom-Boom portrait. She was a very good figure skater when she married Boom-Boom; she was 19 and he was 21. Her father is up there, too, on the end: the late Howie Morenz, Streak of Stratford. Marlene didn’t remember him: she was just two when the legendary Montreal star died in 1937 after a career-ending leg injury complicated (as the tale’s told, at least) by a heart broken by the news that he’d never play another game for his beloved Canadiens.

claude ruel: he speaks the language of hockey

ruelClaude Ruel died on Monday at the age of 76. He was a promising young defenceman in the Montreal Canadiens’ system when an eye injury stopped his playing career in 1958. As a coach, he succeeded Toe Blake behind the Habs’ bench in 1968, winning a Stanley Cup in his first year and then, halfway through his third, resigning when the team foundered. He stayed with the team, working with Scotty Bowman during his years in charge. During the 1979-80 season, he replaced Bernie Geoffrion as coach, steering the Canadiens to first-place Norris-Division finishes in consecutive campaigns. Playoff success didn’t follow and in 1981 he gave way to Bob Berry.

For fuller appreciations of Ruel’s life and hockey times, I direct you to Dave Stubbs at the Montreal Gazette and to Tom Hawthorn’s obituary at Benched. Herewith, a short anthology of Rueliana made up of sentences culled verbatim from various contemporary newspapers from 1968 through the late 1980s and presented in no special order.

You don’t need a program to identify Claude Ruel, whether he’s on the ice or wearing civvies. At 5’5”, 220 pounds, give or take a few ounces, Claude Ruel is hard to miss.

Anyone taking over the Canadiens’ coaching reins from Toe Blake is stepping into big shoes since Toe guided the club to eight Stanley Cup crowns and nine league titles in 13 years. But Claude Ruel has a theory that when a man tries his best at anything he’s bound to succeed.

As trite and repetitive as it may sound, the two words that typify Ruel’s outlook on life in general and hockey in particular are work and dedication.

“I came from a big family and I had to go to work very young. Nothing came easy. I was filling potato sacks and setting pins in a bowling alley when I was 11 and 12.”

It is difficult to see the Canadiens functioning without Ruel.

Occasionally Ruel would punctuate his running commentary with: “C’est ca! C’est ca!”

An indefatigable worker, he spends time helping people such as Engblom, Langway, Mark Napier and Rick Chartraw improve their skills long after the team’s superstars have left the ice.

While there is no substantial proof, the word is that Ruel bleeds red, white, and blue.

Claude Ruel, chubby 32-year-old coach of the Montreal Canadiens, resigned Thursday.

Ruel, who coached Montreal to its last Cup title in 1969, constantly complained of the pressure connected with the job.

“Claude didn’t like the pressure,” says former Canadiens’ coach Scotty Bowman. “His first year, his layers really performed for him. The second year, they didn’t respond.” And what about this time? “The biggest thing is he won’t have Claude Ruel to help him like I did,” Bowman said.

Ruel is considered by hockey people to be one of the best talent evaluators in the world and he is also excellent at [sic] bring out the best in young players who are willing to work at their craft.

Since Ruel came out of Sherbrooke, Que., to play organized hockey at the age of 15, his command of English was limited and he had a unique way of fracturing the language that brought laughter — and even ridicule — from both French- and English-speaking players.

“I’ll tell you how good he was,” said Pollock, “though you probably shouldn’t write it because it just won’t sound right. But Claude Ruel was a lot like Bobby Orr. He couldn’t skate like Bobby but he had something Orr does that so few others don’t have and that’s great hockey sense and great anticipation.”

Ruel too played right defence and what was considered a very bright hockey future was cut down suddenly Nov. 17 in Belleville, Ont.

“I was getting set to take a shot from the point and the guy who was checking me hit my stick and it came right up and caught me in the eye.” He spent almost three months in hospital as doctors tried vainly to save his sight in the injured eye.

“That Lafleur, he has good hockey sense,” said Claude Ruel, chief scout for the Canadiens. “He’s big, he can shoot, can play offensively and defensively. He’s just a great hockey player.”

“There’s no use just blaming it on the defence and the goalkeeping,” adds Ruel. “It’s just a lack of work and the only way to get on a real winning streak is for everyone to put their minds to work.” What’s the solution? “Don’t ask me,” replied Ruel. “I’m not Superman.”

What had been good-natured ribbing of Ruel’s sayings in the championship run the year before — “Two eggs side by side,” “A daily double” (for a big hotel room), “Two-on-one, each take a man” — became a way of blaming the coach when things didn’t go well on the ice.

His problem has always been discipline. For instance, a couple of years ago, Bowman took a day off and when the players decided they’d had enough, they set upon Ruel and pulled his pants off. Continue reading

yankers, yankees

Blame the Chicago Blackhawks. Or at least encourage the team to correct the bad information that’s in their 2013-14 Media Guide regarding the first NHL goaltender to have been pulled in favour of an extra attacker.

On Sunday, broadcasting the Blackhawks’ 4-1 win over the Red Wings, NBCSN’s Dave Strader mentioned that it was Chicago’s Sam LoPresti in 1941, though history suspects otherwise and earlier.

Strader says he was advised by the team’s former PA announcer, Harvey Wittenberg, who blogs about the team and also books, most recently with Tales From The Chicago Blackhawks Locker Room (2012). Both of them might be forgiven the error, given that it’s entrenched on page 346 of the team’s media guide, waiting patiently to be corrected.

The fact that the NHL.com has a whole other history? That’s not Chicago’s fault. They’re not even mentioned in that version.

A few further notes:

• If pull the goalie is the most common formulation, both yank and lift are acceptable verbs, too.

In many cases the phrase is qualified by words like desperate and gamble and last-ditch effort.

Where the phrase has migrated from hockey into the language at large, political usages are not as widely known as sexual.

Political: ahead of the 1979 national election, an observer warned that electing Joe Clark and his Progressive Conservatives would be so bad for the federalist side in any upcoming Quebec referendum it would be akin to “pulling the goalie before the third period.” Continue reading