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)

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