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

Phil Watson’s hair was wavy brown, and parted in the middle; his eyes were alert and green. This was in 1947, when Watson was 32 and a prominent right winger and sometime centreman for the New York Rangers, a talented, tireless, and conspicuously belligerent veteran of a dozen NHL seasons. According to Robert Lewis Taylor, Watson was one of the best-looking players in the game in those years — and it is true that he was, a decade earlier, recruited to double for Clark Gable in a hockey movie that was never released. Watson’s smile, Taylor wrote, was “uncommonly pleasant,” if “largely synthetic” — to replace the four top front teeth he’d had knocked out in the line of duty, the Rangers bought him the dental bridge he wore when he wasn’t doing battle on the ice.

Watson was born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1914; he died in 1991 at the age of 76. The man they called Phiery Phil got his name of the Stanley Cup twice — with the Rangers in 1940 and, in 1944, when wartime restrictions kept him home in Canada, as a member of the  Montreal Canadiens. In 13 NHL seasons, he proved himself to be a skilled defensive player as well as a first-class annoyance to his opponents. He also contributed offensively, and led the league in assists in 1941-42.

As a coach, he got two cracks at steering the Rangers during the 1950s and another, in the ’60s, behind the Boston Bruins’ bench. He coached two seasons in the WHA in the ’70s, guiding the Blazers in Philadelphia and subsequently in Vancouver.

For views of Watson’s background, unruly prowess on ice (think Brad Marchand before he reined himself in), and surpassing eccentricity, I recommend the long, droll, eventful profile Robert Lewis Taylor published in The New Yorker in 1947 under the title “Disorder On The Rink.” I count it as a bit of a lost classic of hockey non-fiction, well worth your while, particularly if you’re looking to round out your understanding of just how outlandishly unrestrained the excesses of NHL hockey once were.

It doesn’t extend to Watson’s coaching years, and it bypasses several key episodes in the Watson story. It doesn’t delve into the circumstances under which Watson annoyed his own Ranger goaltender so thoroughly that Chuck Rayner attacked him in the team’s dressing room. Also missing: his brief 1938 brush with Hollywood stardom wherein he served as Clark Gable’s skating and puckhandling stand-in opposite Myrna Loy in an ill-fated feature called The Great Canadian.

A taste of what Taylor does offer up in his portrayal of Watson’s tempestuous tenure in the NHL, in three excerpts:

The two most effective methods of taking a puck away from an advancing opponent are probing for it with a stick, which is known as “poke checking,” and slamming into the man bodily, which is called “body checking.” At these two arts, Watson has no master. A head-on collision with any moving object smaller than a pick-up truck provides him with the sort of comfort that some bankers get from foreclosing on a valuable farm.

Most hockey players consider it bad form to strike a referee with a stick, and the rules are explicit on the subject — the striker is subject to a fine or to suspension from the league. Watson, displaying a kind of instinctive legal ingenuity, has detected loopholes in the code: there is no mention of spitting in a referee’s face. In moments of extreme urgency, he performs this act and generally draws a severe penalty, under whatever rule the referee feels may be stretched to cover the case.

On one occasion, when he was relating an anecdote to Lew Burton, the Journal-American sportswriter, in the Rangers’ dressing room after a game which had featured a really spectacular brawl between him and the Detroit Red Wings, Burton interrupted to ask, “How’d it get started, Phil?” Watson jumped up, cried, “I tell you, Lew, they started it like this!,” and brought a hockey stick crashing down on Burton’s head, benching him for about twenty minutes. “It was the wrong way to tell that story,” Watson frequently says, with a gloomy inflection.

all hat, four stanley cups

Today’s the day that Punch Imlach was born, on a Friday, in 1918, in a Toronto that was about to see the local professional team play for (and win) the Stanley Cup in the NHL’s first season. George was the name he was given that year; the nickname dates to the late 1930s, and seems (unfortunately) to have been concussion-based. Knocked out playing senior hockey for the Toronto Goodyears, Imlach is supposed to have revived and started swinging at teammates, who dubbed him “Punchy.” That was eventually trimmed as Imlach played on, never in the NHL, but notably with the QSHL Quebec Aces, with whom he would start his coaching career and oversee, in so doing, a young Jean Béliveau.

Imlach joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958 as an assistant GM. In his first 11 seasons as Leaf coach, he steered the team to four Stanley Cups. Fired in 1969, he went to join the fledgling Buffalo Sabres as coach and GM. That’s the era from which this team-issued photo dates. “His dry acerbic wit is as much an Imlach characteristic,” the caption on the back explains, “as the intriguing hats he wears behind the players’ bench.” After a year-and-a-half’s tenure in Buffalo, he had another stint with the Leafs in the late 1970s, but it wasn’t pretty and — under Harold Ballard’s erratic stewardship — didn’t last. His 370 regular-season coaching wins remains a franchise record for the Leafs; he won 44 more in the playoffs, second in team history to Hap Day’s 49. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1984, Punch Imlach died at the age of 69 in 1987.

a message from you, rudy

Not sure exactly how it happened that a photographer came across Chicago Black Hawks coach Rudy Pilous writing out Valentine’s Day cards in February of 1962 to send home to his family in St. Catharines, Ontario, but he does appear to be working hard on coming up with just the right message. The Black Hawks were the reigning Stanley Cup champions at the time, and on February 14 they were holding firm in third place in the six-team NHL standings, behind Toronto and Montreal. They hosted the New York Rangers on this night 57 years ago, and beat them 4-3. A few further Rudy Pilous notes from that month:

• Asked about Chicago’s recent surge in the standings, Pilous said, “I like to get my clubs in shape gradually. We like to feel around during the first half of the season and start our move in January.”

• “We’re playing the same kind of hockey that won us the Stanley Cup,” Pilous told Tom Fitzgerald of the Boston Globe this month.

• Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette asked him who was the hardest player to check in the NHL. “Our guy,” he said, without a pause, “Bobby Hull.” Also in February, Pilous was adamant that Hull should be the left wing named to the NHL’s All-Star first team that season ahead of Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich. The Hawks’ Stan Mikita was another clear choice. “Mikita is the best centre in the league on any basis you care to compare him,” Pilous insisted.

• Mid-month, Pilous, who was 47, talked a challenge he’d received from one of his defencemen, the unspeedy Moose Vasko, to a two-lap race of the ice at Chicago Stadium. I don’t know how it turned out — at this point in his preparation, Pilous admitted that he’d only managed a lap-and-a-half.

• Pilous lodged a complaint with NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss regarding the liberties he felt opposing forwards were taking with Chicago goaltender Glenn Hall. “Glenn hasn’t protested,” he said, “but I’ve seen the bruises. Officials should watch closely around Hall’s net. I don’t mind if Hall gets some stick butts, or a few elbows, but I don’t want ’em climbing on his back.”

• Spoiler alert: Chicago did beat Montreal in the playoffs, but come the finals in April, up against Toronto, they fell in six games. Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull were named to the 1stAll-Star team, and Glenn Hall to the 2nd.

old guard: a brief history of aged nhlers

Don’t Let Go The Coat: The year before he became Montreal’s original Canadien (and nine years before he made his NHL debut at age 38), here’s Jack Laviolette, left, and a pal … possibly Didier Pitre, which is what the original caption says. Given the look of him and the date offered (1908), I’m not entirely convinced.

The NHL debut that Connie Madigan made on this date in 1973 is notable because, at 38, the St. Louis defenceman was, well, in hockey terms — elderly. For 14 years he’d laboured in the minor leagues before getting his break, mostly with the WHL Portland Buckaroos, with whom he earned (not necessarily in this order) a nickname, Mad Dog, and a reputation for not letting the rules of the game compromise his style of stopping opponents. “All knees, elbows, and snarly looks” is how a Vancouver paper summed it up in 1968. “He hurts,” a rueful and respecting opponent said in 1971. That was the same year Madigan served a lengthy suspension for punching a referee, knocking him out.

Madigan was pleased, in ’73, to have finally made the big time. “Even after waiting all these years,” he said, “it was still quite a thrill playing in my first game. I’m just glad to be here, although I’ve always thought I should have been here sooner.” The Blues were playing Vancouver the night he premiered, and on his first shift Madigan gave the puck away to a Canuck, Barry Wilkins, whose own inadvertent pass eventually went to the Blues’ Pierre Plante, who scored — so no assist for Madigan, but not a terrible start. He took no penalties from referee Dave Newell, who happened to be the very guy he’d punched in ’71. “It didn’t bother me any that it was him,” Madigan said. “He leaves me alone.”

Madigan finished the year with St. Louis, getting into 20 regular-season games in all, then five more in the playoffs. That was all for Connie Madigan in the NHL; he finished his career after another few seasons in the minors.

Madigan was then (and sometimes still is) deemed the NHL’s “oldest rookie.” The definition of what constitutes one of those in the NHL has changed over the years. Since Mad Dog’s stint in the league, it’s been narrowed to exclude the exceedingly mature: “Any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie,” the league’s policy now stipulates.

That doesn’t change the fact that Madigan remains one of the most aged players ever to have waited for most of his career to skate in the big league. Despite what you may have heard, he’s not the oldest of the old. In fact, I think he’s no better than the third oldest player to make an NHL debut.

First would be Lester Patrick, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947. He was 43 and coaching the New York Rangers when he inserted himself into his own line-up for a game on defence in 1927. The following spring in the playoffs, he made a more famous appearance, replacing an injured Lorne Chabot in the Ranger goal. (More on that here.)

Then, next: Jack Laviolette, Hall of Fame class of 1963. Born in Belleville, Ontario, in 1879 — he died, at 80, in 1960 — he’s themost original Montreal Canadien you can name, the team’s first hire in 1909 when it came into being as Le Club de Hockey Le Canadien. As manager and coach, he built the team; on the ice, he captained it from the defence that first futile year, when Le Canadien finished at the bottom of the seven-team National Hockey Association standings.

Laviolette would soon cede the managing, coaching, and captaining to others — George Kennedy, Adolphe Lecours, and Newsy Lalonde succeeded him, respectively, in 1910-11. Continuing on the defence, Laviolette did get (briefly) the captaincy back the following year, and played on as an influential member of the NHA Canadiens through the war years. In 1916, he helped the team win the Stanley Cup.

He was still in the picture as the team prepared for a new season in November of 1917, even as the old league was dissolving and a new one materializing.

The latter was, of course, the NHL, and when its four teams got going on the Wednesday night of December 19, 1917, Laviolette was the eldest of its players at 38 years, 145 days. (On his St. Louis debut, Connie Madigan was 38 years, 125 days.)

Canadiens were in Ottawa that opening night, where the local Citizen lamented the home team’s lacks (Frank Nighbor, Horace Merrill) while singing the virtues of the visitors. Montreal “skated out with one of the finest all around hockey machines they have ever had.” Anchored by Georges Vézina in goal, Canadiens counted on Joe Hall and Bert Corbeau on defence and a forward line led by Lalonde, Didier Pitre, and Joe Malone. Jack Laviolette was a substitute by now, along with Billy Coutu and Louis Berlinguette.

In his role as a reliever, the Citizen said, Laviolette showed he had “lost little of his speed and snap.” Montreal prevailed on the night by a score of 7-4 with Laviolette notching an assist for his troubles — the only one he’s credited with in his 20-game NHL career, to go with two goals.

I don’t know what Laviolette’s plans were for the following year, but his hockey future was decided in May of 1918. His off-season gig at that point was as manager of the Joffre Café in Montreal; he also had a thing for speed. For as long as he’d starred on the ice, Laviolette had excelled at other sports, as well: he was a superior lacrosse player and excelled at racing both motorcycles and automobiles.

He seems to been driving one of his racing cars in a non-competitive setting one night in the Montreal neighbourhood of Longue-Point, near the river, when the car skidded and hit what’s described in contemporary accounts as an “iron tramway pole.” Two friends who were with him escaped unhurt, but Laviolette’s injuries were such that surgeons ended up amputating his right leg below the right knee. That was the grim news the Gazette reported in the days following the accident — though subsequent reports that summer had him losing his left foot.

That might warrant further investigation. Some more historical housekeeping might be in order here, too, in the matter of Laviolette’s NHL coaching career. Consult the usual trusted sources — Hockey Reference, say, or Canadiens’ own historical reservoir — and you’ll find Newsy Lalonde listed as the team’s coach for 1918-19. Like Laviolette before him, he was multi-tasking in those years, coaching, playing, and captaining the team. But that December, as the new season was getting underway, several newspaper reports had Jack Laviolette coming on as coach — or, in the terminology of the day, trainer. (Just to confuse things, head coaches were in that early era often also referred to as managers.)

The day of the team’s first practice, for instance, Tuesday, December 10, 1918, the Gazette notes that at Jubilee Rink, at 7 p.m., Laviolette (“whose hockey career is finished”) “will make his initial appearance as trainer.”

“Laviolette has been given charge of the team, and should make good in the position.”

The Ottawa Citizen mentions him, too, as Canadiens’ trainer in December, with an intriguing coda: “He will give an exhibition of skating between the periods.” Pluck that thread and you might extract an item from Toronto’s Daily Star in which Toronto coach Charlie Querrie mentions this same plan. “Querrie says that Laviolette already handles his artificial foot so well that strangers never notice his disability,” is how that report ends.

Did Jack Laviolette end up coaching the Canadiens for some of their schedule in 1918-19 or did he simply entertain the faithful between periods? I don’t have much more to go on either way, at this point. If you’re reading the old newspapers, you’ll find that he fades from the page — until early February, when his name emerges one more time. “Happy” Jack Laviolette, the Ottawa Citizen tags him, announcing that he may that very day get up on skates and give them a go.

“He threatened to put them on early this winter, but somehow or other refrained,” the report continues. Depending on how things go, and given the scarcity of NHL referees, the Citizen suggests that Laviolette may soon be enlisting as an arbiter. That doesn’t seem to have happened, though. The final line of the Citizen’s update doesn’t really clear up the coaching mystery, either, noting that “Jack has been acting as a sort of a coach and adviser to the Canadien hockey team.”

bruins + leafs, 1931: swing and a miss

One wintry meeting between Leafs and Bruins deserves another, so here’s this scene from 88 years ago or so, when the two teams clashed at Boston Garden during the 1930-31 season. What I can’t say with complete certainty is which Leaf visit this was, of the two they paid their old Massachusetts rivals that year. Guessing, I’d have to go with the second game (March 10, 1931) over the first (December 2, 1930), if only because Benny Grant tended the Leafs’ goal in the latter while in the former it was Lorne Chabot who, to my squinted eye, seems to be the man in the net in the photograph here.

Other Leafs? Battling for the puck behind the net is Toronto’s number 4, Hap Day. Out in front — well, Day’s usual partner in those years was King Clancy, though I don’t think that’s him, so it’s either Red Horner or Alex Levinsky. Skating for centre is surely Ace Bailey, whose linemates that year tended to be Baldy Cotton and Andy Blair. As for the Bruins, wearing number 7 is Cooney Weiland with Dit Clapper (5) hovering nearby. Together with centre Dutch Gainor those two played on Boston’s “Dynamite Line” around this time, so let’s say that’s Gainor digging for the puck with Day.

The game (if it is the second one) ended in a 3-3 tie that overtime couldn’t change. Bailey and Blair scored for the Leafs, as did Charlie Conacher; Weiland got two of the Bruins’ goals, with George Owen adding the third.

Other notes of interest: according to the Boston Globe, the game was a high-spirited affair, on the ice and off. In overtime, King Clancy “tried to punch a spectator through the wire screen behind the Toronto goal, something which one would not expect such a brainy person to do.”

Before that:

At the end of the first period, Art Ross, the Bruin manager, and Connie Smythe, the chief moving spirit behind the Leafs, had a verbal altercation in the lobby, with Ross swinging but missing the jaw of Smythe. This drama was repeated at the end of the second stanza, when Smythe ventured to inquire how Ross liked being behind.

(Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

fall fashion

Detroit Red Wings coach Jimmy Skinner (right) gears up in the fall of 1957 with his boss, manager Jack Adams. A son of Selkirk, Manitoba, Skinner succeeded Tommy Ivan on the Wings’ bench in 1954, guiding the team to a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship in the spring of ’55. The summer of 1957 was a tumultuous one in Detroit. In July, Ted Lindsay departed the team, traded to Chicago after 13 seasons and 700 points for the crime of heading up the NHL’s incipient player’s association. Lindsay had said he’d rather retire than leave Detroit, but he’d finally agreed to the trade. At a press conference, Lindsay described “the personal resentment of the Detroit general manager toward me.” Adams denied that there was any feud: he said that shipping out 31-year-old Lindsay, the fourth highest goalscorer in NHL history, and All-Star goaltender Glenn Hall, 25, for four players and cash was all about renewing the Red Wings. With Terry Sawchuk back in the net that year, Detroit did end up in third place in the final NHL standings, though they fell to the unstoppable Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs. Skinner was gone by then, having resigned as coach in January on a doctor’s advice about the migraines he couldn’t quell. Sid Abel was the man who replaced him, and he kept the job for the next ten years. His old linemate Ted Lindsay would return to Detroit for a final season in 1964-65 during that time. As for Stanley Cups, Abel’s Wings came close, losing in the Finals four times during his tenure. The team would go without a championship until 1997, with Scotty Bowman in command.

prêt-à-entraîner

Going into the NHL’s 1959-60 season, Phil Watson stitched his confidence to his sleeve. “I predict that we will finish in the play-offs for the fourth time in the five years that I have been coach of the club,” he said. At 45, he had charge of the New York Rangers, the team for whom he’d made his mark through the 1930s and ’40s as a feisty forward. But Watson’s September optimism didn’t translate into October wins in ’59. “I’m worried,” Watson was saying a month later,” but I can’t put my finger on the reason for four losses. This is one of the best clubs I’ve ever had.”

By November, with the Rangers having won just two of 14 games, Watson headed to New York’s Polyclinic Hospital for treatment of a peptic duodenal ulcer. The surgery was a success, but he was out of a job: Rangers GM Muzz Patrick stood in for a game before appointing one of Watson’s old Ranger teammates to succeed him on a full-time basis, Alf Pike.

At 34, Doug Harvey, meanwhile, was doing what he’d done for years: anchoring the Montreal Canadiens’ blueline, winning Norris trophies as the league’s primo defenceman. He won his fifth the following spring, and another one the year after that, in 1961. But that was it for Harvey in Montreal: at the end of May, Muzz Patrick lured him to New York to play for and coach the Rangers. Alf Pike had lasted just a single (losing) season.

Harvey wasn’t sure, initially, that he wanted to move — until he was. He’d been making $20,000 or so a year in Montreal; his Rangers’ contract was reported to be worth $27,000. Patrick was convinced he’d lead New York out of the wilderness. “Each time I have talked to Harvey,” he said, “I’ve become more and more impressed with the fact that he is an ideal choice to become coach of the Rangers. He knows hockey, commands attention, is intelligent, and doesn’t jump to rash decisions.”

Phil Watson had been coaching Providence in the American Hockey League, but in June he got a new job, too, coaching the Boston Bruins. Under Milt Schmidt, the Bruins were worse than the Rangers in ’60-61, and both teams missed the playoffs. Watson got a three-year contract that would pay him (so it was said) $15,000, $17,500, and $20,000 in successive years. This time around, Watson tempered his optimism. “We may not win too many games at first,” he said. “I’m no miracle man.”

And so to this encounter, above, which dates to July of 1961, when the new coaches met and dressed up in Montreal during the NHL’s annual meetings.

Come October, it so happened that Boston and New York would open the new campaign with a home-and-home series. On a Wednesday night in Massachusetts, the Rangers won 6-2. They did it again the next night, too, in New York. This time the score was 6-3.

“I’ve been around too long in hockey to know you can’t win ’em all,” a wary Harvey said after that second win. “I just hope the New York fans treat us well when we have a bad night.”

Though he played on, Harvey would coach just a single season in New York before Muzz Patrick replaced him behind the bench. Harvey did get the Rangers to the playoffs, to his credit, where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions from Toronto. Phil Watson? His Bruins couldn’t climb out of the basement. Watson started the ’62-63 season as coach again, but he didn’t finish it: after a 1-8-5 start, he was out, and Boston got a new coach, which is to say an old one, in Milt Schmidt.

(Image: Weekend Magazine/Library and Archives Canada)