off the ice, though, howe was a peach

e011157052-v8

Gordie Howe was quite possibly the nicest man you ever met — supposing you ever met him. Wayne Gretzky did, and has said just that, many times, including recently, during the sad week following Howe’s death on June 10. “A special man,” said Dan Robson, someone else who encountered Howe in person. He met a lot of people, over the years, and their consensus has been clear: he was a softspoken prince of man, funny and friendly, gentle, generous with his time, humble and cheerful.

Except at work. On the job, he was a different man: cruel and nasty, pitiless, a danger to navigation. “Mean as a rattlesnake,” Paul Henderson said in memoriam. “Tougher than a night in jail,” according to Brian Burke. Carl Brewer: “The dirtiest player who ever lived.”

“Everybody,” reminisced Rod Gilbert, “was scared of him.”

You’d think he hated his work. You’d guess he’d been forced into it, made to keep at it, couldn’t wait to escape. But no, of course not, quite the contrary — everybody knows that Gordie Howe loved the game that he was so dominantly (and malevolently) good at.

The meanness was a piece of the goodness, integral. Which is to wonder, also: could he have been quite so very good if he’d maintained his civilian decorum on the ice without turning on the viciousness?

No. Or, well — who knows. We assume not. If we ask the question at all, that is. Mostly, we don’t. Mostly we — Canadians especially — understand that this is a game, hockey, that demands a certain savagery. He did what he had to do. Howe talked about this, in his way. “Hockey,” he used to say, “is a man’s game.”

The second time Howe tried an autobiography, with Paul Haavardsrud’s assistance, he talked about self-preservation. “Not only was it hard to make the NHL, but once you broke in, you also had to fight like hell to stay there,” they wrote in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). “When there were only six teams, every player in the league came prepared to claw over his best friend the second the puck dropped.”

“I play tough,” is something else Howe said, in person, in 1974, “but I never hurt somebody.”

Gordie Howe wasn’t the first hockey player to be cast as a peaceable Jekyll who, donning skates, stepping to the ice, transformed into a remorseless Hyde. Not at all: hockey’s narratives note split personalities going back to the beginning of the organized sport. A few years ago, when I was reading all the hockey books, it became a bit of a hobby for me, collecting up variations on the trope. In most cases it’s framed as both an apology for bad on-ice behaviour. It also usually carries an implicit reassurance that a given player’s tranquil off-ice self is the genuine and governing one.

Don Cherry had another theory, which he framed for George Plimpton. Tiger Williams, Bob Kelly, Dave Schultz, Dan Maloney — they were very much alike in their personalities, he explains in Open Net (1981):

“… quiet off the ice, soft-spoken, and semi-shy. I’ve never seen a tough guy off the ice who was a wild man on, nor have I seen a wild man on the ice behave the same way out on the street. It’s one or the other. I guess if you were wild both on and off the ice, they’d park you away in a loony bin somewhere.”

Included in the pages of my book I had a former Leaf hardman, Kris King, talking about how, in his unintimidating time off the ice, he liked to fish and do a bit of charity work. My thick file also features citations of:

• the late Bob Probert, one of the most fearsome fighters in NHL history, “a classic goon,” in one writer’s phrase, who also had enough of a scoring touch to twice record 20-goal season with Detroit. “He was a teddy bear off the ice,” Jeremy Roenick wrote his autobiography, J.R. (2013), “and a fucking animal on the ice.”

When I played against Probert, he seemed like a wild-eyed, vicious thug. But when I played one season with him in Chicago, my attitude about him changed. He seemed like a gentle giant, a pleasant man with a big heart. If you met him in the dressing room, he would strike you as the guy you would want as your neighbour.

• Dave Schultz, one of the heaviest implements in Philadelphia’s toolbox during the bullyish 1970s. Asked for his opinion of Schultz in early 1975, NHL president Clarence Campbell didn’t hesitate: “He denigrates the sport.” An Associated Press feature from that same spring called Schultz “a Teddy Roosevelt type” who “speaks softly and wields a big stick.”

Off the ice, Schultz is a pussycat. He’s not an arguer. As a matter of fact the so-called ‘hammer’ of the Philadelphia Flyers is more of a peacemaker. His blonde wife, Cathy, says so.

If you were introduced to Dave Schultz without knowing he is a hockey player, you’d probably never guess his vocation. He could be a school teacher, an insurance executive. He comes off a low-key guy.

A year earlier, Dick Chapman of Montreal’s Gazette noted that back home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Schultz filled the hours “with things like jigsaw puzzles, building model ships and golf.”

• Ron Harris, a teammate of Howe’s and of Paul Henderson’s in Detroit in the 1960s. “By far the toughest guy in the league,” Henderson wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012). And:

… just like a lot of tough guys — guys like John Ferguson, for example — he was one of the nicest people in the world off the ice. But put a pair of skates on him, and he would get that glaze in his eyes. It’s kind of like Jekyll and Hyde — guys like that become crazy!

The toughness Ronnie added to our team made him really valuable.

Continue reading

what the leafs need: everybody knows

leafage

Toronto Maple Leafs need to change a lot more than just the coach (Ken Campbell, The Hockey News, January 6)

Maple Leafs need to mend divided dressing room (Chris Johnston, Sportsnet.ca, January 8)

Rebuilding Maple Leafs need to get value in a Dion Phaneuf trade (Damien Cox, Toronto Star, January 30)

Emotional James Reimer says Leafs need to play with more “passion” and “resolve.” (Jonas Siegel, TSN1050, February 6)

Don Cherry says the Toronto Maple Leafs need to get tough again. (Mike Johnston, Sportsnet.ca, February 7)

Toronto Maple Leafs need to rebuild, Canadian musician Tom Cochrane says (National Post, February 9)

“We can’t change what happened in the past,” said Robidas. “All we can change is how we play tomorrow. We have to start building a foundation. We have to be a tough team to play against. That is our identity. We have to play fast, we have to compete.” (Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, February 13)

Why the Copyright Board of Canada Needs a Leafs-Style Tear-Down (Michael Geist, michaelgeist.ca, February 15)

Shanahan should emulate Wings in rebuild (Jonas Siegel, TSN.ca, February 16)

Kadri and Gardiner need to make a better impression (David Shoalts, Globe and Mail, February 17)

Foundering Leafs need rebuild architects with creativity, humour (Tim Whitnell, Burlington Post, February 20)

“We need to make some changes. That’s apparent,” said Nonis. “We have some good players that maybe haven’t played to their capabilities this season, that haven’t had the years that we need them to have. But they’re good players. It doesn’t mean we’re going to fire-sale people out. We’re not going to make moves to clean the roster out. We need to get value.” (Toronto Star, February 27)

Toronto Maple Leafs need draft picks while Montreal Canadiens could use defensive depth: What Canadian NHL teams might do on deadline day (Michael Traikos, National Post, March 1)

Maple Leafs need to find players who want to wear blue and white (Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun, March 3)

Might be best for the Maple Leafs to trade Bernier (Stephen Burtch, Sportsnet.ca, March 3)

“He’s a good player, a good guy, everyone likes him. But the things are said about him. People rip for this and that, but you watch him and he tries hard every night. Obviously, it’s not fair and I think it needs to stop. Why does he get the blame?” (Phil Kessel on local Toronto criticism of Dion Phaneuf, March 3)

Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel is entitled to his rant, but he needs to look in the mirror, too (Steve Buffery, Toronto Sun, March 3)

If Phil Kessel would like the other side to really see him, he can start by opening his own eyes (Cathal Kelly, Globe and Mail, March 4)

Toronto Maple Leafs need to be cut ‘down to the bone,’ says former coach Ron Wilson (National Post, March 6)

The Leafs need to develop picks in the right atmosphere. (Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, March 6)

Kessel needs to get off the soapbox and into the boxscore, where he speaks the lingo more eloquently, if not erelong. (Rosie DiManno, Toronto Star, March 7)

Maple Leafs need to look inward for answers (Elliotte Friedman, Sportsnet.ca, March 8)

Toronto needs Kadri to take next step (James Mirtle, Globe and Mail, March 9)

Leafs can’t allow Blue & White disease to claim Kadri (Jeff Blair, Sportsnet.ca, March 9)

(Illustration: Tex Coulter)

this week: till famine and the ague eat them up

Swiss Misses: A U.S. foray at Switzerland's goal ends with a save at the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany in February of 1936. The Americans won 3-0.

Swiss Misses: A U.S. foray at Switzerland’s goal ends with a save at the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany in February of 1936. The Americans won this early-round game, 3-0, and when it was all over their medals were bronze.

One of the hockey players whose name each of Russia’s 143 million people know is Alex Ovechkin, according to Slava Malamud, a writer for Sport Express. There are one or two others, he said, naming no names.

No-one needs a gold medal more than Ovechkin, suggested Lucas Aykroyd, at IIHF.com.

Former Flame and Leaf left winger/present fitness maharishi Gary Roberts was tweeting this week: “Eliminate refined sugars and artificial sweeteners,” he advised, “— use natural options like raw honey, pure maple syrup & coconut sugar.”

There were questions this week about whether the leg Steven Stamkos broke in November is going to keep him from Canada’s team at the Olympics. He’s healed up enough to be practicing with Tampa Bay, and staying positive, but as TSN.ca reported, he hasn’t got the go-ahead quite yet:

“You just have to listen to your body,” Stamkos said. “We’re talking a lot about the Olympics and my goal is to try to be ready for those Games, but your body doesn’t lie. If you’re doing certain movements and you feel pain then that’s an indicator that maybe it’s not quite ready.”

Meanwhile, Dmitry Chesnokov from Puck Daddy at Yahoo! Sports talked to Detroit coach Mike Babcock about Pavel Datsyuk, whose body injury has been described in recent days as both “lower” and “undisclosed.” Will Datsyuk play this week?

“I got no idea,” Babcock said. “I just watched him in practice, his one leg isn’t holding up. Obviously, Pavel wants to play for his country, and he wants to be a part of things, but you got to be healthy.”

Is he going to be okay for Sochi, where he’s supposed to be captaining the Russians?

Babcock paused. “I am not the doctor,” he said. “I don’t have a clue.” Continue reading