the five leaf retirements of george armstrong

Born this day in 1930, George Armstrong turns 87 today. He remains, of course, the most recent captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs to have hoisted the Stanley Cup in victory.

That was in May of 1967. Armstrong was 36, with four Cups to show for his 16 NHL seasons. In June, he announced a decision he’d made. “I’m retiring,” he said. “That’s it. It’s taken all my guts to quit. I wasn’t too happy with my year. Sure I played well at the end, but does one month make up for seven bad months?”

There was some question whether would be protecting in the summer’s expansion draft: that was another factor. Still, Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach was said to be shaken by the news. “I don’t accept his resignation,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I don’t even know about it.”

Four days later, after Los Angeles and California, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh had plucked Terry Sawchuck, Bob Baun, Kent Douglas, Brit Selby, Al Arbour, and others from the champions’ roster, Imlach did end up shielding Armstrong, and by September, when the Leafs headed to Peterborough, Ontario, for training camp, the captain was back in the fold.

He admitted to being a little embarrassed. “To say you’re going to quit is easy,” he told Louis Cauz. “It’s harder to do it, especially when hockey has been your whole life.”

He’d been thinking on it all summer. “I can’t pin it down to one day when I suddenly made up my mind. About a month ago, I started watching my weight. Maybe I made up my mind then and I didn’t know it. Subconsciously my mind was made up, though. You’d have to be a psychiatrist to figure it out.”

He played the season and, points-wise, improved on his 1966-67 numbers. He was back at camp in September of ’68, preparing for the new season when he called it quits again. He just didn’t think he could help the team.

The Leafs told him to take some time. “I guess they hope I’ll change my mind,” Armstrong said. “I could. The easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. But right now my mind is more or less made up — I’m through.”

He wasn’t. He ended up rejoining the Leafs in early December.

“When I said I was retiring, I meant it,” he insisted after he’d made his comeback. “I said I was going into the hotel business, but I didn’t try that hard to get into it. I missed hockey and Punch kept asking me to come back.”

Summer of ’69, he decided again that he was finished — no, really.

It didn’t take, though. “I got bored,” he said, back in Peterborough again, come September. “When you’re a hockey player, you don’t lose interest until you die.”

“My mind was more made up to stay retired last year,” he said, “than it was this year.”

He didn’t mind that the Leafs’ named a new captain that fall, Dave Keon. “The C is on the guy who should be wearing it,” he said. After all, Armstrong was only going to play that one last year.

The Globe had lost count of Armstrong’s unsuccessful retirements by the time the 1970 rolled around, announcing that he was ending his third retirement to rejoin the Leafs that fall when in fact it was his fourth.

Never mind. He signed a one-year contract in November, played out the year.

Do I even need to say that he was back getting ready for a new campaign in the fall of ’71? “I feel good,” he said, “and am enjoying camp.”

Coach John McLellan wasn’t making any promises, though. “The Chief is a tremendous guy to have around,” he said, “great with the younger players.”

“But he has to beat out a young guy and right now that looks like a rough job.”

He was still in the picture as the new season approached. “He is skating every day in Toronto,” the coach said, “and would be ready if we called him.”

It didn’t work out, in the end. It was mid-October when the Leafs announced that George Armstrong would be packing his skates away for a fifth and final time, and joining Leafs’ management as a scout.

(Image, from 1963: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505690)

terry sawchuk: he didn’t move so much as he exploded

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This week in 1967, Toronto’s aged Leafs beat the Chicago Black Hawks to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for a showdown with the Montreal Canadiens. Chicago coach Billy Reay wasn’t happy in defeat, but he summoned up some grudging grace. “I’m a little one-sided,” he said, “so I think the best team lost. But Sawchuk stoned us and they outplayed us up the centre. I thought Davey Keon played terrific — on his regular shifts, killing penalties, and on the power play.”

Terry Sawchuk, pictured here in January of that last Leafly championship year, was 37. “He was,” the estimable Trent Frayne would recall, “the most acrobatic goaltender of his time. He didn’t move so much as he exploded into a desperate release of energy — down the glove, up the arm, over the stick, up the leg pad. He sometimes seemed a human pinwheel. He played the whole game in pent-up tension, shouting at his teammates, crouching, straightening, diving, scrambling, his pale face drawn and tense.”

(Image: Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)

gump agonistes

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They’re just a few of them, Canadians we feel we know so well (and maybe even revere) that just the one name will do. Most of them are singers, Drake and Shania, Joni, Neil, Leonard, though we also have a prime minister now, Justin, with whom we’re first-name familiar. Hockey has Gordie, Wayne, Mario, Sid — and now I guess Connor, too.

Also? Gump.

That one is an older vintage, and maybe doesn’t have the currency it once did. Still, it does retain a certain power, as a byword for the audacity and sheer foolery of old-time NHL goaltenders, one that conveys not only the awkward dignity of the man himself but also the fall-down, scrambling valor of a whole nervy puckstopping generation of maskless men, long before Tom Hanks was cast in the role of a slow-wit hero from Alabama.

Not that the surname isn’t just as good as the first: Worsley is Dickensian in its perfection, up there with Gradgrind, Cheeryble, Pickwick, Pecksniff. Paired, Gump Worsley not only sounds like a character from a story, one from whom you could figure out the gist of the plot just by looking at the man: oh, yes, right, so this is the one about the kind-hearted London orphan, bit of a sad case, all alone in the world, at the behest of his anonymous benefactor, without any training or apparent aptitude, has to take up goaltending in the six-team National Hockey League in order to prove himself and find his destiny.

John K. Samson once told me he carried a glorious old Gump-faced hockey card with him wherever he went. We were talking at the time about Reggie Leach, Riverton’s own Rifle, but then the talk turned as the Winnipeg singer explained that a lot of his admiration for Gump was based, like mine, on just how unlikely a goaltender he seemed, accidental, almost, and how amiably he seemed to bearing up in the situation into which he’d been thrust.

That’s in the song Samson wrote, of course, “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” that he sang with his erstwhile band, The Weakerthans. The words go like this:

He looked more like our fathers, not a goalie, player, athlete period. Smoke, half ash, stuck in that permanent smirk, tugging jersey around the beergut, “I’m strictly a whiskey man” was one of the sticks he taped up and gave to a nation of pudgy boys in beverage rooms. Favourites from Plimpton’s list of objects thrown by Rangers fans: soup cans, a persimmon, eggs, a folding chair and a dead rabbit. The nervous breakdown of ’68-’69 after pant-crap flights from LA, the expansion, “the shrink told me to change occupations. I had to forget it.” He swore he was never afraid of the puck. We believe him. If anyone asks, the inscription should read, “My face was my mask.”

He played 21 years in the NHL, mostly for the New York Rangers, most successfully for Montreal, finally for the Minnesota North Stars. He died at the age of 77 in 2007.

It’s possible that I saw him play, later on in his career, staying up late to watch Hockey Night In Canada in the early ’70s. If so, I don’t remember. I loved his memoir, They Call Me Gump (1975), which he wrote with Tim Moriarty’s aid, and not just because he devotes Chapter 21 to his recipe for pineapple squares. Okay, well, yes, that’s where a lot of the love is centred. Also with his affable way of looking at the world, and that if there’s a joke in his playing NHL goal, then it’s a joke he’s very much in on, and enjoying as much as the rest of us.

If Gump looked helpless, if he seemed hapless, well, of course, he was anything but. You don’t need to go and stand in front of his plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame (elected in 1980) to know that he was one of the best of his era. Traded to Montreal for Jacques Plante, he went on to play his part in four Stanley Cup championships. He was a First All-Star Team and twice had a share (with Charlie Hodge and Rogie Vachon, respectively) in a Vézina Trophy. Of all the goaltenders to have defended NHL nets, he stands 22nd when it comes to regular-season wins (335). He had 40 more in the playoffs, which is more than Johnny Bower and Bernie Parent and lots of other Brahmins of the crease.

I don’t know where he slots in when it comes to the all-time index of pain and suffering. In his book, he mostly makes light of the wear and tear of being worn and torn. “The main occupational hazard is trying to stay alive while facing up to 40 and 50 shots a game,” he writes. “We’re not well, you know,” he says elsewhere, “or we wouldn’t be playing the position.” And: “It helps to be nuts.” If he were in the business of hiring goaltenders, his prerequisites would include “a hard skull to deflect flying pucks, plus a thick skin to absorb the abuse of coaches and fans.”

Like a lot of hockey memoirs, They Call Me Gump reads like a medical file. It’s longtime Ranger physician Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa attending, mostly, dropping in every few pages to consult on the tendons in Gump’s hand that Bobby Hull’s skate severed, or to remove cartilage from his knee. Gump pulls hamstrings, tears thigh muscles, sprains knees. He devotes another entire chapter (without going too deep) to the stress and fear of flying that fuelled the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1968.

The injuries would have contributed to that, too, though Gump doesn’t really make much of the connection. For all the damage he chronicles, there’s relatively little mention of concussions. One that features is famous in its way — a “mild” one that knocked him out of a 1967 game at Madison Square Garden when he was back in playing for Montreal. Others he leaves out entirely or tosses in with what passes for trouperly bravado:

[Boom-Boom] Geoffrion hit me right between the eyes with a slapshot in the Forum one night, and the puck ricocheted 40 rows into the stands.

Gump finally put on a mask in 1974, but only for the last six games of his career. “Hated it,” he said in 1984, looking back. “Sure I got knocked out a lot. I got knocked out oftener than Joe Palooka. But there was only one goalie to a team at that time, so they’d revive you and sew you up and you went back on.”

That’s all in keeping, I guess, with hockey’s historical nonchalance when it comes to head injuries. Getting your bell proverbially rung was just part of the game; you shook it off, headed back out on the ice. Knowing what we know now about head trauma and the long-time devastation of CTE casts a grim shade on those old attitudes, even as the modern-day NHL refuses to acknowledge the connections.

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Worsley Out: Montreal teammates Ted Harris and Bob Rousseau aid training staff in getting Gump off the ice in Chicago in April of 1968 after he hit his head on a goalpost.

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bidini and me (and keon)

keon and meDave Keon wouldn’t fight. Dave Bidini wanted to know why.

There was lots more he wanted to know, too. What was it like to grow up in Etobicoke in the 1970s, when Bidini was growing up there, and how were you supposed to figure out what kind of person you were going to be? What was up with the hellacious Flyers of Philadelphia, menacing their way to Stanley Cups? And what about, at school, the bully Roscoe: what was his problem?

Part memoir, part quest, part hockey picaresque, the book that Bidini has crafted to contain his inquiries is Keon and Me: My Search for the Lost Soul of the Leafs (Viking Canada). It’s his eleventh, and it’s lovely: heartfelt and honest, funny and poignant. It’s as compelling in its portrait of a Canadian childhood as it is in examining how hockey shapes and sharpens and — all too often — confuses us. For instance: if Bidini’s favourite Leaf was indeed the greatest ever to have worn the blue and the white, why has the team so doggedly failed to recognize his stature, and what does that have to do with Toronto’s lingering case of not winning Stanley Cups?

Bidini has, of course, long been in the business of chronicling the country, with a particular emphasis on what we do when we find ourselves with hockey sticks and/or guitars in hand. He is, it has been pointed out, the only of us to be nominated for Juno, Gemini, and Genie awards, and the CBC’s national these-are-our-necessary-books contest, Canada Reads.

As a founding member of the great, late Rheostatics, Bidini journeyed around the country singing its history and legends and praises for more than 20 years, yielding eleven albums along the way. He’s in front of BidiniBand these days, with a new album, In The Rock Hall, that he’ll be taking out on the road early in the new year. As a writer he continues to contribute a weekly column to The National Post. He’s also working with Olympic cyclist and speedskater Clara Hughes on a memoir of hers.

Fifty now, he lives with his family in midtown Toronto. There was wind blowing through the neighbourhood one afternoon back in the fall, and in the sky it looked like weather was coming. Bidini arrived on his bike, wearing his hat, and over a lunch of Greek salads and vegan bacon cheeseburgers with fries, submitted to questions.

Maybe more than your other books, is this the one you’ve been writing all your life? 
Yeah, probably. And waiting for a long time to write. Waiting for the right moment. And waiting for the right angle into it. I started it — the idea was almost to write a fictionalized version of my life as a Leafs fan. I invented all these characters. And I got 10,000 words into it when I just decided it was either going to take too much work or it wasn’t going to be personal enough, that way. It was kind of a comedy. And I abandoned it. I went straight back to it being more of a personal thing.

And so the structure, with your childhood paralleling Dave Keon’s remarkable career and refusal to be provoked, how did you come to that? 
That was late. I’ll give you a bit of the anatomy. The book started out, I was originally going to go to northern India, to this tournament they have in the Himalayas, played by … monks …. The IHF were going to have, I believe they were going to have their first sanctioned hockey game at a rink they’d built at the foot of the Himalayas. But I could never really get confirmation that the rink was working, that the players were going to show up …. It was going to be called Eat, Pray, Leafs.

So that was going to be the original thing. It was going to be an inner journey, it was going to parallel Indian mysticism … didn’t happen. And then I was going to write Diary of A Loser, which was going to be that comedic fictionalized look at my life, and that ended up becoming the Keon thing.

The way it goes down in the book, the Keon figure emerged over this series of incidents in which his name appeared, it sort of rose, and I realized, that’s the guy.

This might be your most personal book. Was it difficult to reach back to uncover what it was like being 11 in Toronto in the 1970s?
You start trying to get that, the chrysalis of memory, the true impression of what it was like, and then ultimately you start wondering whether that’s the way it actually felt like. That’s where it really dances between fact and fiction. Non-fiction, you’re sitting in a room, it’s all very austere, trying to do it very properly, and then fiction comes in a fucking checkered suit and a loud hat, right, and starts the party. Especially when I was reconstructing stuff like my cousin’s room, or hanging out with my parents, parties at my uncle’s place. It’s like, okay, I sort of have a sense of how this was, but I can sort of colour the edges. Which is how I kind of did it.

Is there ever a worry about writing about the people close to you, especially family? Does that ever hold you back?
Usually it does, but with this one I realized I had to just …. My dad read the book, and it was good. There was a lot of stuff that he had forgotten. He was glad that he was able to revisit it through that. I did tell him this was my impression, it wasn’t going to be totally accurate.

My wife actually told me a couple of books ago, I want you to totally take me out of anything you write in the future. She was like, you’ve gone down that road enough.

Although she does have a great line in this book about Mark Messier, that he looks like Agamemnon.
It’s true.

You talk in the book about the joys of just simply talking hockey, whether it’s with kids on the street or, in fact, when you finally track down Keon. Is that also one of the pleasures in writing a book like this: the jawing about last night’s game that we do as Canadians?
Yeah. And I do say in the book how, I think that used to be a lot more common in our society. And I think that’s what’s kind of nice about the book, in a way, it has kind of recharged it in our time. The Leafs playing well helps, obviously. Continue reading