the mothers of hockey players worry about injuries and, sometimes, freeze the living-room carpet for their sons to skate on

Home Ice: Pierrette Lemieux wields her spatula as goaltender to her sons Richard, Alain, and Mario, as seen by illustrator Nick Craine. (Image: HarperCollins Canada)

The fathers of hockey players write books, sometimes, about sons of theirs who’ve made it to the NHL, while mostly the mothers don’t — other than Colleen Howe, who perhaps deserves a bright asterisk for having published in her time books both as a hockey mother and a wife. I wish they’d write more books, hockey’s mothers, share their stories. As it is, in the hockey books, they’re mostly reduced to a few mentions, mostly in the early chapters. If you read all the hockey books, there’s a certain amount you can glean about hockey’s mothers, and a whole lot more you can’t. Herewith, some of the gleanings. Numbers in the text link to the list identifying the various mothers in the endnotes.   

Hockey mothers are descended from Sir Isaac Brock [1], some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England [2]. Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby [3] and Grace Nelson [4], Rose Pauli [5] and Agnes Mather Bell [6]. The former two have been described, respectively, as “charming” and “demurely pretty.” The third wanted to be a nurse, but found that she fainted whenever she got near a surgery. The latter married a cheesemaker.

Other mothers are described, sometimes, in biographies written about their sons’ lustrous careers as “the soft-spoken daughter of German immigrants [who] worked as a domestic before her marriage.” [7] Sometimes, as the daughters of cattle farmers from Saskatchewan, they’re waitresses who see their future husbands for the first time at a bowling alley. [8] In other cases, the mothers of hockey players meet their husbands in Pristina, in what’s now Kosovo, before they emigrate to Canada without knowing a word of English. [9] Or else they arrive in Canada from Ukraine at the age of 16 and end up in Fort William, Ontario, in 1912 where they soon meet their future husbands, who don’t necessarily tell the truth about how wealthy they are, such that after the wedding the young bride finds that her husband rents a tiny house with six boarders for whom she’s expected to cook and do laundry and, plus, also, he’s abusive, beating her for any reason at all, or none, including when she talks to other men, including when she fails to walk behind this husband on the way to church on Sunday,  causing the son of such parents to write, years later, “My father was a very cruel person.” [10]

The mothers of hockey players have an old six-string Spanish guitar they like to play. In 1928, they’re outside chopping wood when they feel the labour pains coming on. Having already given birth five times, they know what to do: drew water from the well, put it on the wood stove to boil, make themselves comfortable in bed. They’ll deliver their boy themselves, cut the umbilical cord, then suffer a serious hemorrhage that’s almost the end of them, but then they get help, just in time. “The strongest woman I have ever known,” is what the son of a mother like that will say, in time. [11]

You were a mistake, hockey mothers will sometimes tell their sons when the sons are grown and playing defence for the Detroit Red Wings, but you were a wonderful mistake. [12] Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. [13]

Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller. [14] They’ll pass on to their sons an inner strength by way of, when they’re in the country sometimes, they’ll pick up a snake, or play with spiders, while never betraying any fear. [15]

The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner. [16] They teach their boys to knit. [17] They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30. [18] They wash floors and make gallons of soup, and have their own version, some mothers, of fish and chips that consist of big slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-friend, served with French fries on the side. “We thought we were having fish and chips,” their sons will write in their autobiographies, “but actually they were potatoes with potatoes.” [19]

In 1922, when their sons are budding 19-year-old hockey stars but haven’t yet made it to the NHL where they’ll blossom into one of the league’s first genuine superstars, the mothers of hockey players will, sometimes, tragically, drown in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” as a Toronto newspaper reports it. [20]

King Clancy’s father was the original King, and while he was a very good football player, he may have been the only person in Ottawa who couldn’t skate a stroke. Not so Dolly Clancy: no-one, said King Jr., could match her grace on the ice, and he learned his skating from her.

Esther Dye (Essie, they called her) was the one who flooded the backyard rink when her Cecil was a boy, on Boswell Avenue in Toronto, got out the sticks, tied her son’s skates on, taught him the game. This was when skates were tied onto shoes; Cecil, of course, was better known as Babe, ace goalscorer and one-time captain of the Toronto St. Patricks. “My mother could throw a baseball right out of the park,” he said. “Or a hammer, or anything at all. She could run the other women right off their feet, and some of the men as well.”

Jeanne Maki’s boys, Chico and Wayne, were playing for Chicago and Vancouver respectively in 1971 when she was asked about their boyhoods. “Wayne used to imitate Foster Hewitt and got on everybody’s nerves,” she said. “Oh, he used to give me a headache, and even the neighbours threatened to kick his rear end.”

Here’s Edith Plager, mother of St. Louis Blues legends Barclay, Bob, and Bill:

They were never really indoors much, except to be in the basement and play hockey there — or sometimes they shot BB guns. Once Billy went off and broke about 50 jars of my preserves with his BB gun, and then another time, oh my, I was peeling potatoes and I started finding BBs in them. He’d been shooting into the bag, ha ha ha. Anyway, they had an understanding mother.

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a hundred years hirsute: the nhl’s first moustache (and other moustaches)

Lanny McDonald and Moustache: “Put a handle on it and you could clean your driveway.”

Start with Andy Blair. Talking hockey moustaches, you had to start with him: for a long time in the early years of the NHL, his Toronto Maple Leaf lip was the only one in the entire loop to be adorned with any growth of hair. Or so we thought. Turns out hockey wasn’t quite so clean-shaven as we were led to believe. In fact, Blair wasn’t even the first Toronto player to skate mustachioed. Puckstruck exclusive: the NHL’s first recognized moustache made its debut as early as the league’s second season.

Jack Adams was the man to wear it. Better known for his later (smooth-faced) exploits as coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Adams was an accomplished player in his time, too, of course, winning two Stanley Cups in the NHL’s first decade. The first of those came in the spring of 1918 with Toronto.

It was when he returned to the team — now the Arenas — later that year that he changed his look. We have just a single source on this so far, but it’s persuasive: Adams, an astute Toronto reporter took note, boasted

a tooth brush decoration on his upper lip. You’ve gotta get pretty close to Jack to see it, as he is a blonde.

Andy Blair’s moustache was much more distinctive, not to mention very well documented. A Winnipeg-born centreman, Blair made his NHL debut in 1928. As best we can trace, he came into the league smooth-faced. The evidence isn’t conclusive but as far as we know he did get growing until the early 1930s.

When we think of classic Leafian moustaches, it’s Lanny McDonald’s full-frontal hairbrush that comes to mind, or maybe Wendel Clark’s fu manchu. Blair’s was trim. A teammate, Hap Day, described it as “a little Joe College-type.” Trent Frayne preferred “Charlie Chaplin.” It even rates a mention in Blair’s biography in the Hockey Hall of Fame register of players — even though it didn’t survive the end of his NHL career.

After eight seasons with the Leafs, Blair and his laden lip went to Chicago in 1936 for a final fling with the Black Hawks. Blair, at least, lasted the year: “I see the boys got together and made him shave off his Clark Gable moustache,” former Leafs teammate Charlie Conacher noted that year. “That is something more than we could get him to do when he played in Toronto.” The story goes that it disappeared under duress: only after his Chicago teammates repeatedly threatened to do the job forcibly did Blair get around to shaving the moustache away.

Lucky for Blair that it hadn’t happened sooner: like his Canadiens counterpart Pit Lepine, Conacher actually headed up a fervent anti-moustache campaign through the ’30s. Well, maybe that’s a bit strong: Conacher was a paid pitchman through for Palmolive Shave Cream (Giant Size Double Quantity 40 cents!). I don’t doubt that he used the stuff himself. I do wonder whether he actually said, of his own free will, “Palmolive knocks my whiskers for a goal every time I use it.”

It was another Leaf who picked up where Blair left off, though it took a few years. In the fall of 1945, The Globe and Mail introduced rookie defenceman Garth Boesch as the man sporting “the most impressive crop of lip foliage in a major hockey dressing room since Andy Blair.” Columnist Bobbie Rosenfeld was willing to go even further: if you left the Calder Trophy voting for NHL rookie-of-the-year to women, and Boesch would win hands (face?) down. “That Garth moustache,” she wrote, “which is a la Caesar Romero, has the femmes swooning every time the Leafs’ defence star steps on the ice.”

“I started growing it when I was 18 and I still have it,” Boesch told the Globe’s Paul Patton in 1975, when Boesch was 54. Red Dutton was supposed to have watched him as a young prospect, declaring, “With that moustache, he’s got two strikes against him before he starts.”

“I never heard that,” Boesch said. “Nobody ever complained to me.” He was proud to say he never lost a tooth in his five years playing in the NHL. He did acquire an honest share of stitches, though. “Lots on my lower lip, but never on my upper lip. I always had a big nose and I guess it protected my moustache.” Continue reading

off the ice, though, howe was a peach

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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.

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trademarked

Call It Macaroni: Trades made Phil Esposito depressed and angry. Here, in happier times, he makes the case for Kraft Dinner at the airport. Out on the tarmac. With a side salad.

Brett Hull grinned when he was traded from Calgary to St. Louis in 1988. “Yesssssss,” he said, and I quote. A few months later and a little to the north, Wayne Gretzky departed for Los Angeles amid a storm of shock and tears, anger and accusations. That, the latter, is probably closer to the norm when it comes to what hockey players go through when they’re swapped, one team to another. A lot of the time they feel what Arnie Brown felt when the New York Rangers sent him to Detroit in 1971: “depressed, bitter, and shocked.”

Dave Schultz was dazed. His head felt heavy. He never thought it would come to this. Traded for draft choices! This was in 1976 when Philadelphia sent him south to do his hammering in L.A. He was angry. He blamed Bobby Clarke. After all he’d done for the Flyers in the way of punching their opponents! Not to mention them punching him! Humiliating. He said some things, which a reporter heard and published. There was a furor. “It’s dislocation pure and simple — and rejection,” he’d wax later. “You don’t think that someone else wants you; you think that somebody doesn’t.” Continue reading