of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

hockey night finale

He’ll be missed — oh, baby, will he. Bob Cole takes one last turn behind the play-by-play mic on Hockey Night In Canada: the inimitable 85-year-old Newfoundlander is hanging up his broadcasting booth after 50 years on the job. His final game goes tonight at Montreal’s Bell Centre when the Canadiens host the Toronto Maple Leafs. His first fell on a Thursday, April 24, 1969, when Montreal beat the hometown Boston Bruins 2-1 in double overtime. Jean Béliveau scored the winner (the only overtime goal of his career) to wrap-up the Stanley Cup semi-final in six games. If you’re in the mood for appreciations of Cole’s work, Sean McIndoe’s tribute at The Athletic from earlier this week is worth your time (you do have to be subscriber). Dave Stubbs has a good interview with the man himself, too, over here.

(Top image: CBC Sports)

my first hockey game: dave stubbs

Bowerbeater: Canadiens winger Bobby Rousseau in 1966, a year before he notched a goal and three assists in Dave Stubbs’ Montreal Fourm debut. (Image: Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada/e002343749)

Dave Stubbs tells this story: as a nine-year-old in 1967 in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, he went to bed before the end of the hockey game filling the family TV. Don’t worry, his father told him, we’ll watch the next one. It was Stubbs’ birthday next day, and when he woke up in the morning the news could hardly have been crueller: the Toronto Maple Leafs had beaten his cherished Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup.

Canadiens recovered, of course. Stubbs bounced back, too, going on to a 40-year career as a sports journalist, much of it spent as a distinguished editor and writer at the Montreal Gazette. Early in 2016, he found himself with a new gig, as columnist and historian for NHL.com, the league’s website. “If there’s such a thing as a dream job,” he said at the time, “I’ve found it.”

For his deep knowledge of hockey history and his skill as a storyteller, for his contacts, his curiosity, and his respect for the people who live their lives in and around the rink, Stubbs has long been a must-read chronicler of the game. If somehow you haven’t found him already, do that at NHL.com and on Twitter @Dave_Stubbs.

Last week, writer Kirstie McLellan Day launched Puckstruck’s ongoing series of recollections of first encounters with NHL hockey — that’s here. Today, Dave Stubbs takes a turn.

In a recent e-mail, Stubbs told this story: last year, at a dinner celebrating the announcement of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players, he sat with legendary Maple Leafs’ centre Dave Keon. Stubbs:

I said to him, “I’ve had this inside me for 50 years. How does it feel to know that you broke the heart of a 10-year-old kid on his birthday by winning the Stanley Cup in 1967?”

He looked at me almost sympathetically for a moment then grinned and said, “Pretty good, actually.”

It was the perfect answer.

It’s almost 50 years to the day that Stubbs first went to the Montreal Forum with his dad, mere months after that birthday calamity. His account:

It was the brilliant white of the Montreal Forum ice and the clean, bright boards that took this 10-year-old’s breath away. That, and the noise of the crowd and the smell of the hot dogs, whose legendary status — the dogs, I mean — I would learn of in the decades to come.

I had followed my beloved hometown Montreal Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada and in the stories I read and clipped from the daily Montreal Gazette and Montreal Star, The Hockey News once a week and the monthly magazines on which I invested my allowance.

But until December 20, 1967, when my dad scored a pair of coveted Forum reds between the blue line and the net the Canadiens would attack for two periods, I had never seen the team in person.

As luck, or fate, would have it, the Toronto Maple Leafs were the opponent that school night. The same Maple Leafs who had beaten my Canadiens on the eve of my 10th birthday to win the 1967 Stanley Cup.

I was filled with excitement and dread on our drive to the Forum, overwhelmed by the anticipation of seeing my first live NHL game, terrified that the Leafs might beat my Habs before my eyes.

I remember this:

The Canadiens won 5-0 on Dick Duff’s hat trick. The first NHL goal I saw live came early in the first period, Duff banging a shot past Toronto goaler Johnny Bower;

Three of the Canadiens’ goals were scored in “my” end of the ice, two by Duff, one by Bobby Rousseau;

Bower was replaced for the third period by Bruce Gamble;

Gump Worsley was perfect in the Montreal net, which almost made up for the fact that my first boyhood hockey hero, Rogie Vachon, was his backup that night;

And I had two hot dogs. “Tell your mother you had one,” my father counselled me on the drive home.

I barely slept that night, stirred more by nerves than nitrates, and as I lay restlessly in bed, I remembered that a few months earlier I had said I hoped the Leafs would never win another Stanley Cup for having ruined my 10th birthday.

The Canadiens won the Cup in 1968 and 1969, and eight more times since then. The Maple Leafs? Call it karma.

Heartbreaker: Dave Keon, circa 1961. (Image: Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada/e002343743)

 

 

 

this week: surviving a meteor strike

CAN_JM

P.K. Subban was dining on liver in Paris, Adam Vingan of The Tennessean reports, when he got the word last Wednesday that the Montreal Canadiens had traded him to Nashville’s Predators.

“Quoi?” tweeted Montreal’s mayor, Denis Coderre, when he heard the news. The online shock was matched only by the outrage: “La twittosphère s’enflamme à propos de l’échange de P.K. Subban” was a Journal de Montreal headline from the following day.

“So that Subban trade really happened, eh?” wrote Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Principal Secretary and a prominent Habs fan. “Call me old fashioned,” groused another, actor and director Jay Baruchel, “but it’s more fun to watch PK Subban play hockey than it is to watch Michel Therrien coach hockey. #fuckingHabs”

Also, in other news, the Toronto Maple Leafs convened a camp for their brightest prospects this week, in Niagara Falls. Mitch Marner was there, and William Nylander, along with, of course, Auston Matthews, drafted first overall in June’s draft. Reported the Associated Press: Leafs skating coach Barb Underhill “quickly noticed a flaw in Matthews’ stride: his left shoulder wasn’t coming across enough.”

Subban’s personality was too big for Montreal, said The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur.

Andrew Berkshire, a writer for Sportsnet who also commands editorial content for the analytics firm Sportlogiq: “The Montreal Canadiens have made possibly the worst trade in the history of their franchise, for no reason at all.”

“Unbelievable,” Subban told Adam Vingan, regarding his foie de Paris. About the trade, he said he felt closer to winning the Stanley Cup than he had to before. “I’m just happy to be in a situation where I can excel and feel good about myself coming to the rink every day.”

“I don’t want to take anything away from P.K.,” Montreal GM Marc Bergevin said when he stepped up to face the media in Montreal. “He’s made the way he is and he’s a good person.”

“This is the Roy debacle all over again,” declared Brendan Kelly in The Montreal Gazette. “It’s the worst move by the Habs since Réjean Houle dealt Patrick Roy to the Colorado Avalanche for a bag of pucks in 1995. It took the franchise years to recover from that horrible trade.”

roch pkstrk

David Poile disagreed — but then he was the guy on the other end, Nashville’s GM. “I’m a general manager,” he said of Subban on the day, “but someday I’d like to be a fan, and he is a guy that I would pay money to see.”

“We never had a problem with P.K.,” was something else Marc Bergevin said. “You have 23 players on your roster and they’re all different. They all bring different things. One of the most important things for me is punctuality. We never had a problem with P.K. with that.”

At NHL.com, Adam Kimelman wrote about an 18-year-old draft prospect. His lede:

After surviving a meteor strike, moving to Canada became a bit easier for right wing Vitaly Abramov of Gatineau of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Abramov led Gatineau and indeed all QMJHL rookies in goals, assists, and points (93) last season. Columbus ended up drafting him. Kimelman:

Abramov was at school in his hometown of Chelyabinsk, Russia on Feb. 15, 2013 when a meteor exploded over the city. The meteor was between 49 and 55 feet in size, with an estimated mass of 7,000 to 10,000 tons, according to CNN.

The estimated energy released by the meteor’s explosion was 300-500 kilotons, or about 20 times the estimated amount released by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.

“I was in school and all the windows in my class crashed,” Abramov said. “All windows in the city was gone. … It was like big panic because it was something none of us had ever seen. But after that it was fine when everyone said it was a meteorite and we’re still alive.

“Normal school day and a meteor came down.”

“I will not go into detail why we think we are a better team,” Marc Bergevin told that press conference, “but we feel we are a better team.”

kunlunIn China, during an official visit by President of Russia Vladimir Putin, the Kontinental Hockey League announced that it would add a Beijing franchise to the league, HC Kunlun Red Star, for the 2016-17 season.

Other news from Montreal: the Canadiens acquired winger Andrew Shaw from the Chicago Black Hawks for a pair of draft picks. Known for his energy and a talent for annoyance, Shaw is also remembered for having been suspended in this year’s playoffs for uttering an anti-gay slur. He talked to reporters on a conference call soon afterwards, including Mark Lazerus of The Chicago Sun-Times, who heard him say that Bergevin had been in on drafting him, Shaw, as an assistant GM in Chicago. “He likes the rat in me,” Shaw said.

One new teammate Shaw mentioned was Brendan Gallagher.

“Me and Gallagher have had some fun battles,” he said. “Now I’m excited to be on his side to annoy people together, I guess. It’ll be a fun team to play with. I’m pretty excited about it. Can’t wait for September.”

The Calgary Flames, meantime, drafted 18-year-old Matthew Tkachuk, a.k.a. son of a Keith. “He’s a pain in the ass,” said Brian Burke, chief of Flames hockey operations. “We don’t have enough guys who are pains in the ass… I like guys who are pains in the ass.”

For his part, Tkachuk fils mentioned to a Calgary Herald reporter that he models his game on Corey Perry’s. Wes Gilbertson:

And if he can, indeed, blossom into a Perry sort, he might not have to pay for a meal in Cowtown for his entire life.

After all, Perry is a guy who seems to routinely score 30-plus goals each season, never shies away from a collision and, thanks to his aggravating style, has probably been called four-letter words that most of us don’t even know.

The Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2016 class last week: Eric Lindros, Rogie Vachon, Pat Quinn, and Sergei Makarov. Here’s Katie Baker, at The Ringer, on the erstwhile Number 88:

Lindros was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, after six years of mostly silly rejection, and it’s about damn time. Ever since he was a teenager, the center was an unceasing, and worthy, obsession of the hockey world. He was huge (6-foot-4, 240) and hugely skilled, capable of playing a style of hockey that seemed more of an abstract ideal than an actual bodily possibility. (Instead of using the 20/80 scale to evaluate prospects, hockey scouts ought to just rate them from 1 to Eric Lindros.) He was, for a time, hockey’s avatar. In the biopic he’d be played by Channing Tatum, and you’d spoil the viewing experience for your kids because you’d keep pestering them: No, you don’t understand, there was no one like him in his prime.

 What should a Hall of Fame be? This is a question that all sports face; baseball has a whole steroid-fueled generation that it may never decide how to properly judge. Should the place feel like an encyclopedic compendium of a sport’s most successful players as defined by known, unassailable metrics — career length and Cup wins included — or should it have more laid-back shrine-to-the-glory-of-hockey, this-is-what-things-were-like-back-then vibes? I’m an extremist, but my ideal Hall of Fame would be the best kind of museum, the type that immerses you in the context, ugly and beautiful, of all of hockey’s eras. Hell, put an interactive NHL on Fox glowing-puck exhibit next to Lindros’s bust. Few things are so specifically, disgustingly mid-’90s.

“I’m not P.K. Subban,” Shea Weber said when the media in Canada turned its attention to him, “I’m not going to try to be. I’m going to bring my hard work and attitude and try to bring this team some wins. The biggest thing I want to do is win. I know that they’ve got a good base there, obviously one of the best goaltenders in the world, some top-end forwards, and I’m just excited to be joining that group.”

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needle points

Embroidery Lesson: The Seattle Star accounts for the damage done to Cully Wilson, star of the local PCHA Metropolitans, circa 1915.

Embroidery Lesson: The Seattle Star accounts for the damage done to Cully Wilson, star of the local PCHA Metropolitans, circa 1915.

Bill Gadsby, the Hall-of-Fame defenceman who died last week at the age of 88, suffered for his art. He hit his opponents hard during his 20 years on NHL bluelines, as the obituaries and appreciations duly noted, and that had its costs. Not that he complained. “If your going to give it,” the insufficiently proofread cover of his 2003 autobiography quotes him, “you’d better be able to take it.”

Gadsby’s career damages included the two broken legs, four smashed toes, nine fractured noses — unless, maybe, were there 11 of those, to match the 11 thumbs he injured?

Also, his stitches. At The Hockey News last week, Ken Campbell was quick to crown Gadsby as “the unofficial owner of the all-time league high in stitches with 650.” Dave Stubbs from NHL.com agreed, though he did couch the claim a little more, citing Gadsby’s “unofficial Original Six record of roughly 650 stitches sewn into his face.” In The New York Times, Richard Goldstein, who had nothing to say about records, told his readers that “Gadsby incurred some 640 stitches, many in his face.”

I write here as someone who’s spent some time browsing the medical tolls that hockey exacts from its players as well as the ways in which they’ve figured in the history and the lore of the game. I covered stitch-counting in the book that shares a name with this blog, sewed it up, maybe you’d say — or I would. Still, I’m glad to go through it all again.

First up: what’s the right number when it comes to accounting for the stitches Gadsby needed to bind all his bodily cuts and tears over the course of his NHL career?

The Hockey Hall of Fame website doesn’t hovers over a big but inexact number: “He reputedly received more than 600 stitches to his face.” Joe Pelletier at Greatest Hockey Legends.com can get behind that, even if he’s not willing to limit the count to the face: Gadsby “took approximately 600 stitches due to high sticks and flying pucks.”

Pelletier does say that the defenceman was cut for 12 stitches in his very first NHL game, in 1946, when he debuted for the Chicago Blackhawks. I can’t find anything to back that up, and if it happened, Gadsby forgot about it, too. In that autobiography of his, The Grateful Gadsby, his very own as-told-through-Kevin-Allen story, he recalls that he assisted on a Pete Horeck goal. “Other than that I can’t tell you much about the game. Probably I had too many butterflies to record much in my memories.”

How many butterflies? Sorry, no, stick to stitches. On that, the book is precise: 640 is the number we get on chapter one, page the first. Two pages on:

The reason I know how many stitches I had is that my dear wife, Edna, kept a log of how many times I was hurt, just like some spouses keep a list of birthdays and anniversary dates. That was just part of our life.

Later, with an insurance policy, Gadsby’s stitches proved profitable, as I’ve also written before — but maybe that calls for a separate elaboration, to follow.

Next question, for now: is Gadsby’s 640 some of kind of individual record among players, Original Six or otherwise?

Hockey’s stitch lit goes back almost as far as the organized game itself. Cully Wilson is a name that arises prominently from the early years. A two-time Stanley Cup winner in pre-NHL days, he had the accounting advantage of newspapermen keeping a running total of his sutures. Here’s The Calgary Daily Herald in 1926:

Wilson started his professional hockey career in 1912, and the first year out he was cut for 12 stitches.

Fast forward 14 years:

Two more stitches have been added to Cully Wilson’s carved visage, and the total in his face has risen to 80, the greatest record of any player in the history of hockey.

Sometimes mentioned as Wilson’s heir is Walter Smaill, once of the Cobalt Silver Kings and Montreal’s Wanderers, said to have accumulated 168 stitches in a career that only lasted 137 games.

Next up: Helge Bostrom, defenceman for the Chicago Black Hawks. He was on record as having sustained 100 stitches in 1931 when a skate cut three of the four tendons in his left leg in a collision with Earl Seibert of the New York Rangers and Dr. H.O. Clauss’s repair work added either 140 or 145 more to his tally.

In the late 1930s, Ching Johnson was said to have been — well, more stitched than not. An excitable columnist once said his sewings went as high as 5,000. I don’t know what Johnson thought of that, but he did respond, in 1937, to a report that he’d taken 1,000 in his time. “Where could they put them?” he’s quoted as having said. “I’ve had only 374.”

Lionel Conacher’s catalogued his career of pain for Maclean’s in 1936, including:

a total of more than 500 stitches in my face and head, another 150 or so in the rest of my gnarled anatomy.

A case might be made (as I wrote in Puckstruck) for Gordie Howe, who was declared on a 1968 magazine cover to be “Hockey’s Man Of 1,000 Stitches.” Howe’s own calculations are more modest — and unsettled. The biography on his website says that in years on the ice he amassed “500 stitches in his face alone.” That jibes with what Howe says in an “authorized autobiography” he wrote with Tom DeLisle in 1995, and … Howe!

 In another one, written with Paul Haavardsrud’s help, he begs to differ with himself. “Over my career,” he confides in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014),

I figure I’ve taken more than 300 stitches to my face alone. [Wife] Colleen wondered if that might qualify me for a Guinness world record, but I told her I knew some goalies that definitely had me beat. For what it’s worth, as a connoisseur on the subject I can tell you that not all stitches are created equal. I labeled the area than ran from my nose to below my mouth as the triangle of pain. Taking stitches there was no kind of fun. Getting sewn up in a place with fewer nerve endings, like the forehead, is a breeze in comparison.

It’s an interesting shift. I don’t know how to explain it. What kind of audit would have been involved in this kind of adjusted reporting? Either way, of course, five hundred or three, it’s a lot. “One year I had 50 stitches in my face,” Howe told Larry Bortstein of Family Weekly in 1970. “That was a bad year. A good year is when I have 10 or less.”

Eddie Shore? His count, too, fluctuates. Was it 600? You’ll also find estimates across the years ranging from 900 through 987. Trent Frayne says 964; Shore biographer C. Michael Hiam tells us he was “cut 100 times, receiving 978 stitches.”

That last one is the number that surfaces most often — including in The Catholic Digest in 1951. Other writers are content with resonant approximations. Austen Lake, for instance: “In a rough sum, he had more stitches in his flesh than a tailor needs to make an overcoat.”

That’s probably enough for now, even as I own that we haven’t talked about the goaltenders. Let’s leave it at this: I haven’t yet happened on any, even from the desperate, maskless days pre-1959, claiming more than 500.

As for latter-day challengers, Hall-of-Fame defenceman Rod Langway is one I hadn’t come across before. He was starting into the second-last of his 15 NHL seasons in 1991 when he talked to Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post about his close encounters with monofilament.

“Over 1,000,” Langway said calmly.

Over 1,000?

“Oh sure,” he said. “I’m close to 100 already this year. No, probably closer to 70. I took 11 in the ear in the opener against Philadelphia, these eight in the nose, that’s 19.

Langway made some cursory calculations in his head and said, “I’ve gotten stitched in seven of the 19 games I’ve played.”

Australia's Sydney Sun-Herald reports on the Yanks and their hockey, circa 1976.

Australia’s Sydney Sun-Herald reports on the Yanks and their hockey, circa 1976.

hitch hype

nels & hitch

Headcase: In the aftermath of Ace Bailey’s career-ending head injury in December of 1933, NHL players tried on, tested, and (some of them) took up protective headgear. The man who took Bailey down, Eddie Shore, famously donned a fibre helmet when he returned to the ice following a suspension. Here, in January of 1934, a couple of his Bruin teammates show off the same model that Shore would make famous. Left, prone, is Lionel Hitchman, with Nels Stewart on the right. (AP)

Joe Primeau said he was the toughest player he ever faced. The big fellow, you sometimes see him called in contemporary dispatches (he was 6’1,” if only 170 pounds), as well as a fearless blocker; this lone hockey wolf; and the stone wall on which Montreal’s hopes were dashed.

Toronto-born, defenceman Lionel Hitchman got his NHL start with the old Ottawa Senators, but it was with Boston starting in 1925 that he made his name, pairing with Eddie Shore on the fearsome Bruins’ defence for years not to mention captaining the team to its first Stanley Cup in 1929. “There is no smarter hockey brain than Hitchman’s,” an admirer in the press wrote in 1931, “and there isn’t a man playing with a bigger heart in the sport.”

Why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame? That’s been a pertinent question without a good answer for some years, and it’s one that the estimable Dave Stubbs has taken up this week. Stubbs, late of Montreal’s Gazette, now resident columnist and historian at NHL.com, makes the case in a column, here, calling for the wrong to be righted. Which calls for more, differently spelled hears: hear, hear.

The list of those overlooked by the Hall is a long one, of course, in which Hitchman’s name lines up with … Well, in the matter of Hall absentees, the question isn’t one of where to start, it’s where you stop. Lorne Chabot, Paul Henderson? Claude Provost, Reggie Leach? What about Rogie Vachon, and Herb Cain? Why aren’t they in?

Is the Hall listening? Inscrutable at the best of times, the selection process doesn’t seem to favour candidates from the distant past. So maybe Leach and Henderson ascend before Chabot (who retired after the 1936-37 season and died in 1946) or Hitchman (retired 1934; died 1968)? Maybe.

Meanwhile, while we wait, a few further Hitchman notes:

• He wasn’t first the first Boston captain, but he was the second. Dave Stubbs suggests that the Bruins played their first three years without a skipper when in fact they were only leaderless on the ice for their inaugural season, 1924-25. In the fall of ’25, manager Art Ross brought in veteran marauding defenceman Sprague Cleghorn, who was the captain for two seasons ahead of Hitchman, who you’ll see sometimes referred to as vice-captain in newspaper accounts from that time.

• Fred, as he was often called — he was born Frederick Lionel in 1901 — Fred was often injured, of course; in other words, he was a hockey player. In 1924, still an Ottawa Senator, he was rushing the puck at the Montreal net when Canadiens’ Billy Coutu hit him and he went down, a stick must have done the slicing, he was prone on the ice and had to be carried off with a big gash on his forehead. He returned to the Ottawa bench, with a big plaster on the wound, but didn’t play again that game. In 1928, he was pretty sure he’d broken a shoulder bashing up against the New York Rangers, though x-rays showed it was only separated, and he was back on the ice after missing just a single game. In 1930, teammate Eddie Shore hoisted a puck to clear it but hit Hitchman in the jaw instead, fractured it. That put him out for a while. When he returned, for the playoffs, he was wearing a helmet — though a different one, I think, than the one pictured above.

He had a poor season the following year. The jaw hadn’t healed as it should have, got infected, and (as Victor Jones explained in The Daily Boston Globe) “this poison running through his system is what has been responsible for his mediocre play.” Another report mentioned the unhappy effects of “the puss [sic] in his teeth roots.”

• Hitchman resigned the captaincy ahead of the 1931-32 season. He’d tried to do it a year earlier, during that off-season of his, but Art Ross wouldn’t let him. Not sure how much he was going to play, or at what level, Hitchman was insisting now. This was the year, too, that NHL president Frank Calder made it clear that no longer would managers (looking at you Messrs. Ross and Smythe) be permitted to talk to referees during games, only captains would be able to remonstrate. Ross had appointed Cleghorn and then Hitchman as his captains; this time, he decided to let the players to elect a successor. Hitchman nominated another defenceman, George Owen, and Eddie Shore seconded that, and so it was. Ross said he was so pleased by this that he vowed that all his future captains would be chosen democratically rather than be handpicked by him.

• A 1929 rumour had him going to the Montreal (along with $50,000) in exchange for Howie Morenz. Canadiens manager Cecil Hart was quick to douse that one. “Put this down,” he said, Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.” That would prove to be true, strictly speaking: after a short odyssey that took him to Chicago and New York, Morenz did of course return to Montreal, where he died a Canadien in March of 1937.

Other rumours circulated the year of his jaw infection. Was he headed to Detroit to succeed Jack Adams as manager of the Falcons? Other whispers had Hitchman going to Montreal in the fall of 1931 in exchange for Tommy Cook, a pair of young brothers called Giroux, and cash. This time it was Bruins’ owner and president Charles Adams who did the kyboshing. “It is not the policy of the Bruins to sell any player who is of value to the club.”

• So he played on. I don’t think he ever returned to his old form, though. In January of 1934, the Montreal Gazette was reporting that “his days of effectiveness as a player were numbered,” the only question was would he hang up his skates to take a job as an assistant coach under Art Ross or head down to steer the minor-league Boston Cubs? The Bruins weren’t going to make the playoffs, but they still had eight games remaining. They were already missing Eddie Shore, still serving his suspension for ending the career of (while nearly killing) Toronto’s Ace Bailey. On the night of February 22, Hitchman played his final game, going out in style — that is, “Lionel Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden saw the Bruins lose 3-1 to the Ottawa Senators after a ceremony in which the man of the moment received plaques and cheques and flowers and a chest filled with silverware. His parents were on hand, too, and they were rewarded with their venerable son’s sweater and stick.

• The Bruins did retire Hitchman’s number 3 that night. Just about a week earlier Conn Smythe had vowed that no other Maple Leaf would ever wear Bailey’s number 6 again, so that would seem to make Hitchman’s the second number to be taken out of circulation in professional sports. In Hitchman’s case, the retirement seems to have taken some time to stick. Myles Lane wore Hitchman’s 3 at some point in 1934, and it was back on the ice a couple of years later, worn (if only briefly) by both Bert McInenly and (below) Flash Hollett.

In the 1940s, Hollett got Eddie Shore’s number 2 when the legendary Bruins’ defenceman moved on, under stormy circumstance, to the New York Americans. Some fans in Boston were outraged, said the Shore’s 2 should be withdrawn post haste with even more (as one Shore loyalist wrote) ceremony than Hitchman’s 3.

The Bruins did eventually get around to it, but not until 1947, the year they also retired Dit Clapper’s number 5.

Boston players lobbied hard, apparently, in 1938 to get Ross to honour Tiny Thompson’s number 1, but Ross refused. Thompson was still playing, for one thing — he’d been traded to the Detroit Red Wings to make room for young Frank Brimsek — and, two, Ross was said to be worried about running out of numbers.

Flashman: Flash Hollet poses, Hitchmanesque, in his Boston 3 in 1935. As a Bruin, he also wore 2, 8, and 12. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Flashman: Flash Hollet poses, Hitchmanesque, in his Boston 3 in 1935. As a Bruin, he also wore 2, 8, and 12. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

jean béliveau, 1931—2014

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