no ordinary joe

Red Fisher said that Claude Provost was the Bob Gainey of his day. “He wasn’t as big, probably didn’t have as much skating talent, and maybe didn’t hit as hard as Gainey,” the Montreal Gazette’s longtime columnist enthused, “but he was terribly effective. He had to be to stop somebody like Bobby Hull the way he did … and he was definitely a better scorer than Gainey.”

The question of whether Provost deserves a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame may or may not be answered this coming Tuesday when a new class of inductees is named. Provost, only ever played for the Montreal Canadiens during his 15-year NHL career, certainly has a bevy of Stanley Cup championships to endorse him: he helped the Habs win nine in his time. Renowned as a right winger for his prowess as a checker, he also led the Canadiens in goalscoring in 1961-62, when he scored 33 in a line-up that included Bernie Geoffrion and Jean Béliveau. In 1964-65, he was named to the First All-Star Team, ahead of a pretty good right winger from Detroit named Gordie Howie. Provost also won the first Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 1968 in recognition of his dedication, sportsmanship, and perseverance.

After Provost’s death at the age of 50 in 1984, Tim Burke of the Montreal Gazette remembered him as “one of the best-liked guys ever who ever wore CH on his chest and the premier defensive forward of his time.” Toe Blake assigned him to shadow Bobby Hull whenever Montreal played Chicago during the 1960s, and he had some success in (to borrow Burke’s phrase) trussing up the explosive left winger. Provost wasn’t always convinced that he was winning that duel, though. “I used to have pretty good success in checking,” he said of Hull in 1964, “then I got caught twice and scored two goals. What am I supposed to do, sit on him?”

Henri Richard was his roommate in junior and throughout his Montreal career. “He had very little talent,” he said, fondly, “but he made up for everything with hard work. … He even became a goalscorer by just getting in front all the time. We used to kid him that more goals went in off his ass than his stick.” He’d anchor himself in the slot with a distinctive bow-legged stance, digging his skates into the ice so hard that, as Canadiens’ equipment manager Eddie Palchak recalled, “he needed his skates sharpened after every period.”

“That’s why we started calling him Cowboy Joe,” Richard said, “those bow legs of his. He was the perfect guy to room with. You couldn’t stay down in the dumps with him around. He was always fun and a great team man.”

they call me gump, and worse

Born in Montreal on a Tuesday 90 years ago today, Gump Worsley guarded goals for the New York Rangers, Montreal’s Canadiens, and the Minnesota North Stars, collecting four Stanley Cups, a Calder Trophy, and two Vézinas during his 21-year Hall-of-Fame NHL career. He died in 2007 at the age of 77.

“The basketball-shaped goalie,” Roger Angell called him, not so charitably. It’s the case, too, that when Worsley was dissuading pucks for the not-very-good Rangers in the late 1950s, his coach accused him of “jeopardizing” the team’s playoff chances by failing to stay in shape. “You can’t play goal with a beer-barrel belly,” Phil Watson was reported to have (quote) screamed at Worsley in the winter of 1957 after the Chicago Black Hawks put three third-period goals past him to earn a 6-6 tie. “Every time I hop on this fellow,” Watson raged, “everybody accuses me of unjustly attacking him. But the same guys who go in after a game and pat him on the back are the guys who are buying him beer. Worsley is the most uncooperative player on the club during practice. He refuses to work, even though he knows he’s overweight. He should weigh 165 pounds, but he’s over 170 now.” Asked whether he planned to discipline his goaltender, Watson (UPI reported) “tugged violently at his necktie,” barking, “I’m not going to fine him I’m not going to replace him. But I’ll tell you this, brother, I’m going to ride hard the rest of the season.”

Worsley’s response? “I just stunk up the place,” he said. “It was probably my worst game of the season. But I’ve only gained two pounds recently.”

Also: “From me to Phil, here’s a quote: tell him he’s full of baloney.”

The Rangers did clamber into the post-season in ’57, clinching the fourth and final playoff berth ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rewarded with a meeting with the Montreal Canadiens, the Rangers succumbed in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. It was Maurice Richard who scored the overtime goal that sealed the series for Canadiens. New York reporters who tracked Watson down a day before that puck went in to put the Rangers out mentioned to the coach that they’d been talking to Richard. “The Rocket was real nice,” Dave Anderson of the New York Journal-American told Watson, “and said you were a pretty good fellow, and he also praised Worsley. He said of Worsley, ‘I love that little Gump.’”

Watson: “Why the hell shouldn’t he say he loves Worsley? He’s scored 150 goals against him in his career. If I scored 150 goals against a goalie, I’d love him, too.”

net presence

The first time Gerry McNeil defended the Montreal Canadiens’ net was in 1947, when he relieved an injured Bill Durnan at the Forum midway through a meeting with the New York Rangers. Montreal lost a 1-0 lead that night; the Rangers won 5-3. McNeil “wasn’t given the best of protection,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll wrote, “but the fact remains that Durnan’s absence was felt.” McNeil started the next night, too, against Boston, holding the Bruins to a 2-2 tie. “Steady but unspectacular” was the verdict on that performance.

Born in Quebec City on a Saturday of this date in 1926, McNeil remains largely unsung in the annals of Montreal goaltending greatness. To demonstrate why that’s not fair you might cite the fact that in all four seasons in which he was Montreal’s first-choice puckstop, from 1950 through ’54, Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup finals. “The plucky goaler,” Dink Carroll called him in 1953 when McNeil led his team to a championship with a fifth-game shutout of the Boston Bruins. Often remembered as the man Toronto’s Bill Barilko scored on to win the 1951 Cup for the Maple Leafs, McNeil ended up playing parts of seven seasons with Montreal. His last stint as a Canadien came during the 1956-57 regular season when he returned from retirement to sub in for an asthmatic Jacques Plante. Canadiens won a Cup that year, too.

Gerry McNeil died in 2004 at the age of 78. For more on his life and times, his son David McNeil very good book is the one you want. In The Pressure of the Moment: Remembering Gerry McNeil (2016) also happens to be a fascinating cultural study of the game as well an incisive guide to the arts and anguishes of goaltending.

bruce bennett: have to get up in the morning, shoot a hockey game each day

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He’s been called, inevitably, the Wayne Gretzky of hockey photography, as well as the Einstein. Both are meant to measure and honour Bruce Bennett’s rinkside genius with a camera, of course; the latter pays additional tribute to his grey head of mad-scientist hair.

Whichever way you want to label him, there’s no disputing that Bennett, who turned 60 this year, is hockey’s pre-eminent modern-day photographer. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he got his first assignment for The Hockey News in 1974. By the end of last hockey season, he’d photographed 4,678 NHL games, along with dozens of Olympic, international, junior and college games. If you’re a hockey fan, it’s no exaggeration to say that most of the best hockey images you’ve seen over the past 40 years were formed and frozen in Bennett’s camera.

After 30 years in the business, Bennett sold his business to Getty Images, for whom he continues to shoot and oversee hockey coverage. For Hockey Greatest Photos, he’s chosen 246 images from an archive surpassing two million — “a monumental task,” he writes in his Backword here — to assemble what is a stunning scrapbook of hockey history.

As is usual for him at this time of year, Bruce Bennett has his camera in hand this fall and his eye on hockey players. When Puckstruck caught up to him late last week, he was en route from New York to Toronto for the weekend’s Hockey Hall of Fame ceremonies. Via e-mail, we questioned and he answered:

I won’t ask you outright what your favourite image is in the book (though you’re free to mention it), but what about this: is there one, to you, that best captures the essence of the game?

Wow. Good question and since there are 246 favorite images in the book, your twist works well. And at least I have a few minutes to page through and pick one. The logical conclusion of any sporting event is that there is a winner, and a loser. That is summed up with my photograph of Henrik Lundqvist, alone in the crease as the Los Angeles Kings celebrate their Cup victory around him. The essence of the perfect sports photo that captured jubilation and dejection. And number two, if you would allow me, is an image from last season as Alex Ovechkin dives to hit the puck past Lundqvist. To me the image summarizes the dedication, perseverance and tenacity that it takes to be successful in this sport. And seeing Ovechkin’s eyes following the puck is a bonus.

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Did you admire particular hockey photographers as a boy and/or as a young photographer? Your forebears behind a camera at the rink include many great names, from Turofsky to Bier to Brodeur. Is there one whom you especially admire? Is that a hockey photograph of someone else’s that’s a favourite of yours?

I was an Ansel Adams fan growing up and as I started my hockey career I became more aware of the hockey photographers around me. Among them was another Long Island native Joe DiMaggio who mentored me and I learned so much from him about photography and life in general. Then there was Mel DiGiacomo who was, and still is, a creative genius. He moved from hockey to tennis and then on to photojournalism and is the epitome of an “old master” shooting black-and-white images that tug at the heartstrings. And yes David Bier and Denis Brodeur were two guys who I admired as much for their willingness to share techniques and knowledge as I did for their immense talent.

How does hockey rate on the chart of hard-to-photograph sports? What’s the biggest challenge?

It would be easy for me to say it’s the hardest but I’m probably not one to judge since my experience with other sports is limited. But many other photographers have said that the combination of playing in low light venues, the speed of the game, its unpredictable nature and the poor photo positions certainly make this a real challenge.

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Have advances in photographic equipment made your job easier over the years? Anything that’s been lost along the way, or is it altogether better to be shooting now than in the 1970s?

I really can’t think of anything about photography that was better when I started. The natural evolution of the equipment, along with the entrance into the digital age has changed the profession in countless ways. Improvements in equipment included moving from manual focus to autofocus and then the continual improvements in autofocus, sharper lenses, and faster motor drives have been great advances. As for the digital cameras, the use of digital cards with the ability to shoot thousands of images before reloading, seeing instantly what you’ve captured (or missed!), and being enable to shoot high-quality images in lower light situations have all improved the craft of sports photography.

Is there a shot you didn’t get that haunts you?

Countless images lost — in fact a game doesn’t go by that I regret something I missed. I do remember one specific one maybe ten years ago but don’t even remember the teams. It is always important to fill the frame and get in tight. On this image I was filling the frame as two guys stood in front of the net. A floating shot towards the net came in very high and both guys lifted off like basketball players going to the net. And there they were maybe three feet off the ice … and I cut their heads off! But like a goaltender you need to clear your head when you miss one or you won’t be prepared for the next shot. Have to just shake it off!!

Do you play?

Nope. I played through high school and college and a few times a year for many years after that until I was about 40. Then at one pickup game after I miraculously moved around some guy, he dove and slashed me on my high school style shinguards. I realized then that I wasn’t that interested in playing anymore. Have to get up in the morning and be physically able to shoot a hockey game each day!!

Hockey’s Greatest Photos: The Bruce Bennett Collection
The Hockey News, Photographs by Bruce Bennett
(Juniper/ Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., C$39.95/US$34.95)

 

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waxworked

waxhead rocket

Waxen-Rocket Richard was 15 pounds lighter than the real article, and he didn’t have enough hair.

That’s what the flesh-and-blood Richard noticed when he showed up, above, in March of 1965 to visit his doppelgänger at Montreal’s new Ville Marie Wax Museum a month before it opened.

“It scares me a little,” said the Rocket and, well, yes. I mean, the man’s head was working independent from its facsimile body — they hadn’t attached the two yet — plus Richard found that the birthmark on his actual chin had migrated on his double to the cheek.

Fortunately, artists named Winifred Mills and Margaret Brody were on hand in Montreal to correct the errors. They worked for Madame Tussauds in London, the famous waxworks, which had decided that the time had come to open up a franchise in Montreal. Richard’s display commemorated the occasion of his 500th NHL goal, scored on Chicago’s Glenn Hall on October 19th, 1957. Others featured Abraham Lincoln (his assassination), Jesus (the Last Supper), Joan of Arc (at the stake), and Brigitte Bardot (taking a shower).

Richard was in a good mood. He noticed that many of the famous women, Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor as well as Bardot and Arc, had yet to be dressed. “They’d be embarrassed,” he said. Looking himself in the eye, he added, “I lost my head a few times in the NHL. Maybe I could have used this one for a spare.”

It had been crafted in England, from photographs. In Montreal, Mses. Mills and Brody took the opportunity of meeting the real-Rocket to add more hair to the dummy, and to relocate the birthmark chinward. Local newspapermen noted that in wax, the Rocket maintained his NHL playing weight, 185 pounds, rather than 200 he was currently carrying as a former NHLer. The uniform he’d be wearing in the museum, equipment and skates, too, were authentic enough: the man himself had donated the garb he’d been wearing the year he’d retired from the Canadiens in 1960.

Is it worth adding what people stole once the wax museum opened? I’m not sure; probably not. But just in case: Christ’s sandals often went missing, along with Lee Harvey Oswald’s handcuffs (he was in there, too) and (regularly) the towel that Bardot was wearing in the shower.

And in 1968, Bardot herself disappeared. Curator Blake Lilly was stunned; towels were one thing, but “to lose the whole thing,” he said, “is unbelievable.” He called the police and posted a $100 reward leading to Bardot’s return.

“The thing’s worth at least $2,000,” Lilly told Montreal’s Gazette, “if you consider shipping costs from England and customs duties.”

The culprits were soon revealed: students from the University of Montreal had, it turned out, kidnapped her. It was carnival time in Montreal, and students were out competitively swiping stuff for pranks. That same day they also absconded with one of the Canadian Army’s armoured cars; a cow named Judy LaVache; and the Lieutenant-Governor’s throne from Quebec’s Legislative Assembly.

Just like this waxy reproduction, Richard scored his 500th NHL goal on Glenn Hall on October 19, 1957.

Just like this: Montreal’s waxy reproduction of Rocket Richard scoring his 500th NHL goal on Glenn Hall on October 19, 1957.

(Top photo: David Bier)