backline boss

Best In Class: “When he touched the puck, something magical began to happen on the ice,” a Montreal editorial eulogized in 1989 when Doug Harvey died, on this date, a Tuesday, at the age of 65. Legendary Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman said that Harvey was the best defenceman he ever saw, and Harvey had the Norris Trophies to back the man up: indeed, Harvey was named the NHL’s superior defencemen seven times during his 20-year career in the league. Mostly, of course, he manned a Montreal blueline, helping Canadiens win six Stanley Cups; later on, he suited up for the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, and St. Louis Blues, too. (Image, from 1959: Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada/ e002343733)

here’s to you, mr. robinson

Ecce Homo: No occasion to mark here, birthday or anniversary: this 1979 portrait of Hall-of-Fame defenceman Larry Robinson hoisted up on a corn crib is an occasion unto itself. “Born and raised on a dairy farm in the Ottawa Valley,” the accompanying feature instructed readers, “Robinson embodies the strength and responsibility of rural morality. As Montreal’s ex-coach Scotty Bowman put it, ‘When there’s trouble or confusion, he seems to skate into the middle of things and take control just by being there.’” Writer Jay Teitel observed Robinson in all his 6’4’’, 225-pound glory in the off-season, joining him on the road to a softball game: “He’s frowning slightly out the window at the road, his features, especially his moustache, looming a bit larger than life, the way they do on my TV screen when the camera catches him in his haggard sentinel pose at the blue line. A U.S. Civil War general and Mark Twain are two of the images that come to mind.” (Image: Hauser/D’Orio, Weekend Magazine)

red dutton: lanky, burly, sorrel-topped scrapper

Before he found his way to Montreal to play for the NHL’s long-lost Maroons in the mid-1920s, Red Dutton went to the war in France. It was 1915 when he went to enlist,  and though he was too young, they took him all the same, backdating his birth to make it official, ish. He was badly wounded near Vimy in 1917, nearly lost a leg, returned home to recover, did so, hit the ice in a serious way in the early 1920s, when he was soon a star defenceman with the Calgary Tigers of the Western Canada Hockey League. In 1925, Frank Patrick rated him the best defender in hockey, forget everybody else, including every blueliner playing in the NHL. Browsing old newspapers from those years, you’ll find that his epithets included lanky rearguard, burly defenceman, hefty and red-headed, quick-tempered on the ice and susceptible to needling; also, the sorrel-skulled scrapper. Sentences describing his exploits sometimes read “received a major penalty when he back-talked to referee Lou Marsh” and “plays hard, drinks doubles, blisters wallpaper when riled.” He was a captain for the Maroons, and also led the league in penalty minutes in 1928-29, and then again in 1931-32. By then he was with the New York Americans, for whom he took over as playing coach in 1935. Later, he was manager in New York and, when the franchise was faltering, stoutly steered the team along, doing his best to prevent its demise; failing. When Frank Calder died in 1943, Dutton stepped in as NHL president, and did that for a spell, too, before Clarence Campbell succeeded him. Dutton was elevated to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1958. Anything else? A whole lot, but let’s leave it here. Born in Russell, Manitoba, on July 23, 1897, Red Dutton died on this day, March 15, in 1987. He was 89. Oh, and Norman was his name, officially, to begin with, though nobody called him that, much: he went by Mervyn and Red, unofficial monikers he acquired as a boy.

enemy bombers arriving in howell’s territory are rarely shot down

Baseball’s Opening Day yesterday, which is all the reason as I need to invoke the venerable name and prose virtues of Roger Angell who, at 96, remains the finest, most exacting of the game’s expressionists. I trust he watched the New York Yankees succumb on Sunday, 7-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays, and that he’ll be soon be weighing in at The New Yorker on Masahiro Tanaka and the flaws in his fastball.

Baseball, it’s true, has been Angell’s bread and … batter. But he knows his hockey, too. He’d tell you so himself, and there’s plenty of evidence in The New Yorker’s archives. Around this time of year in 1967, for instance, he penned a long “Sporting Scene” review of the up-and- down season of the New York Rangers as the team prepared to depart the third Madison Square Garden in favour of the brand-new fourth. “The Last Flowers in the Garden” finds Angell in a mood for nostalgia, recalling the heroes of good old days (Don Raleigh + the Gumper), even as he coddles hopes for the future (maybe they can hang on to second place as the playoffs loomed).

In the here-and-now of late-season ’67, Angell likes the team that GM Emile Francis has wrought, muscled as it is with Reg Fleming and Orland Kurtenbach, sped by forwards Rod Gilbert, Bob Nevin, and Phil Goyette, veteran’d with a 36-year-old Boom-Boom Geoffrion. Maybe the Rangers’ recent history has been one of failing at the finish, but Angell is feeling good: Francis, he feels, has “rebuilt their quaint, four-cylinder interior engine that used to poop out on every winter hillock.” The Rangers have been healthy and playing well: who knows what might happen once the Stanley Cup is in play?

It’s in this spirit that Angell keys in on another veteran, a 34-year-old son of Hamilton, Ontario, pictured here above. “The sudden and absolute apotheosis of Harry Howell, the handsome gray-haired defenseman who has been with the team since 1952 and has played in more Ranger games than anyone else in club history” is, in Angell’s eye, one of the best stories of the season. As he says, memorably:

Over the years, Harry’s sincere, fatherly competence had won him more admiration from the ladies at the Garden than from the sportswriters, but early this season it became apparent to everybody that at last, at the age of thirty-four, he had developed into the best defenceman in the league. Enemy bombers arriving in Howell’s territory are rarely shot down; they seem, rather, to fly into a wall of wet Kleenex and stick there, kicking. When carrying the puck through a cloud of opposing forecheckers and up to the safety of center ice, Howell has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic. This year, relieved by better defense and goaltending, he is no longer burdened with the notion that he must hurry back instantly, and help out at the steam tables, and his low, accurate shots from the blue line have brought him more goals and assists than most of the team’s forwards. In the midseason balloting, Howell was a unanimous choice for the league’s all-star team.