cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

jacques plante’s new face-saver

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Mask + Man: Before he added his famous mask to his game equipment one night in 1959, Jacques Plante was protecting his face in practice. After having both cheekbones broken in training mishaps in 1954 and ’55, he first tried a welder’s mask donated by a fan. He later switched to the plexiglass apparatus he’s holding above, the creation of a St. Mary’s, Ontario, inventor by the name of Delbert Louch. “Louch’s New Head-Saver” had its shortcomings: it left a goaltender’s forehead vulnerable and tended, too, to fog over on the ice. Plante modified his, as shown above, by cutting out eye-holes. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

You can guess, maybe, the species of shot that truly distressed Jacques Plante. “Oh brother, that damned slap shot!” he wrote, to the point, in 1971. “You have no idea what an effect the slap shot has had on goalies.” Heading into a game against Chicago, he said, knowing he was gong to facing Bobby Hull, his nerves would start their rattling two days before the teams hit the ice.

Plante was 41 by then, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs — with another three seasons to go before he’d wrap up his 21-year professional career. He was wearing a mask by then, of course — had been for 11 years, ever since the night in 1959 when Andy Bathgate of the Rangers moved in on him in early minutes of a game in New York.

You know the story. It was this week, 57 years ago, November 1. It wasn’t a slapped shot that did the damage and launched a Heritage Minute. No, Bathgate’s effort was a malign backhand. He told Plante biographer Todd Denault that he’d done it on purpose, vengefully — Plante had tripped him into the boards, he was bleeding, and mad. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” he said.

The puck struck Plante to the left of his nose. Dave Anderson: “He toppled face down on the milk-white ice at the right side of the net.” Red Fisher, covering the game for The Montreal Star, would describe Bathgate rushing in and lifting Plante’s head.

Plante stayed down for 15 seconds. He got up with a towel fixed his face, skated off under escort by Maurice Richard and Dickie Moore. A pair of Garden policemen helped him to the medical room. Rangers’ doctor Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa sewed in seven stitches. After 20 minutes, Plante was ready to return. There are varying versions of the conversation that took place between coach and goaltender before Plante rejoined the game. In his biography Behind The Mask, Raymond Plante (no relation) has Plante lying on the medical table, seeing Blake, saying I want to play with my mask on. Blake: We’ll see, we’ll see.

Dave Anderson wrote a Plante feature for The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. As he tells it, Blake is the one to mention the mask, tell Plante he can put it on. Good, Plante told him, because I wouldn’t go back without it.

Todd Denault’s biography is Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (2010). He has a stricken Plante departing the medical room, heading back out to the ice (where — a superior detail — the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), then on the Canadiens’ dressing room where he had it out with his coach. Continue reading

saving face

Chicago coach Rudy Pilous poses with goalie Glenn Hall and the Louch mask he sported — if only in practice — in the fall of 1960. In Glenn Hall: The Man They Call Mr. Goalie (Greystone, 2002), Tom Adrahtas tells the story of what happened earlier in the year when fans voted Hall to the NHL’s First All-Star team. Montreal coach Toe Blake was incensed. “We win first place, Plante wins the Vézina for the fourth time, and he’s not the All-Star?” Pilous was quick to the retort: “My guy was the best. And he played without a mask.” In November of 1959, Plante had famously donned his mask for the first time during a game with the New York Rangers. Blake never liked it; he even accused Plante of cowardice. Plante’s response: “Does jumping out of a plane without a parachute make you a coward?”