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.

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

not too long ago, up in canada land

sndrson pkstrk

Tale of the Turk: A birthday today for Derek Sanderson, who’s 70 now. Once, when he was the toast of Boston, and wasn’t busy Bruining, he owned a bar, and hosted his own TV show. In 1971, a pair of songwriters named Dave McKinley and Bill Dulaney wrote him a song. Backed by The Young Turks, they sang in “The Ballad of Derek The Turk” of the man’s moustache, his flirting, his friendship with Bobby Orr. There was a B-side, too, “Score One More,” featuring this couplet, among others:

Johnny Mackenzie is in a frenzy/ Chasin’ down the bad guys like a little hurrikenzie

Reading the lyrics here, below, you can imagine the quality of these odes, I think; best not to curdle your day by bending your ear to the sound of the actual music.

derek the turk

young turks

1969-70

1969-70

Stephen Cole’s new book is a boisterous account of the decade when the NHL let it all hang out: Hockey Night Fever: Mullets, Mayhem and the Game’s Coming of Age in the 1970s. Who else was he going to kick off with, chapter one, if not the ungovernable Derek Sanderson?

Cole sketches vividly to give us Sanderson’s early days in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He’s drawing here on Sanderson’s two autobiographies, published 42 years apart. If you’ve read those — I’ve Got To Me came out in 1970, Stan Fischler assisting, when Sanderson was 24; he was 66 when Crossing The Line (Kevin Shea lending a hand) in 2012 — you’ll maybe recall the prominent figure cut by Sanderson’s father, Harold.

A wounded veteran of infantry battle in the Second World War, he was the one who (the story goes) read in Maclean’s in or around 1950 that no professionals were more respected in Canada’s than hockey players and so, guess what, that’s what young Derek would be. Once the boy got up on skates, Harold’s the one who told him not to worry about a little blood. Later he made a ritual of saving Derek’s actual stitches once they’d done the work of binding his hockey wounds.

“A sparky daredevil,” Cole calls Harold, “pushing Kotex past the finish line in sleepy postwar Ontario.”

That’s in reference to a job Harold worked at Kimberly-Clark. In his 1970 memoir, Derek tells us that he started sweeping floors, then became a machinist. In 2012 the telling is more detailed and only a tiny bit awkward:

After the war, my dad got a job at Kimberly-Clark plant, where they manufactured feminine hygiene products. My father was mechanically inclined and could fix anything. He was great with machinery. By simply looking at things, he could tell you how they worked.

Which brings us to the crucial moment in the Turk Sanderson origin story: the first steps on skates.

Here’s what Stephen Cole gives us:

Harold fixed butter knives to the bottom of Derek’s first shoes. Later, he spread linoleum on the driveway, building a practice net from abandoned (?) pipes at Kimberly-Clark.

There are a couple of things here to unpack. One, I have to put a question mark on that question mark. What’s that all about? Sanderson 2.0 makes no mention of linoleum; Harold’s net is for the famous rink he froze across several neighbours’ backyards:

My dad made real boards, and brought home some old discarded pipes from the Kimberly-Clark plant, along with old mesh from the Niagara Falls Memorial Arena, to make nets.

Is Cole suggesting that the pipes were still in use when Harold decided to remove and repurpose them? If so, is that kind of an accusation really best levelled via punctuation?

Two: butter knives?

It’s straight from the Sanderson/Shea, 2012, which come with bonus material detailing some of the engineering involved.

My dad was an extremely intelligent guy, in spite of his lack of formal education, and with a boatload of common sense, he took a practical approach to everything he did. He wanted me to find my balance on a pair of skates. To prepare me, he took a couple of butter knives, cut them off and taped them to my shoes and then had me walk around on the hardwood floors. I was four years old.

After what I’ve read, I’m not doubting Harold, his ingenuity or his ability. I do wish, though, that we knew a bit more about the taping. We’re talking best-quality duct tape, I assume. Still, can you tape knives to shoes in a way that they’ll support the weight of a rambling four-year-old? I just don’t see taped knives holding in place. I guess probably an experiment is in order, with these butter knives and tape. Just as I can secure the lend of a willing toddler, we’ll head over to the Puckstruck testing lab.

In the meantime, consider that this may have been old hat for young Derek. If you go by what he says in I’ve Got To Be Me/1970, he was already up about in the living room a whole year earlier, at age three, with no cutlery in sight:

My dad bought me a pair of skates and then, right in the living room, he’d lace them up and have me walk around on the carpet. The point was for me to get the feel of the skates and to develop balance.

“Just walk around on them,” he’d say, and I’d stumble all over the place until I got the feel of the blades on the boots. My mother, Caroline, didn’t exactly object. She was usually mild mannered, always had food on the table and our clothes were always clean. She was the type of person who, if you got up in the middle of the night, would make the bed while you were gone.

1973-74

1973-74

(Hockey card images courtesy of Hockeymedia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

hp[in]hb: derek sanderson

sanderson

Severely Sprained: Derek Sanderson jumped from the NHL’s Boston Bruins to a $2.6-million contract with the Philadelphia Blazers of the upstart WHA in the summer of 1972. The team lost seven games in a row to start the season but Sanderson, 26, was scoring – when he wasn’t sitting out penalties. In eight games he had three goals, three assists, 69 minutes of sanction. His final game, in Cleveland, in November, he came out of the penalty box, went for the puck and – let’s let him tell it himself, as he does in the 2012 memoir, Crossing The Line, written with Kevin Shea:

My left foot landed on a piece of garbage that somebody had thrown at me. I slipped and I could feel the pain go up my spine and right down my leg. Boom! I dropped like a stone. The left leg went out from under me and I kind of did the splits. My back took it all because I didn’t have my weight balanced. I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t move.

He doesn’t remember getting back to Philadelphia, but that’s where he ended up, at the Hahneman Hospital with a severe muscle sprain in the low back. The pain was “unbelievably bad.” Dr. Arnold Berman wanted to operate. Sanderson had only one condition: the doctor had to sign an agreement guaranteeing that if, post-surgery, Sanderson couldn’t play hockey again, Dr. Berman would personally pay Sanderson’s salary for life.

Second opinion: a week’s bedrest should do the trick.

A few days later, lying abed in his suite at the Latham Hotel, Sanderson (above) held a press conference. “In retrospect,” he says in his book, “I should have held my tongue, but my style was to say what was on my mind.” No athlete liked playing in Philadelphia, he told reporters, because the fans were all sourpusses – though only because the press was so negative. As for marriage, he said he was looking for a girl who was “independent, strong, confident, intelligent, witty, beautiful, understanding and sensitive.”

He was ready to play again in December, but by then Philadelphia had decided that they couldn’t afford his contract. Early in the new year, Sanderson was back in Boston, a Bruin again.

the ghost of bobby orr (ii)

Peter Mansbridge didn’t mention him when he talked to Bobby Orr on CBC’s The National last night about Orr: My Story, published today, and you won’t see his name in most of the reviews and interviews. In the book itself, it doesn’t appear until page 280, at the end of a deft afterword. Then it’s there again, over the page, where he gets the final word in Orr’s acknowledgments:

My special thanks go to my friend Vern Stenlund for helping me get all this down on paper. We’ve worked on a few projects over the years, but this one required special patience.

orr 1But if little of the light that Bobby Orr’s new autobiography is generating will illuminate Orr’s friend and ghostwriter, that’s just as Dr. Vern Stenlund prefers it. Born and raised in Thunder Bay, he played his junior hockey with the Junior B Chatham Maroons before moving up to A with the London Knights.

As the Hockey Hall of Fame register of players notes, he was a scoring star in those years, netting 84 goals in three seasons. In 1976 the California Seals drafted him 23rd overall, just after Brian Sutter (20th) and ahead of the likes of Randy Carlyle (30th) and Kent Nilsson (64th). His four NHL games came in the spring of 1977, after California had moved to Cleveland. Injuries took a toll in the years that followed. “I had some knee problems and shoulder woes that kind of took the starch out of my game,” he says, “but such is life.” He retired from the game in 1981 after a final year skating in Norway.

He went on to coach, at the youth, Junior B, and university level, and for Windsor in the OHL. He got a master’s degree in education and followed that with a doctorate. He wrote influential books, Coaching Hockey Successfully (2002) with Denis Gendron and (with Steve Cady) High-Performance Skating for Hockey (1998) among them. And when Bobby Orr got involved with Chevrolet’s Safe and Fun hockey program to mentor minor hockey players, it was Stenlund who worked with him.

Nowadays, when he’s not shaping the memoirs of all-time hockey greats, he teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Windsor.

Friendly and forthcoming, he was on the phone recently from his office to talk about his work on Orr: My Story, having made clear that the background is where he’d rather remain. “This is Bobby’s book,” he started by saying, “and I sort of did some grunt work for him, so I don’t want to be perceived in any way shape or form as trying to upstage him …”

Did you and Bobby Orr ever meet on the ice?
You know, I only played four games in the Show… My fourth game was against the Chicago Black Hawks, last game of the season, ’76-77 season, and I was called up the last two weeks with Cleveland. And so we went to Chicago and I was very hopeful that I’d get a chance to play against him. He was so banged up, of course, he only played about 26 games over the two years in Chicago — or three years, actually, I guess — so by the time I got there, his time was done. I’ve always told him, I think he must have heard I was coming to town and he got a little bit weak-kneed and didn’t want to got in the line-up that night.

What kind of a player were you?
Yeah, you know I was sort of a big centreman for my time and I was a skill guy. My heroes when I watching the NHL, I was a great Jean Béliveau fan, and I remember as a kid watching him, toward the end of his career. Loved Gilbert Perreault, the way he played. I was a kind of a guy that liked to carry the puck, rush the puck, that was my game. I always felt hockey was artistry on ice, you wanted to be creative, and that’s what I tried to do. Continue reading