give me the bad losers, jack adams said, let the other teams have the good ones

What particularly endeared Detroit Red Wings coach and GM Jack Adams to his goaltender in the spring of 1943? That Johnny Mowers was “twice as bad a loser as I am.”

“That’s what I like,” Adams effused. “Give me those bad losers; let the other clubs have the good losers.”

1943 was a fine year to be a Red Wing. That April, Adams’ team had failed to lose to Art Ross’ Bruins, sweeping to a Stanley Cup championship in four straight games. Mowers, 26, played an outstanding series, shutting Boston’s shooters out entirely in each of the final two games. In his third season patrolling the Detroit net, Mowers, who hailed from Niagara Falls, Ontario, also won the Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender and a place on the league’s First All-Star Team.

Adams, it turned out, would have to make alternate goaltending arrangements for the following season. With the war in its fourth year, Mowers enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in July of ’43, reporting for training to No. 1 Manning Depot on the grounds of Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. “The red lights in NHL arenas will not shine behind [Mowers] this coming season or for the duration,” ran the caption that went with this photograph, taken there in late August.

That’s not to say Aircraftman 2nd Class Mowers didn’t see the ice while he wore his country’s uniform. That winter, he tended the nets for the Toronto edition of the RCAF Flyers during their OHA Senior schedule on a team that also counted on a number of NHLers-turned-airmen, including former Maple Leafs Ernie Dickens, Red Heron, and Bud Poile, and Peanuts O’Flaherty, who’d skated with the New York Americans.

Back in Detroit, Jack Adams would call on four goaltenders to defend the Red Wing net as they tried to defend their championship through the 1943-44 season. Connie Dion, Jim Franks, Normie Smith, and rookie Harry Lumley all saw pucks in that vain campaign — the Montreal Canadiens ended up winning the Cup in ’44.

Johnny Mowers served three years with the RCAF, making it back to the NHL after the war. He rejoined the Red Wings in 1946, though only as a reliever: Harry Lumley had, by then, established himself as the starter.

perhaps some day: hockey’s early, battered goaltenders and the long wait for a better (non-baseball) mask

“All his teeth were loosened:” Not long after John Ross Roach posed in a baseball catcher’s mask in 1933, he was cut, contused, and concussed while going barefaced into the breach in the Red Wings’ net.

Last Friday was November 1 and therefore an auspicious anniversary in the history of hockey preventatives: it was 60 years to the day that Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Jacques Plante decided that he’d played enough barefaced hockey in the NHL. Cut by a puck shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that night in 1959 at Madison Square Garden, Plante left the game bleeding badly. When he returned to the ice, he was wearing a mask over his stitches and bandages. Clint Benedict had experimented with a mask (or masks) back in 1930, of course, but it was with Plante that the practice of goaltenders protecting their faces became commonplace in the NHL.

That’s not to say that throughout the rest of hockey history goaltenders weren’t constantly thinking about mitigating the damage being done to their faces. Baseball’s catcher’s mask originated at Harvard University in the 1870s, and it makes sense that hockey players might reach for a handy one of those come wintertime.

Eric Zweig has written about Eddie Giroux experimenting in 1903 with just such a mask. Giroux would go on, in 1907, to win a Stanley Cup with Kenora, but this was four years earlier when he was playing for Toronto’s OHA Marlboros. A shot by teammate Tommy Phillips cut him in practice, and so he tried the mask, though it’s not clear that he wore it in an actual game.

Same for Kingston’s Edgar Hiscock, who had his nose broken playing for the Frontenacs in 1899. He was reported to be ready to don a “baseball mask” in the game that followed, though I haven’t seen a corroborating account from the actual game in question. Mentioning Hiscock’s innovation beforehand, a local correspondent weighed in:

This is a new idea, and one which, perhaps, will create some amusement among the spectators at first, but yet there is not the least doubt of it being carried into effect, as something should be worn by goalkeepers to protect the head from the swift shots of some hockey players.

Is Hiscock’s the earliest recorded instance of a goaltender sporting a mask? That I’ve come across, yes — but only so far, and not by much. A goaltender in Calgary donned a baseball mask in an intermediate game a couple of months later.

Hockey players and pundits were constantly discussing the pros and cons of masks throughout the early years of the new century. There was talk in 1912 around the NHA (forerunner to the NHL) that it might be time for goaltenders to protect their faces, though nothing ever came of it. In 1922, the OHA added a provision to its rulebook allowing goaltenders to wear baseball masks.

We know that Corinne Hardman of Montreal’s Western Ladies Hockey Club was wearing a mask a few years before that. And in 1927, while Elizabeth Graham was styling a fencing-mask while tending the nets for Queen’s University, Lawrence Jones was wearing a mask of his own to do his goaling for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of theUpper Ottawa Valley Hockey League.

“Keeping both eyes on the elusive rubber disk is a decidedly more difficult matter than watching a pitched or thrown ball in baseball,” the Globe explained in 1922 in noting that catcher’s masks weren’t generally up to job that hockey goaltending demanded from them. On that count, nothing had really changed since Eddie Giroux considered a baseball mask 20 years earlier. “He wore it at a couple of practices,” the Globe noted then, “but found it unsatisfactory owing to the difficulty in locating shots from the side.”

If you’ve dug into hockey-mask history, you’ll recognize that as a refrain. Goaltenders who, liked most of us, would rather not have exposed their heads to hurtling puck and errant sticks and skates chose to do so because nobody had invented a mask that would allow them to see well enough continue their puckstopping at the level they were used to.

I don’t know whether we can properly understand the bravery and hardiness of the men who tended the nets in the early NHL, much less the suffering. Hard as it may be to quantify, I’m ready to declare that the 1920s and ’30s were the most damaging era ever for NHL goaltenders. Lester Patrick’s unlikely turn in the New York Rangers’ net during the 1928 Stanley Cup finals came about because his goalie, Lorne Chabot, nearly lost an eye when Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons caught him with a backhand. Chabot was back in net, mask-free, to start the next season.

It’s just possible (if not entirely probable) that in 1929, a year before Clint Benedict debuted his mask, George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens tried one of his own after a teammate’s warm-up shot to the face put him in hospital. The history of goaltenders contused, cut, and concussed in those first decades of the NHL is as grim as it voluminous — and that’s before you get to the part about the frontline goalies, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers and Canadiens’ Wilf Cude, whose NHL careers seem to have been cut short by what might today be diagnosed as PTSD.

All of which is to say that goalies needed all the help the protection they could get in 1933, which is when this photograph dates to. At 33, John Ross Roach was a cornerstone of Jack Adams’ Detroit Red Wings, and while he was the oldest player in the NHL that year, he wasn’t showing any signs of flagging, having started every one of Detroit’s 48 regular-season games in 1932-33. He was still in his prime when a photographer posed in a mask borrowed from a baseball catcher. The feature that it illustrated does suggest that Roach did experiment with a similar set-up in practice, though he’d never tested it in a game.

Roach’s problem with the catcher’s mask was the same one that Eddie Giroux had encountered 30 years earlier: it obscured a goalie’s sightlines. Playing under the lights in modern rinks only compounded the problem. “The mask creates shadows under artificial lighting that do not exist in sun-lit ball parks,” Jack Carveth’s Detroit Free Press report expounded, “and Roach wants no shadows impairing his vision when fellows like Charlie Conacher, Billy Cook, Howie Morenz or dozens of others are winding up for a drive 10 feet in front of him. Perhaps some day in the not too distant future a mask will be made that will eliminate the shadows. Until such a product arrives, Roach and his fellow workmen between the posts will keep their averages up at the expense of their faces, having the lacerations sewn up and head bumps reduced by the skilled hands of the club physician.”

Detroit took to the ice at the Olympia on the Sunday that Carveth’s article ran. Montreal’s Maroons were in town for an early-season visit (which they ended up losing, 3-1). Other than a second-period brawl involving players and fans and police, the news of the night was what happened just before the fists started flying. Falling to stop a shot from Montreal’s Baldy Northcott, Roach, maskless, was cut in the face by teammate Ebbie Goodfellow’s skate, and probably concussed, too. “His head hit the ice,” Carveth reported, “and he was still dazed after the game was over.” Relieved for the remainder of the game by Abbie Cox, Roach went for stitches: three were needed to close the wound on his upper lip.

The Tuesday that followed this, December 12, is one that lives on in NHL history for the events that unfolded in Boston Garden when Bruins’ defenceman Eddie Shore knocked the Leafs’ Ace Bailey to the ice. The brain injury Bailey suffered that night ended his career and nearly his life.

Roach was back in the nets that very night for Detroit’s 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks. Any ill effects he was suffering weren’t mentioned in the papers. But two days later, on the Thursday, Roach was injured again when the Red Wings played in Chicago. This time, he fell early in the third period when a shot of Black Hawks’ winger Mush March struck him in his (unprotected) face. Once more, Roach was replaced, this time by defenceman Doug Young. Roach took on further stitches, seven to the lips, five more inside his mouth. “All his teeth were loosened,” the Chicago Tribune noted. He was checked into Garfield Park Hospital and kept there while his teammates caught their train home.

Roach ceded the net to Abbie Cox for Detroit’s next game, the following Sunday, but he was back in the Tuesday after that, shutting out the Americans in New York by a score of 1-0. But while he did finish out the calendar year as the Red Wings starter, playing three more games (losses all), that would be all for Roach that season. Just before the New Year, Detroit GM Jack Adams borrowed the aforementioned, yet unbroken Wilf Cude from Montreal, announcing that Roach was being given two to four weeks to “rest” and recover from his injuries.

No-one was talking about post-concussion syndrome in those years, of course. “He has given his best efforts to the club,” Adams said, “but he has been under strain and his recent injury in Chicago, when seven stitches had to be taken in his face, combined to affect his play.”

By the time Roach was ready to return, Cude was playing so well that Adams didn’t want him, and so the former Red Wing number one ended up the year playing for the IHL Syracuse Stars. Roach did make it back to the NHL for one more turn when, still unmasked, he shared the Red Wings’ net with Normie Smith. Adams would have kept Cude, if he’d been able, but he’d played so well on loan to Detroit that Montreal manager Leo Dandurand called him home to serve as Canadiens’ starting goaltender for the 1934-35 season.

Fashion Forward: Could it be that hockey players might one day actually protect their heads? The case for protection came into stark focus in December of 1933 after Eddie Shore ended Ace Bailey’s career. Modelling football helmets here are (left) centre Russ Blinco of the IHL Windsor Bulldogs and his goaltender, Jakie Forbes. At right, Forbes wears a modified (and just how puck-proof?) baseball mask.

 

boxed set

The officials on duty at Detroit’s Olympia for the Red Wings playoff meeting with Boston’s Bruins on the Thursday night of March 28, 1957, were (from left) referee Frank Udvari along with linesmen Matt Pavelich and George Hayes. Once they hit the ice, the home team ended up prevailing, by a score of 7-2, squaring the semi-final at a game apiece. Of note: Detroit goaltender Glenn Hall finished the game despite taking a first-period puck to the face and, to repair the resulting damage, 18 stitches. The night was a busy one for Udvari — the busiest, in fact, in NHL playoff history: the 22 he called set a new post-season record. “The penalties stemmed from various reasons,” Marshall Dann of the Detroit Free Press reported. “Both teams decided to play it rugged at the start, returning to style the old-fashioned bodychecks so rarely seen. Then in the late stages when all was decided, the Bruins peevishly rammed away with the off-hand thought that maybe these rough tough Red Wings could be softened up for Sunday.”

and howe

It was three years ago today that Gordie Howe died at the age of 88 in Sylvania, Ohio. On June 14, 2016, some 15,000 mourners paid their respects at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. At the funeral next morning at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, amid an outpouring of love and sorrow and respect and nostalgia, rector the Reverend J.J. Mech delivered the homily. “I just hope he doesn’t elbow too many angels,” he said. In September of 2016, Howe’s family and friends gathered outside SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, about 30 kilometres north of Mr. Hockey’s birthplace of Floral. The solemn ceremony that day saw his ashes interred with those of his wife Colleen (who died in 2009) beneath the statue (above) by sculptor Michael Martin that’s been in place since 2005. “Whenever he talked about wanting to go home,” Howe’s daughter Cathy told The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, “especially when things got really confusing for him … I would often ask him ‘where’s home?’ He would look at me and say ‘Saskatoon,’ like I should know.”

(Image: Stephen Smith)

red kelly, 1927—2019

With yesterday’s sorry news that Red Kelly has died at the age of 91, recommended readings on his remarkable life and times would include obituaries from Richard Goldstein in The New York Times and Eric Duhatschek in The Globe and Mail. CBC has one from The Canadian Press augmented by archival video. More to follow here, too. In the meantime, from the Puckstruck archives, here’s Kelly in Leaf blue and Red Wing red, as well as a rare portrait of his wrath.

hockeytownbound

Y Not: Steve Yzerman played 22 seasons for the Detroit Red Wings, and he served 19 of those as team captain before his retirement in 2006. After nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Yzerman makes his return to the Detroit fold this afternoon as the team announces his appointment as GM. He’ll succeed Ken Holland who, it’s reported, will take on an advisory role with the team.

 

hockey players in hospital beds: gordie howe

It was on this day in 1950 that Gordie Howe was grievously injured in a clash with Toronto’s Ted Kennedy, falling head-first into the boards at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium on the opening night of that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Rushed to Harper Hospital, Howe was soon in surgery, where neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Schreiber saved his life by draining fluid building up near the brain. In the memoir that writer and broadcaster Paul Haavardsrud ghosted on Howe’s behalf in 2014, the patient recalled being aware of the noise of the operation, and pressure on his head. “My most vivid memory from the 90-minute operation,” the tale is told in Mr. Hockey: My Story, “is hoping they’d know when to stop.”

There was much debate in 1950 about just what had happened on the ice that night. (In later years, the incident would be fodder for the pages of comic books.) Many witnesses at the Olympia held that Kennedy had high-sticked Howe with purpose, sending him into the boards, though Kennedy swore it wasn’t so. Howe’s version, circa 2014: “As I recollect it, I believe his stick hit me, but I don’t blame him for it. He was just following through on a backhand and trying not to get hit. Hockey’s a fast game and sometimes things happen.”

While Howe recovered (and, above, tended his mail) in hospital, Detroit went on without him to beat Toronto in seven games. They did the same to the New York Rangers to win the 1950 Cup, the Red Wings’ first since 1943. “As close as I came to shuffling off into the sunset at the tender age of 21,” Howe narrates in My Story, “I bounced back relatively quickly from surgery.” He joined Detroit for training camp that fall, donning a helmet, if only for a short spell, on the advice of his doctors.