Red Wings and Leafs squabbled in the first period at Detroit’s Olympia on the Sunday night of December 2, 1951, but it was in the second that the brawl broke out. Toronto ended up winning the game by a score of 2-1, but that was but a detail in the nasty narrative of the night. Detroit’s Fred Glover and Toronto’s Gus Mortson were the instigators; referee George Gravel ended up penalizing five players with majors and misconducts before tempers settled. Detroit GM Jack Adams had his say, as seen here: he’s reported to rushed from his seat on the opposite side of the rink to lodge his opinion of the matter with Gravel.
The upshot: Adams, who died on a Wednesday of this date in 1968 at the age of 73, was convinced that in the melee, Mortson had kicked Glover. “The vicious and cowardly attack of Gus Mortson on Fred Glover when flat on the ice was on the worst I’ve witnesses in all my association with the NHL,” Adams declared after the game. With the officials having missed this (Mortson’s penalty was two minutes for roughing), Adams demanded that NHL President Clarence Campbell launch an investigation into “the Mortson incident and the ineptitude of officials.”
The Wings had no doubt as to what had happened: winger Tony Leswick said that “even the Toronto players in the penalty box were mad at Mortson for kicking Glover when he was on the ice.”
Campbell wasn’t moved: he told the Globe and Mail that Adams’ protest would be ignored on procedural grounds. While Adams was the one to fire off a complaint to NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss, Campbell insisted that it should have come from Red Wings’ owner Jim Norris, and so could not be considered.
Mortson’s version of what went on found its way into the Toronto newspapers: according to him, Glover had crosschecked him in the neck, then kicked at him. Mortson insisted he’d only made as if to kick back, but hadn’t followed through.
The teams met again three nights later in Toronto in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie. For this one, Adams stationed himself in a rail seat beside the Detroit bench, in case of emergency. The game he saw was rough enough, but fight-free — until the teams filed off the ice after the game and (as the Globe’s Al Nickleson had it) Leaf captain Ted Kennedy and Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk “attempted to straighten some difference with bare knuckles.” They were separated before they landed any blows.
Reasons hockey players ended up in hotel rooms in the 1950s: they were on road trips, with hours to kill before the game, or recuperating after it was all over, maybe it was the old Bismarck Hotel in Chicago, or the Croydon, could be that they were living there, in the Kimberly in New York, where some Canadian Rangers used to shack up during up the season, or in the Belvedere on 48th, or the Roosevelt on 45th, in the Theatre District. The Montreal Canadiens often put up at the Piccadilly, also on 45th, that’s where, in 1951, Maurice Richard grabbed a referee by the name of Hugh McLean “by the throat or tie,” to quote one account of the fracas — though I think that was in the lobby.
In Toronto, Richard and his teammates used to stay at the Royal York. The Mount Royal Hotel on Peel Street was a haven for NHL teams visiting Montreal in those years. The Sheraton-Cadillac in Detroit was where the Red Wings threw a big testimonial bash for Jack Adams in 1952 on the occasion of his having devoted a quarter-century to the cause of the wingéd wheel.
And in Boston? For years, hotelwise, hockey central was the Manger (rhymes with clangour), neighbouring the old Garden, which was built atop the city’s busy North Station. “Who could forget Boston and the old Manger Hotel where we stayed?” Canadiens’ captain Butch Bouchard wondered, years later. The coming and going of trains below would tremor the hockey players all night in their beds, he recalled. The Bruins used to convene there, too, in 1956, for example, when coach Milt Schmidt ran his training camp at the Garden. Herbert Warren Wind wrote about it in Sports Illustrated:
To make sure that his players were thinking of hockey, hockey, hockey, Schmidt made it mandatory for every member of his squad to live in the Hotel Manger, which adjoins the Garden. He moved in himself, the better to enforce a strict curfew of 11 p.m. Furthermore, every man had to be up by 7 — there would be none of that lolling in bed and skipping breakfast and then trying to slide through morning practice without a good meal to fuel you.
In his 2020 memoir, Willie O’Ree remembered arriving at the Manger in the fall of 1957 for his first NHL camp. “I’d never seen so much marble in my life. It was first-class, and just staying there made me feel as if I were already a full-fledged member of the Bruins.”
The Manger is where Bruins legend Eddie Shore is supposed to have chased another player through the lobby waving a stick— I’m not clear on whether it was a teammate or rival. It’s where, in his refereeing years, King Clancy got into a fight with Black Hawks’ coach Charlie Conacher. And the Manger was the scene of another momentous moment in Bruins history in 1947, when another Boston hero, Bill Cowley, summarily quit the team and his hockey career in a dispute with Bruins’ supremo Art Ross at a post-season team banquet.
Could it be that it was due to this long record of ruckus that NHL President Clarence Campbell chose to stay away from the Manger’s fray? I don’t have good information on that.
What I can say is that, in January of 1951 — 71 years ago last week — Campbell checked himself into the calmer — more commodious? — confines of the Statler Hotel, which is where he and a couple of his (concussed) players posed for the photo above. The Statler is about a mile-and-a-half south of the Manger and the Garden, down by Boston Common. The latter was razed in 1983; the Statler is Boston’s Park Plaza today.
And how did Campbell come to be entertaining Ted Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki (while showing off the bathroom of his suite) on that long-ago Saturday afternoon?
It all started two days earlier, in Detroit, where Lindsay’s Red Wings had been hosting Ezinicki’s Bruins.
The Red Wings were leading the NHL, eight points ahead of second-place Toronto; the Bruins were 23 points back, fourth-placed in the six-team loop. Three of the league’s top six scorers wore Red-Wing red that season, names of Howe and Lindsay and Abel; Milt Schmidt was Boston’s leader, eighth in the league. The game ended as a 3-3 tie, with Howe and Abel adding assists to their collections.
Scoring wasn’t what this game would be remembered for. “At Detroit, there was more brawling than hockey playing.” That was the Canadian Press’ reporting next day. Enlivened was a word in the version The New York Times ran: an NHL game “enlivened by a bruising battle between Ted Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki.”
“Fist fighting has no honest place in hockey,” Marshall Dann of Detroit’s Free Press wrote while also allowing that, for those in the 10,618-strong crowd who enjoyed hockey’s violence, what ensued was “probably … the best battle at Olympia this season.”
Ezinicki was 26, Lindsay a year younger. They’d been teammates once, winning a Memorial Cup championship together with the (Charlie Conacher-coached) 1944 Oshawa Generals. In 1949, playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ezinicki had led the NHL in penalty minutes, with Lindsay not far behind, in seventh place on the league list.
A year earlier, 1949-50, only Gus Kyle of the New York Rangers had compiled more penalty minutes than Ezinicki; Lindsay had finished third, a minute back of Ezinicki. Wild Bill the papers called him; the Associated Press identified Lindsay (a.k.a. Terrible Ted) as Detroit’s sparkplug. They’d clashed before in the NHL: in a 1948 game, in what the Boston Globe qualified as a “joust,” Lindsay freed four of Ezinicki’s teeth from his lower jaw.
In the January game in 1951, it was in the third period that things boiled over between the two malefactors. To start, they had exchanged (in Dann’s telling) “taps” with their sticks. “The whacks grew harder and finally they dropped sticks and gloves and went at it with fists.” Three times Lindsay seems to have knocked Ezinicki down: the third time the Boston winger’s head hit the ice, knocking him out.
Referee George Gravel assessed match penalties to both players for their deliberate efforts to injure each other. Both players were assessed automatic $100 fines.
In the aftermath, Red Wings physician Dr. C.L. Tomsu closed a cut from Lindsay’s stick on Ezinicki’s forehead with 11 stitches. He threaded another four into the side of Ezinicki’s head, where it had hit the ice, and four more inside his mouth. He also reported that Ezinicki had a tooth broken off in the violence.
Before departing Detroit, Ezinicki had his skull x-rayed; no serious injury was revealed, said his coach, Lynn Patrick. It took several days — and another x-ray — for Boston’s Dr. Tom Kelley to discover that Ezinicki’s nose was broken.
Lindsay took a stitch over one eye, and got treatment “for a scarred and bruised right hand.”
The Montreal Gazette’s Dink Carroll reported that Lindsay stopped by the Olympia clinic as Ezinicki was getting his stitching.
“Are you all right?” Lindsay asked. … The angry Ezinicki growled, “I’m all right,” and Lindsay left.
The Boston Daily Globe reported that the two had dropped their gloves and “slugged it out for more than a minute.” A Canadian Press dispatch timed the fighting at three minutes: “the length of a single round of a boxing match.”
None of the immediate (i.e. next-day) reports included the term stick-swingfest. That was a subsequent description, a few weeks after the fact, in February. Much of the reporting was couched in standard-issue hockey jovialese, as though the two men’s attempts to behead one another were purely pantomime.
The two teams were due to meet again in Boston two nights later, on the Saturday night, but before the two teams hit the ice, NHL President Clarence Campbell called for a hearing at the Statler to decide, hours before the puck dropped, on what today would be called supplemental discipline. The match penalties that referee Gravel had assessed came with automatic suspensions, but it was up to Campbell to decide how long the offenders would be out.
Campbell had been planning to be visiting Boston, as it turned out, on his way down from NHL HQ in Montreal to a meeting of club owners scheduled for Miami Beach. So that was convenient. NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss would conduct the hearing into what had happened in Detroit, then Campbell would come to his decision.
And so the scales of what passed for NHL justice weighed the evidence. Ezinicki and Boston coach Lynn Patrick were scheduled to appear in Campbell’s suite at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, with Lindsay and Detroit coach Tommy Ivan following at 1 p.m. George Gravel was also on deck to report what he’d witnessed.
In the event, the teams were late arriving in Boston — their train from Detroit was delayed for five hours after hitting a car at an Ontario rail crossing — and proceedings had to be hurried along.
It would have been mid-afternoon when the scene above ensued. No-one else spoke to the reporters who assembled to hear the verdict: this was Clarence Campbell’s show.
“Everything has been said,” Ezinicki offered. Lindsay: “Nothing to say.”
“Neither of them had a whisper to offer in defence of their actions,” Campbell said.
The Boston Globe reminded readers that Campbell, himself a former NHL referee, had a lawyerly past, and that in 1945, just before assuming the NHL presidency, he’d been a Canadian Army prosecutor at the German war crime trials.
“There are three factors to be considered in settling a case of this kind,” he began. “First, the amount of incapacitation; second, provocation, and third, the past records of the players.”
“I don’t feel there was any real incapacitation in this instance,” Campbell continued. “I’m sure that Ezinicki would be able to play all right against the Wings if he were allowed.” (Ezinicki later concurred, for the record: he said he felt “all right.”)
“I don’t consider either of these men had provocation. They went at each other willfully.”
“These two fellows’ previous records are hard to exceed, not for one but for all seasons.”
His sentences? Campbell noted that the punishments he was handing down were the most severe of his five-year tenure as NHL president. Lindsay and Ezinicki were each fined $300 (including the original $100 match-penalty sanctions) and both were suspended (without pay) for the next three Boston-Detroit games. The fines were, in fact, more akin to peace bonds: so long as they behaved themselves, Lindsay and Ezinicki could each apply to have $200 of their fines returned to them.
“It depends upon their records the remainder of the season,” Campbell said, “if they’re not too proud to ask for it.”
Campbell did have some sharp words for the linesmen who’d been working the game in Detroit, Mush March and Bill Knott, who’d failed to quell the disturbance. “An order has been sent out reminding linesmen rules call for them to heed instructions in their rule books which say they ‘shall intervene immediately in fights,’” he said.
Campbell did, finally, have an important policy distinction to make before he concluded his sentencing session at the Statler Hotel. “I want to emphasize,” he told the writers gathered, “that I’m handing out these penalties entirely for the stick-swinging business and not for their fist-fighting.”
“In 1949, when there was a mild epidemic of match penalties, the board of governors instructed me to stiffen up on sticking incidents. I’m following that policy.”
“We want to stamp out the use of sticks. We’re not so concerned with fists . Fighting is not encouraged,” Campbell explained, “but it is tolerated as an outlet for the high spirits in such a violent contact game.”
It was the end of February by the time Ezinicki and Lindsay had served out their suspensions and were back on the ice to face one another in a game in Boston. They restrained themselves, I guess: neither of the antagonists featured in the penalty record or write-ups generated by the 1-1 tie that the Red Wings and Bruins shared in.
Campbell had a busy schedule all the same as February turned to March in ’51.
He took a suite at Toronto’s Royal York as the month got going and it was there that he decreed, after hearing from the parties involved (including referee Gravel, again), that Maple Leaf defenceman Gus Mortson would be suspended for two games and fined $200 for swinging his stick at Adam Brown of the Chicago Black Hawks.
“It appears to me as if he had a mental lapse,” Campbell said of Mortson.
Next up, a few days later, Campbell was back in his office in Montreal to adjudicate Maurice Richard’s New York hotel run-in with referee Hugh McLean.
During a game with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden that week, the Rocket had objected to a penalty he’d been assessed. For his protestations, he’d found himself with a misconduct and a $50 fine.
Later, when Richard happened to run into McLean in the lobby of the Piccadilly Hotel on 45th, just west of Broadway, he’d accosted him.
Campbell fined Richard $500 on a charge of “conduct detrimental to the welfare of hockey.”
Yes, he decided, Richard had appl wrote in rendering his decision, “that Richard did get McLean by the throat or tie …. Richard’s action in grabbing McLean was accompanied by a lot of foul and abusive language at the official which was continued through the entire incident lasting several minutes, and during which several women were present.”
Campbell did chide press coverage of the incident, which had been, he found, “exaggerated” the situation, since no blows had actually been landed in the fracas.
Campbell did say a word in defence of his referee, saying that Richard’s conduct was “completely unjustifiable.” His fine, Campbell insisted, would serve both as punishment for his bad behaviour and as a warning to other hockey players not to attack referees on the ice, or in hotels — or anywhere, really, at any time.
I lost track of the bidding soon after the bidding started, in October, on the Gordie Howe NFTs. If there was bidding. Was there? I wasn’t bidding, but I think people were, if I’m not mistaken, people who saw an opportunity to acquire exclusive works of art depicting one of the greatest hockey players ever to have played, for the purpose of … not hanging them on the wall, or anywhere, due to the non-fungibility of the works in question, as I understand it, which I don’t, entirely.
I’ve been slow on the NFT uptake, I confess. Trying to catch up. Gordie Howe’s token efforts snared my attention because (i) Gordie Howe and (ii) I’m always interested in the artwork that hockey inspires. I didn’t need to be seeking to acquire any of the vaporous masterworks on offer to activate my curiosity in the subject-matter and the history on which they draw. That came naturally.
Howe’s grandson, Travis Howe, is the founder of this feast — Mark Howe’s son. There’s a video you can watch that has Travis explaining the whole concept behind The Gentl9man 2021 NFT Art Collection. The idea, in short, is to be sharing “some really special stories that have true meaning to the Howe family” while raising money for the good causes that the Howe Foundation has long believed in and supported. I can get behind that, even if I’m not bidding: the Howe Foundation does worthy work in aid of both getting kids active and in backing women aspiring to make their way in the world of sports business.
Along with a reproduction of a sketch of Mr. Hockey’s own, there were eight works originally on offer in October, by a Detroit artist, Matt Zelley, a.k.a. just plain Zelley. Among them is a great piece of puck-pointillism, reproduced at the foot of this post; another portrays Gordie Howe as an oncoming locomotive — at least I think that’s the concept. Promised as a premium bonus to the lucky buyer of the poppy Roy Lichtenstein-inspired piece at the top of the post: “a game-used pair of Gordie’s elbow pads” currently on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Zelley’s interpretations of some of the landmarks of Howe lore are to your taste or not; all the works are up for viewing at the Howe Foundation site.
It’s not the commerce involved with these NFTs that I’m interested in, particularly, nor Zelley’s decisions as an artist. What I’m here for (sorry if you’re not) is the storytelling that’s behind the project, and the messages it’s sending — and ignoring. While there’s plenty to consider and to discuss in each of these Howe Zelleys, the one that catches my attention in particular is the vivid one we’re looking at above, the one titled “Gordie ‘Pow!’”
Let me just disclaim, up front, any desire to mess with Gordie Howe’s legacy. He remains one of hockey’s undeniable greats — Maurice Richard himself will be testifying to that a little further down. Howe’s talents were mountainous, as was his strength and his durability. I’m not denying any of that. He played the game at such a high level for such a long time, was an idol to so many, worked tirelessly as an ambassador of the game he loved, seems to have been just a great guy, so long as you were meeting him in circumstances in which you weren’t trying to take the puck away from him or otherwise stymie his progress on NHL ice.
But also? There’s no getting away from the fact that, on that ice, he was a clear and present danger to anyone who got in his way. Gordie Howe was violent and he was mean.
You don’t have to take my word for it. “Meanest player in the league,” Andy Bathgate called him in 1959, “uses all the tricks plus.” A sampling of the press Howe got when he first retired in 1971 might include Dave Anderson’s verdict in the New York Times: “Sure, this soft-spoken man was dirty. Some say the dirtiest.” Son Marty has called him (with, I guess, affection) “the toughest, meanest guy I’ve ever seen on a pair of skates.” Howe was often injured, we know; he also did a lot of injuring. I’ve written about both, including here and here.
Hockey, which is to say hockey people, long ago found ways to reconcile itself to and excuse the violence it tolerates within the game. One of them is to insist that assaults that take place on the ice are somehow different from those that occur elsewhere, beyond the confines of arena boards. (That this fiction has taken hold and, mostly, been accepted in the wider world is a magic no-one truly understands.) There’s a rhetorical trick hockey people like, too, the one that seeks to detach hockey players from the anti-social behaviours they sometimes perpetrate by emphasizing what wonderful people they are away from the game. I’ve written about this before — specifically in reference to Gordie Howe, in fact — without ever really understanding the logic at work. The Howe Foundation’s NFT project blithely embraces the contradiction by including the concept of [sic] gentl9manliness in the title of a collection that includes portraits of our hero punching and knocking out opponents.
In those works, Zelley honours and adds to another tradition of hockey’s tendency to downplay its own brutality, whether or not he’s actually aware it. “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is an actual cartoon, so it’s hard to blame it for doing (and doing well) what cartoons are meant to do: brighten, distort, exaggerate, spoof the real world for entertainment’s sake.
Here’re the rubric accompanying the piece in the Howe Foundation’s online gallery:
“It’s better to give than to receive.”
— Gordie Howe
With playful colors and a comic-inspired style, a smiling Gordie Howe uses one of his infamous elbows on Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Contrary to popular belief, there was no bad blood between the two players. That myth began when Howe hit Richard coming across the line, and according to Howe, “he spun like a rocket and fell down.” Howe went on to explain, “He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.”
Where to begin? Also: how to begin, without sounding like a serious finger-wagging pedant? I guess maybe would I get going by pointing out that elbowing, infamous or otherwise, is a penalty, following up to ask why the act of knocking out an opponent, even rendered with a playful palette, would be one you’d want to spotlight? Yes, I think that’s how I’d do it.
Definitely looks like a headshot, too, that grinning Gordie has delivered here. We’re late to the scene, but I’d say that the Richard we’re seeing is unconscious, even before he’s down — which won’t be good for his head when it does hit the ice in the next (purely notional) panel. I guess if you were aiming to portray both Howe’s cheery nature and his grim record of administering concussions to opponents, this is how you’d do it, but again I’m going to fall back on questioning: why?
I know, I know: it’s comic-inspired, not an accurate portrayal, what’s the big fuss, why do I hate fun?
It just strikes me as stoutly strange that (i) this is the one of the (quote) really special stories that has true meaning to the Howe family and (ii) that no-one involved in the project saw any dissonance in turning hockey head trauma into a cartoon for a Howe-related project.
Mr. Hockey, after all, spent the last years of his life with dementia that, as son Marty talked about in 2012, was surely related to the injuries he suffered in his hockey-playing years. “You play 33 years at that level without a helmet,” the younger Howe told the Toronto Star’s Mark Zwolinski, “and things are going to happen.” Did he have CTE? It’s not clear; as far as I know the family didn’t donate Howe’s brain for study after his death in 2016 at the age of 88. In 2012, Marty Howe said that the Howes had no plans to do so.
Marty and Mark and their two other siblings, Murray and Cathy, did write an afterword to the autobiography that Howe published in 2014. My Story is a bright and entertaining package, written in the confident first-person; only on a back-end acknowledgments page does Howe credit Calgary writer Paul Haavardsrud for helping “to take the thoughts in my head and put them down on paper.” As John Branch wrote in a review of the book for the New York Times, the whole enterprise raises “at least two questions, both unanswered: What kind of damage did hockey do to Howe’s brain? And how does someone with dementia, which severely impacts memory, write a memoir?”
The afterword, which the Howe children presumably penned themselves, does actually attempt to rationalize the punishment and pain that were such prominent parts of their father’s professional brand. It’s almost endearing.
“How can someone who’s so kind and soft-spoken at home become so remorseless once he puts on skates,” they ask. Answer: “It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde duality that’s not easy to reconcile.”
It comes down to his professionalism. That’s what they believe. His job was to win; he did his job.
“He decided early in his career that to be successful in the NHL he’d need to give the opposition a reason to slow down when they came to get the puck. If that meant throwing an elbow or putting some lumber on a guy, then it seemed like fair game to him. After all, everybody in the NHL was being paid to be there, and the odd cut or bruise was just the cost of doing business.”
Here’s where differ from those earlier (and forthcoming) witness statements. “Ironically,” the Howe siblings propose,
it was the respect he had for other players that made him feel like he had a license to play as ruthlessly as he did. He wasn’t mean-spirited or dirty; he just figured that a few stitches or a knock to the ribs didn’t cause any real harm. If it gave him the extra split second he needed to make a play, then that was justification enough for him. In his mind, playing any other way would be shortchanging the team. Some people might not approve, but his tactics gave him the space he needed to operate for more than 30 years. There was definitely a method to his madness.
I can’t decide if the generosity of this reading outweighs its naïveté, or whether do they just cancel each other out? That the Howe children decided to address their father’s on-ice vehemence at all should be recognized — but then so should the fact that they then so studiously avoid any serious discussion of the head trauma that Gordie Howe suffered and administered even as they’re leading up to their mention of his “cognitive impairment” in the last few pages of the book.
The jolly anecdote that Zelley and company have attached to “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is, if nothing else, of a piece with the reputational reset that Mr. Hockey proposes.
I know, I know: the quote about the supposed bad blood between Detroit’s most famous number 9 and his Montreal counterpart is accurate: it’s something that Gordie Howe did indeed tell Dave Stubbs, then of the Montreal Gazette, in 2007. They were in Montreal, at a gala celebrating the charitable works of a mutual acquaintance Howe knew as “John” — Jean Béliveau. Most of the account Stubbs wrote focussed on the amicable relationship that those latter two enjoyed through the years. Here’s a fuller excerpt:
They fought hard, but within the rules during a time of bitter rivalries, when teams met each other 14 or more times per season. Neither recalls ever dropping the gloves against the other.
It was the late Rocket Richard, a fellow right-winger, that lore has Howe detesting.
“There was no dislike,” Howe said. “I respected him. I’d watch every move he made, if it could benefit my hockey. …
“They always thought there was bad blood because I hit him once coming across the line and he spun like a rocket and fell down. He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.
“I felt sorry for the Rocket. I never felt he enjoyed the game. If he wasn’t having a good night, he’d just as soon explode. That fellow didn’t know when to stop, did he? But I admired him.”
So much so that Howe named his dog for Richard. Surely the four-legged Rocket is a ferocious, brooding beast?
Howe leans in close.
“A toy poodle,” he whispered, his playfulness worn in a grin.
A great party piece, that last bit, if a little cruel. The pity, just before that, is interesting. As for Howe’s assertion that there was no antipathy between the two superstars — I’ll grant that it’s entirely likely and unsurprising — allowable, even — that at that late date, when Howe was 79, with almost half-a-century gone by since the two men last met on NHL ice, that’s how he chose to remember the way it once was, benevolently, generously, electing to settle back on the comforting chimera that as old rivals they two had engaged in honourable sportive struggle against one another with reverence and esteem as their mutual watchwords.
The historical record isn’t entirely contradictory — let’s just say that it has a finer grain to it.
Howe and Richard were fighting each other on the ice as early as 1949, when Richard was 27 and Howe was 20. Detroit and Montreal had a bad-tempered meeting that January at the Forum wherein Richard engaged in what the local Gazette rated as “determined slugfests” with Howe and Red Wing captain Sid Abel. In both cases, the Gazette decided, he was “on the short end of the punch-throwing.” The Rocket was hurt, too, in one of those melees, tearing a muscle in his hip.
Red Wing defenceman Red Kelly later recalled that the referee on the night, King Clancy, skated in to adjudicate when Howe and Richard first began to scruffle, calling off the players who were trying to separate the two. “Let ’em alone. Let ’em fight. Let’s see who is the best fighter,” Clancy said, by Kelly’s 1970 account. (Before it was all over — accidentally or not — Richard ended up punching Clancy, too.)
That wasn’t the only occasion on which Howe and Richard brawled. There was this time, too, which I don’t have a precise date for, though the details of the respective uniforms would seem to say it’s pre-1956:
However warmly Howe and/or members of his family have spoken of Richard in recent years, both men did see, in their time, see fit to putting some pricklier feelings on the page.
Here’s the Rocket writing about Howe in his 1971 Stan Fischler-mediated autobiography:
He was big and strong and skated with great ease. He could do what no other player in the league could do, shoot the puck from either the left or right side. I noticed Howe when he first joined the Red Wings in the late forties and he impressed me as a good, but not a great, hockey player.
That changed, with the years. “Looking back,” Richard says, “I would say that Howe is the best all-around hockey player I’ve ever seen, and that includes Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.”
The next paragraph, I guess, counts as … praise?
Another thing about Gordie that I experienced firsthand was that he was a dirty hockey player, not tough, mind you, but dirty — and he would take absolutely nothing from anybody. If you gave him a bad check, you could be sure he’d get even with you, in spades! But he wouldn’t start it. In that sense, Howe and I were the same. I would never hit anybody first if he hadn’t done anything to me before.
In their 2000 book, 9: Maurice Richard, Reluctant Hero, Chris Goyens, Frank Orr, and Jean-Luce Duguay quote Richard near the end of his career. “Howe is a great player, the best I ever played against, but he should hustle more. He doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as he could. He was a better all-round player than I was, maybe the best ever. But I think he should have scored more big goals, like in the playoffs.”
Finally, the 1995 memoir Howe produced with Tom DeLisle’s help is instructive, too, and offers more nuance on the relationship than what we’re getting from the Howe Foundation’s NFT catalogue. Billed as “an authorized autobiography by Gordie and Colleen Howe,” And … Howe! includes a chapter called SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT. Here’s the salient sub-head followed by Howe’s reminiscence as it appears on the page:
THE ROCKET AND GORDIE HAVE NEVER BEEN FRIENDS SINCE GORDIE BROKE THE ROCKET’S GOAL RECORD OF 544.
GORDIE: Things have changed but, at the time, I hated the old (bleep). Of course, he hated me too. There were a few guys he hated worse than me, like [Ted] Lindsay and Stan Mikita. But that was then. Now, Rocket and I are pretty good friends. We do a few things together, and he and his now deceased wife, Lucille, were our first choices to be included in a book Colleen produced a few years ago about former players and their families, entitle After The Applause. So I think that shows our respect for him.
Rocket said once in the paper that “Gordie might have more goals, but my goals were more important.” I told somebody, “I don’t want to fight with Rocket, but I’d like to say that his goals meant bugger-all to me.” Essentially he’s such a proud man. He was a goalscorer, I was a goalscorer. I had to take him out, he had to take me out. That was our job from the blueline in. Rocket was such a powerful man. He had one habit I perceived, however, he would come down and cut across the blueline because he liked to get to the center of the ice and shoot. Everything was quick wrist shots. So one time, as he came across the blueline, I really nailed him. We ended up in a fight.
This is the 1949 clash described earlier. As the Detroit Free Press saw it, “Richard and Howe met heavily inside the Detroit blueline and came up fighting. They kept swinging lustily with bare fists and tumbled to the ice.”
Back to Howe’s telling:
There was a flurry of people around. Somebody pushed me from behind and I went down on one knee. And for some reason, Rocket was under my left knee. I waited, and when he looked up, I popped him. I whacked him a pretty good one. Then all hell broke loose, and when they got us apart we were yapping like jaybirds at one another. Then Sid Abel poked his nose in, and said to the Rocket, “Aw, you big frog, you finally got what you were asking for.” And Rocket goes — BAM! — and breaks Sid’s nose. Then I started to laugh, it looked so darn funny. Then Sid went in an did a job on the Rocket, again.
Rocket was talking about that episode a little while ago. He said, “I took on your whole damn team, no wonder I lost.” Even in a loss, he could be so proud. The guy is unbelievable.”
Jimmy Skinner’s spirits were high in mid-January of 1956. The coach of the Detroit Red Wings had his charges on a five-game winning streak, and he’d just seen them beat the league-leading Montreal Canadiens 2-0 at Detroit’s Olympia. Skinner was in his second year as Red Wings coach, and he had a record to maintain, having led the team to a Stanley Cup the previous year.
The new year had Skinner tinkering with his team, shifting Red Kelly from defence to left wing, slotting Ted Lindsay onto Alex Delvecchio’s wing, trying Metro Prystai on right wing instead of centre. Sitting third in the standings of the six-team NHL, the Red Wings were making ground on the second-place Rangers and the Canadiens ahead of them.
Playing a leading role in the shutout win over the Canadiens was goaltender Glenn Hall; centre Dutch Reibel had scored both Detroit goals. Credit was due, too, to the home crowd who’d cheered the Wings on: the 14,988 spectators who’d showed up on a Sunday night to see the Canadiens game made it the largest of the season to date.
Fans in the Olympia had been so enthusiastic, in fact, that Skinner’s players had been complaining that they couldn’t hear him on the bench. Skinner’s solution, pictured here, was to have a microphone installed, connecting to a series of “squawk boxes” installed strategically along the length of the bench facing the players. I don’t know how long this broadcast system lasted. I can report that while the Red Wings did make it back to the finals that year, they ceded the Stanley Cup to the Canadiens, falling in five games that April.