a king, of sweden: would have played all day, if it were possible

Scandinvasion: A 1974 Swedish hocking magazine marks the export of Salming and Hammarström.

The August news of Börje Salming’s ALS diagnosis was devastating, and the update from his family, earlier this month, was dire: the disease has now robbed Salming, 71, of his ability to speak, and he’s having difficulty eating. “His illness is speeding along very fast,” his wife, Pia, told the Swedish newspaper Expressen. This week, the top men’s and women’s hockey leagues in Sweden announced that on the last weekend of November they will be dedicating Game Day #21 to raising money and awareness for Salming’s new ALS Foundation. Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidström is a member of foundation’s board, which you can find here. The ALS Society of Canada is here.

 A version of the following post was published in August at TVOntario’s TVO Today.

He was celebrated, in his on-ice heyday, as the best offensive defencemen of his generation not named Bobby Orr. Börje Salming was an efficient defender, too, a shot-blocking, tempo-setting, hard-to-daunt mainstay of the blueline. Majestic is a word that crops up in newspaper accounts dating to his long tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs. And indeed, in the 1970s, his teammates dubbed him the King of Sweden.

When it comes to marshalling the accolades accorded Salming over the course of his 17-year NHL career, the challenge isn’t in finding a place to begin, it’s in making sure the catalogue encompasses the breadth of his achievement. Salming would, after all, become the first European-born NHLer to play 1,000 games in the league, and the first NHLer born and trained in Europe to be voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In late 2016, he was ranked the eighth best player in Leafs’ 100-year history.

None of which, of course, quite quantifies the grace with which he operated under pressure and, in the turbulent NHL of the 1970s, in the face of outright attack. It doesn’t really measure the trailblazing he did, either, for European players in the NHL, as he heralded a new skilled and stylish era for the league, and swept North American hockey into its modern age.

Beyond that legacy, Salming, now 71, remains a beloved Leaf three decades after he last played a game in the blue-and-white. It was in a statement released by the team on August 10 that Salming shared the news that he has been diagnosed with ALS, an incurable progressive disease of the nervous system also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Salming’s diagnosis came after he’d begun experiencing symptoms earlier this year and consulted with doctors at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet.

“In an instant,” the former defenceman writes, “everything changed. I do not know how the days ahead will be, but I understand that there will be challenges greater than anything I have ever faced. I also recognize that there is no cure but there are numerous worldwide trials going on and there will be a cure one day. In the meantime, there are treatments available to slow the progression and my family and I will remain positive.”

“Since I started playing ice hockey as a little kid in Kiruna, and throughout my career, I have given it my all. And I will continue to do so.”

As they absorbed the shock of the news, fans, friends, and former teammates united in sympathy and support. “Börje, I am thinking of you in this tough time,” said a latter-day Swedish Hall-of-Fame defenceman, Nicklas Lidström. “Börje is the player I have looked up to my entire career former Toronto captain Mats Sundin told the Stockholm newspaper Sportbladet. “My role model and idol. He has guided me. … I wish him all the strength in the fight against this terrible disease.”

Salming’s hometown, Kiruna, lies far to the north on the Swedish map, in Lapland, 145 kilometres beyond the edge of the Arctic Circle. Built to serve local iron ore mines, it had a population of just over 10,000 in 1951, the year of Salming’s birth. His father worked at the mine, and died there in an accident when Börje was just five.

He and his elder brother Stig might have followed their father’s hardscrabble career path if it hadn’t been for hockey. The Kiruna that they grew up in, as it turns out, turned them into dedicated athletes. Salming has his own theory on how this happened: there was nothing else to do. “It was hard, cold, and dark,” he proposed in Blood, Sweat, and Hockey, the memoir he wrote with Gerhard Karlsson in 1991. “And if you wanted to have fun you had to make it yourself.”

In early outings, on outdoor ice, he was often assigned to tend goal, where he learned not to flinch. “I have never,” he later wrote, “been afraid to throw myself in front of the puck.” If he wasn’t the most talented player on the ice in those early days, he wrote, “my enthusiasm was unmatched.”

“I would have played hockey 24 hours a day if it were possible.”

Game Day #21: At the end of November, Sweden’s top men’s and women’s leagues will dedicate themselves to raising money and awareness for Salming’s ALS foundation.

Salming worked in a mine workshop as a teenager while he and his brother, also a flinty defenceman, played lower-league hockey for the local team. In 1970,  to Sweden’s top club, Börje followed his brother south to the city of Gävle to join Brynäs IF, one of  Sweden’s best teams.

Two years later, at 22, he was Sweden’s brightest young star, and that fall, he suited up for his country in the two ill-tempered exhibition games that a visiting Team Canada played in Stockholm before moving on to Moscow for the final four games of the iconic Summit Series.

His arrival in Toronto was set into motion later that winter, when (because some things never change) the Leafs were in need of a goaltender. The hunt took Toronto scout Gerry McNamara to Stockholm over Christmas in 1972, where his hopes of assessing the net presence of Sodertalje SK’s Curt Larsson were foiled when Larsson was sidelined by injury.

McNamara made do with a visit to the north to watch an exhibition game between Brynäs and the itinerant OHA senior Barrie Flyers. A left winger named Inge Hammarström scored four goals on the night, with Börje Salming adding one of his own — along with a game misconduct.

“In the midst of one commotion,” Salming confessed in his book, “I threw a tantrum and flattened the referee.”

The official might not have been impressed, but McNamara was. “They ran at him all night,” he later enthused about Salming’s performance. “And he never gave an inch.”

By the spring of ’73, the Leafs had signed Hammarström and Salming.

They arrived on North American ice that fall just as the NHL  (along with its rival, the WHA, too) was exploding into a new and particularly violent era. As the perennially unruly Philadelphia Flyers would soon prove definitively demonstrate, intimidation and outright brawling could win you a Stanley Cup. The Leafs’ newcomers were targeted from the start, taunted as “Chicken Swedes” by slow-skating goons and their baying fans in the stands.

“I don’t think they like Swedish boys,” Salming noted after a game in which he was lustily speared by Flyers defenceman Ed Van Impe. “They don’t play hard, they play dirty.”

Salming didn’t back down, and he soon earned a measure of respect that may also meant he was mostly left alone. That didn’t mean he’d hold back in his book. “Measured beside the goings-on in the NHL,” he wrote there, “the hockey we played in Sweden was kid’s stuff. I was certainly no angel in Sweden, but any anger I vented was like shadow boxing compared to the bloody violence of the NHL. Some days it was like a parody of sport.”

“The challenge for me was to play as fairly and well as possible and not to sink to the shameful level of the thugs,” he recalled.

In persisting — and outskating, as much as he could, the goonery — Salming would thrive, becoming the highest-paid player in Leaf history. By the time his career in Toronto ended in 1989, he owned a handful of team records, and stood third in all-time Leaf scoring, behind only superstar centremen Darryl Sittler and Dave Keon.

Twice he was offered the captaincy in Toronto, but he turned it down. “I shied away because of the language and all that stuff,” he said, looking back. “I probably should have done it.”

There were hard times, too. In 1986, the NHL  suspended Salming for eight games after he admitted to using cocaine. Later that same season, he was, horrifyingly, cut across the face by an errant skate; 200 stitches were needed to close the wound. Two years later, he was one of several Leafs to feud with a choleric coach, John Brophy.

After playing a final year for the Detroit Red Wings, Salming departed the NHL in 1990, returning to Sweden to play defence for AIK Stockholm in the Swedish Elite League.

Salming’s Leafs, of course, never raised a Stanley Cup. The closest they came was in 1978 when they upset the high-powered New York Islanders to reach the semi-finals.

Roy MacGregor watched and wrote about Salming throughout his career. Writing in 1976, he trusted his perceptive eye to praise the purity of Salming reactions, concluding that while “Orr is easily the purest thinker hockey has produced, Salming may well be the game’s best reflex player. His is not as awesome a hockey talent as Orr’s, but it has its own beauty.”

Voted once to the NHL’s First All-Star Team and five times to its Second, Salming was twice runner-up in the polling for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s outstanding defenceman, falling short of Larry Robinson of the Montreal Canadiens in 1977 and 1980.

Salming was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.

Throughout his NHL career, Salming remained a stalwart for the Swedish national team.

In 2008, he was voted to the IIHF’s Centennial All-Star Team of players deemed to have had the most influential sustained international, joining a line-up that also included Vladislav Tretiak, Valeri Kharlamov, and Wayne Gretzky.

Kitted out in the gold-and-blue livery of the Tre Kronor, Salming might have been playing at his peak when he led Sweden at the 1976 Canada Cup. Going into the early-September game against Canada at Maple Leaf Gardens, Canada’s strategy was all about waylaying and otherwise befuddling Salming.

“He’s too good,” left winger Bob Gainey advised. “If you let him skate, he’s going to hurt you.”

“It’s nothing new, eh?” Canadian captain Bobby Clarke said, once Canada had finalized a 4-0 win. “Just like playing the Leafs in the National Hockey League. Everybody knows you’ve got to control Salming or he’ll murder you. The Swedes built their whole offence around him. He’s the guy who brings the puck out of their zone, and he’s the man they want to get the puck to on the powerplay.”

“Everybody had the same instructions,” added one of Canada’s coaches, Scotty Bowman: “get in there quick and take Salming before he gets underway.”

 

just breathe

To Air Is Human: An illustrator for the Montreal Daily Star imagines the Canadiens’ new pick-me-up machine in February of 1912.

A felicitous find by Mikaël Lalancette, writer at Quebec City’s Le Soleil and author, last year, of an insightful biography, Georges Vézina: L’Habitant Silencieux. As detailed in a column published in Le Soleil this past Thursday, Lalancette’s Vézina research took him deep into the century-old annals of Montreal Canadiens history, which is where he came across an early effort by management to breathe energy, endurance, and victory into a flailing team.

“In 113 years of history, the Montreal Canadiens have tried everything,” he writes, with a nod to the recent struggles of the current edition of the team. “Every means, good or not, to get the club out of its torpor has been tested by its leaders over time. As we know, reviving a losing team is not easy in professional sports and the most recent slide of Quebecers’ favourite club is a good example.”

The column is here (it’s in French, and paywalled). The upshot is this: early in the winter of 1912, with his team mired in a four-game losing streak, Canadiens manager George Kennedy had doctors dose his players with oxygen during a game at the Jubilee Arena.

According to Lalancette’s source material, an item in the Montreal Daily Star, the effect was negligible. According to history, too: Canadiens lost that game by a score of 9-1 to their local rivals, the Montreal Wanderers. The season, too, was a bust, with the not-yet-Glorieux finishing dead last in the four-team NHA standings.

Into just the third season of their existence, Canadiens had yet to flourish in the old National Hockey Association. Going into the 1911-12 season, they’d lost their leading goal-getter: Newsy Lalonde had departed for more lucrative horizons in the west, joining the PCHA’s Vancouver Millionaires. Still, Montreal featured Vézina in goal, along with a couple of other future Hall-of-Famers on the ice in front of him in Jack Laviolette and Didier Pitre.

The man overseeing them, George Kennedy, was a former wrestling champion who was well-known, too, as a manager of wrestlers and lacrosse teams. He also happened to own the Canadiens.

On a trip that winter of 1912 to the United States, he’d heard tell of “the wonderful effects of the oxygen treatment.” After consulting with medically minded friends in Montreal, he decided to give it a go. “In his desire not to let anything prevent his team from,” the Star reported 110 years ago, he soon acquired “a hundred gallons of the purified air,” along with a pair of doctors to administer it in the Canadiens’ dressing room.

Jaded Canadiens: A Vancouver newspaper picked up the news from Montreal in March of 1912.

The players were … wary. Another report from the rink noted that “the majority of the team did not seem to take kindly to it, in fact, some of them seemed to be afraid of it,” even with the doctors taking charge. The only player “who really tried it thoroughly,” the Star said, was forward Eugène Payan, “and though there was some improvement in his gait, it did not amount to much.”

As Lalancette notes in Le Soleil, while inhaling pure oxygen on an ad hoc basis might refresh a gasping hockey players, there’s no particular magic in it, particularly not for athletes in whose blood oxygen saturation is already maximized.

In 1912, the Star listed champagne as the between-periods tonic of choice for hockey players, while hinting vaguely “of even more dangerous stimulants … used occasionally.” One columnist from Ottawa’s Journal suggested that Canadiens would soon be back on the bottle, while another framed it as a question of sporting morality.

Any such artificial devices to excite temporary energy has its reaction, and must, in the long run prove injurious. When athletes reach a state of fatigue where the administration of oxygen is necessary, then it is neither to their advantage nor to that of the sport in which they participate to continue. Sportsmanship and the oxygen treatment are miles apart.

A coda (or three) to Lalancette’s report, offered in passing.

First, just a month after Montreal aerated its players, the Montreal Daily Star carried news of a letter that had appeared in a European newspaper concerning track events at the forthcoming 1912 Olympic Summer Games slated for Stockholm. Would a runner competing there, the writer wondered, be permitted to partake of “oxygen gas from a bag carried by him?”

It would be extremely interesting to see whether such breathing is of material assistance to the runner, and as oxygen gas is not a drug, but as natural an article of consumption as water, there seems to be no reason why the runner should be disqualified for refreshing himself with it as he may with water or soup.

I can’t say whether anything came of this: I have no further information, I’m afraid, on whether any of the results in Stockholm were oxygen- or soup-assisted.

Made Good: The Daily Star profiles Canadiens winger Eugène Payan in 1911.

I can recount (second) that back in Montreal, at the rink, Canadiens played their penultimate game of the 1911-12 season as March began, taking on the Wanderers again. This time they eked out a 2-1 win, thanks to a pair of goals by Jack Laviolette.

Further unhappy news headlined a column —

Payan Is Injured
Left Wing of Canadien Team
Taken to Hospital as Result
of a Collision

— in next morning’s Montreal Gazette.

Skating at high speed in the first period, Eugène Payan had collided, head-to-head, with the Wanderers’ Odie Cleghorn. Payan went down, but got up, and went on playing.

It was between periods in the Canadiens’ dressing room that he collapsed. From there, he was taken to Montreal’s Western Hospital, where he was deemed to have suffered a serious concussion, though no fracture of the skull.

As the Star told it, there was for a while some doubt  in the immediate aftermath about whether he would survive, which made the scene as he departed the Arena all the more piteous: as the game carried on “amongst thundering applause, poor Payan still persisting in a half unconscious way: ‘I want to finish my game! I want to finish my game!’ was carried to the waiting ambulance.”

By the time the game was over, Payan was reported to be out of danger. The following day, the Daily Star carried tidings that he was “a good deal better.”

Through this ordeal, in the dressing room at the Jubilee Arena, it would seem, the Canadiens still had their oxygen apparatus at the ready. It featured notably in the Star’s dramatic description of intermission scene when Payan first collapsed:

He had gone in when suddenly he exclaimed in an awestruck voice, “I am paralyzed,” and began to sway. They grabbed him before he could fall and laid him on the table where they administered as much oxygen as they dared to revive him, not knowing exactly what had happened.

Suddenly his arms and legs began to twitch as if he had taken a violent dose of strychnine and a hurried examination showed that he had been hurt on the side of the head where the bone is as thin as letter paper.

Last (third), a flash forward to April of 1949, and what would seem to be the NHL debut of oxygen.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were hosting the Detroit Red Wings that year, and with the Leafs leading the series three games to none, Jack Adams’ Wings were open to anything that might lend them a lifeline.

With George Kennedy’s 1912 experiment long forgotten, the Canadian Press was claiming that the very first use of oxygen in a hockey game in Canada had come a month earlier, in March of 1949, when players with the Dartmouth College Indians had partaken as they surrendered the International Intercollegiate title in Montreal to the University of Montreal Carabins.

Then in April, Montreal’s junior Royals used oxygen at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto as they defeated the Barrie Flyers to win the Eastern Canada Junior championship. It was the Royals’ tanks, tubes, and masks that the Red Wings borrowed to try to oxygenate their hopes for a Stanley Cup comeback.

In vain. “Even mechanical strength-reviving gadgets have their limitations when the cause is hopeless,” Jim Vipond wrote in his dispatch for the Globe and Mail after Toronto duly wrapped up a 3-1 win to take the Cup. “The Leafs looked more impressive than ever, playing at the finish as if they, and not the weary Detroiters, had been inhaling at an oxygen tank at their bench.”

Breathless: The Detroit Red Wing tried the oxygen treatment in the last game of the 1949 Stanley Cup finals.

wingman

Sweet Sixteen: Born in the hockey hotbed of Warroad, Minnesota, on a Friday of this date in 1951, Henry Boucha is 71 today. A centreman, Boucha helped the United States win a silver medal at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. His NHL career spanned six seasons, during which he skated for the Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota North Stars, Colorado Rockies, and Kansas City Scouts; he had a season, as well, with Minnesota’s WHA Fighting Saints. That’s him here, numbered 16, sporting his trademark headband, in LeRoy Neiman’s vivid 1973 serigraph, “Red Goal.” His happy teammates are harder to identify. Tim Ecclestone? Nick Libett? The referee has a bit of a Ron Wicks air to him — unless it’s a Lloyd Gilmour look?

tiny to-do

Man In A Melee: Born in Sandon, B.C., on Sunday of this date in 1903, Cecil Thompson was only ever known as Tiny during his illustrious NHL career. A four-time Vézina Trophy winner, he played ten seasons for the Boston Bruins, helping them win a Stanley Cup championship in 1929, at the end of his rookie season. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1959, Thompson was the first NHL goaltender to be pulled for an extra attacker. Supplanted by Frank Brimsek in the Bruin goal by 1938, he was traded to the Red Wings, playing two season in Detroit. That’s Tiny on the ice here, at Chicago Stadium in December of ’38, doing his second-period best to stymie any Black Hawks he can. In front of a crowd of 11,000, he was only somewhat successful, insofar as Chicago won the night by a score of 4-1. From left, that’s Chicago’s Earl Seibert (#17), Detroit’s helmeted Doug Young (I think) and Doc Romnes (quite possibly) of the Black Hawks). Marty Barry is the Wing with his back to the camera, alongside Chicago’s Johnny Gottselig (#7).

that’s y

Motor-City Wonder: A birthday for Steve Yzerman, who’s 57 today: here’s a waggle of an upraised right-handed Victoriaville 9050 APT stick to him. Born in 1965 on a Sunday of this date in Cranbrook, B.C., Yzerman played 22 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, which yielded three Stanley Cup championships, as well as a Conn Smythe, a Selke, and a Masterton Trophy. He captained the Wings for 19 of those seasons and was a shoo-in when it came to the Hall of Fame, to which he was elevated in 2009. In 2016, Canada Post put Yzerman, who’s now the GM of the Red Wings, on a stamp, as part of a postal series featuring a distinguished cadre of other masterly modern-day goalscorers, including Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler, Mark Messier, and Sidney Crosby.

tangled up in blue (and white) (and red)

High-Slot Hubbub: It wasn’t to be for the Toronto Maple Leafs on the night of Saturday, April 11, 1936: powered by Pete Kelly’s third-period goal, the visiting Detroit Red Wings beat the home team 3-2 at Maple Leaf Gardens to thereby corral the team’s very first Stanley Cup with a 3-1 series win. “The only ruckus occurred when [Detroit’s] Ebbie Goodfellow and [Leafs’ Charlie] Conacher swung their fists and went down in a heap on the ice,” an account of the game advised the next morning. That was in the second period, and it’s what we’re seeing here, with the Wings’ Herbie Lewis (#4) piled on top of Conacher and Goodfellow, in that order. Detroit goaltender Normie Smith is back in the beyond. “An imitation of wrestling” is how the Toronto Daily Star’s Andy Lytle described this encounter. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 39753)

heard it through the gripevine

Now Hear This: Detroit GM Jack Adams argues his point with referee George Gravel at the Detroit Olympia on December 2, 1951, as Toronto Maple Leaf captain Ted Kennedy listens in.

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.

et le but

Sure Shot: Guy Lafleur scores the first goal of the game at the Montreal Forum on Saturday, October 27, 1979, beating Detroit Red Wings’ goaltender Jim Rutherford. Pierre Larouche looks on; he registered an assist on the goal, along with Larry Robinson. Montreal won the game by a score of 3-2. (Image: Armand Trottier, Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

winged wheeler dealer

Team-Building: Born in Melville, Saskatchewan, on a Friday of this date in 1918, Sid Abel went from Hall-of-Fame centreman with the Detroit Red Wings to coach of the team. In the spring of 1962, he added the title of GM to his portfolio when he succeeded Jack Adams. Abel was 44 that June as he took time (above) to survey his squad ahead of the NHL’s annual intra-league draft. The Red Wings had finished fifth in the six-team league that year, out of the playoffs, and Abel was promising a house-cleaning. “There’s one thing for sure,” he said, “we’ll find a spot for Howe on our protected list.” Abel’s former linemate was 34 that year, and did indeed stick with the Wings … for another nine seasons. (Howe played another seven after that, too, in Houston and Hartford.) And Abel’s refurbished team? They made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1963, where they lost in five games to Toronto.

such a violent contact game: clarence campbell holds court at the statler hotel, 1951

Hearing Room: Ted Lindsay, NHL President Clarence Campbell, and Bill Ezinicki in Campbell’s suite at Boston’s Statler Hotel on the afternoon of Saturday, January 27, 1951. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

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.

We Three: Lindsay, Campbell, and Ezinicki. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

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.

Justice League: Back row, from left, that’s Detroit coach Tommy Ivan, NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss, referee George Gravel, Boston coach Lynn Patrick. Up front: Ted Lindsay, Clarence Campbell, Bill Ezinicki. Lindsay, Campbell, and Ezinicki. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

 

 

non-fungible number 9

Elbow Room: “Gordie ‘Pow!'” by Detroit artist Zelley was offered for sale as an NFT earlier this fall by the Hoe Foundation. (Image: Howe Foundation)

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:

Gordie “Pow!”

“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:

Howe v. Richard: An undated photo of Detroit’s number 9 and Montreal’s. That’s Red Wing Marty Pavelich sitting atop the boards, which suggests that the photo was taken in 1956 or earlier.

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.”

Full Count: Zelley’s “1,071 Pucks,” another NFT that went up for sale earlier this fall, with the number recognizing the goals Howe scored in the NHL and WHA.(Image: Howe Foundation)

now hear this

Talk Talk: Detroit coach Jimmy Skinner broadcasts instructions on the bench at the noisy Olympia in January of 1956. Listening up is #11 Marty Pavelich.

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.