willie o’ree, 1961: scored that one for the whole town of fredericton

Like Bronco Advised: With Montreal defenceman Jean-Guy-Talbot looking on, Willie O’Ree scores his first NHL goal, a game-winner, on Charlie Hodge, January 1, 1961.

Sixty years ago today, Montreal was minus-nine and snowed under, cloudy overhead, with light flurries expected and a risk of freezing drizzle. Normal, then, for a Saturday in January. Marlon Brando’s new movie, Sayonara, was playing at Loew’s downtown. In Ottawa, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was feeling better. Having spent the week confined to his bed with a strained back, he was up and out for a short walk. All was well in the local hockey cosmos: the Montreal Canadiens, Stanley Cup champions for two years running, were once again a top the NHL standings. Coming off a 5-2 Thursday-night win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs were preparing to host the Boston Bruins and their newly promoted winger, 22-year-old Fredericton, New Brunswick-born Willie O’Ree.

This week, the NHL is remembering that 1958 night, the first to see a black player play in the league. O’Ree, who’s 82 now, was honoured last night and roundly cheered at  Boston’s TD Garden when the modern-day Canadiens played (and lost to) the Bruins. Earlier in the day, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had proclaimed today Willie O’Ree Day across city. That was at a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in O’Ree’s honour.

Called up in a manpower emergency, O’Ree played only a pair of games during his first NHL stay. It would be three more years before he returned to score his first goal.

Back in ’58, the Bruins and Canadiens were spending all weekend together. Following Saturday’s game, they’d meet again Sunday in Boston. The then-dominant Canadiens were, as mentioned, cruising atop the six-team NHL, 18 points ahead of second-place Detroit, 24 clear of the languishing fifth-place Bruins.

With Leo Labine out with the flu, Boston GM Lynn Patrick summoned 22-year-old O’Ree from the Quebec Aces of the minor-league QHL. In 32 games there, he’d scored 7 goals and 18 points.

“It is believed that O’Ree is the first Negro to ever perform in the National Hockey League,” Montreal’s Gazette ventured, with nods to other black hockey talents, including Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre, star Aces of the early 1950s, as well as to O’Ree’s teammate in Quebec, centre Stan Maxwell.

Elsewhere, across North America, the headlines were bolder. “Young Negro Star Makes NHL History,” a California paper headlined a United Press story in its pages, noting “the lowering of the last color line among major sports” while also deferring to “most hockey observers” who were said to agree that the only reason there had been such a line was “the fact that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make” the NHL.

O’Ree wore number 25 playing the left wing on Boston’s third line alongside Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini.

“His debut was undistinguished as Boston coach Milt Schmidt played him only half a turn at a time,” The Boston Globe recounted, “alternating him with veteran Johnny Pierson.” The thinking there? GM Patrick explained that Schmidt wanted to “ease the pressure” on O’Ree and “reduce the margin of errors for the youngster.”

Dink Carroll of Montreal’s Gazette paid most of his attention on the night to Boston’s new signing, the veteran Harry Lumley, “chubby goalkeeper who looks like a chipmunk with a nut in each cheek.” O’Ree he recognized as “a fleet skater” who had one good scoring chance in the third period in combination with Toppazzini. “He lost it when he was hooked from behind by Tom Johnson.”

Lumley’s revenge was registered in a 3-0 Bruins’ win. “I was really nervous in the first period,” O’Ree said, “but it was much better as the game went on.”

“It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. It’s the greatest thrill of my life.”

Also making an NHL debut at the Forum that night: Prince Souvanna Phouma, the prime minister of Laos, was on hand to see the hockey sights at the end of a North American visit.

Sunday night at the Garden, O’Ree got one opening, early on, when Don McKenney fed him a leading pass. This time, O’Ree shot into Jacques Plante’s pads. With Canadiens re-asserting themselves as league-leaders with a 6-2 win, O’Ree didn’t play much in the game’s latter stages.

So that was that. Afterwards, O’Ree was reported to be grinning, sitting amid a stack of telegrams from well-wishers back home. He described himself as a “little shaky.” “I’m just happy to get a chance up here, that’s about all I can say.” Leo Labine was back at practice next day, along with another forward who’d been injured, Real Chevrefils, so after another practice or two, O’Ree returned to Quebec.

As a Hull-Ottawa Canadian, 1960.

It was three years before he got back the NHL and scored his first goal. Canadiens figured prominently again, starting in the summer of 1960, when the Bruins agreed to loan the winger to Montreal. O’Ree was duly assigned to the Hull-Ottawa edition of the Canadiens, in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, where Glen Skov was the coach. The team had a good autumn, but as happens with farm teams, they paid the price in having their best talents stripped away. In November, Canadiens called up Bobby Rousseau and Gilles Tremblay while Boston beckoned O’Ree, now 25, back to the fold. The Bruins were still down at the wrong end of the standings, just a point out of last place, while also suffering adjectivally in the papers where, if they weren’t “listless” they were “punchless.”

Starting off his second stint as a Bruin, he was numbered 22, assigned to a line with Charlie Burns and Gerry Ouellette. As in 1958, newspapers (like Pittsburgh’s Courier) took due note that the “fast, aggressive forward” was “the first of his race to play in the National Hockey League.”

“The Speedy O’Ree” The New York Times annotated him when he made his Garden debut; in Chicago, the Tribune’s Ted Damata was particularly attentive. “The first Negro” was “on the ice four times, three times as a left winger and once as a right winger. He touched the puck twice, losing it each time, once on a hefty body check by Jack Evans of the Hawks.” Continue reading

department of throwing stuff: somewhere else in the nhl

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Throwdown: Yesterday’s Philadelphia Daily News leads with debris.

The Flyers started last night in Philadelphia with a heartfelt tribute to the team’s late owner, Ed Snider, followed by a quick goal for the home team. Game three of their opening-round series with the much-favoured Washington Capitals didn’t end so well. There was, in third period, the hit-from-behind by Flyers’ forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on Washington defenceman Dmitry Orlov that saw the former banished from the ice, and a testy display by fans who littered the ice with the bracelets they’d been given to help with a light-show to such an extent that the referee gave the Flyers a delay-of-game penalty. There was the final score, too: Capitals 6, Flyers 1.

They were warned, the fans, ahead of the penalty. Lou Nolan, the 70-year-old PA announcer at the Wells Fargo Centre, was hired originally in 1972 to be the voice of the old Spectrum. Has he ever sounded so vexed? After the brawl that ensued Bellemare’s hit, once fans had tossed at least 50 wristbands on the ice (Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Sam Carchidi did the estimating), Nolan told fans to “show class.”

He also felt that a reminder might do some good: “This,” he said, “is Philadelphia, not somewhere else in the NHL.”

He wasn’t finished. “The next one who does it will cause us a minor penalty. Do not do it.”

One did, of course. When Alexander Ovechkin scored his second goal of the game, more wristbands flew, and the promised penalty was duly called. Announcing it, Nolan added a message of his own: “Way to go.”

The history of throwing stuff at hockey games is long and — well, I don’t know that the word storied applies, since the story has always pretty much been the same, of disgruntled/mischief-making spectators flinging what’s at hand even though hockey authorities and/or policemen try to stop them from flinging. The stoppers have been largely if not entirely successful, over the years. I wrote about hockey stuff-throwing at some length in Puckstruck, the book, and if I didn’t go too deep into mechanics of the stoppage campaign, I was able to catalogue, I think, just how much it really was a part of the game for a long time while at the same time taking a certain joy in listing the rich variety of stuff that has been flung through the years.

“You look at those bracelets,” Washington coach Barry Trotz was saying this morning, “they’re white, the ice is white. All you need is for Claude Giroux to step on one and snap his leg in half.” That’s true — at least, that’s all you don’t need. The throwing of stuff is dangerous, and always was — I talk about that, too, in the book.

Philadelphia COO Sean Tilger condemned the flingers. “We will not condone or tolerate their behavior,” he said today. “They embarrassed the city and the majority of the fanbase that behaved the right way.”

What will the Flyers do to prevent a repeat performance when the two tams meet again tomorrow night? I’m sure they’ve got plans. For one thing, they won’t be handing out more wristbands. They’ve already promised that. Will they draft in extra ushers to police the aisles?

That was a big part of the anti-toss campaign mounted by the Chicago Black Hawks towards the end of the Second World War. Chicago’s old Stadium was one of the more notorious venues for debris in the old NHL days; it could be the very somewhere else that Lou Nolan was invoking last night when he tried to shame those wayward Flyers fans last night.

April, 1944. That spring, the Hawks met the Montreal Canadiens in the finals. Montreal had won the first game at home and in the second, at the Stadium, Maurice Richard scored a pair of goals in what would end as a 3-1 Canadiens victory. To try to contain him, Chicago coach Paul Thompson sent out winger George Allen to trail the Rocket with thoughts of nothing else. Here’s Dink Carroll of the Gazette to take up Allen’s tale:

Instead of obeying instructions, he tried to check Elmer Lach and the pair tangled near the mouth of the Chicago goal. Suddenly Allen came out of the scramble and made for Referee Bill Chadwick, claiming that Lach had been guilty of holding and demanding a penalty. Chadwick ignored him and play continued with Lach again scooping up the puck and passing out in front to Richard, who banged it into the net.

It was then that the greatest fusillade of missiles ever thrown at a hockey game started to rain down on the ice from the huge crowd. For 17 minutes this barrage held up the game, officials and players being completely helpless.

An inventory of the objects thrown lists a bottle, the back of a chair, a compact followed by a lipstick case, heavy wads of rolled-up newspapers, coins, mirrors, one bicycle horn, apples, orange peels — some with oranges in them — playing cards, chocolate cookies, hamburgers, and a few bolts and nuts. At one stage Elmer Lach, who had collected a deck of cards, sat down in centre ice and started a game of solitaire.

At least one novel descended to the ice: Dorsha Hayes’ 1943 barnburner Mrs. Heaton’s Daughter.

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was at the game, the baseball commissioner, sitting directly behind the Montreal bench, where a folding chair, hurled from on high, almost hit him.

In The Chicago Tribune, Edward Prell put the crowd at 16,003 and rated their rumpus “the wildest demonstration in the west side arena’s hockey history.” To Carroll’s inventory he added, half-eaten hot dogs, paper airplanes, pennies. “Workmen feverishly swept, but just when the rink was almost cleared, fresh consignments of debris descended to the cheers of the wrought-up fans.”

The Hawks sent their star winger, 38-year-old Johnny Gottselig, to the PA to plead with the loyalists. “Let’s get on with the game,” he suggested. Carroll: “It was the signal for a fresh outburst from the crowd.”

Chicago president Bill Tobin couldn’t believe that the 50 ushers on duty that night hadn’t apprehended a single malefactor. “Somebody might have been hurt, or even killed.”

Black Hawks’ owner Major Frederic McLaughlin vowed that for the next game an extra 50 ushers would be on duty. It was his idea, too, that the home team should be penalized if debris on the ice forced a delay in the game.

Andy Frain was the man commanding the Stadium ushers come Sunday’s game. The Tribune’s list of items confiscated from ticket-holders at the rink’s entrance included:

coat hangers
walnuts and hickory nuts
steel bolts
marbles
bags of rice and flour
oranges and limes
megaphones
playing cards
pieces of steel
quart bottles of beer
rolls of pennies
a couple of folding chairs.

This plunder, and more, was handed over to the Warren Avenue police detachment. “As a result of the frisking,” the Tribune noted, “last night’s game set a model for decorum in the stands.”

Not that it helped the Hawk cause. They lost the game, 3-2, along with the next one, back in Montreal, where the score was 5-4. The Canadiens’ Cup-winning effort didn’t go without disruption, as Edward Prell logged in the next morning’s paper:

Earlier in the evening when things were going against their heroes, the Montreal spectators had demonstrated that Chicago’s fervent fans have no monopoly on the practice of using the rink for a rubbish heap. Their pet weapons were rubber overshoes, and a bottle or two descended on the ice, but the game never was delayed more than a few seconds.

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Ammo Dump: the game-three haul gathered by Stadium ushers, from Chicago’s Tribune, April 10, 1944.

joe klukay and the dying swan

fonds 1266, Globe and Mail fondsToronto would win the Stanley Cup that year — a strange sentence to write and believe in, today. This was 1947, April. The Canadiens were the defending champions, and they started the Finals strongly enough, prevailing at home by a score of 6-0. The Leafs rallied themselves to win four of the next five games, including the one depicted here, a 2-1 victory secured at Maple Leaf Gardens by a Syl Apps goal in overtime. “The game started off on a hectic note,” Jim Vipond accounted next day in The Globe and Mail, “and Referee Bill Chadwick, who handled a competent game, had his work cut out to prevent a riot.” In the moments before the camera found its focus, Kenny Reardon, ebullient Montreal defenceman, boarded Toronto’s rookie left winger Joe Klukay, “qui s’est frappé (La Patrie reported) violemment sur la clôture.” That’s him on the stretcher — you can just spy his nose through the arms of an attendant teammate. He was knocked out, Montreal and Toronto reporters mostly agreed, and his scalp wanted stitching.

“The fans screamed for a major penalty,” Vipond wrote, “and an electric tenseness seemed to fill the big Carlton Street sports palace. The game was less than five minutes old.” Reardon went to serve a minor; Klukay was carried from the ice.

Neither man was gone long. The Montreal Gazette’s Dink Carroll took a slightly more jaded view than some others: Klukay responded to Reardon’s hit, he wrote, with “the dying swan act and … he was back before the period was over.”

Also putting in an appearance above are Montreal’s Butch Bouchard (leaning over the patient) along with Toe Blake (observing, glove on stick), Glen Harmon (8), and Buddy O’Connor (10).

Apps’ winning goal came after 16 minutes and 36 seconds of overtime. Jim Vipond circulated through the Leafs’ dressing room afterwards, where he saw an exhausted Toronto coach, Hap Day, and a happy, Coke-drinking Conn Smythe. “It isn’t funny,” Day told, with no further explanation. “I’m proud of the whole team,” Smythe said.

Klukay was in the shower. Vipond hollered in to ask about his injury and Klukay hollered back out. “Nothing to it,” he said, “just my head.”

The Montreal room was more subdued. With the extra period, they should have missed their train home, but the 11.10 to Montreal was holding for them. The Canadiens dressed quickly and headed for Union Station.

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For The Defence: Canadiens blueliners Roger Léger, Léo Lamoureux, and Hal Laycoe, with Butch Bouchard on his sled, circa 1946-47.

1. Bill Durnan said he was a sweet guy. His jokes were God-awful, the goaltender told Stan Fischler in Those Were The Days (1976). Bouchard’s answer: “It just doesn’t sound as good in English as it does in French.”

2. He was very sociable.

3. He loved to play Monopoly. That’s what his wife said. “He loves to Monopolize. It’s always him who wins.”

4. Gordie Howe said he wasn’t a villain.

5. “He was never a bully,” says Mike Leonetti in Canadiens Legends: Montreal Hockey Heroes (2009). “Bouchard maintained control and had to be seriously provoked to drop his gloves.”

6. This is a bit of a refrain, dating back at least to 1944, when Le Petit Journal observed that he had proved himself so able with his fists that he was no longer obliged to fight.

The Hockey Hall of Fame captions his profile this way:

To his credit, he never abused his powerful attributes and most opponents wisely avoided provoking him. In turn, he rarely fought.

Here’s what it says at ourhistory.canadiens.com:

The strongest man in the league, Bouchard played a robust brand of hockey. While other defensemen around the league resorted to more underhanded tactics, Butch hit with his hip rather than his fists. After a short period of introduction, he was rarely invited to engage in fisticuffs and probably stopped more fights that he took part in, often seizing both combatants and keeping them at arm’s length until they cooled off.

7. All of this filtered its way into the obituaries and tributes that have appeared over the last couple of weeks. Peaceful Pro, Ken Campbell’s column is headlined in the latest Hockey News. Didn’t fight much. Refused to use his physical advantage to be anything more than a peacekeeper.

8. His penalty minutes, it’s true, were relatively few. Or at least spread out: never in a season did he chalk up more than 100. You can’t say that about Wild Bill Ezinicki or Leapin’ Lou Fontinato, to name a boistering couple of names from the era. Among teammates, Ken Reardon and Murph Chamberlain spent more time on the penalty bench.

9. Dick Irvin called Chamberlain a stirrer-upper.

10. Irvin, talking about Maurice Richard: “His looks are deceiving. He’s the strongest man on the club. In dressing room wrestling matches he will beat even Émile Bouchard.”

11. Ivan Irwin was one of the more fearsome of New York Rangers in his time. He told Brian McFarlane that it might have been the fire in Richard’s eyes that deterred fellows from fighting him. “A much tougher guy was Butch Bouchard,” Irwin said.

One night Lou Fontinato was roughing up some of the smaller Montreal forwards when Butch, normally a quiet, easygoing fellow, got mad. He took Fontinato by the scruff of the neck, held him up, gave him about five good ones — pow! Then he pushed him away. Butch never bothered too many of us but we all knew he was the wrong guy to pick on.

12. “He was never an underhanded player,” noted Montreal-Matin in 1956: “he always hit from the front, and with confidence. He never attempted to injure or destroy his opponent.”

13. Why not? He was asked that. “I do realize,” he said, “that if I used my physical power to annihilate my opponents, I might hurt them seriously. I think they too play hockey for a living and they are professional athletes. I never thought of destroying anyone, though sometimes the temptation has been very strong.”

14. And yet. He did fight. Un batailleur de premier ordre, La Patrie reported in 1942. By then, he’d already made a name for himself against Chicago’s Johnny Mariucci and Bryan Hextall of the Rangers. Then, against Detroit one night, in the last seconds of the game, he clashed with defenceman Eddie Wares and

dealt him a direct blow almost crushing his nose and contradicting the illusion that if you keep your stick in your hands nothing can happen to you.

Sid Abel jumped Bouchard after that, causing a larger kerfuffle, which took time to play out, whereupon everybody picked up their sticks and their gloves just in time for Abel and Bouchard to start all over again. The Detroit News reported that referee Bill Chadwick had already decided he was in the wrong sport. “I should have been a boxing referee,” he said. Continue reading