that week: if he were a forest, he’d be a national park

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“There will never be another Gordie Howe,” is what Bobby Orr was saying last week, in the days following Howe’s death on June 10 at the age of 88.

“You couldn’t invent Gordie today,” Orr told Dave Stubbs from NHL.com. “If he was playing with today’s rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn’t take liberties with him. The way he played, he’d do real well.”

“He was everything to me,” Wayne Gretzky told NHL.com.

Adam Gopnik wrote a Howe tribute for The New Yorker. “Perhaps only Mark Messier, among players bright in our contemporary memory, combined the same qualities of grit, skill, desire, and accuracy,” he mused. “As Gretzky lived on the edge of his skates, Howe lived in his wrists: the accuracy, power, and quickness of his shot are the first things those who saw him up close, in his prime, often reference (after they reference the elbows that rose above those wrists).”

“My best Christmas ever, I was five years old and my dad — I mean Santa Claus — bought me a Gordie Howe sweater, which I wore for the whole year.” That’s Gretzky again, back in 1994. The same article, from Reuters, goes on to say that when young Wayne pleaded with his father, “a barber,” to cut his hair Gordiewise, Walter Gretzky had to explain that Wayne had too much hair and Gordie too little.

“His elbows were the best,” Joe Peacock wrote in 1997.

Gretzky, last week, helped to clarify that old Reuters story: “I was seven or eight years old and I’d go to the barber shop … and I’d say, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut.’ I was enamored by him at a young age.”

Eddie McCabe, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, circa 1979, said this: “Gordie is such a decent man, he makes up for the yahoos and the boors.”

Frank Selke said there was no-one better. “Gordie Howe is the greatest all-round hockey player I’ve ever seen,” he opined in 1961 when Selke was managing director of the Montreal Canadiens. “He’s a composite of some mighty fine players through the years, and I’ve been watching them all, amateur and professional, since the 1910s around my old hometown, Kitchener. I’ve never known any player combining so many faculties. He’s the greatest of them all.”

Gordie’s dad didn’t necessarily agree. Gordie wrote about this in his “authorized autobiography,” and … Howe! (1995):

According to my Dad, Vic was always the better player, better than me. He was so funny. And Vern, my oldest brother, was the best of us all, so Dad said. It wasn’t until Dad was old, on his death bed, that he finally gave me more credit. He was kidding me, and said, “Aw, I saw a few gams on television. I guess you were better than your brothers.”

“In street clothes, he looks quite slim, an impression heightened by his long arms, rather long neck and narrow face.” This is Peter Gzowski, from a famous Maclean’s profile of Howe from 1963. “His most outstanding physical characteristic is the slope of his shoulders; his trapezius muscles — the muscle you feel if you stretch your arm out to one side — rise into his neck at an angle not far from 45 degrees, while his deltoids, at the top of the arm, look scarcely better developed than the average dentist’s. The enormous strength he displays in hockey flows from him, rather than exploding, and the easy grace with which he moves on the ice, and which has given so many hockey fans pleasure over the years, is also evident in his loose, almost lazy walk.”

“He’s always at the outer edge of the rulebook,” Eric Nesterenko told Gzowski. “You never know when he’s going to slip over into what’s dirty.”

Howe’s longtime linemate concurred. “Gordie gets away with more than anyone else in hockey,” said Ted Lindsay. Andy Bathgate of the New York Ranger indicted Howe for “deliberately inflicting head cuts, of deliberately cauliflowering at least one ear, and of deliberately raising the puck at other people’s heads.” He did not spear, Bathgate said, nor butt-end. Gzowski: “He is a recognized master of ‘high sticking,’ an action that is almost impossible for the fans or even the referees to separate from an accident, and which has carved his signature on a good many faces around the league.”

Gary Ross wrote about Howe in 1978, the year Number 9 turned 50 playing for the New England Whalers, “If Gordie Howe were a building, he’d be sandblasted and declared an historic site. If he were a forest, he’d be made a national park. In an age of $100,000 flakes he’s the real thing. A hero, a wonder, a natural phenomenon.”

When a 45-year-old Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to play with sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who told him to go for it. “I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you’d find similar musculature,” Dr. Bailey said. “It’s a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That’s almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80.”

Herbert Warren Wind was first to profile Howe for the pages of Sports Illustrated. “When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone,” he wrote in 1955, “doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot. Also invisible is Howe’s great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete’s forearm.”

Mark Howe, in his 2013 memoir Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey: “He always regretted dropping out of school and felt that somebody from the hockey club should have stopped him. I think that’s why he took up crossword puzzles — a big-time passion of his — to improve his vocabulary.”

“His success is due in part to the fact that he has the ‘perfect body for hockey,’” Larry Bortstein was able to disclose in 1970. “His shoulders slope so sharply into his huge biceps, which flare out into huge forearms, wrists, and hands. His legs are very strong. ‘I conserve them by sitting down at places where I don’t have to stand,’ he says.”

“When Howe is on the ice,” Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964, “Detroit’s Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable.”

King Clancy was the one who suggested someone ought to bottle the man’s sweat: “It would make a great liniment for hockey players.” Continue reading

hockey players in hospital beds: pie mckenzie

Pieface: Johnny McKenzie of the Chicago Black Hawks was working the right wing that night, November, 28, 1963, alongside linemates Red Hay and Bobby Hull. The Leafs were in town and at some point in the first period two of them converged on 27-year-old McKenzie, the man they called Pie. Carl Brewer and Bob Baun caught him, hit him, hurt him: he limped off the ice and didn’t leave the Chicago bench for the rest of the period. He went to hospital after that, and while X-rays showed that while his ribs weren’t broken, he was bleeding internally. Dr. Myron Tremaine performed the surgery to extract his ruptured spleen. Afterwards, with McKenzie resting comfortably (if not, perhaps, pleased to be facing a photographer), Dr. Tremaine declared that he’d be back on skates in a couple of months. He was, too, in February of 1964, and looking good doing all the things hockey players like to do, scoring goals and bumping into other people, even if he was wearing a protective corset as he did so. “John is one of the gamest guys I know,” his coach, Billy Reay, told Red Burnett of the Toronto Daily Star. “It took a lot of courage for him to come back after losing his spleen as a result of being checked by Brewer and Baun in Chicago. What’s more, he’s skating and hitting as hard as he did when the season opened.”

Piefaced: Johnny McKenzie of the Chicago Black Hawks was working the right wing that night, November, 28, 1963, alongside linemates Red Hay and Bobby Hull. The Leafs were in town and at some point in the first period two of them converged on 27-year-old McKenzie, the man they called Pie. Carl Brewer and Bob Baun caught him, hit him, hurt him: he limped off the ice and didn’t leave the Chicago bench for the rest of the period. He went to hospital after that, and while X-rays showed that while his ribs weren’t broken, he was bleeding internally. Black Hawks team physician Dr. Myron Tremaine ordered the surgery that extracted his ruptured spleen. Afterwards, with McKenzie resting comfortably (if not, perhaps, best-pleased to be facing a photographer), Dr. Tremaine declared that he’d be back on skates in a couple of months. He was, too, in February of 1964, and looking good doing all the things hockey players like to do, scoring goals and bumping into other people, even if he was wearing a protective corset as he did so. “John is one of the gamest guys I know,” his coach, Billy Reay, told Red Burnett of the Toronto Daily Star. “It took a lot of courage for him to come back after losing his spleen as a result of being checked by Brewer and Baun in Chicago. What’s more, he’s skating and hitting as hard as he did when the season opened.”

under pressure, 1972

dryden

He hadn’t seen Valery Kharlamov skating by yet, or faced Yevgeni Zimin’s wrist-shot. Mid-August, 1972: it was summer still, a Sunday afternoon, and Ken Dryden was still just a goaltender in his underwear.

Team Canada had gathered at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens for a day of medical examinations before the week started and the players took to the ice. “They were in good shape,” said Dr. Jim Murray, one of the team’s three doctors, “some a little better than other, perhaps, but all very, very good. These are tremendous physical specimens, you know. That’s one of the reasons they’re the great hockey players they are. The better a player, I find, the more likely he is to stay in top condition throughout the off-season. Take Big Frank (Mahovlich), for instance. He’s not an ounce overweight.”

That’s Dr. Jack Zeldin, above, checking Dryden’s blood pressure. The Toronto Star noted that on the ice, he wore contact lenses — that’s why “he looks strange in glasses.”

“I think our guys will be in adequate shape,” Canadian coach Harry Sinden was telling The Star’s Jim Proudfoot the next day after he’d overseen a 90-minute skate.

“A lot of people seem to believe there’s something magic about the Russians because they get up at 6 a.m. and play soccer or whatever it is and eat borscht for breakfast.”

“It’s my experience that you’re liable to find NHL players getting home at 6. But they’re great athletes and proud men and they’ll be ready. I’ve been very impressed by their determination to get this job done and to do it right.”

maintenance day

hawksfixersUpkeep: “The Hawks have their own small hospital in the Stadium,” The Chicago Tribune advised its readers in January of 1938. On this visit, patients included (left to right) Johnny Gottselig, in for treatment on a swollen knee; Pete Palangio, sore of shoulder; and Doc Romnes, getting his stitches checked by Chicago team physician Dr. R. W. Meacham (a.k.a. Dr. Mayhem). That’s trainer Ed Froelich spinning the dials on the diathermy machine. The Hawks had been in a bit of a slump and before their next game, coach Bill Stewart saw fit to revamp his line-up. Palangio was part of that, ending up  St. Louis of the minor-league AHA. The Hawks who stuck around went on to beat Montreal’s Maroons 1-0 on a Gottselig goal. Things started looking up after that, all the way through to April, when Chicago beat Toronto to win the Stanley Cup. Palangio was back for that; as Andrew Podnieks points out, he even got his name engraved twice on the Cup that year. Well, more or less: the first time it’s spelled Palagio, with no first name attached.

hp[post]hb: jerry toppazzini

toppazzini

Almost There: You can’t see the damage here — post-plastic surgery, Jerry Toppazzini of the Boston Bruins looked pretty good in early March of 1957. A month after suffering what doctors called a “complicated” facial injury in an encounter with Ted Lindsay’s stick, the right winger still wasn’t back on the ice. He hadn’t even left Detroit yet, in fact, the scene of the crime. While he waited for his doctor’s okay, he was skating on Red Wing ice at the Olympia and (above) at least pretending to work out. Six weeks he’d be out, minimum, said the papers, if he wasn’t finished for the season.

Here’s what happened: with the Bruins leading 1-0, three minutes to go in the game, Bruins and Wings were in one of your proverbial scrambles for the puck. Boston coach Milt Schmidt said Lindsay, 31 and well-known for cussedness, went in with malice aforethought. “There was no accident about that,” Schmidt said. “Lindsay jumped right at Topper with his stick.”

Toppazzini, 25, was the Bruins’ leading scorer at the time. He went down. Removed to a dressing room, he took on 16 stitches from a doctor trying to close cuts to his nose, lips, and starboard eyebrow. Later, at Detroit Osteopathic Hospital, Dr. Milton Kosley examined an x-ray and reported a broken nose and “complicated fractures of the middle third of the face” as well as “partial chipping of two front teeth.” Once the swelling went down, he’d operate.

Back at the rink, Lindsay got a high-sticking major from referee Red Storey. Protesting, he earned a 10-minute misconduct and the $25 automatic fine that went with it.

“The puck was loose,” was how Lindsay told it to reporters, “and Toppazzini and I both were going after it. I jumped for it and so did he. I wasn’t trying to clobber the guy — we were a goal behind with just a couple of minutes left to play.” Why would he want to take a penalty?

“Nobody feels any worse about it than I do,” Lindsay said. “We’re all in hockey to make a living, not to maim anyone.”

For his part, Toppazzini couldn’t summon up a grudge. “I’m sure Ted didn’t do it intentionally,” he said.

He was back playing by mid-March. No-one had expected much from the Bruins that year, but Toppazzini was one of the sparks that fired them into third place in the final regular-season standings. They kept going in the playoffs, all the way to the Finals, where they lost to Montreal.

hockey players in hospital beds: terry sawchuk’s right elbow

sawchuk surgery

You can’t see Terry Sawchuk’s right elbow in the famous photograph that Ralph doctored up for Life Magazine in 1966 to show the grievous damage that hockey can do to goaltenders, just facial stitchings and scars. Take a look at the outtakes from that session, though, and the elbow’s surgical history is obvious. “Most of the trouble was the result of an injury that happened before my hockey playing days,” Sawchuk told another magazine, Blueline, in 1956. He was 12 years old, in Winnipeg, already enough of a hockey star that his mother didn’t want him playing football for fear of endangering his future on ice. Butch, his friends called him, according to biographer David Dupuis in Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie (1998), and one Sunday he was on his way to Mass when these friends lured him to the forbidden field: Hey, Butch, they said, whadarya, scared? No, he wasn’t, and of course instead of to prayers he took to tackling, ending up in “a thunderous pile-up.” He didn’t tell his mother: how could he? The elbow healed badly. He had trouble straightening his arm. That didn’t stop him, of course, from making his way to the NHL, where he was soon winning All-Star honours and trophies called Calder and Vézina and Stanley. But in each of his first two summers as a Detroit Red Wing, 1950 and ’51, he did end up submitting to elbow surgeries to extract bone chips from the joint. “Neither of these operations cleared up the condition,” Sawchuk said, “and I still had some pain and couldn’t fully extend my arm.” In 1952 he was back at the hospital, with (above) Dr. Donald J. Sheets taking charge this time. “He really did a job,” his patient said later. “He removed over sixty pieces of bone, taking everything he thought might break off and cause trouble later on. I haven’t had any trouble with the elbow since and for the first time in over ten years I’m able to have complete movement of my arm.”

kicks by horses, pecks by roosters

“Motor and industrial accidents, knife and bullet wounds, injuries in warfare and fist-fights, blows by balls and by sticks and canes, falls on the head, fencing and sabre duelling, arteriotomy, kicks by horses and pecks by roosters have been described as causes of pseudoaneurysms of the temporal artery. So far as we are aware, blows by hockey pucks have not been implicated previously, but we would defend our use of the term ‘puck aneurysm’ as a means to drawing attention to a potentially serious hazard in an internationally popular sport. Although it is well known that to be struck in the head by a hockey puck cannot be an entirely benign event, it is perhaps insufficiently appreciated that a regulation hockey puck weighs 165 grams and may travel at a velocity in excess of 120 feet per second. When such a missile strikes the head, delayed as well as sequelae cannot be wholly unexpected.”

• Doctors J.S. Campbell, Pierre Fournier, and D.P. Hill in “Puck Aneurysm,” a 1959 study of puck-triggered traumatic pseudoaneurysms of the superficial temporal artery for The Canadian Medical Association Journal