of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

how I spent my summer vacation: toronto’s 1963 maple leafs

Smokestick: Red Kelly was still a Red Wing in 1956, and not yet a politician, when he had Detroit teammate Marty Pavelich (middle) and his wife, Anna Jean, down to his Simcoe, Ontario, tobacco farm for a visit. Here he shows, as you might, a stick of dried tobacco leaves.

The Toronto Maple Leafs won a second successive Stanley Cup in April of 1963 when they rolled over Detroit in five games. They finished it off at home, beating the Red Wings 3-1 in the final game on two goals by centre Dave Keon and another (the winner) from left wing Eddie Shack. Afterwards, the Leafs poured champagne on one another, except for Carl Brewer, who was in Wellesley Hospital getting a broken arm tended to. Next day, the Leafs paraded through a crowd of 40,000 on their way up Bay Street to City Hall, where Mayor Don Summerville presented them with golden tie clips.

Then, next — it was the off-season, then, and the Maple Leafs dispersed to do what hockey players do when they’re not playing hockey. Some went to school, some on vacation. Many had jobs; a lot of them, then as now, played a lot of golf. They did not, in 1963, get an opportunity to invite the Stanley Cup to visit their various hometowns — several more decades would pass before that turned into a tradition.

How did the Leafs spend the summer of ’63?

Centre Red Kelly, one of the team’s elders, was the Member of Parliament representing the ruling Liberals for the Toronto riding of York West. Originally elected in 1962, he’d been re-upped the night before the Stanley Cup finals opened in early April, healthily defeating his Progressive Conservative rival, 30-year-old Alan Eagleson.

Kelly was a busy man. On top of the pucking and the politicking, he owned both a tobacco farm and a bowling alley back home in Simcoe, Ontario.

At the end of May, he gave his maiden speech in the House of Commons. Secretary of State Jack Pickersgill said it was one of the best performances he’d everseen in Ottawa; a Toronto Star editorial that didn’t go that far deemed it “sensible,” “well-considered,” and likely to put paid to the Conservative canard that the election of a hockey player had somehow lowered the dignity of the House of Commons.”

“Mr. Speaker,” Kelly began, “I am not sure whether or not it is because I do not have on my skates, but it feels much more slippery here than it does on the ice.”

It was a wide-ranging debut, lasting ten minutes, and delivered without notes. Kelly made light of his having waited a year to speak, and he likened the Speaker to a referee. He talked about his riding and gave some views on flags and anthems. Hearing “O Canada,” he said, before a game in place of “God Save The Queen” made him very proud. “My chest stood out a little more.” People wondered why he’d decided to run for Parliament and he said he told them it was because of how excited he was about where Canada was headed. He wanted to be a part of that, and to help the country grow.

Also, the Liberal leader and prime minister Lester Pearson? Such a great guy. The more Kelly got to know him, the more he thought he might just be “the tonic Canada needs.”

“I felt he could do a whale of a job for the future of Canada,” Kelly said.

Other Leafs who were working on the country’s future included left winger Frank Mahovlich and his wife, non-winger Marie, who had their first child in the summer ’63, a son, Michael Francis. Sylvia Harris and her husband, centreman Billy, welcomed twins.

Left winger Dick Duff, the team’s last bachelor, golfed in Florida for a while before flying north to enroll at the University of Toronto for courses that would lead him towards an undergraduate degree. When he wasn’t hitting the books, he had a job selling cars at Gorrie’s on Gerrard Street at Yonge. It’s possible that while on campus he ran into teammates: both Brewer and centre Billy Harris were both pursuing B.A.s that summer too. Brewer, his arm in a cast, was taking French courses while also working part-time as a car salesman.

Leafs’ defenceman Bob Baun was in the car business, too, as was trainer Bobby Haggert. The latter took a vacation at the Calgary Stampede in July before returning home to work the lot at Ron Casey Motors in Newmarket. The Leafs’ rented a house in Florida that players used, and Baun spent time there before getting back to work; he also had a gig as host at George’s Spaghetti House on Sherbourne at Dundas.

Eddie Shack and his wife had their own Florida getaway before Shack returned to join with the NHL All-Star team that toured Ontario through July and August playing softball. Centre Bob Pulford spent part of his summer working in the ticket office at Maple Leafs Gardens. Right winger John MacMillan already had an engineering degree to his name; he spent the summer working on an education degree at the University of Denver in Colorado.

In March, when Richard, Dave Keon’s 18-month-old son died, died of pneumonia, the Toronto papers took a respectful step back. I think that’s what it was; it did mean that their muted mentions in the local papers explaining why the Leafs’ centreman missed the final two games of the regular-season was filed in as awkwardly as possible alongside tidings of Frank Mahovlich and his flu, and John MacMillan’s injured elbow.

Keon returned for the first game of the playoffs, wherein the Leafs beat Montreal 3-1, and he contributed two assists to that. Leaf fans were outraged, in April, when Keon wasn’t named to the NHL’s 1st or 2ndAll-Star teams — Stan Mikita and Henri Richard were elevated above him — but he did win the J.P. Bickell Cup, which used to be awarded to the Leafs’ team MVP. Keon and his wife flew to Hamilton, Bermuda soon after the Stanley Cup paraded, so he didn’t learn until later that he’d also won the Lady Byng as the league’s most gentlemanly player.

“The Hamilton paper,” he explained later, “only carries cricket and soccer results.”

The rest of Keon’s summer involved golf (he caddied for an American pro at the Canadian Open in Scarborough, Ontario) and chocolate bars (he worked for a candy company, promoting their product). He also travelled to his hometown with another native son, Leafs’ defenceman Kent Douglas, to be fêted by friends and old neighbours in Noranda-Rouyn, Quebec.

Goaltender Johnny Bower passed most of his summer on the ice in British Columbia, working with 119 eager youngsters at George Vogan’s Nelson hockey school alongside Detroit centre Norm Ullman and the former Red Wing Metro Prystai. The Leafs’ second goalkeep, Don Simmons, was back home near Boston running the real estate and insurance business he owned there. Defenceman Allan Stanley went prospecting in north Ontario, near Blind River.

In August, the list of 62 players that Leafs’ coach and GM Punch Imlach was inviting to training camp in Peterborough, Ontario, in early September included the names of defencemen Don Cherry and Terry Clancy, King’s son.

Most of the late-summer Leaftalk in the papers had to do with the team’s seniormost citizens, Kelly and Stanley and Bower, whether they’d be retiring, what that would mean for the team’s prospects. Stanley was 36 and Bower was — well, hesaid he was 39, though the newspapermen in Toronto thought it was more like 42.

Kelly, who was 35, was thinking that hockey might have to give way to politics, though he hadn’t quite made up his mind. The commute, he said, was killing him.

(All three, in the end, kept playing, helping the Leafs to defend their title in the spring of 1964. And they were all still on the job, of course, when the Leafs won the Cup again in 1967.)

Imlach’s letter in August of ’63 was like others he sent in those years. Winter is coming, was the gist of it, be ready. He asked players to report to camp weighing no more than seven pounds over the weight they usually played at. He said that they should be prepared to show him 25 sit-ups, 25 push-ups, and 30 knee bends, “on command.” Young and old, Stanley Cup champions or not, the Leafs should expect to be awoken at 6.15 in the morning; lights-out was 11.15.

There would be golf, but no golf carts. And as far as getting from their downtown digs at the Empress Hotel to the ice at the Memorial Centre, two kilometres — they’d be walking that, too.

the thurso kid

Le Démon Blond: “The class of hockey,” winger Wayne Cashman of the Boston Bruins called Montreal’s Guy Lafleur in the late 1970s, when the two teams weren’t exactly kindred spirits. “Guy Lafleur is Guy Lafleur,” added Bruins’ coach Don Cherry, around that same time: “the greatest hockey player in the world today, bar none.” Anything to add, other Bruins’ winger John Wensink? “Guy Lafleur better have eyes in the back of his head, because I’m going to cut his ears off,” Wensink offered after a particularly spiteful encounter between the two teams in the playoffs for the 1977 Stanley Cup. Lafleur was supposed to have aimed a slapshot at the Bruins’ Mike Milbury and … but no. Whatever he did or didn’t do back then, on Lafleur’s birthday, let’s stick with the superlatives. “Quick, decisive, confident,” is what teammate Ken Dryden wrote of Thurso, Quebec’s own Flower, who turns now 67; “ever threatening, his jersey rippling, his hair streaming back the way no one else’s hair did.” That’s Lafleur’s statue above, photographed one November evening out where it guards the approaches to Montreal’s Bell Centre, on  permanent duty with his fellow tricolore titans, Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, and Jean Béliveau.

(Image: Stephen Smith)

undone, again, at the olympics, but not the end of the world as we know it

Second-Best: Members of Canada’s 1936 Olympic take a pause by the lake-rink at Riessersee. From the left, they are: Pud Kitchen, Dinty Moore, Hugh Farquharson, Ken Farmer, Dave Neville, Arnold Deacon, Bill Thomson, Alex Sinclair, and captain Herman Murray.

The world didn’t end that February Friday, a few weeks back, as the Olympics played down and Canada’s men lost their hockey semi-final to upstart Germany, but it shuddered a little. “Eishockey-Sensation” was the early headline from Der Spiegel, and German Twitter trilled will mentions of a “Wunder auf Eis” — a new Miracle on Ice.

In Canada, it was morning, and the nation mourned, briefly. And moaned: about Gary Bettman, whose fault it all was, really, denying us our golden birthright; that the guy who scored Germany’s first goal is from Winnipeg; that (as Don Cherry raved) the linesman who called that stupid early penalty is Russian, i.e. linchpin of a vast conspiracy to see us humiliated.

By Saturday, when we beat the Czech Republic to win bronze, the national mood was brighter.

Weirdly so.

That’s it? Have we really mellowed so much in the years since the almost-calamity of 1972 that no-one’s calling for a royal commission to look into how we failed to finish? Don’t we care any more? Could be, I guess, a matter of faith, one that’s so strong and enduring that we don’t have to speak it let alone achieve it: what matters is not who actually won so much as what would have happened if Crosby and Connor and Carey had been on the job in South Korea.

Whatever the case, we’ve calmed down since our first Olympic hockey undoing, in Germany in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Up to that point, through four Olympic tournaments, Canadians had never lost a game, never come home with a medal that wasn’t golden. Looking back on what happened 82 years ago is like studying the original operating instructions for Canadian hockey humility, and/or the lack thereof.

Winter and summer, the 1936 Olympics were, of course, in Germany, presided over by Adolf Hitler and other odious Nazis. That’s a stain that’s only darkened by what we know, now, about what the next ten years would bring.

In Garmisch, the hockey tournament started with a kerfuffle over the eligibility of several players on the team from Great Britain who’d played previously in Canada. Their hockey paperwork wasn’t in order, Canadian officials maintained. The British disagreed, and almost withdrew, in a snit, but didn’t. When the hockey got going, Canada beat, and breezily, Poland, Latvia, and Austria, before facing off with the British.

They started with a snap, which is to say a speculative slap, from long range, that bamboozled Canadian goaltender Dinty Moore, nesting in the net. The Canadians tied the score, then continued to bombard British goaltender and sort-of Canadian Jimmy Foster. But it was the British who scored again, on a break in the third. The game ended, shockingly, 2-1 not-for-us.

 

Canada’s coach was penning a column for the papers back home, or at least lending his name to one. He assured Canadians that his team (and theirs) had had “easily 80 percent” of the play. “The English,” he continued,” although fast-skating, cannot be considered the equal of the Canucks, but because goals win games we are forced to swallow the bitter pill.”

“Canadian hockey hats are off to England this morning,” one Toronto columnist wrote next morning, but her gracious voice was a lonely one. Most of the newspaper accounts echoed the Star’s European correspondent, Matthew Halton, who’d watched the disaster unfold. “We are feeling pretty sick here today,” he advised.

As if the news from Germany wasn’t dismal enough that day, a local prophet who ran his own church out of his living room was making front-page news with an unsettling forecast: by Friday, the world would be expiring. This was Bible-based, apparently, nothing to do with hockey.

“The tall buildings of Toronto will be destroyed,” pastor Harold Varney calmly promised reporters, “and the world consumed in cleansing fire.”

In Germany, oblivious to the reckoning that was three days away, the Canadians played on. Whupping Hungary 15-0 was a tonic, and got us our groove back, briefly. But it was at this point that Canadian team officials discovered that they didn’t really understand how the tournament was set up. Yes, they would advance to the medal round with the British, the Americans, and the Czechoslovaks; no, they wouldn’t get a chance to play the British again. They would have to live with their loss — and the precious points that Britain would carry over.

Now it was Canada’s turn to threaten to take its pucks and go home. Instead, we attended an emergency meeting of the Ligue International Hockey sur Glace, arguing that that the final four teams should start afresh, play a whole new round-robin, allowing us to take our revenge and restore order to the universe. This was put to a vote.

We lost that, too.

The host team paid an immediate price when we played a subsequent against the Germans. “The Canadian pucksters were seething as they took the ice,” reported The Globe; “In Angry Mood” was a headline from Ottawa. Intent on giving the Germans — their team, populace, and Nazi officials — “a lesson in the art of bodychecking,” we found that they were poor students. The home fans booed the Canadians so strenuously during our 6-2 win that Hitler’s propaganda minister, the ghastly Joseph Goebbels, stood up to command the crowd to quiet. He was, for some reason, “dressed in the costume of Daniel Boone.”

Canada won its final two games fairly tranquilly, but it didn’t matter, the gold belonged to Britain. For the first time in Olympic hockey history, we were a shameful second.

In the blame and bluster that filled newspapers in the days following our silvery shame, all five stages of Canadian hockey grief revealed themselves, starting with Blissful Denial. “No one is worried, no one is upset,” The Winnipeg Tribune’s editorial page declared. “There is something rather pleasing in the fact that other countries like Canada’s game so well that they are taking it up so vigorously.”

Finger-Pointing ensued. Later, in March, when the hockey players finally returned home to Canada, they were quick to reproach Canadian team management for fumbling their responsibilities. In February, there was some question at home of how it could be that  these officials hadn’t known the rules of the very tournament in which they were participating. “It is something hardly creditable to Canadian smartness,” an editorial in The Ottawa Journal sniffed.

Backlash followed: “It wasn’t a great team, measured by any yardstick,” the Journal confessed; never again, said The Star, should we send any but “a real all-star team to carry the red Maple Leafs in future Olympic hockey tournaments.”

Next was Official Uproar: Toronto MP Tommy Church rose in the House of Commons to carp about how poorly the whole affair reflected on us as a people. “I think,” he said, “something should be done.”

Finally, of course, there was Not To Worry, Everything’s Fine, Who Says It Isn’t? This was confirmed by the foreigners whose refreshing views we were only too pleased to publish: that the hockey result (from a Buffalo paper) had “a smell,” and that (from Manchester’s Guardian) “Canada would have won nine times out of ten.” The Globe reported that in a visit to Canada’s dressing room, Hermann Göring, head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, had assured our players that “no matter what was to happen, he always would consider the Canucks the real world champions.”

A.E. Gilroy, head of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, had done his share of railing against tournament organizers and the deceitful British while he was still in Germany. Back home again, he apologized, refusing to waste anybody’s time with excuses, other than to mention that the dastardly Europeans had pulled a fast one on us, plus (also) there was something “peculiar” about the pucks, some of which did “weird tricks,” including on Britain’s first goal. Ask the Americans, Gilroy said: they agreed that the pucks were “not true.”

Lessons learned? I don’t know that there’s any real evidence of that. If you count the extent to which the press emphasized just how many of the British players had learned their hockey in Canada, then, yes, I guess we did kind own the loss. Here was a logic we could live with: Canadians hadn’t failed, they’d just succeeded under someone else’s flag.

Doomsday in Toronto was cold and snowy, and altogether free (it turned out) of hellfire. Friday came and went, and then it was Saturday.

Frisky reporters staking out Harold Varney’s doorstep demanded to know: if he was so sure of imminent Armageddon, why had he put out his bottles for the milkman the night before?

Varney wasn’t fazed. The Lord, he said, had granted an extension. “I am glad that there is yet time for the sinful to repent.”

They should make haste, though: “A few days from now, Toronto people should know, all will be judged.”

In The Olympic Spirit: Adolf Hitler takes in the Olympics alongside the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring (centre, with binoculars), and propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

(I wrote about the 1936 Garmisch Olympics and Harold Varney’s gloomy outlook in Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession, my 2014 book. There’s more on these matters therein, on pages 171—180.)

word watch: when don cherry says dangle

Dangler: Sweeney Schriner in his Maple Leafing days. “A picture player,” Conn Smythe called him. “He provokes the enemy, fascinates the unprejudiced observers.”

I don’t know how many tirades, total, Don Cherry launched last night on Hockey Night in Canada, I just caught the one, after the early games had come to an end. Vancouver had baned Toronto, barely, 2-1, while in Montreal, Canadiens scourged Detroit 10-1. Winger Paul Byron scored his first NHL hattrick in the latter, and all his goals were speedy. Highlights ensued as Cherry and Ron MacLean admired his fleety feet.

Cherry: Look at how he outskates guys. I mean, this guy can really … skate … dangle, as they say. I’m, a, now watch …

MacLean: Now, let’s be clear, when you say dangle, you mean he can wheel.

Cherry: [Irked-more-than-usual] I’m saying he can … Everybody knows that played the game for a long time, dangle means … And [thumbing at MacLean, about to refer to incident that nobody else has knowledge of] you remember John Muckler comin’ in, sayin’, what are you, nuts, skates fast. The guys that are in the game now, they really don’t know the game, I’m not getting’ into that …

Anybody that says dangle and it’s “stickhandling” doesn’t know the game. I just thought I’d throw that in.

So. Interesting discussion. To recap: Don Cherry is ready to go to vocabulary war with anyone who doesn’t agree that there’s only one true hockey definition for a fairly common word, and it’s not the one that most people think it is, which proves how ignorant they are, i.e. very.

Cherry’s correct on this count, at least: dangle has long been a word in hockey referring to the speed with which a player skates. Here, for instance, is the venerable Vern DeGeer, Globe and Mail sports editor, writing in 1942:

Sid Abel, the talented left-winger for Detroit Red Wings, watched Saturday’s Bruins-Leafs game from the Gardens press box … Sid did not attempt to conceal his open admiration for Syl Apps, the long-striding speed merchant of the Leafs … “I think most players are pretty well agreed that Apps can dangle faster than any skater in the league,” said the observing Sid …

And from Bill Westwick of The Ottawa Journal in 1945, talking to Billy Boucher whether Maurice Richard was as rapid as Howie Morenz:

He takes nothing away from Richard. “He can dangle, breaks very fast, and is a top-line hockey player. But they can’t tell me he moves as fast as Howie. I’ve yet to see anyone who could.”

On the other side — what we might call the anti-Cherry end of things — most recent dangles you’ll come across, in print or on broadcasts, involve a player’s ability to manipulate a puck. If you want to go to the books, Andrew Podnieks’ Complete Hockey Dictionary (2007) mentions skillful stickhandling in its dangle definition, and The Hockey Phrase Book (1991) concurs.

As does Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin. “You know what,” he was saying in 2015, talking about then-Canuck Zack Kassian. “He can dangle and make plays.” A year earlier, Detroit defenceman Brendan Smith had a slight variation as he hymned the praises of teammate Gustav Nyquist: “He’s a hell of a skater, he’s a great puck-mover, he makes great plays, he’s got great skill, he can dangle you, he’s hard to hit, he’s wormy or snakey, whatever you want to call it.”

Can we agree, then, even if Don Cherry might not, that dangle has more than one hockey application? Is that a compromise we can get behind without further hoary accusations regarding who and who doesn’t know the game.

The dictionaries, it’s true, need to make room for Cherry’s definition alongside theirs.

On the other side, it’s not as though Cherry’s sense of the word is the original or even elder one. In fact, as far back as 1940 you can find The Ottawa Journal using dangle to mean stickhandling. And here’s Andy Lytle from The Toronto Daily Star jawing with Conn Smythe that same year about some of his Leaf assets:

He waxed lyrical over [Billy] Taylor whom he calls “a player with a magnificent brain” and [Sweeney] Schriner whom he says emphatically and with gestures is the best left winger in the game today.

“Schriner,” he enthused, “ is the maestro, the playmaker deluxe who is so good he can distribute his qualities amongst [Murph] Chamberlain and [Pep] Kelly until they too play over their heads.”

“He can dangle a puck.”

“Dangle it,” exclaimed Conny, now thoroughly stirred, “I tell you I’ve never seen anything comparable to his play for us in Detroit last Sunday night. It was a revelation in puck-carrying. He was the picture player. He isn’t like Apps going through a team because Schriner does it with deliberate skill and stick trickery. He provokes the enemy, fascinates the unprejudiced observers. Apps is spectacular, thrilling because of his superlative speed. Schriner is the same only he does his stuff in slow motion so everyone can enjoy him.”

In other words, Apps may have been able to dangle, but Schriner could dangle.

 

a hundred years hirsute: the nhl’s first moustache (and other moustaches)

Lanny McDonald and Moustache: “Put a handle on it and you could clean your driveway.”

Start with Andy Blair. Talking hockey moustaches, you had to start with him: for a long time in the early years of the NHL, his Toronto Maple Leaf lip was the only one in the entire loop to be adorned with any growth of hair. Or so we thought. Turns out hockey wasn’t quite so clean-shaven as we were led to believe. In fact, Blair wasn’t even the first Toronto player to skate mustachioed. Puckstruck exclusive: the NHL’s first recognized moustache made its debut as early as the league’s second season.

Jack Adams was the man to wear it. Better known for his later (smooth-faced) exploits as coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Adams was an accomplished player in his time, too, of course, winning two Stanley Cups in the NHL’s first decade. The first of those came in the spring of 1918 with Toronto.

It was when he returned to the team — now the Arenas — later that year that he changed his look. We have just a single source on this so far, but it’s persuasive: Adams, an astute Toronto reporter took note, boasted

a tooth brush decoration on his upper lip. You’ve gotta get pretty close to Jack to see it, as he is a blonde.

Andy Blair’s moustache was much more distinctive, not to mention very well documented. A Winnipeg-born centreman, Blair made his NHL debut in 1928. As best we can trace, he came into the league smooth-faced. The evidence isn’t conclusive but as far as we know he did get growing until the early 1930s.

When we think of classic Leafian moustaches, it’s Lanny McDonald’s full-frontal hairbrush that comes to mind, or maybe Wendel Clark’s fu manchu. Blair’s was trim. A teammate, Hap Day, described it as “a little Joe College-type.” Trent Frayne preferred “Charlie Chaplin.” It even rates a mention in Blair’s biography in the Hockey Hall of Fame register of players — even though it didn’t survive the end of his NHL career.

After eight seasons with the Leafs, Blair and his laden lip went to Chicago in 1936 for a final fling with the Black Hawks. Blair, at least, lasted the year: “I see the boys got together and made him shave off his Clark Gable moustache,” former Leafs teammate Charlie Conacher noted that year. “That is something more than we could get him to do when he played in Toronto.” The story goes that it disappeared under duress: only after his Chicago teammates repeatedly threatened to do the job forcibly did Blair get around to shaving the moustache away.

Lucky for Blair that it hadn’t happened sooner: like his Canadiens counterpart Pit Lepine, Conacher actually headed up a fervent anti-moustache campaign through the ’30s. Well, maybe that’s a bit strong: Conacher was a paid pitchman through for Palmolive Shave Cream (Giant Size Double Quantity 40 cents!). I don’t doubt that he used the stuff himself. I do wonder whether he actually said, of his own free will, “Palmolive knocks my whiskers for a goal every time I use it.”

It was another Leaf who picked up where Blair left off, though it took a few years. In the fall of 1945, The Globe and Mail introduced rookie defenceman Garth Boesch as the man sporting “the most impressive crop of lip foliage in a major hockey dressing room since Andy Blair.” Columnist Bobbie Rosenfeld was willing to go even further: if you left the Calder Trophy voting for NHL rookie-of-the-year to women, and Boesch would win hands (face?) down. “That Garth moustache,” she wrote, “which is a la Caesar Romero, has the femmes swooning every time the Leafs’ defence star steps on the ice.”

“I started growing it when I was 18 and I still have it,” Boesch told the Globe’s Paul Patton in 1975, when Boesch was 54. Red Dutton was supposed to have watched him as a young prospect, declaring, “With that moustache, he’s got two strikes against him before he starts.”

“I never heard that,” Boesch said. “Nobody ever complained to me.” He was proud to say he never lost a tooth in his five years playing in the NHL. He did acquire an honest share of stitches, though. “Lots on my lower lip, but never on my upper lip. I always had a big nose and I guess it protected my moustache.” Continue reading

under review: plan like subbans

A version of this review appeared in the October, 2017 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

If you’re someone who’s mothered a famous hockey player, chances are that you have not subsequently gone out and written a book about it. Is this because your parental pride is more private than, say, a father’s, your fulfillment so much the quieter? Or that you don’t feel the same urgent need to explain your son? Maybe. In the teeming library devoted to our beloved winter game, the books of hockey-parent lit may only fill a half-shelf, but this we know: almost all of them are written by fathers. There is something charmingly local about the fact that these books are published at all: only in Canada could there be enough oxygen to sustain such a sub-genre.

If hockey fathers (necessarily) antedate the birth of the sport itself, the dads of professional hockey players only started writing books in the early 1970s. First to the font was Murray Dryden, who, if he were a primary character in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, might be dubbed Father of Goaltenders. Dave and Ken’s dad was suitably satisfied when his sons both made the NHL, with Buffalo and Montreal, respectively—all the more so when they started against one another in a regular-season game in 1971. Dryden’s Playing The Shots At Both Ends (1972) is light and genial, a quick and agreeable excursion. At 156 pages, it set a standard of brevity that subsequent exemplars from the genus Pater librorum glaciem hockey have failed to follow.

The memoir Walter Gretzky published in 2001 was called On Family, Hockey, and Healing. After a stroke threatened Gretzky Senior’s life in 1991, he faced a long and complicated recovery. As a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, he was as focussed on advocacy and promoting awareness as he was on spinning hockey tales about his son Wayne.

Published in both French and English editions, Michel Roy’s Patrick Roy: Winning, Nothing Else (2007) ran to more than 500 pages. It was positively militant in its mission, which was to cast Patrick as a hero and correct the public’s faulty perceptions of his character. People thought the younger Roy was testy, aloof, selfish, and they were wrong. “I wanted to present Patrick as he is,” Michel told an interviewer soon after the book was published. “I wanted to defend the truth.”

The exception to the rule of mothers not writing books is the memoir penned by the late Colleen Howe. Wife to Gordie, and mother to NHLers Mark and Marty, she was a force in her own right, which you will know if you’ve read My Three Hockey Players (1975). To my mind, it remains the most interesting of the parental hockey books: filled with anecdote and incident, it’s candid and bracingly caustic, knotty with grievance and criticism, holding nothing back.

The newest addition to the shelf, Karl Subban’s How We Did It: The Subban Plan For Success In Hockey, School and Life, fits in alongside Dryden and Gretzky, down at what we might call the more generous end of the shelf. With his son P.K. — at? nearing? — the peak of his game, Karl seems to be enjoying the moment as much as he might be hoping to seize an opportunity while his son is at centre-ice to tell his own story and shape it as a platform for his ideas on parenthood and mentoring young people. Writing with an assist from Scott Colby, an editor with the Toronto Star, Karl is in a sharing mood. I suspect that theirs might be the hockey-dad book that finds a wider audience than those that have gone before. This has to do with P.K.’s compelling personality and his philanthropy, both of which transcend the game he plays. More than any other player of recent note he has also managed to unsettle hockey’s sense of itself, and there will be readers from beyond the rink who will come to the book curious about questions of race and racism, the snubs and the insults that Subban has suffered, and how they’re coded, or not.

•••

A quick recap, for those who might have been exiled for a decade, on an atoll, far from Wi-Fi: Pernell Karl Subban is a vividly skilled 28-year-old defenceman who has been one of the NHL’s best since at least 2013, when he won the Norris Trophy. Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid: all of them can dominate a game and electrify a crowd. But is there a more consistently entertaining hockey player to watch, or one who seems to play with more joy than Subban? “Like Roger Federer, or Kevin Durant, or Yasiel Puig,” Ben McGrath wrote in a persuasive 2014 New Yorker profile, “[Subban] awes less because of the results he achieves than because of the way he achieves them — kinetic charisma, approaching genius.”

He was still a Montreal Canadien back then, beloved to many, infuriatingly flamboyant to others—a polarizing figure, including (the rumours went) within his own dressing room, and with his own coach, Michel Therrien, who was often critical of Subban’s defensive lapses. And as a columnist from USA Today wrote during last season’s playoffs, “Subban has haters.” The adjectives that have crowded into mentions of Subban’s hockey exploits over his eight years in the league include dynamic; freewheeling; passionate; booming (his shot); dazzling (his rushes); jaw-dropping (his creativity), but they also run to the more hostile emotional; individualistic; cocky; arrogant; and bigger than the team.

 Debate hasn’t stopped roiling in Montreal since he was traded in the summer of 2016 to Nashville, whose golden-garbed Predators he helped attain a berth in this last spring’s Stanley Cup finals. The fact that they lost there to Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t do anything to change that: regret weighs heavily to this day with many Montreal fans who can’t — and don’t want to — forget the on-ice skill and exuberance that made him one of most exciting athletes anywhere, in any sport, or his astonishing 2015 pledge to raise $10-million over seven years for the city’s Children’s Hospital.

For all its flashing lights and bold embrace of new markets (hello, Las Vegas), the NHL remains a bastion of staid and conservative attitudes. Because he is anything but, Subban has been accused of arrogance and disrespect, of excessive self-regard, of not knowing his station. As a rookie with the Montreal Canadiens, he was called out by the then-captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. “It’s just frustrating to see a young guy like that come in here,” whined Mike Richards, “and so much as think that’s he’s better than a lot of people.”

Never mind that Subban was better than a lot of people—as he always has and will be. Hockey’s brassiest establishment voice, Don Cherry, would soon be scolding him for daring to play with verve and personality; another, Mike Milbury, called him a clown during the spring’s playoffs, berating him for courting too much attention, and for the mortal sin of overt enthusiasm.

There is no good gauge of which of or how much, if at all, the reproaches directed Subban’s way have to do with the fact that he is a black man in a sport that has been so glaringly white for so long. There are books about that, too, including Herb Carnegie’s instructive 1997 memoir A Fly in a Pail of Milk. A stand-out scorer in the 1930s and ’40s who couldn’t find a way through hockey’s colour barrier, Carnegie never played an NHL game. He had no doubt that it was racism that kept him from cracking the New York Rangers’ line-up in 1948.

Readers who come to How We Did It in hopes of a broader discussion of race and racism in hockey may be left wanting. It’s not that Karl Subban seeks to avoid it, exactly, more that he addresses the issue as he sees fit and moves on. Yes, his son has run into his share of ignorant morons and their abhorrent slurs in his time playing hockey. No, Karl doesn’t think either — the slurs or the morons — is worth engaging; they’re nothing but distractions. “Racism is a fact of life,” he writes. Why give it permission to get in the way of where you’re going? In the book’s final pages, P.K. endorses his dad’s approach. And that’s as far as it goes.   Continue reading