don’t stop beleafing: brian evinou draws a bead on toronto’s team

In a purer world, a perfected and unplagued one, wherein the Montreal Canadiens didn’t upset everyone’s expectations and ruin everything, the Toronto Maple Leafs might have gone ahead and done the sensible thing and won the Stanley Cup last year, putting an end to all those decades of frustration.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t to be.

Brian Evinou kept the faith all the same.

A lifelong Leafs fan who’s also a cartoonist, animator, and teacher in Oshawa, Ontario, Evinou was putting his passion to paper before the original Year of Our Pandemic, 2020, came along, creating colourful single-panel comics paying tribute to (and sometimes cracking wise on) the Leafs and their NBA cousins, the Raptors.

He got more systematic in his creativity as Covid-19 continued to torque and reconfigure daily life and hockey seasons, too, into 2021. What began as a game-by-game narrative of Leafian lore and experience posted across Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram evolved, as it gained notice and fans, into something altogether more ambitious.

This past fall, with the help of a quick-moving Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, Evinou self-published his graphic chronicle of Toronto’s second COVID-shortened season in a handsome hardcover edition.

Smart, funny, and sharply observant in all its bright event and detail, Brian BeLeafs: 2021 Season follows John and Joe and Jack, Auston, Mitch, Morgan, and all the rest of the Leafs, as they make their way through the 62-game season that ended last May with a first-round playoff upset at the hands of Montreal.

They’re at it again, of course, the Leafs, so … maybe … this year? Evinou is doing his part, following the team where it leads, firing up his pencils and pens after each and every game.

You can — and should — find Brian Evinou’s work on both Twitter and Instagram (@BrianBeLeafs) and on Patreon (patreon.com/BrianBeLeafs). Books are available through his website at brianbeleafs.com.

Last week, I e-mailed him some questions. Those are here, along with his answers:

I’m wondering about beginnings. First up, you as a Leaf fan: when did that start? Is there a particular player or game that cemented it for you with Toronto? 

The Leafs and hockey have always been a big part of my life. My parents are Scottish immigrants and my Dad is an avid soccer player, sports guy, and collector. When he arrived in Canada, he took to watching hockey right away and got my brothers and me playing and watching, too. My first clear NHL memory is the Calgary Cup win in 1989. I think the flaming C and Lanny McDonald’s mustache were very distinct visual memories. We moved to Oshawa when I was in grade one, which soon coincided with Eric Lindros coming to the Generals. So we were going to lots of Gennies games.

My strongest early Leaf memories are of the Doug Gilmour teams. I had a paper route when I was a kid and one of my clearest memories is making my papers, inserting the advertisements, while watching Game 6 against the L.A. Kings in 1993 with my Dad and brothers. I remember crying when the Leafs lost. Tough stuff, but I was hooked.

Back then, we went to a game once a year and during those playoff runs we even went to a couple more. I remember lining up outside the Sunrise Records box office hours before it opened to get tickets to those games. We still have the ticket stubs, one of the games against the Red Wings, one against the St. Louis Blues. I guess, looking back, it was the Gilmour team that really cemented my fandom, paired with collecting hockey cards ,which was so huge around then. Fell in love. Love that hockey.

What about as an artist? How did you get going on that?

I was always the kid drawing in class. I was really into Ninja Turtles and X-Men and early on decided I would become a comic artist. In Oshawa we had great stores like Worlds Collide, but back then it was known as Unicorn Comics, where I could get anything I was after. I spent a lot of allowances there buying comics and then copying them.

In high school, becoming a comic artist started to seem very out of reach., I didn’t draw like the Image comics guys which was the main thing in comics at the time, so I kind of redirected into animation. I’ve been working in animation since 2005-ish. I’ve worked on lots of cool projects, mainly with Solis Animation. One of the notable things we did was Gord Downie’s Secret Path, which was very cool. We were invited to his performance of that album shortly before he passed in 2017. At Solis, we’ve also done music videos for Jessie Reyez and I recently did a thing there for the wrestler Danhausen.

I got back into comics in a big way when a friend suggested I check out Scott Pilgrim, a great Canadian comic, by Bryan Lee O’Malley. The story was amazing and the art was closer to what I could do. I jumped into indie comics in a major way and soon I was making my own mini-comics. I started self-publishing my own comics around 2008 to about 2015. I did seven mini comics, one graphic novel-length webcomic, co-edited two anthologies and even coloured a Ninja Turtles cover. Today, I’m still working in animation and I teach at Durham College in Oshawa.

You Know Jack? Toronto’s April 10 game, home to Ottawa, saw Auston Matthews score a hattrick as goaltender Jack Campbell set an NHL record by recording his 11th straight win to start a season.

And how did this project start? What was the spark for Leafs comics and, now, the book?

I had my first son in 2015 and all of a sudden it was hard to make long-form comics. At work I’d listen to a lot of sports radio and podcasts and come up with little jokes I wanted to get out there. I am very active on social media, but my tweet-crafting is not as refined as Acting the Fulemin. I wanted to get more involved in my own way.

My first comic was a joke about the Dreger Cafe. Darren Dreger would do these interviews at the World Championships for TSN at these nice cafes. He did one with Mike Babcock where Dreger grilled him about how the Leafs were going to use what would ultimately be the Auston Matthews pick. I had Babs denying that they had made up their mind, all while wearing Zurich Lions gear and an Auston 2016 shirt.

I got a good response from friends on that comic, but being a new dad was pretty all-consuming and I didn’t get around to doing more comics until around the Raps championship run in 2019 and the Mitch Marner contract negotiations.

Once the pandemic hit, my sons were older and I had a bit more time and energy on my hands. I started doing actual game comics during the bubble series [in August of 2020] against Columbus. I continued that into the Raps playoff series against the Celtics that years. Those comics all did really well, which is when I started to think about doing a full season. When the NHL announced the pandemic season would be shorter, 56 games, I was more confident I could pull off a full season. Once I got going, I started to build momentum and just kept going. Next thing I knew we were in the playoffs.

It definitely helps that the team is good. It is easy to do a comic after a win. You feel good and are in a positive headspace. Of the losses, bad ones are sometimes easy to create content for. I think the west coast losses are the toughest to actually come up with a good comic for, since it is so late; I do the comics right after the game ends.

What’s your process for a particular game and the illustration you end up doing for it? Do you often know what it’s going to be before the game ends? How long then to do the work, generally? What about materials?

The process has always been the same: watch the game and react to what I’m seeing. Sometimes, Matthews scores a hatty, or hits 40 goals, it becomes very clear what the comic has to be. Some moments are too important not to be the focus. Other times visuals hit so hard in my head, I go for it even if it is not really the most dominant narrative in the game. The Justin Holl/Andrew W.K. one is an example of that. The visual of Holl with a bloody nose was memorable but not the biggest moment of the game. That comic was a big hit for me — still is. Other games have neither a big individual moment nor a big visual moment. With those, it can be harder to come up with a concept.

Face First: Home to Vancouver on May 1, Toronto’s 5-1 win saw defenceman Justin Holl set up a goal and take a puck to the nose.

On average the comics take about three hours to create. I start around 9:30 p.m. Usually I have a decent concept before I get to the thumbnails, but other times I can’t come up with anything and it takes a little longer. In those cases, I listen to the post-game media and thumbnail dumb ideas until something strikes me as pretty good. With the Arizona one I did a Nightmare on Elm Street homage, but that idea came way later. I actually had a whole different comic drawn out but I wasn’t happy with it. What got me to the eventual comic was the rookie goaltender playing like a monster. I had just watched the ‘Movies that made us’ episode about Nightmare so it was fresh in my mind. That comic was an outlier, process-wise. Usually once the game wraps, they take about three hours and I’m in bed by 1 am.

The materials I use are Col-erase pencils, Pentel Brush pen for the inks, Copic markers for the colours and Microns for the lettering. I use these Strathmore sketchbooks for the comics. I work small for the comics; they are about five inches squared.

Is it still fun? What are some of your favourite illustrations and why?

It is still fun. I still get a lot out of the process of drawing. Figuring out a drawing is like a fun problem-solving exercise. Much more thinking is required. I generally listen to music during that step. The drawing can be occasionally frustrating, lots of erasing, but it is rewarding once complete. The inking and coloring phase I can do almost thoughtlessly. I can have movies playing, or podcasts, or the post-game interviews on at that point and still produce at a good pace.

I love the Leafs. Marrying comics and the Leafs into this fun project feels very natural for me and my interests. I am very happy I stumbled into it. Getting a beautiful book out of the process has been an amazing reward.

I’m a bit of a weirdo in regard to my favourite illustrations … I kind of hate my own work. Hate might be strong, but I see the mistakes. The older ones I like more now because I’m not so close to them. I did one when [William] Nylander started wearing 88. The Toronto media was making a big deal out of it as if it was somehow disrespectful to the Big E. I made a joke about Lindros keeping a list of all the guys wearing 88, but finally cracking because this “soft” Swede would wear his number. Lindros is dressed like Rambo in the comic and proclaims that he is going to reassemble the Legion of Doom line to go after Willie. I thought that one was fun. I’m a Nylanderthal and found the hate Willie got to be very short-sighted, so I’m loving his success this year. I was always there for him. People were very irrational about his warts as a young player, in my mind. And in that comic I got to draw Lindros who, as a kid growing up in Oshawa, I loved unconditionally. So I like that one.

Number of the E: Eric Lindros takes imagined umbrage at William Nylander inheriting number 88.

What has the response been like from fans? Have you had any reactions from the Leafs?

It’s been amazing. Reddit in particular was an early adopter and very supportive. There are running gags in the comments, there are relationships you develop with commenters. It’s been awesome. Twitter has been fun. I know Twitter is a cesspool, but I’m addicted and try to avoid the trolls. Instagram has been great too. Even with the positive response I was still not suspecting the success of the Kickstarter campaign. I was blown away. The book was fully funded in less than two hours. I couldn’t believe it. I’m very thankful to everyone who backed the project. It’s been a great response for sure.

I also get responses from opposing team fans who leave comments, maybe not agreeing with my point of view — that’s a lot of fun, too. One guy compared me to Steve Simmons! I was very flattered to elicit that level of response from a rival fan.

Through the comic, I have had a couple conversations with Leaf players, which has been so cool. I was on a walk with my son when I got my first message from a player and I was over the moon. It is wild to know some of the players are seeing the comics. I occasionally get a like from a player here or there and that always feels awesome. Retired guys, too, which is great. Gilmour, Nik Antropov, Wendel Clark, and Joe Bowen have all publicly liked stuff and, in some cases, shared comics, which is very cool.

Are you planning more books, for this season and maybe beyond?

Absolutely. The plan is to do another Kickstarter campaign as we get towards the end of the season which will, hopefully, fund this season’s book. I put a lot of work into making last season’s edition a good product. I’m very proud of how it turned out, but I had some ideas that came too late to make it into the first book. So there will be some new tricks included for this new book. I’m very much a print fan. The comics are very different online than they are in print. Even pairing the comics with my synopsis and the stats of a given game gives a different experience than just approaching the comic when it goes up online on reddit or Twitter.

It is funny how things go. I never expected any kind of success with the comic, so to stumble into this and to have it revolve around my favourite hockey team makes sense to me as it is a gap I always saw in the comic market. I know as a consumer I have always loved sports comics and I think the world is ready for an awesome long-form hockey comic. I ended up going for a single panel presentation and it has hit a chord but I think there is an opportunity there for someone to do an amazing long-form hockey comic with dynamic action, like what Slam Dunk did for basketball comics.

As for next season, I think I will do it, but who knows what life will bring. I’m definitely committed to this season. I love making the comics and I’m not going to stop watching the games, so I think there is a good chance you might be stuck with me.

The Leafs are looking good this year. What’s your feeling about their prospects? Is this the — dare I say it — year?

I think the Leafs are an awesome team. I think this is the best squad of players they’ve had in my lifetime. But what does that mean? I think they are one of a handful of teams who have a realistic shot at winning the Cup this year. Whoever wins will end up having two things, health and luck. The Leafs had neither last year, and look what happened.

I think the randomness of hockey is undersold quite a bit. Kind of blows my mind how people can watch an amazing rivalry where the difference is one goal in a 4-3 series and then people make sweeping judgments on the loser and winner that are vastly different. Any dumb bounce can change those judgments. I believe the Leafs luck has to turn eventually. But hockey really is so random, so I have no idea. I think the Leafs are right there. Maybe this is the year they get a couple dumb bounces. It has to happen eventually. I hope it’s this year. I like this team a lot.

Brian BeLeafs: 2021 Season
Written and Illustrated by Brian Evinou
(Self-published, 168 pp., C$29 hc)

This interview has been edited.

Captain Courageous: Toronto’s short-lived playoff run began in 2021 with a May 20 loss to Montreal in which captain John Tavares was stretchered off the ice after a collision with Canadiens’ Corey Perry. “On his way off the ice,” Evinou writes, “Tavares lifted a thumbs-up to everyone watching from home. His thumbs-up seemed strong.”

consummate joe

Captain Colorado: A birthday today for the sublimely skilled Hall-of-Fame centreman Joe Sakic, who was born in Burnaby, B.C., on a Monday of this date in 1969: he’s 52 today. His current job, of course, is as GM and executive vice-president of the Colorado Avalanche, the team he starred for in his salady days, when he led the team to a pair of Stanley Cups, in 1996 and 2001. He played 20 seasons with the team, starting (as they did) in Quebec, as a Nordique, and serving as captain for 17 seasons in all. When Sakic retired in 2009, he did so as the eighth-highest scorer in NHL history, with 1,641 career points. (He stands ninth, now.) Sakic ranks seventh all-time in playoff goals (84) and ninth in playoff points (188-tied with Doug Gilmour), and he still holds the NHL record for postseason overtime goals, eight, which is tow more than Maurice Richard scored. 
 

noshing (no more) with 99

Say your so longs to Grandma Gretzky’s Perogies, get your goodbyes in for WGS Plant Based Vegan Caesar Salad: after 27 years, Wayne Gretzky’s own Toronto flagship restaurant is closing today for good. A condo development (of course) will rise in its downtown stead.

I was only ever there once, in — wait, now — 1994? Wayne was on hand himself, I wish I could say he was manning the stoves, but no, it was a book launch, for Jim Taylor’s Wayne Gretzky: The Authorized Pictorial Biography. I talked to Taylor, who was friendly, and to Wayne’s dad, Walter, who was friendlier. There was no getting near the then-Great One: like the appetizers, he was besieged as soon as he appeared.

The restaurant had opened a year earlier, down on what used to be Peter Street, just north of the used-to-be-SkyDome, in the year-of-our-Lord-the-Blue-Jays-won-a-second-straight-World Series. Back then, of course, the local hockey team was still at home uptown, at Maple Leaf Gardens. The restaurant debuted in July of 1993 with the intent (as WG’s website explained right up to the end) of striving “to honour this Canadian Hockey Hall of Famer by creating a dining experience with Gretzky’s greatness in mind.”

The gall. That same spring, Gretzky had taken a break as a fine-dining impresario to join the Los Angeles Kings in their quest for the Stanley Cup. Against Toronto in the Campbell Conference Final, Gretzky escaped justice in the sixth game of the series when he high-sticked Leaf captain Doug Gilmour and failed to surrender himself after referee Kerry Fraser missed the call. Maybe you don’t remember; Toronto will never forget.

The Kings won that game, in overtime, on a goal of Gretzky’s. He had a say in the deciding game, too, scoring a hattrick as the Kings dismissed the Leafs 5-4 to win the series and advance to their first Stanley Cup Final.

How did Toronto forgive #99 his trespass? It’s hard to remember. Somehow. Gretzky’s opened a month after the Kings ceded the Cup to the Montreal Canadiens over the course of five games, so I guess there’s that.

It wasn’t just Gretzky, of course, who made the restaurant happen, he was just a partner, and the brand. The Bitoves were the majority owners; there was talk, too, that they were after an NBA franchise. In August, not long after the restaurant opened, Globe and Mail sportswriter William Houston dropped by.  He came out unimpressed. “The food was mediocre and the service slow,” he griped in the paper. “It took 35 minutes to get a ‘King’s Clubhouse.’ When it arrived the French fries were soggy and cold — not even tepid, but chilly.”

Houston was all over the story of the restaurant that month: he also broke the news that the first question prospective WG’s employees were asked when they came in for an interview was, “What does Wayne Gretzky mean to you?”

Wayne and his wife Janet were on hand for the grand opening in September, and so too was a forgiving Gilmour. His Toronto teammate Wendel Clark showed up, too, as did Gretzky’s old Oilers pal Paul Coffey, a Detroit Red Wing by then, along with future Leaf president Brendan Shanahan, still toiling on the ice in those years as a winger with the St. Louis Blues. Vladislav Tretiak came, and Alanis Morissette, and Toronto’s mayor, June Rowlands.

What else?

It’s worth noting, maybe, that Gilmour opened his own restaurant that same fall, Gardoonies, not far from the rink where he worked his day job.  I’m pretty sure it’s no longer around, though I should probably check on that, just to be sure.

What I can report is that #93’s new digs didn’t make quite the immediate impression that Gretzky’s did — not, at least, if the December, 1993 issue of Toronto Life is your source, as it is mine. Consulting the magazine’s year-end awards issue, I find that while Gardoonies figured not at all,  #99’s place had endeared itself so thoroughly to its host city that it featured twice, winning recognition as the city’s

NOISIEST RESTAURANT

Wayne Gretzky’s on Peter Street; take earplugs.

and for the year’s

MOST AUDACIOUS ATTEMPT AT STICKHANDLING THROUGH CITY COUNCIL

By Wayne Gretzky, who tried to get 41 Peter Street (the location of his jock – stop/restaurant) changed to 99 Blue Jay Way. The Great One’s request is tied up in city council.

Councillor Howard Levine was chairman of the committee considering the application, and he said the city was being seen as “pliant and lacking in principles” for even contemplating allowing the change.

Another councillor, Robert Maxwell, said that letting Gretzky have his Way would give the impression that anybody could have a street name changed.

“You just don’t play with history like that,” said Councillor Michael Walker, though I guess in the end the lesson we all learned is that you do, if you can, and Gretzky did, eventually. But then, like the restaurant at 99 Blue Jays Way itself (as of tonight), that’s also, well, history.

dale hawerchuk, 1963—2020

Heavy news today: Dale Hawerchuk has died, of cancer, at the age of 57. A son of Oshawa, Ontario, he was a sublime centreman whose 16-year NHL career flourished most memorably in the 1980s when he led the Winnipeg Jets. It was with Winnipeg that he  won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 1982. He went on to play for Buffalo, St. Louis, and Philadelphia before a hip injury ended his on-ice career in 1997. With the 1,409 regular-season points he racked up over the course of his career, he stands 20th in the all-time NHL register, just behind Doug Gilmour, a little ahead of Jari Kurri. Hawerchuk was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.

ken randall: a good fellow off the ice, but too hot-headed

Pepperman: Randall as a Toronto St. Patrick, probably during the 1922-23 NHL season. Though not so clear in the photograph, the patch high on his left breast is most likely commemorating the team’s 1922 Stanley Cup championship.

He was a Lindsay Midget and a Brantford Redman, a Port Hope Pro. In the old NHA he was a Montreal Wanderer before he was a Toronto Blueshirt. Mostly he played on the defence, though he also deployed as a winger and, back when the game was a seven-man affair, as rover. In Saskatoon he played for a team called Hoo-Hoos and another one called Real Estates. Out east, he was a Sydney Millionaire before he returned to central Canada in time to join the Toronto Hockey Club when the NHL started up in 1917. He stayed with the team when it became the Arenas and then the St. Patricks. Later, still in the NHL, but in Hamilton, he was a Tiger and, in New York, an American. In his later years, career winding down, Ken Randall was a Niagara Falls Cataract, a Providence Red, and an Ottawa Patricia.

Yesterday’s the day he was born, in Kingston, Ontario, in the year 1887, when December 14 was a Wednesday.

Toronto was where Ken Randall’s fame as a hockey player flourished, along with his infamy. He played in the city’s very first professional game, around this time of year in 1912, when the Blueshirts hosted the Montreal Canadiens, losing 9-5 in front of 4,000 fans at the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The line-ups that night featured some of the greatest names the game has ever known, Georges Vézina, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Walker, Frank Nighbor, Didier Pitre.

Five years later, when the NHA expired and was all but instantly reborn as the NHL, Ken Randall was named captain of Toronto’s team that wound up, in the spring of 1918, winning the Stanley Cup.

He won a second Cup with the team in 1922, though he’d relinquished the captaincy by then, and the team had repurposed itself as St. Patricks. Though Randall remains unrecognized by the hockey’s Hall of Fame, he was without a doubt one of the most effective players of his era. He was also what they used to call, mostly in earnest, a hockey bad man, a vehemently violent player who carried his stick high and often swung it, much-suspended, and seemingly as heedless of the injuries he inflicted as he was of the damage he himself suffered on the ice.

In 1917, at the dawning of the NHL, he was living on McGee Street in Toronto, a half-hour’s walk due east along Queen Street from his place of business, Arena Gardens. You’ll find him, if you look, in the city directory, where you’ll see him identified for the job he did when he wasn’t on the ice: plumber.

There was no mention of that in the sport pages. Randall’s Actions This Winter Cause Surprise To His Friends is a headline from a 1916 story in an Ottawa newspaper reporting on an NHA suspension levied on him after he threatened referee Cooper Smeaton. Fiery is an adjective applied to him in 1918. In 1923, another Ottawa paper described him as not as dangerous as Cleghorn, alluding to the vicious Sprague, and not as a compliment.

Skating in 1925 for Hamilton against Canadiens in Montreal he inspired this account:

Randall was the target for abuse from spectators and also for a pipe thrown in his direction. He was also slapped on the head by a woman spectator during a scuffle with Morenz alongside the boards.

During the NHL’s inaugural week in December of 1917, Randall was down for having run amuck on several occasions. He scuffled and scored, too, on into January, during which he was also fined by President Frank Calder for using bad language to a referee. That levy was forgiven, apparently, when Randall apologized, though Calder hit him up again in early February, $5 for abusing referee Lou Marsh. A couple of weeks later, he was up $35 owing for bad behaviours, which is when Calder threatened to suspend if he didn’t pay up forthwith.

“I am sorry for Randall, who is a good fellow off the ice, but too hot-headed,” Calder said. “But our officials must be protected at any cost. I can see no other step to take. It will serve as a warning to other players also.”

There are various versions of how Randall resolved the situation at Arena Gardens on the Saturday night of February 23. Toronto was hosting Ottawa again, with Lou Marsh refereeing. Before the puck dropped, Randall presented the referee with a brown paper bag containing either (the Montreal Gazette’s version) $31 in bills + $4 worth of pennies or (Toronto’s Daily Star) an IOU for $32 and 300 coppers.

Either way, the bag ended up on the ice and either a curious Ottawa player (the Star) or one of the Toronto players (Gazette) batted it with his stick.

“It burst, scattering the pennies over the ice,” the Gazette’s man wrote. “A number of small boys were on the ice in an instant, and there was a scramble for the coins, as exciting as a game in itself.”

“The affair was received good naturedly all around,” the Star reported, “and everybody had a good laugh.” Toronto manager Charlie Querrie held Randall out of the game, it should be noted; Calder had wired to warn that if he did take part without having settled his debt, the game would be forfeited to Ottawa. Randall-free, Toronto skated to a 9-3 victory.

Shayne Randall in 2017, when he published a biography of his grandfather.

Shayne Randall wrote about that and more in a 2017 biography of his grandfather, The Pepper Kid: The Life and Times of Ken Randall, Hockey’s Bad Hombre. A Peterborough, Ontario, businessman and writer, the younger Randall, who’s in his 70s now, is the son of Fen Randall, the eldest of Ken’s nine children.

In a full and fascinating account of a largely forgotten career, he revealed his grandfather to be a prodigiously hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving player who happens not only to have been Toronto’s very first NHL captain, but also, it turns out, a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24thplayer to wear the franchise’s C. (Gilmour’s great-grandmother was Ken Randall’s sister.)

“He made me a hockey fan,” Shayne told me when I talked to him at the time of the book’s publication. “I was only five years old, but I recall listening to Foster Hewitt on the radio with him on a Saturday night, the winter he died — the winter of 1946-47.”

While he recognizes just how turbulent a player his grandfather was — “He seemed to be a banshee on the ice,” he said — he’s also quick to emphasize that Ken Randall could play. Take that first NHL season: “He played 21 games that year, he had 12 goals — playing defence. But he also had 96 penalty minutes. Which was a lot; only [Montreal’s] Joe Hall had more.”

What surprised him most about his grandfather’s hockey career? “I didn’t realize how versatile he was,” Shayne Randall told me. “He’d start out on defence with, say, Harry Cameron. Then Harry Mummery would come in and Randall would go up on the wing. So he was a 60-minute man — unless he was in the penalty box. And he was in there a lot.”

“I read accounts from Lou Marsh, Elmer Ferguson, old hockey writers, and Charlie Querrie, his general manager, and they all agreed that that he was the key guy for both those Stanley Cups [Toronto won in ’18 and ’22], because he was so versatile. In 1918, he was the rover in two of the games against Vancouver for the Cup. He had played it when he was younger and he was up against Cyclone Taylor. And he held him off. So that proved to me how good a player he was. He could face up against Cyclone Taylor, who’s supposed to be the fastest man ever on skates, and hold him back — and he did — the had to be quite a player.”

Talking about his grandfather’s hockey years, Shayne Randall didn’t shy from considering the cost he paid. “The family never said it, but I think near the end he was he was suffering from what we’d call CTE today. He was really beaten up.”

“There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

There’s no means, now, of calculating how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his 26-year hockey career, but the sombre conclusion that his grandson reached in his book is that the blows Toronto’s first NHL captain took to his head playing the game he loved “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

Ken Randall died in 1947. He was 58.

 

 

vital signs

Check-Up: The 1994-95 Maple Leafs played a Game 7, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference quarter-finals in the middle of May. In February of that lockout-shortened year, the team took time to pose for this healthcare-and-Village-People themed tableau  at the Wallace Film Studios in Toronto’s Junction. Silvia Pecota was the photographer. Below, in the clinic, you’ll see (left to right) Dave Ellett, Ken Baumgartner, Mike Craig, assistant coach Mike Kitchen, Mike Ridley, Drake Berehowsky, Mike Eastwood, Mats Sundin, Doug Gilmour, Warren Rychel, coach Pat Burns, Mike Gartner, Garth Butcher, Todd Gill, Dave Andreychuk, and Kent Manderville. Identifying those up above, in the gallery, involves a bit more guesswork. From left, that could be Matt Martin (?) alongside Randy Wood, assistant coach Rick Wamsley, Darby Hendrickson, Damian Rhodes (?), Jamie Macoun, Felix Potvin, Pat Jablonski (?), Nik Borschevsky, Dixon Ward (?), Benoit Hogue (?), Kenny Jonsson, and Dmitri Mironov.

headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take.

At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1. That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of disorderly conduct. At court, while both Hall and Skinner pleaded guilty, the magistrate presiding deemed that they already been “amply punished” by the referee who fined them $15 a man at the rink.

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to wear Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

make way for the leafs

standwitness

Toronto’s upstart Maple Leafs head into tonight’s game with the Washington Capitals with a five-game winning streak in hand, but the real news may be the optimism and glad-heartedness attending the team in the wake of Sunday’s outdoor overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings feels like something of a new commodity in the city. The surging Leafs have their fans talking about making the playoffs for the first time in four years, even as they bask in the lustre of the bright youth of Connor Brown, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and the incandescent Auston Matthews.

Toronto has, in fact, seen the hope before. It was this very time of the year in 1992, for instance, when GM Cliff Fletcher orchestrated the ten-player trade that brought in Doug Gilmour from the Calgary Flames.

A new day dawns for the team that forgot how to win

was the headline in Toronto’s Financial Post on this day 25 years ago, while in The Windsor Star, columnist Lloyd McLachlan wrote about the notion of Gilmour as, “if not the second coming of Dave Keon, at least a playmaking Moses possibly capable of helping inspire a miracle escape from the wilderness.”

Twenty years further back, Stan Fischler’s 1975 book Make Way For The Leafs outlined an end for another era of Toronto hockey woe. Once, he wrote in opening his thesis, the Leafs had been Canada’s own New York Yankees: “the supreme professional sports organization.” By the end of the page, he’d outlined the glories composed by Conn Smythe, emphasized the success of his teams, the colour of its characters, the team’s toughness, his material proof of which cited Bingo Kampman,

a defenceman of such herculean strength he would win bets that he could lift heavy dinner tables just by placing a side of the table top between his teeth and then hoisting the table using sheer mouth power.

Fischler’s quick sketch of Toronto’s downfall centred mostly on GM Punch Imlach. His account of the team’s ongoing resurrection got going in chapter two with Imlach’s sharp young successor, Jim Gregory, along with the savvy coach he hired in Red Kelly, and a cadre of “youthful skaters” like Darryl Sittler, Rick Kehoe, and Lanny McDonald.

Fischler pegged the start of the Leafs’ “rebirth” to the opening of the NHL’s 1973-74 season — just as, it so happens, team president Harold Ballard was getting out of prison after serving a sentence for theft and fraud.

Ballard isn’t everyone’s idea of a hero, of course. Fischler called him “the most intriguing and one of the most engaging personalities in Toronto sports,” framing him as “a hard man in what he feels is a hard world.” In ’73, Fischler said, Ballard believed the Leafs were three years away from establishing a Stanley Cup-winning team.

They did get to the semi-finals in 1978, losing there to the eventual champions from Montreal. That was as good as it got, though: what the Leafs had to look forward to beyond that were the grim ’80s. Was the team’s wilderness ever so deep and dark as it was in that decade in which they traded away McDonald and Sittler, and squandered one draft pick after another?

The legacy of those years under the Ballard regime lingered a long time. It’s what Cam Cole was alluding to in ’92 as Doug Gilmour arrived from Calgary, and it’s something that Leaf-loving hearts trust is history of a kind that doesn’t repeat itself.

Players turn to mush in Loserville North

Cole’s Edmonton Journal column that January morning was headlined, and it carried on in a key that even, now, still, in these heady times of Marners and Matthewses, can send a shudder through a city:

For reasons not clearly understood to this day, good players turn to mush instantly upon contact with Toronto. It may be the acid rain. Veteran star, proven role player, promising draft pick — you name it, the Leafs can ruin it.