when fans attack: out on the street in his skates, the eel gives chase

Shake It Off: Showing the wound he was willing to forgive, the New York Rangers’ Camille Henry makes peace with Detroit salesman Eric Steiner in January of 1960.

He was just small, the newspapers liked to point out: at 5’10”, the New York Rangers’ centreman Camille Henry scaled in at a feathery 151 pounds. In 1960, the Associated Press decided this was news enough to flash out as free-standing story across the wires to its North American readers. In his sixth NHL season, the 27-year-old Henry had made his mark in the league in other ways, too, starting out with a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in NHL. Dubbed, inevitably, the Eel, he was a reliable scorer. As a mostly peaceable presence on the ice, he won a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for gentlemanly proficiency in 1958. In his first five seasons, Henry accrued just 20 minutes in penalties, and while 1959-60 was a more delinquent year, his total by the end of the regular season was a mere six minutes.

That’s not to say that his restraint didn’t have its limits. On this day in 1960, he seems to have crossed over as he left the ice at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium at the end of a game that saw the Rangers tie the Red Wings 2-2. An account of what happened next made up of sentences cut and pasted from several contemporary newspaper reports might look like this:

Some fans threw small objects at the players and words were exchanged.
Bumped when the New York Rangers’ Camille Henry stumbled and dropped his stick …
Eric Steiner, a 37-year-old Detroit salesman, picked up the stick and gave Henry a good thumping under the right eye.
Henry — skates and all — lit out after the fan.
He caught Steiner in the street outside the stadium, some 50 yards from the rink, and held him for police.
A half-dozen other players were chasing fans but officers quickly quelled the uprising.

While the police questioned Steiner, Henry took on four stitches. Detroit coach Jack Adams conferred with New York Alf Pike and, by one report, they were all for pressing charges. But Henry demurred. He settled for an apology and (above) a handshake. “I just lost my head,” Steiner is on the record as explaining; he also gained a ban attending future hockey games at the Olympia.

A week later, the two teams met again New York, tying again, 3-3. This time, the damage Henry sustained was on the ice, in the rush of play. Again he stumbled, crashing this time into a goal post, fracturing his left forearm. The Rangers’ Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa took care of the surgery later that week, putting in a pin. Henry was back in the line-up by the end of February.

gump agonistes

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They’re just a few of them, Canadians we feel we know so well (and maybe even revere) that just the one name will do. Most of them are singers, Drake and Shania, Joni, Neil, Leonard, though we also have a prime minister now, Justin, with whom we’re first-name familiar. Hockey has Gordie, Wayne, Mario, Sid — and now I guess Connor, too.

Also? Gump.

That one is an older vintage, and maybe doesn’t have the currency it once did. Still, it does retain a certain power, as a byword for the audacity and sheer foolery of old-time NHL goaltenders, one that conveys not only the awkward dignity of the man himself but also the fall-down, scrambling valor of a whole nervy puckstopping generation of maskless men, long before Tom Hanks was cast in the role of a slow-wit hero from Alabama.

Not that the surname isn’t just as good as the first: Worsley is Dickensian in its perfection, up there with Gradgrind, Cheeryble, Pickwick, Pecksniff. Paired, Gump Worsley not only sounds like a character from a story, one from whom you could figure out the gist of the plot just by looking at the man: oh, yes, right, so this is the one about the kind-hearted London orphan, bit of a sad case, all alone in the world, at the behest of his anonymous benefactor, without any training or apparent aptitude, has to take up goaltending in the six-team National Hockey League in order to prove himself and find his destiny.

John K. Samson once told me he carried a glorious old Gump-faced hockey card with him wherever he went. We were talking at the time about Reggie Leach, Riverton’s own Rifle, but then the talk turned as the Winnipeg singer explained that a lot of his admiration for Gump was based, like mine, on just how unlikely a goaltender he seemed, accidental, almost, and how amiably he seemed to bearing up in the situation into which he’d been thrust.

That’s in the song Samson wrote, of course, “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” that he sang with his erstwhile band, The Weakerthans. The words go like this:

He looked more like our fathers, not a goalie, player, athlete period. Smoke, half ash, stuck in that permanent smirk, tugging jersey around the beergut, “I’m strictly a whiskey man” was one of the sticks he taped up and gave to a nation of pudgy boys in beverage rooms. Favourites from Plimpton’s list of objects thrown by Rangers fans: soup cans, a persimmon, eggs, a folding chair and a dead rabbit. The nervous breakdown of ’68-’69 after pant-crap flights from LA, the expansion, “the shrink told me to change occupations. I had to forget it.” He swore he was never afraid of the puck. We believe him. If anyone asks, the inscription should read, “My face was my mask.”

He played 21 years in the NHL, mostly for the New York Rangers, most successfully for Montreal, finally for the Minnesota North Stars. He died at the age of 77 in 2007.

It’s possible that I saw him play, later on in his career, staying up late to watch Hockey Night In Canada in the early ’70s. If so, I don’t remember. I loved his memoir, They Call Me Gump (1975), which he wrote with Tim Moriarty’s aid, and not just because he devotes Chapter 21 to his recipe for pineapple squares. Okay, well, yes, that’s where a lot of the love is centred. Also with his affable way of looking at the world, and that if there’s a joke in his playing NHL goal, then it’s a joke he’s very much in on, and enjoying as much as the rest of us.

If Gump looked helpless, if he seemed hapless, well, of course, he was anything but. You don’t need to go and stand in front of his plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame (elected in 1980) to know that he was one of the best of his era. Traded to Montreal for Jacques Plante, he went on to play his part in four Stanley Cup championships. He was a First All-Star Team and twice had a share (with Charlie Hodge and Rogie Vachon, respectively) in a Vézina Trophy. Of all the goaltenders to have defended NHL nets, he stands 22nd when it comes to regular-season wins (335). He had 40 more in the playoffs, which is more than Johnny Bower and Bernie Parent and lots of other Brahmins of the crease.

I don’t know where he slots in when it comes to the all-time index of pain and suffering. In his book, he mostly makes light of the wear and tear of being worn and torn. “The main occupational hazard is trying to stay alive while facing up to 40 and 50 shots a game,” he writes. “We’re not well, you know,” he says elsewhere, “or we wouldn’t be playing the position.” And: “It helps to be nuts.” If he were in the business of hiring goaltenders, his prerequisites would include “a hard skull to deflect flying pucks, plus a thick skin to absorb the abuse of coaches and fans.”

Like a lot of hockey memoirs, They Call Me Gump reads like a medical file. It’s longtime Ranger physician Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa attending, mostly, dropping in every few pages to consult on the tendons in Gump’s hand that Bobby Hull’s skate severed, or to remove cartilage from his knee. Gump pulls hamstrings, tears thigh muscles, sprains knees. He devotes another entire chapter (without going too deep) to the stress and fear of flying that fuelled the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1968.

The injuries would have contributed to that, too, though Gump doesn’t really make much of the connection. For all the damage he chronicles, there’s relatively little mention of concussions. One that features is famous in its way — a “mild” one that knocked him out of a 1967 game at Madison Square Garden when he was back in playing for Montreal. Others he leaves out entirely or tosses in with what passes for trouperly bravado:

[Boom-Boom] Geoffrion hit me right between the eyes with a slapshot in the Forum one night, and the puck ricocheted 40 rows into the stands.

Gump finally put on a mask in 1974, but only for the last six games of his career. “Hated it,” he said in 1984, looking back. “Sure I got knocked out a lot. I got knocked out oftener than Joe Palooka. But there was only one goalie to a team at that time, so they’d revive you and sew you up and you went back on.”

That’s all in keeping, I guess, with hockey’s historical nonchalance when it comes to head injuries. Getting your bell proverbially rung was just part of the game; you shook it off, headed back out on the ice. Knowing what we know now about head trauma and the long-time devastation of CTE casts a grim shade on those old attitudes, even as the modern-day NHL refuses to acknowledge the connections.

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Worsley Out: Montreal teammates Ted Harris and Bob Rousseau aid training staff in getting Gump off the ice in Chicago in April of 1968 after he hit his head on a goalpost.

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jacques plante’s new face-saver

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Mask + Man: Before he added his famous mask to his game equipment one night in 1959, Jacques Plante was protecting his face in practice. After having both cheekbones broken in training mishaps in 1954 and ’55, he first tried a welder’s mask donated by a fan. He later switched to the plexiglass apparatus he’s holding above, the creation of a St. Mary’s, Ontario, inventor by the name of Delbert Louch. “Louch’s New Head-Saver” had its shortcomings: it left a goaltender’s forehead vulnerable and tended, too, to fog over on the ice. Plante modified his, as shown above, by cutting out eye-holes. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

You can guess, maybe, the species of shot that truly distressed Jacques Plante. “Oh brother, that damned slap shot!” he wrote, to the point, in 1971. “You have no idea what an effect the slap shot has had on goalies.” Heading into a game against Chicago, he said, knowing he was gong to facing Bobby Hull, his nerves would start their rattling two days before the teams hit the ice.

Plante was 41 by then, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs — with another three seasons to go before he’d wrap up his 21-year professional career. He was wearing a mask by then, of course — had been for 11 years, ever since the night in 1959 when Andy Bathgate of the Rangers moved in on him in early minutes of a game in New York.

You know the story. It was this week, 57 years ago, November 1. It wasn’t a slapped shot that did the damage and launched a Heritage Minute. No, Bathgate’s effort was a malign backhand. He told Plante biographer Todd Denault that he’d done it on purpose, vengefully — Plante had tripped him into the boards, he was bleeding, and mad. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” he said.

The puck struck Plante to the left of his nose. Dave Anderson: “He toppled face down on the milk-white ice at the right side of the net.” Red Fisher, covering the game for The Montreal Star, would describe Bathgate rushing in and lifting Plante’s head.

Plante stayed down for 15 seconds. He got up with a towel fixed his face, skated off under escort by Maurice Richard and Dickie Moore. A pair of Garden policemen helped him to the medical room. Rangers’ doctor Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa sewed in seven stitches. After 20 minutes, Plante was ready to return. There are varying versions of the conversation that took place between coach and goaltender before Plante rejoined the game. In his biography Behind The Mask, Raymond Plante (no relation) has Plante lying on the medical table, seeing Blake, saying I want to play with my mask on. Blake: We’ll see, we’ll see.

Dave Anderson wrote a Plante feature for The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. As he tells it, Blake is the one to mention the mask, tell Plante he can put it on. Good, Plante told him, because I wouldn’t go back without it.

Todd Denault’s biography is Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (2010). He has a stricken Plante departing the medical room, heading back out to the ice (where — a superior detail — the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), then on the Canadiens’ dressing room where he had it out with his coach. Continue reading

this week: disappointing!

Unmasked: The wonderful Calgary artist Lisa Brawn carves and paints reclaimed wood: lots of owls and ravens and ruby-throated hummingbirds, but also zombies, Beatles, prime ministers, and the occasional hockey player. Jacques Plante, for instance, on a block of cherry-wood. To browse and maybe to buy — or just to marvel at her colours and craftsmanship — visit www.lisabrawn.com.

Unmasked: The wonderful Calgary artist Lisa Brawn carves and paints reclaimed wood: lots of owls and ravens and ruby-throated hummingbirds, but also zombies, Beatles, prime ministers, and the occasional hockey player. Jacques Plante, for instance, on a block of cherry-wood. To browse and maybe to buy — or just to marvel at her colours and craftsmanship — visit http://www.lisabrawn.com.

Gary Bettman put a number, this week, on how many times players hit one another across the league over the course of a season: “55,000, give or take.” I don’t think that includes punches to the head, just bodychecks. His point was that, once in a while, there’s a bad one in there, and when there is, the NHL deals out a suspension.

Bettman was in Columbus, where he also talked about Philadelphia’s brawl with Washington wherein one goalie, the Flyers’ Ray Emery, skated down the ice to attack another, Braden Holtby of the Capitals, who didn’t want to fight.

“I don’t think anyone liked it,” Bettman said, “liked what it looked like.”

“Protect yourself,” Emery said, later, is what he told Holtby as he swung at him.

Earlier in the week, Brian Burke published a defence of fighting in USA Today. Some people just don’t get it, he said. The players are all volunteers, and if they want to punch one another, in the head, or anywhere else, who are people who write about the game, never having played it professionally, to dare to tell them not to?

Ken Dryden was in print this week, too, in The Globe and Mail, answering Bobby Orr who, in his new book, makes his own argument in favour of fighting.

You’re wrong, Dryden said. Also:

The model for an NHL without fighting is right there in front of us. It’s not the Olympics, though opponents of fighting often say it is. The Olympics are too unique an experience. The ice surface is bigger. Players put on their nation’s jerseys and, in front of countrymen who know their game and those who don’t, avoid doing things that might be misunderstood.

The real model is the playoffs. It’s the time of year that fans love best; when the best hockey is played.

“This makes hockey look bush,” said Neil Smith on Sportsnet’s Hockey Central, regarding Emery chasing down Holtby to punch his head.

As Washington was fricasseeing the Flyers, fans in Philadelphia cried out: “Fire Holmgren! Fire Holmgren! Fire Holmgren!”

Paul Holmgren, they were talking about, the general manager. “We just folded up like a cheap suit,” he said after the game.

When Semyon Varlamov was arrested this week by Denver police, charged with kidnapping and assaulting his girlfriend, his father said that no crime had been committed, whatsoever.

In the Colorado goalie’s native Russia, the head of the State Duma Committee for Physical Culture, Sport and Youth Affairs suspected that there was a plot afoot. The Voice of Russia quoted Igor Ananskykh:

“The situation is really strange, given that the Sochi Olympics will take place soon and Varlamov is a candidate to become part of our national hockey team which we do count on. What about presumption of innocence? It’s not normal at all. Varlamov will fall out of the training process which will have an impact on his readiness before the Olympics in Sochi. The first thing that comes to my mind is that it is an effort to weaken our national team.”

Varlamov went to court on Thursday and was released on a bond of US$5,000. The Denver Post struggled to put it all in perspective.

The Avalanche are off to a torrid 10-1 start and have become the talk of hockey under first-year coach Patrick Roy. Duchene doesn’t think this will derail the Avalanche.

“You just don’t think about it,” Duchene said. “It’s tough. You’re concerned about your teammate. We all love Varly in here. I can’t say enough great things about him. I think we’re all pretty confident this is going to get resolved pretty quickly.”

Varlamov played on Friday night in Dallas and won. Coach Roy said afterwards that the team wanted to show it’s a family. A reporter asked: Does this show that Varlamov can handle adversity?

Jacques Plante was allergic, meanwhile, to Toronto. That wasn’t this week — that’s an old story, resurrected on the occasion of Friday’s anniversary of the night in 1959 that Plante first put on a mask in the Montreal goal.

Maybe you remember? In New York that night, Andy Bathgate’s backhand from 15 feet caught Plante on the left side of his nose. That’s how The Jacques Plante Story (1972) tells it, the book the goalie wrote with Andy O’Brien. Bathgate “blasted” it — unless, as Raymond Plante’s Jacques Plante: Behind The Mask (1996) says, he “slammed” it.

When Todd Denault talked to Bathgate for Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed The Face of Hockey (2009), he said it was a wrist shot, not too hard, though decidedly vengeful. Plante had cut him previously in the game, and he was determined to get him back. Continue reading