dave semenko, 1959—2017

d semenkoThe Edmonton Oilers have this morning announced the death of Dave Semenko. He was 59. Wayne Gretzky, who often during their careers together skated to Semenko’s right, contributed a foreword to his teammate’s 1989 autobiography. “When I think of Dave Semenko now, and I often do,” 99 wrote to begin Looking Out For Number One, “I don’t picture the piercing glare that caused other heavyweights to look down or up or anywhere but back at Dave. I remember instead the little smile, the quick wink, and the words, ‘Don’t worry, Gretz.’ And you know what? I never did.”

(Image, from 1984-85: The Want List, hockeymedia)

oil parting

rexall

Once, when it was still Northlands Coliseum, the Edmonton Oilers that called the rink home won five Stanley Cups in  seven years. The rink has another name now, Rexall Place, and the Oilers that have skated there recently haven’t reached the playoffs let alone gone all the way, but the old rink still has its history if not much future. Tonight, as the team plays its last game in the old barn, which opened in November of 1974, 150 erstwhile Oilers, players and staff, will be on hand to see their underachieving successors host the Vancouver Canucks. The guest list features Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Ryan Smyth, and Dave Semenko, along with several members of the WHA old guard, including Al Hamilton and Eddie Mio and Ron Chipperfield. The Oilers will open next season at their new $480-million home, Rogers Place.

 (Photo, from 2012, courtesy of Kurt Bauschardt, whose work you’ll find on flickr)

journeyman, scrapper, tomato: I always liked playing

1976-77 O-Pee-Chee WHA #56 Glen Sather

The Edmonton Oilers are honouring erstwhile captain, coach, GM and president Glen Sather tonight, ahead of their game against the New York Rangers, for whom he left them. Now 72, the pride of High River, Alberta, oversaw five Oiler Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s, of course, with teams of Gretzkys and Messiers, Kurris and Coffeys, Lowes and Fuhrs, and now a banner bearing his name will hang with theirs in the rafters of Rexall Place.

With Sather stories trending today all around the Alberta capital, you’re advised to take in a few choice offerings from veteran Oiler-watchers like Jim Matheson at The Edmonton Journal and Terry Jones at The Edmonton Sun. The Oilers, too, are savouring Sather at their website.

Peter Gzowski got to know Sather when he spent the 1980-81 season embedded with the young, rising Oilers. His first impressions, from the inimitable book that followed, The Game of Our Lives (1981):

He has light hair and a pale complexion that rouges when he is emotional. When he was a player, his nickname, Slats, which is still used by those who are or would be his friends, occasionally gave way to Tomato. There are blushes on his cheeks tonight.

“I played my first game as a pro in this rink,” he says. “No, wait, I played my first game as a defenceman here.”

Sather sometimes has difficulty remembering the details of his career. He was a prototypical journeyman, a scrapper. In nine seasons, he played for six teams: Boston, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, St. Louis, Montreal, and Minnesota. He racked up an impressive number of penalty minutes, 724, but a paltry number of goals, 80. Wherever he went, he impressed both his coaches and his teammates with his competitive zeal. “You can tell it’s getting close to the playoffs,” Vic Hadfield, then the captain of the New York rangers, wrote in a diary he kept for the season of 1972-73. “Slats is getting bitchy.” Hadfield, the thirty-second highest goal-scorer in NHL history, sits down the pressbox from Sather tonight, smoking a cheroot. In the off-season, he is a successful golf professional, and the owner of substantial golfing real estate. But in hockey he is a part-time scout for the Oilers and Sather is his boss.

“I thought you were a defensive forward,” someone says to Sather.

“Yeah, sure,” he replies. “But sometimes they put me back on defence.” His mind seems to be somewhere else for a moment. “Jeez, I liked playing,” he says. “I always liked playing.”

(1976-77 O-Pee-Chee WHA card image courtesy of Hockey Media)

veal scallopini sather, with a side of beef gretzky stir-fry

The Edmonton Oilers published a cookbook during the 1980-81 season as fundraiser for the Evelyn Unger School for Language and Learning Development. I don’t know what they were selling it for, but I can report that the cerlox-bound, 62-page epic includes everything you need to know to whip up Jari Kurri’s Karelian Ragout, Glenn Anderson’s Cherry Cheese Cake, and/or a Kevin Lowe Tourtiere. Not to mention:

gretzky beef

sather veal

messier cake

I seem to be able to get along with hockey players: the book peter gzowski never wrote

gzowski

If you’re going to write a hockey book, I’m going to suggest you do it the way Peter Gzowski did it with The Game of Our Lives. First thing: hook up with a hockey team that’s just about to turn into one of the very best ever to play in the NHL, with a roster that makes room for names like Gretzky, Messier, and Coffey. Two: have Peter Pocklington own that team, so that in the fall of the year you’re publishing your book, he’ll pre-purchase 7,500 copies to give away to people who’ve bought season’s tickets to watch said team.

Pocklington did that in 1981, without having read Gzowski’s chronicle of the ascendant Edmonton Oilers that McClelland & Stewart published just as the team was preparing to win five Stanley Cups in seven years. I’m guessing Pocklington didn’t read the reviews, either, but if he had he would learned that in Gzowski he’d backed a winner. “He has captured everything about hockey,” Christie Blatchford effused in The Toronto Star. “And he’s done it so well, so eloquently, so plainly, that it breaks your heart.”

Readers who hadn’t bought Oilers tickets joined in with Pocklington to make the book a bestseller. Thirty-four years later, it remains one of the most perceptive books yet to have found a place on the hockey shelf.

The Oilers weren’t Gzowski’s first choice as a subject, as it turns out. As a journalist he’d been writing about the game his whole career, both in print at Maclean’s and The Toronto Star and for CBC Radio, on This Country in the Morning and Morningside. The book he first had in mind would focus on an institution that (as he put it) flourished in a time in which it was hard to flourish, one that demanded to be admired and celebrated, that made you feel good just thinking about them, “like a good piece of architecture painting or a Christmas morning.”

The hockey book Gzowski was going to write, first, was about the Montreal Canadiens. Class is what he wanted to call it.

This is all in a letter I was reading not long ago in Peterborough, Ontario. Gzowski was Chancellor of Trent University there from 1999 to 2002, and one of the campus colleges bears his name. I had lunch in the cafeteria on my visit — a Peter Gzowski Burger, no less — before walking back across the bridge over the Otonabee River to Trent’s Archives, where many of Gzowski’s papers are preserved. Studying a plan for a book that never was, I recognized the shadows of another one that he did eventually write.

It’s two pages and a half, Gzowski’s letter, typewritten, on brown paper. It’s a draft of a letter, I should say, much edited and annotated, a little jumbled, certainly unfinalized, pencilled over, xxxxxxx’d, amended. It isn’t dated, but Gzowski talks about joining the Canadiens ahead of the 1978-79 season, so I’ll guess that he was working on it in the early months of ’78. I don’t know if there ever was a second, clean copy, much less whether Gzowski got it enveloped and stamped to send to the man it addresses. That would be Doug Gibson, the esteemed editor, writer, and publisher revered for his work with Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, among many others, not to mention the man who steered Ken Dryden’s The Game to print. He was, at this time, editorial editor of Toronto-based Macmillan of Canada.   Continue reading

steve smith is a kinder person

steve smith

Steve Smith spent 45 minutes with me on the phone a while ago, re-living the worst moment of his life, when he banked that clearing pass off of [Grant] Fuhr’s leg and into the Oilers goal, the Game 7 winner for Calgary in 1986. “At the time it was devastating.” But today? Today Steve Smith is a kinder person for what he went through. “From that day forward I always had a sense of cheering for everyone. I never wanted anyone to have the day that I had that day.”

• Sportsnet writer Mark Spector writing last week about the book he’s working on, a history of the Albertan rivalry between the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.

[notes and annotations] dave dryden

Where once there was only a blog, now there’s a book, too: this month, Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession went on sale at booksellers across Canada and the United States. If you get to reading it, and you make it as far as page 402, you’ll find yourself steered back here, to puckstruck.com, for a list of sources cited and quoted. That’s coming next week; stay tuned.

The same page in the book also mentions notes and annotations. Those will be appearing here on the blog on an ongoing basis through the course of the winter. They’ll include outtakes, updates, oddments, detours, dead-ends, and goose-chases as well as, like today’s installment, illustrations. They’ll appear first here on the front page of the site, according to no particular schedule, in no special order; later, they’ll migrate to the Notes page, navigable via the contents bar above. They’ll refer to a page number in (and perhaps quote a passage from) the book which, as may already have been mentioned, is on sale now.

dave dryden

[p. 322]

In my Dave Dryden drawing, when I look at it now, I can see no Dave Dryden. Studying the eyes — well, there aren’t any, just a vacant mask. The rest of his equipment is stacked up artfully, with the help of coat hangers or pipe cleaners. Dave himself didn’t even notice this, or else he was too polite to say anything. I’d sent the drawing to my grandfather in Edmonton, and he’d passed it on to the Oilers. What was I thinking, sending him a drawing of his empty equipment? He autographed it anyway, and returned it with his regards.

Continue reading

this week + last: #freetorts

happy wayne

Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant wished him many happy returns of the day, today.

Also this week, P.K. Subban was twittering: “Congrats to @geniebouchard on a great run! Definitely Many more to come! #canada”

Meanwhile, in Dallas, as the Leafs were losing 7-1 to the hometown Stars, the scoreboard showed Justin Bieber’s grinning mug shot and Rob Ford on the rampage.

“We invented this game,” said Nike this week, in a lengthy new and – gotta say – kind of gloomy commercial, “we perfected it.” Which was confusing, frankly, because though presumably they meant Canadians it never was completely clear throughout the whole ad that the we wasn’t corporate rather than patriotic.

Sorry, said the owner in Edmonton, Darryl Katz, in an open letter to Oilers fans asking for forgiveness and patience.

I know this will almost certainly be the eighth consecutive year since we made the playoffs. I hate that fact as much as anyone, but the reality is that this is only year four of the rebuild that started when we drafted Taylor Hall. The good news, if you can call it that, is that other teams that committed to fundamental rebuilds went through the same kind of droughts over the same kind of time frames, or longer. That doesn’t make it fun for anyone; it just means we have to stay the course.

Pavel Datsyuk was tweeting: “Happy New Year from my cat! Best Wishes in 2014” That was last week, a day or two before he was named captain of the Russian team going to the Sochi Olympics.

Montreal coach Michel Therrien: “Tomas Plekanec est, à mes yeux, un candidat sérieux pour le trophée Frank-Selke.”

“We have the most fans,” said Nike, referring (I think) to Canada rather than its own corporate realm, “the most players, the most heart of any nation.”

kyiv

In Kyiv, Ukraine, as the situation grew worse this week, anti-government protesters donned hockey gear to battle police. (Photo: Sergei Grits, The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, in Ottawa: a writer named Michael Murray was writing in the Citizen. “Hockey covers us,” he said, “like an invisible skin here.”

Amalie Benjamin of The Boston Globe talked to Bruins’ goalie Tuukka Rask about the team’s goalie coach, Bob Essensa, and the tonic he applies in practices after Rask has had a tough night in net.

“It’s more about just laughing,” said Rask said. “He jokes around. Just tries to keep it light.

“When you get scored on in goal like I’ve been getting scored on lately — it’s just bounces here and there — it’s tough. It’s draining. Because you think you want to stop them and you feel like you kind of have to, but then again you can’t really blame yourself, either. It’s a tough situation mentally but that’s why he’s here, and we just try to keep things light and work hard.”

Nike: “We’ve spent our whole entire lives on ice.”

In Winnipeg, coach Claude Noel lost his job, which Paul Maurice gained. Centre Olli Jokinen told The Winnipeg Sun that he felt the team had been playing scared. “All of us should be embarrassed that we’re at the point where we have to change the coach,” he said.

Vancouver got into a hibiscus with Anaheim. This was before the rumpus with Calgary for which the Canucks’ coach, John Tortorella, earned a 15-day suspension. Anaheim beat Vancouver 9-1, was the problem in this one. Ducks’ coach Bruce

Boudreau: “There was a lot of frustration on their part. They just started punching our guys. It wasn’t the brightest thing to do. What are the refs supposed to do?”

Tortorella: “I’m not even going to try to explain it. One of those nights, so we plow along to our next game and get ready to play. … It does me no good, it does the players no good, to discuss anything that happened here.”

P.K. Subban scored a goal to beat Ottawa’s Senators in overtime; the Senators thought he celebrated too much.

“I don’t care,” Subban told reporters. “I don’t care. It’s the game of hockey, you’re not disrespecting anybody. To be honest, that game’s over. I don’t really need to comment on it.”

It was Tortorella who said, once, in calmer times, that defensemen need 300 NHL games to figure out how to play the position.

“Yeah, that’s a good number for me,” said Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, 23, who’s in his fifth NHL season. “This year has been by far the best for me personally. The biggest thing is the consistency in my game. That gains me confidence when you feel you can play your best and make plays on a night-to-night basis.”

“So it doesn’t matter,” Nike argued, “if we’re playing at someone else’s rink, or in someone else’s province, or even in someone else’s country.”

The Calgary/Vancouver started with a brawl, at the opening face-off. Later, Tortorella tried to fight his way into the Calgary dressing room. That got him his suspension. The NHL fined Flames’ coach Bob Hartley US$25,000.

NHL VP Colin Campbell called Tortorella’s conduct “dangerous” and “an embarrassment to the League.”

“I don’t think this embarrasses us,” Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa told The Vancouver Sun. “If anything it shows how passionate he is and how much he cares about his team … I think you respect a coach more when you see that he has your back and how much he cares. We are not just pawns out there, we are not just guys he is sticking out there to fight. He cares that we had to go through that.”

ESPN’s Keith Olbermann nominated Tortorella as the worst person in the sports world. “He may be a gifted coach but he is a clown and not in a good way,” Olbermann said. “He unnecessarily provokes the media, his own players, even the fans.”

“#FreeTorts,” tweeted Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo.

“As long as there’s ice to skate on,” Nike proclaimed, “we’re at home.” Continue reading

this week + last: doesn’t sound like a sutter

Credit Line: 	National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine LeRoy Neiman, 8 Jun 1927 - 20 Jun 2012

After 45 games, the Leafs appeared to be hitting a wall.

Toronto’s chances of making the playoffs, according to the SportsClubStats.com, now stand at 21 per cent.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that things aren’t going anywhere near what our expectations are, that’s for sure,” coach Randy Carlyle said on Thursday.

Canadian GM Steve Yzerman announced the team he’ll be taking to Sochi for the Olympics next month, which is when Michael Farber from Sports Illustrated took to Twitter: “My Canada includes Martin St. Louis.”

But Wayne Gretzky, for one, approved of the players selected: “I really think he put together a good team,” Gretzky told Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com. “He’s got skill, he’s got size, he’s got depth, he’s got a good coaching staff, and they’ve done all their homework. They’ve done everything they can do. Now it’s up to the players to play at the level that they need to play at to bring back the gold medal.”

The Toronto Star’s Damien Cox called the Winter Classic a gimmick ahead of the big New Year’s Day game between Leafs and Red Wings in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Farber: “No, I am not in Detroit. Since ’03 Heritage Classic in Edmonton – Hype vs. Hypothermia – I have been strictly an indoor hockey writer.”

Toronto’s Phil Kessel: “She is gonna be chilly tm out on that ice”

On the day, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk told his coach, Mike Babcock, “Well, we’re being too careful with the puck. We gotta be because you’re scared to turn it over. There’s so much snow.”

In front of a record-setting crowd of 105,491,tThe Leafs won, 3-2 in a shoot-out. Cox, post-game:

NHL gimmickry and ambition collided with frigid, blustery, irritable Mother Nature to produce a compelling outdoor game as a remarkable 82 TV cameras peered through an unceasing snow squall to broadcast every moment to 160 countries.

“I never talk to my team after we lose ever,” Babcock said. “I did today. I said you should be proud. You have an off day tomorrow. Enjoy your family today.”

“To me,” said Babcock, “today was a home run for hockey,”

After bombs ripped through lives in Volgograd, in southern Russia, The Globe and Mail’s Roy MacGregor listened to Alex Ovechkin’s thoughts on the subject. “It’s awful,” he told reporters in Ottawa. “I don’t know what people doing that kind of stuff for. I feel so sorry about the families and the people who were there.”

When you hear this kind of situation happened, you think ‘Oh my God!’ You just feel bad. I don’t know how to say it, but just say ‘Why? Why you have to carry a bomb with you and push the button and destroy you and destroy everybody? If you want to do it, do it by yourself somewhere in a forest or in the mountains. Nobody is going to care about it. This is just stupid.

Boston’s goalie, Tuukka Rask, talked about the danger of terrorist attacks at Sochi’s Olympics, where he’ll be defending Finnish nets: “You trust the system that nothing will happen. You can’t live your life in fear.” Continue reading