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It was a year ago today that Gordie Howe died at the age of 88 in Sylvania, Ohio. On June 14, 2016, some 15,000 mourners paid their respects at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. At the funeral next morning at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, amid an outpouring of love and sorrow and respect and nostalgia, rector the Reverend J.J. Mech delivered the homily. “I just hope he doesn’t elbow too many angels,” he said. In September, Howe’s family and friends gathered outside SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, about 30 kilometres north of Mr. Hockey’s birthplace of Floral. The solemn ceremony that day saw his ashes interred with those of his wife Colleen (who died in 2009) beneath the statue (above) rendered by sculptor Michael Martin that’s been in place since 2005. “Whenever he talked about wanting to go home,” Howe’s daughter Cathy told The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, “especially when things got really confusing for him … I would often ask him ‘where’s home?’ He would look at me and say ‘Saskatoon,’ like I should know.”

(Image: Stephen Smith)

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Reaction was swift to the news, when it came on June 10, that Gordie Howe had died. The tenor was sad, with an accent on tribute and fond respect. Hero was one of the words that was trending that Friday, along with legend and icon. Many of those who took to Twitter were quick to imagine Mr. Hockey’s ascension to a whole new celestial venue. “Heaven must have needed an elbow in the corner,” decided Sportsnet Magazine’s Gare Joyce; a certain Mark Scelfo fancied that “the first ever ‘Gordie Howe hat trick’ was recorded in heaven today.” (Howe’s friend, on-ice rival, and fellow Saskatchewaner Johnny Bower, 91, was more domestic in his thinking. “He’ll meet his wife up in heaven now,” he told The Hockey News.)

Both Sportsnet and Sports Illustrated elevated Howe to their covers last week. In the latter, Michael Farber went up on high for his lede to picture God on skates with Number 9 hunting him for a hit:

The Almighty blew it this time.

Sure, vengeance might be His (Romans 12:19), but as the Creator vets His newest recruit — a powerful, stooped-shouldered man with an easy smile and old-fashioned values forged in Depression-era Saskatchewan — He would be well-advised to skim the Book of Gordie. Verse 1: Do not mess with Gordie Howe. Howe, who died on Friday at age 88, had a memory as long as his unparalleled career, which touched five decades and included seven MVP awards in two leagues. Heaven might be a swell place, full of cherubim and gaping five-holes, but if Mr. Hockey suspects that he was taken from us too soon, that he could have gotten yet another day out of his rich life … well, the Supreme Being should start skating with his head up, you know?

Wednesday, at Howe’s funeral at Detroit’s Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, son Murray recounted that he’d once asked his father for advice on shaping his eulogy. “He said, ‘Say this: Finally, the end of the third period.’ Then he added, ‘I hope there’s a good hockey team in heaven.’ Dad, all I can say is, once you join the team, they won’t just be good, they will be great.”

Others who weighed in over the course of the week included Hall-of-Fame defenceman Larry Robinson and former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay. A quick tour:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

flyers and soviets, 1976: when al capone’s mob ambushed the bolshoi ballet dancers

Impe-ish: A 2013 sale of hockey memorabilia by Montreal’s Classic Auctions featured a selection of Ed Van Impe’s cherished mementoes from Philadelphia’s famous 1976 encounter with Moscow’s Red Army. Included in Lot #18 was a game program and a copy of the NHL’s official scoresheet. Also, as seen above: the wristwatch that Van Impe received as a gift from the Soviets, along with an 8 x 10 photograph of Kharlamov prone on the ice in the moments after Van Impe hit him in the game’s first period. They all could have been yours, though they’re not: they sold to somebody else for the princely sum of US$242. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

Impe-ish: A 2013 sale of hockey memorabilia by Montreal’s Classic Auctions featured a selection of Ed Van Impe’s cherished mementoes from Philadelphia’s famous 1976 encounter with Moscow’s Red Army. Included in Lot #18 was a game program and a copy of the NHL’s official scoresheet. Also, as seen above: the wristwatch that Van Impe received as a gift from the Soviets, along with an 8 x 10 photograph of Kharlamov prone on the ice in the moments after Van Impe hit him in the game’s first period. They all could have been yours, though they’re not: they sold to somebody else for the princely sum of US$242. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

It’s 40 years since the Montreal Canadiens and CSKA Moscow — the legendary Central Red Army — played what lots of people say was the best hockey game ever. Todd Denault wrote a whole book to that effect, and more: in The Greatest Game, he argues that their 3-3 tie on New Year’s Eve of 1975 actually saved hockey from the violence and cynicism that was dragging it under, reminding us all what a beautiful game it is while redeeming and returning it to righteousness.

If that’s the case, hockey and Central Army both had a short detour they had to follow first, south, to Philadelphia, home of the reigning Stanley Cup champions. While the game in Montreal may have showed hockey in all its competitive finery, the Soviets’ meeting on Sunday, January 11, 1976, with the Flyers is remembered for its bruising and bitterness — not to mention the fact that the game was very nearly abandoned midway through the first period.

Two enhanced Soviet teams had arrived in North America before Christmas that winter on a much anticipated exhibition tour of NHL cities: the Super Series. Krylya Sovetov — the Soviet Wings — were bolstered by four of Moscow Spartak’s best players, and their tour saw them beat Pittsburgh, Chicago, and the New York Islanders before they lost to the Buffalo Sabres.

To a roster that already featured names like Kharlamov, Tretiak, Petrov, and Mikhailov, Central Army added a pair of Dynamo Moscow ringers, Alexander Maltsev and Valeri Vasiliev. Their swing started with a win over the New York Rangers before the game in Montreal, which they followed with a win in Boston over the Bruins.

The Russians had a few days free in Philadelphia before Sunday’s game with the Flyers. On Friday, January 9, the Flyers gave them lunch. Saturday many of the players went to see Jaws. Ahead Sunday’s afternoon game, there was a kerfuffle involving signs in the Spectrum protesting the Soviet government’s treatment of Jews, a threat of Russian withdrawal — but NHLPA executive director Alan Eagleson talked to Flyers’ president Ed Snider and had the signs removed.

Once the hockey got going, rancor ruled. If you don’t recall, maybe we’ll let a few headlines from next morning’s (North American) papers frame it for you:

Flyers Whip Reds, No. 1 in the World

Russians Cry Uncle As Flyers Fly, 4-1

Reds Balk, Take Loss

Grumbling Soviets Fall To Flyers

Philadelphia defenseman Ed Van Impe was, if not the star of the show, then certainly its accelerant. Released from the penalty box where he’d been serving a first-period tripping call, he made a beeline for Valeri Kharlamov, whom he belted. Referee Lloyd Gilmour looked, but called no penalty. Stephen Cole describes the scene in his latest book Hockey Night Fever (2014): “Kharlamov squirmed, tried to get up and then collapsed.”

Army coach Konstantin Loktev called his goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, to the bench. Cole says the idea was to give Gilmour time to reconsider. Instead, the referee assessed Army a minor for delay of game. Exit the Soviets withdrew to their dressing room in a snit.

The delay that followed lasted nearly 20 minutes. Furious negotiations ensued, with NHL president Clarence Campbell joining Eagleson and Snider in discussions with Vyacheslav Koloskov, head of the Soviet hockey federation, and Loktev. The story that’s popularly told is that the Soviets returned because they were told that they wouldn’t be paid if they refused to finish the game, but that, as we’ll see, has been persuasively denied by several of the principals involved. One version has Snider telling the Soviets they’ll have to reimburse the fans in the building: that sound more likely.

Once the game resumed, the Flyers went ahead 3-0 on goals by Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, and Joe Watson. Victor Kutergin scored for Army before Larry Goodenough added another Philadelphia goal in the third.

That’s the story, pretty much, in sum. Here following, a detailed account of the game (and its acrimony) as those who took part saw it, with quotes culled verbatim from contemporary accounts in newspapers and magazines as well as from books published later — sources below — starting off with a few choice cuts from the roast-beef luncheon the Flyers hosted on the Friday ahead of the game.

Fred Shero, Philadelphia coach

We welcome this great Russian team to the cradle of liberty. We have the two greatest teams in the world, and we hope the teams conduct themselves in a professional manner.”

Konstantin Loktev, CSKA coach

I hope it will be an enjoyable game for the fans.

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Fred Shero

It was the biggest game in Flyers history. We had to win or else.

Konstantin Loktev

This is just a friendly game.

Fred Shero

They are experts at retaliating when the ref’s not looking. They spear, they hook. The same way they play soccer over there … bloody murder.”

Jay Greenberg, Philadelphia Daily News

Bobby Clarke, whose vicious slash had put Soviet star Valery Kharlamov out of the 1972 series, was asked to reflect on his lingering status as villain in the USSR. “It wasn’t premeditated,” said the Flyer captain. “He had speared me and it wasn’t a clean series from the start.

“I don’t care. I hate the sons of bitches, anyway.”

Vladislav Tretiak, Red Army goaltender

Even during the reception, two days before the game, they made it perfectly clear that they had no intention of associating with the Soviet players. The Stanley Cup winners demonstrated their highly unfriendly, if not hostile attitude. Nobody came over to welcome us. Even the local press was shocked by such blatant inhospitality.

Mel Bridgman, Philadelphia centreman

We had pep talks in our dressing room from the strangest people. Clarence Campbell couldn’t stand us, the way we played or anything about us … He was in there telling us we represent the NHL and all the rest and ‘Go and play your game.’ And we did.

Fred Shero

We’re in a weird position. All year long people keep telling us that we’re bad for hockey, bad for the NHL, bad for Canada because we’re too rough. Now we’re supposed to save the game for the NHL, for Canada, for everyone. Hah! For the first time we’re the good guys.

Ross Lonsberry, Philadelphia left winger

You know, I woke up on Friday night from this dream and I was in a cold sweat. We were behind 5-1 late in the second period. So I went back to sleep to get back to the dream and I succeeded. We came from behind to win.

Peter White, The Globe and Mail

Flyers were playing on high emotion, which was helped before the game by the preliminaries. They must surely have startled the Russians; they saw nothing like it in three previous games against NHL teams. The lights were dimmed for introductions with big spotlights picking up the players. A recording of Kate Smith singing God Bless America was picked up by the crowd, which belted out the song along with her. Moreover, it was in the Spectrum that the Russians were first booed.

Fred Shero

I told them to hold the puck for a face-off if they didn’t have a good shot. They’re not very good at face-offs, anyway.”

Roger Kahn, The New York Times

The Soviets began with a razzle-dazzle Icecapadeski in their own zone, which the Flyers ignored. Then, as they tried to move, the Flyers, notably Terry Crisp, forechecked beautifully. Up ice, the Flyer defensemen took their customary inhospitable view of rival forwards. The Soviets could control neither the puck nor the flow of the game. They had got off two shots to the Flyers’ 12, when Ed Van Impe dumped Valery Kharlamov.

Jay Greenberg

Philadelphia started hitting.

“It wasn’t planned,” said Tom Bladon later. “We were just wound up because of the pressure on us. I think it was more emotional than anything.”

Reggie Leach, Philadelphia right winger

Bodies started flying in every direction, and not all of the hits were clean.

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Joe Watson, Philadelphia defenceman

The way we figured it, we had to hit the Russians and hit them again every time we had the chance. If you let them skate around and play dipsy doodle with the puck, they’ll kill you. If you hit them, though, they’ll play just like any ordinary hockey team.

Mark Mulvoy, Sports Illustrated

For the first 10 minutes on Sunday the Flyers did not just hit the Soviets, they assaulted them. Dave (Hammer) Schultz rubbed his glove in Boris Mikhailov’s face. Andre (Moose) Dupont waved his stick under Mikhailov’s nose. Ed (Zorro) Van Impe tattooed the stomachs of Alexander Maltsev and Boris Alexandrov. Bill Barber rearranged Valery Vasiliev’s helmet. And Clarke reintroduced his hockey stick to Valery Kharlamov’s ankle. Clarke had damaged that ankle in the Team Canada-Soviet series of ’72. “They didn’t like it,” Watson said.

Dave Anderson, The New York Times

The temperature inside the Spectrum was as chilly as the atmosphere, as if somebody had left a window open in Siberia somewhere. The chill developed into a freeze when the Soviet team returned to its dressing room for 16 minutes during a scoreless first period in a protest of the Flyers’ tendency to use their (a) shoulders, (b) elbows, (c) sticks, (d) all of the above.

Ed Van Impe, Philadelphia defenceman

I had just come out of the penalty box. He was looking down to pick up the puck. And when he looked up, I was there.

Reggie Leach

Eleven seconds after he returned to the ice, he elbowed Kharlamov, who was streaking down the right side, and the star player fell to the ice. It seemed like someone had shot the guy with a gun. To this day, Eddie says Kharlamov ran into his elbow!

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Ed Van Impe

It was a sucker pass. I could see the play developing. The winger made a sucker pass and Kharlamov had to turn his head to get it. I remember watching it, almost in slow motion. And the same time the puck connected with Kharlamov, I connected with him and flattened him. I just wanted to welcome him to Philadelphia.

Lloyd Gilmour, NHL referee

It was a helluva check — a clean check.

Ed Van Impe

I bumped him pretty good, but I don’t think he was hurt as all that, rolling around looking dead.

Gene Hart, Philadelphia TV broadcaster

Kharlamov went down as if he’d been shot, and while it may have been a hard check, it wasn’t that hard! In fact, Bill Barber had earlier dealt a tougher blow to one of the Soviet defensemen along the boards, without causing any such theatrics.

Clarence Campbell, NHL president

They used the pretext of the injury to Kharlamov but I noticed he played on the next shift and started the second period. I didn’t see anything wrong with him.

Robin Herman, The New York Times

The Soviet walkout was prompted by the attack of Ed Van Impe, a Flyer defenseman, who knocked down Valery Kharlamov, a key Soviet Olympic forward, from behind. No penalty was called by Lloyd Gilmour, the referee, and Konstantin Loktev called in his goalie. The referee then meted out a delay-of-game penalty against a delay-of-game penalty against the Russians and Mr. Loktev ordered his team to the dressing room.

Dave Anderson

Some of the Russians later contended that Van Impe had slugged him with his gloved hand.

Ed Van Impe

It was my right shoulder.

John Robertson, The Kitchener Record

Bob Cole, broadcasting the game for Hockey Night in Canada, could hardly believe what was occurring. “They’re going home!” he kept repeating.

Ed Van Impe

If he had done that to me, I would’ve just gone to the bench. It was ridiculous to take the team off the ice.

Fred Shero

I wasn’t sure they would come back at first, I really wasn’t.

Bill Barber, Philadelphia right winger

I really thought they might be leaving.

Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia centreman and captain

I knew they’d come back, because they wanted the money.

Clarence Campbell

I don’t think they intended to leave the ice permanently. The Soviet coach reacted precipitously but his point of view wasn’t even support by the chief of his own mission. Their argument was that the Flyers’ team as playing too rough.

The Toronto Star

Moments after the Soviets walked off the ice in a pique over a penalty, there was Canadian Howie Meeker on the screen saying that if they didn’t return to play, “we should never allow them back in this country again.”

Alan Eagleson, NHLPA executive director

I feel it was an emotional move by Loktev who’s an emotional coach.

Konstantin Loktev

When Eagleson and Campbell came, I told them we wouldn’t go back because of the rough tactics. I could have sent younger players on the ice and it wouldn’t matter if they fought or not. I said to Eagleson, maybe we should have an agreement before the game. If we kept out Mikhailov, Petrov and Kharlamov, and Shero kept out Leach, Clarke and Barber, it would be fair. They couldn’t get hurt. But if we did that, the fans would be booing.

Alan Eagleson

It’s not hard to understand. Remember there was an emotional coach not to mention myself in 1972 who walked out in Russia. It took me a lot longer to settle then.

Scotty Morrison, NHL Chief of Referees

They told us they wanted to take their players back to the Soviet Union in one piece, not on stretchers. As far as I was concerned, they were trying to intimidate Gilmour into calling a one-sided game.

Dave Anderson

In the negotiations the Russians requested that their two-minute penalty for delay of game should be erased, but Campbell remained firm.

“You can’t change the rules,” said the one-time military attorney at the Nuremberg trials, “in the middle of the game.”

Scotty Morrison

They wanted a guarantee of no fighting the rest of the game, and they wanted us to rescind that delay-of-game penalty. No way.

Frank Orr, The Toronto Star

Campbell said no mention was made to the Soviets of withholding their $25,000 per-game take from the eight-game series.

Ed Snider, Philadelphia president

I think I made it obvious they wouldn’t get a nickel from our club if they pulled out of the game. I think they understood that.

Clarence Campbell

Never did I mention the money angle. Somebody on the periphery mentioned it, that’s all.

Ed Snider

Then I was the guy on the periphery. I told them they weren’t going to get paid unless they finished the game.

Konstantin Loktev

Wrong. We had received all the money on the first day we arrived in North America, before the series started. So how could they not pay us?

Vladislav Tretiak, Red Army goaltender

Only after prolonged assurances on the Flyers’ part that the game would be played according to the rules, did our team decide to go back on the ice. We returned, totally frustrated. Everything was turned inside-out; we did not play, we merely skated.

Moose Dupont, Philadelphia defenceman

Those guys are actors. I think he was playing Hamlet or something the way he went down. Continue reading