ed-dee!

Born in Sudbury, Ontario, on a Tuesday of this same date in 1939, Ed Giacomin is 82 today, so a birthday nod to him. ““Ed-dee! Ed-dee! Ed-dee!”  is what the fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden chanted in 1989 when the Rangers retired the number 1 Giacomin wore in his decade with the team, starting in 1966. He was twice named to the NHL’s First All-Star team and (with Gilles Villemure) won the 1971 Vézina Trophy. He was beloved in New York, which is why it registered as such a shock in the fall of 1975 when Rangers GM Emile Francis exposed him on waivers. Snapped up by the Detroit Red Wings, Giacomin played his next game was at MSG … against the Rangers. Wearing Red Wing red and number 31, Giacomin stymied his former teammates sufficiently for Detroit to depart with a 6-4 win. Fans booed the Rangers that night, and every time Giacomin stopped a shot, his name echoed through the building: “Ed-dee! Ed-dee! Ed-dee!”  

Ed Giacomin played parts of three seasons with Detroit before he retired in 1978. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987. The sales job depicted here dates to 1974.

around the big apple with phil watson

The New York Rangers were in Montreal as January ran out of calendar in 1948: they beat the hometown Canadiens 4-2 that Saturday night. Veteran (and famously combustible) Ranger right winger Phil Watson contributed a goal to the effort, foiling Bill Durnan, and was boxed as well (Watson was) twice for sins of interference. Watson, who died on a Friday of this date in 1991, was 33 that winter, playing out the last of his boisterous 13 NHL seasons. He went on to coach the Rangers, Boston, too, as well as, for a couple of WHA seasons in the 1970s, Philadelphia and Vancouver.

The Rangers were home next day in ’48, a whole other February 1, which is when this photograph was taken, Watson on the left, Rangers centre Neil Colville by his side. After their game, I guess? They met Chicago that night at Madison Square Garden, tying the Black Hawks 2-2. Again Watson scored, beating Hawk goaltender Emile Francis on a set-up by Buddy O’Connor, who maintained his lead in NHL scoring that night.

The Rangers followed that up, midweek, with another tie, 4-4 this time, in Detroit. Watson didn’t score, but he did take a swing at a Red Wings fan by the name of Claude Hughes who’d been jeering him as he rested between shifts.

“The patron,” the Windsor Star reported, “was moved to another seat, away from the Ranger bench.”

department of throwing stuff: bernie parent’s mask

Fling a waffle to the ice in Toronto in the early decades of this parlous young century of ours and chances are you’ll end up kicked to the Bay Street curb and banned for ever more from the premises. Lobbing a catfish you happen to have been carrying around in your underwear in Pittsburgh may well get you arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, possessing instruments of crime, and disrupting meetings and processions.

Maybe, in Pittsburgh, the charges won’t go forward. The outrage associated with the waffle and what it represents will, in time, fade away, even if the ban persists. The overall message, though, is clear: today’s NHL (or, I guess, yesterday’s) has decided that the time has come to break hockey’s vivid tradition, long and lustily favoured by fans, of expressing themselves by hurling whatever they might have at hand at the ice.

Fans were throwing stuff well before 1917, but it was in the NHL that the practice truly evolved into (a messy, disruptive, and often dangerous) art form. In Montreal, fans used to toss toe rubbers by the dozens to express their approval of the all-conquering Canadiens; in Chicago, live rabbits, dead squirrels, whisky bottles, and a life-sized dummy of Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich used to rain from the upper balconies of the old Chicago Stadium. Cataloguing hockey’s debris is an ongoing effort — evidence of my attempt to keep is in my 2014 book, Puckstruck, and peppered across this site, here and here and over here. And if, at some point, it becomes clear that the stuff that’s thrown sometimes goes the other way, from the ice to the stands? I think we have to look into that, too. Why not now?

Today is, after all, Bernie Parent’s 75th birthday. Born in Montreal on a Tuesday of this date in 1945, Parent had just 26 back in 1971 as his Toronto Maple Leafs headed into an opening-round playoff quarter-final against the New York Rangers.

Parent had already been a Philadelphia Flyer at this stage of his career. A trade had brought him to Toronto in February of ’71. He stay another season in Toronto before decamping to the WHA’s Philadelphia Blazers and, thereafter, back to the Flyers. It was in this second stint in Philadelphia that Parent was instrumental in the Flyers’ Stanley Cup triumphs of 1974 and ’75, as he won (let’s not forget) Vézina and Conn Smythe trophies in both those years.

But back to the Leafs in ’71: Parent was sharing the net that year with a 42-year-old Jacques Plante. It was Plante who started the first game of the playoffs early that April at Madison Square Garden, a 5-4 loss. Parent got the call for the second game the following night, and in that one, the Torontonians roared back to even the series with a 4-1 win.

Both teams were feeling sourly on the night. In the second period, New York left winger Vic Hadfield roughed up Toronto defenceman Bob Baun, and vice-versa. Hadfield and Leafs forward Jim Harrison were penalized for punching each other, too. In the third, when those two clashed again, they started a brawl in the Toronto zone, at the Seventh Avenue end of the rink. In the foolery that followed, Parent made his way into the melee, where he got a hold of Hadfield, if only briefly — Rangers’ goaltender Ed Giacomin was quick to attend and haul Parent away.

At some point during these proceedings, Hadfield got hold of Parent’s mask and donated it to the Garden crowd.

“Hadfield ripped off my mask,” Parent said in the immediate aftermath, “and threw it into the crowd.”

That’s now how Hadfield recalled it.

“He jumped me from behind,” he said. “Then I saw the mask sitting there, so I just threw it. But I lost a glove, too. Somebody threw a glove of mine into the stands.”

Initially, Parent stuck to his story. “Hadfield took the mask off my head and threw it in the seats,” he insisted. Somewhere, somehow, the goaltender relented. “When things settled down,” Parent writes in Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!, his exclamatory 1975 autobiography, “Hadfield picked up my mask and threw it in the stands.”

On the night, MSG police did their best to recover the mask, but the fans weren’t interested: it was, as The New York Times noted, “passed along, bucket-brigade style, around half the Garden. Appeals for its return rang from the arena PA. “But,” as Dick Beddoes reported in the Globe and Mail, “exuberants among the demonstrative 17,250 fanatics chanted ‘Don’t give it back! Don’t give it back!’”

The Leafs’ 68-year-old vice-president, King Clancy, thought he might be able to help with the search, though he soon found himself in hostile territory, and ended up retreating to his seat near the Toronto bench.

“Hadfield throwing the mask away was the most childish thing I ever saw,” Clancy said. “Those things cost $150 and the Rangers have to pay for it.”

Parent did have a back-up mask, but it was at home, in Toronto.

“I wouldn’t continue in the game without the mask,” Parent wrote in his autobiography.

His coach, Johnny McClellan, didn’t blame him, even if others did. “Parent has played with a mask since he was a 12 years old,” he said after the game. “He has never been in the net without a mask in 13 years, so you’re not going to send a guy into the net without a mask. He could get a shot in the face and that’s it.”

So in went Plante, who knew what that was like — though, of course, in 1959, the Andy Bathgate shot he took in the face just before he donned his mask for the first wasn’tit. This time out, he was only called on to play the final 4:42 of the game, stopping two shots and preserving Toronto’s win.

Another brawl ensued 30 seconds after he’d stepped in, when the Leafs’ Jim Dorey engaged with New York’s Ted Irvine. Going to teammate Ron Ellis’ aid, Plante (by the account of the New York Daily News’ Dick Young) “skated over and began banging on [Glen] Sather’s head.” That brought Giacomin back: “skating the length of the rink and taking a flying leap onto Plante.”

Giacomin, for what it’s worth, wondered at the time that Parent didn’t continue bare-faced. “That’s what I would have done,” he said. “Hell, for four minutes, why let Plante credit?” Though, of course, Plante didn’t get the win; that went into the books as Parent’s.

“Some writers actually suggested I was a coward for not playing without the mask,” Parent recalled in his book, take up Johnny McClellan’s line. “This one New York writer even said I’d never be the same goalie again. In other words, this writer thought I was chicken. Bull. If I got hit not wearing a mask, I might really never be the same again. A goalie is putting his life on the line out there.”

 

Danger Close: Having tossed Bernie Parent’s mask over the boards on April 8, Vic Hadfield added insult to injury on April 13 by scoring on Parent (and his new mask) at MSG.

With the series set to shift to Toronto, Leafs’ GM Jim Gregory put out an appeal. “If a guy who’s got a mask returns it, I’ll get him two tickets for Saturday’s game and pay his way to Toronto.”

In Toronto, meanwhile, NHL president Clarence Campbell visited a CBC studio to catch up on what had gone down in New York. The fact that the footage didn’t show Hadfield with the mask didn’t concern him too much: he said there was a standard $50 fine for throwing equipment overboards. “I wanted to get a general impression of what this affair looked like to the people who saw it there and on television,” Campbell said.

Upon further reflection, Campbell fined each team $5,000 — to that point, the largest bad-behaviour tax ever to be levied in the NHL. Further individual fines to players from New York added up to $3,300, including $400 to Giacomin for twice departing his crease. Toronto’s players were punished to the tune of $3,250, including $200 each to Plante and Parent for straying from their creases.

The missing mask was the one Parent had started using when he arrived in Toronto from Philadelphia. It was very comfortable — and happened to have been made by Fibrosport, Jacques Plante’s company, based in Magog, Quebec. The back-up Parent didn’t have in New York when he needed it was his old Flyers’ mask, which he’d used for about two years previously.

He didn’t have to revert to that one, as it turned out: with his connections, he relied on Plante getting on the telephone the morning after the night to call his Fibrosport partner, Marc Andre Beaudin, in Montreal. He in turn called in a couple of employees from their Good Friday holiday and got going on crafting a new model in time for Saturday’s game.

“The three of them would have to work all day to make the mask,” Plante said. “They would have the mold already, but there is a lot of work to making a hand-crafted mask.”

Saturday morning it was handed to an Air Canada pilot for the flight from Montreal to Toronto — the pilot, no less. Howard Starkman from the Leafs was there to retrieve it when it landed — he later went on to serve as PR director for the baseball Blue Jays — and he delivered it to Maple Leaf Gardens. Parent put it to use that night in helping defeat the Rangers by a score of 3-1.

The Leafs’ momentum didn’t last, though: with Parent and Plante and their respective masks sharing the net, the Rangers won the next three games to take the series and advance to play the Chicago Black Hawks.

That’s not quite the end of the story. There’s the part, too, about Vic Hadfield scoring a hat trick against Chicago at MSG towards the end of April, his first in the playoffs. Picking up one of the hats that landed on the ice in his honour, Hadfield put it on before skating to the boards and flinging it to the fans.

“I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,” he said. “I felt so good about scoring all those goals, I wanted to show my emotion. It was a tremendous feeling, one of the highlights of my career.”

As for Parent’s mask, Leafs’ VP Harold Ballard said he was invoicing the Rangers. “We should send the bill to Bill Jennings,” Ballard said, “but I guess we’ll send it to [New York coach and GM] Emile Francis — it’s his department.”

I can’t confirm whether any such paperwork was submitted. But Jennings, who was the president of the Rangers, did send a bill of his own to the Leafs in the amount of $175 — for Vic Hadfield’s bespoke glove, said to have been manufactured and specially sewn in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis’ hometown.

Ballard took it for a spoof. “At least,” he said, “I hope Jennings isn’t serious.”

The story might end there, which is to say right here, except for, no, sorry, there’s more.

Towards the end of that same April, the Chicago Tribune made fleeting mention of the mask’s having been returned to Parent by a 7-year-old boy. “It was mailed back to Bernie in a shoe box,” was how that story went, but no further.

That seems to be fanciful. In 2006, the mask did show up in a sports memorabilia auction, and then again in 2012, when a buyer, unnamed, decided the time had come to get the goaltender and his mask back together. Greg Wyshynski reported on this at the time for Yahoo! Sports — you can read about that here.

The old goaltender knew the mask he’d once worn the moment he set eyes on it, 41 years after Hadfield absconded with it. “Life is full of surprises,” Parent said. He only got to visit with the mask briefly, apparently: the owner’s plan was to keep it for himself, then donate it, posthumously, to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In Phil: Bernie Parent in Flyer kit + mask in the mid-1970s.

 

reflemania

In The Throes Pose: On the night of November 2, 1947, Montreal’s 4-2 win in Chicago ended in this mess. The linesmen struggling to break it up are (left) George Hayes and Mush March. The latter has a grip on Canadiens’ Butch Bouchard, who’d later stand accused of punching Hayes. Hayes, for his sins, has a grip on (white sweater) Chicago’s Ralph Nattress and (beneath him) Montreal’s Jimmy Peters, both of whom would be assessed majors.

The Chicago Black Hawks lost the first five games they played to open the 1947-48 NHL season. When, in early November, they lost a sixth, 4-2 at home to Montreal, Hawks’ president Bill Tobin decided it was time for a change. The one he had in mind turned out to be the biggest trade in NHL history, with the Black Hawks’ Max Bentley, the league’s incumbent leading scorer, heading to Toronto with Cy Thomas in exchange for Gus Bodnar, Gaye Stewart, Bud Poile, Bob Goldham, and Ernie Dickens. For the Black Hawks, it didn’t change much: they lost their next game, against Boston, and finished the season in the NHL’s basement.

Their November opponents from Montreal didn’t fare a whole lot better that year: they ended up just ahead of Chicago, out of the playoffs. But on the night of Sunday, November 2, in Bentley’s last game as a Black Hawk, Canadiens managed to come out on top. The chaos that’s depicted here, above, came about in the last minute of the third period. When the wrestling was finished, there were major penalties for Montreal’s Bob Carse and Jimmy Peters as well as for the two Hawks they battled, Ralph Nattrass and goaltender Emile Francis, respectively. (It was, the Chicago Tribune noted, Francis’ second fight in as many games; against Detroit, on October 29, he messed with Ted Lindsay, and vice-versa.) On this night, Canadiens’ defenceman Butch Bouchard earned himself a match penalty for the crime of (the Tribune) “assaulting referee George Hayes while Hayes was trying to act as peacemaker.” The Globe and Mail told pretty much the same tale, but amped up the headline: “Free-for-All Climaxes Chicago Tilt; Bouchard Punches Ref; Canucks Win.”

Hayes was working the game as a linesman, along with Mush March; the game’s (sole) referee was George Gravel. Still, for Bouchard to be attacking any of the game’s officials would seem to spell trouble for the big Montreal defenceman. None of the newspapers reporting on the incident had much in the way of detail to offer, including Montreal’s Gazette, which reported that NHL President Clarence Campbell was waiting to get Gravel’s report on the game. The Gazette’s synopsis, in the interim: the game was “hard-fought;” Hayes hailed from Ingersoll, Ontario; Bouchard, weighing in at 200 pounds, was banished “after landing blows” on the linesman.

Except that — just maybe — did no blows land? By mid-week, the Canadian Press was reporting that “after a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding,” L’Affaire Bouchard was closed. The Montreal defenceman was fined $50 for his part in the upset in Chicago, but Campbell found him innocent of the charge of punching, and levelled no suspension. According to referee Gravel’s report, Bouchard merely pushed Hayes during the melee at the end of the game. “Bouchard,” CP said, “did not poke or hit anybody.”

He was free to play, therefore, in Montreal’s next game, and did so, later on that same week, when Max Bentley and the Toronto Maple Leafs visited the Forum. “It was a typical battle between these two teams,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll enthused, “full of fast and furious play, with no quarter asked and none given.” Canadiens prevailed, 3-0, with goaltender Bill Durnan featuring prominently, with Bouchard’s help. The latter (Carroll decided) “was just about the best man on the ice.” He made not a mistake, and “won all his jousts with Wild Willie Ezinicki, the Leafs’ well-known catalytic agent.”

Alongside Butch Keeling, George Hayes was back on the lines, and while he and Bouchard seem to have managed to steer clear of one another, referee Bill Chadwick found himself featured in the paper next day for what seems like an eccentric call:

 

a.k.a. fireplug

Bouncer: Squat and fireplug-shaped and one of the hardest bodycheckers in the game were among Leo Boivin’s adjectives during his 21-year Hall-of-Fame NHL career. Seen here at ease in January of 1960, he was mostly a Bruin in Boston, where he captained the team; he also skated bluelines for Toronto and Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota. He was a stopgap coach, later, for the St. Louis Blues. When his boss there, Emile Francis, replaced him with Barclay Plager in 1978, he called Boivin “one of the finest men I’ve known — a real determined man and an honest man.” (Image: Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada/e002343735)

hockey players in hospital beds: bill mosienko

Downcast: Bill Mosienko contemplates his broken foot at Chicago’s Saint Anthony Hospital in October of 1947. Earlier that All-Star week, while his wounded ankle was being tended in Toronto, word had reached him from another hospital in his home town, Winnipeg: his wife had given birth to a son of theirs.

Naturally, there will be some hue and cry to the effect that the National Hockey League should abandon its All-Star Game. Monday night’s exhibition cost the Chicago Black Hawks the services of Bill Mosienko, the right-winger on the their only proficient forward line. The Hawks suffered a sorry blow when Mosienko fractured an ankle as he was bounced by Jimmy Thomson. From this seat, it appears that the injury will be sufficient to assure the Hawks of last place in the NHL standings.

• Jim Coleman, The Globe and Mail, October 15, 1947

Spoiler alert: they didn’t nix the All-Star Game. They kept it going. For the 1947 Chicago Black Hawks, Bill Mosienko’s fractured left ankle raised more immediate concerns. Such as: who, now, was going to play the left wing on Max and Doug Bentley’s line? Also: how could they turn their season around even before it got underway? As Jim Coleman and everybody, the Black Hawks were one of the NHL’s weaker teams. It was ten years since they’d won the Stanley Cup, and nowadays they were in an annual struggle just to make the playoffs. Despite Max Bentley’s having led the NHL in scoring for two straight seasons, the Black Hawks had failed to make the post-season in the spring of ’47.

The All-Star Game was on the Monday in Toronto. While the rest of his teammates aimed for Wednesday’s season opener in Detroit, Mosienko hobbled back to Chicago. How much time was he expected to miss? Five or six weeks, Black Hawks’ president Bill Tobin told reporters. Coach Johnny Gottselig wasn’t so optimistic: he thought his winger was lost for the entire season. “I don’t know how we can replace him,” Gottselig said. “He was one of the league’s standout players.”

Six weeks or all season: either way, the team needed help. The Chicago Tribune reported that Tobin had $100,000 he was willing to spend to upgrade his line-up, starting in goal, where Emile Francis wasn’t quite getting the job done. Problem: Tobin’s rivals didn’t seem all that eager to help him get his spending spree started. Case in point: with Chuck Rayner guarding the New York net, the Rangers had Sugar Jim Henry playing in the minors. Chicago fancied him, but the Rangers wanted Alex Kaleta, the best of their forwards not surnamed Bentley or Mosienko. Preferring a straight cash deal, Tobin asked for a price. The Rangers, Andy Lytle of The Toronto Daily Star wrote, laughed.

In Detroit, Gottselig tried a rookie by the name of Dick Butler alongside the Bentleys. It was a nice story: like them, Butler hailed from Delisle, Saskatchewan. Chapter one wasn’t as fairytale as it might have been. Max Bentley’s two goals on the night were unassisted, and the Black Hawks lost, 4-2. They kept on losing, too, seven games in a row as October became November, and Bill Tobin failed to bring in any new players.

A New York radio station reported that Tobin had a new deal in mind for Sugar Jim Henry: $15,000 plus the Rangers could have Alex Kaleta once the season ended. New York GM Frank Boucher heard that and telephoned Tobin to accept. Tobin backed off: he’d been misquoted, he said.

That was the end of October. Around the same time, Tobin was talking to the Leafs about handing over $25,000 for defenceman Bob Goldham along with $15,000 each for Elywn Morris, another bluelines, and center Gus Bodnar.

A rumour was in the autumn air, too. The Leafs, it went, would surrender an entire forward line plus two defencemen in exchange for Max Bentley. It was Bill Tobin’s turn for mirth. Yes, the Leafs’ Conn Smythe might jokingly have proposed such a deal, Tobin guffawed, but the Bentleys were not for sale. “To satisfy our large following, we need name players,” he explained.

“He wants to give men five charley horses for Max Bentley?” Tobin continued. “Why, I’ll better that offer and give Smythe the whole Kansas City team, with Johnny Gottselig’s false teeth thrown in, for Syl Apps.”

Not quite a quite a week later, Max Bentley was a Toronto Maple Leaf. It wasn’t quite the deal that had been so humorously sketched out previously: in exchange for forwards Bodnar, Gaye Stewart, and Bud Poile along with defenders Goldham and Ernie Dickens, the Leafs also got forward Cy Thomas.

NHL president Clarence Campbell said he was shocked when he heard about the trade. Back in Saskatchewan, Bill Bentley, 74, professed himself to be very unhappy. He didn’t think either one of his talented sons would be able to replicate the success they’d had playing with each other.

Coach Gottselig admitted he’d been reluctant to break up the brother act from Delisle, but said it was inevitable. “We needed fresh blood,” he said, “and no other club wanted any of our players except Max Bentley.”

What changed for Bill Tobin? Edward Burns of The Chicago Tribune reported some of the finer strokes from behind the scenes:

The swap was broached more than a week ago in Toronto when Connie Smythe, managing director of the Leafs, suggested the deal after President Bill Tobin of the Hawks had gone there, screaming for help. Tobin was reported to have said that he wanted to “talk it over with his mother.” At the time the reply was interpreted as a facetious comment by Tobin, who had been waving $100,000, not the deed to Bentley, in his belated effort to strengthen his cellar Hawks. Then he went to Ottawa and conferred with his mother.

Bill Mosienko’s ankle was sufficiently healed to see him return to the Chicago line-up early in December. Despite his and his teammates’ best efforts, the Black Hawks never made it out of the NHL cellar that year. As for Toronto, their Bentley-boosted line-up won another Stanley Cup in the spring of 1948, the second of three in a row, one of four they’d win in five years in the ’40s.

 

 

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

far flung

It’s said that Frank Brimsek hated having his photograph taken for fear that the flash would harm his eyes and thereby his puckstopping prowess. I don’t know how true that is — he does seem to have posed unblinkingly for a whole lot of (very handsome) portraits during his NHL career, in several classic poses, including the Standing Tall and the Pucks Have Been Known To Feint Dead Away, Facing My Icy Glare. Those aren’t the only ones available to the goaltender facing a photographer, of course. Roy Worters perfected the Ennui I’m Projecting Oughta Stop At Least A Few. And as Emile Francis demonstrates here, in 1947, there’s also the No Way That Puck Is Going To Dip Down Under The Crossbar, But Oh Well, Best Maybe To Fling Myself Across The Net Just In Case. Now 91, Francis is maybe best remembered now as a long-time and even legendary coach and general manger of the New York Rangers, but his career as a guardian of NHL nets lasted six years before that. Brimsek and Chicago’s Mike Karakas are generally credited with introducing a pocketed catching-glove to the goaltender’s armour in the late 1930s, but it was Francis who adapted a first-baseman’s mitt into what we recognize today as the goaltender’s trapper. In Francis’ first season as a Black Hawk, Detroit coach Jack Adams tried to have the glove banned as oversized and therefore illegal. He wasn’t successful, and after NHL president Clarence Campbell took a look and deemed it permissible, the Francis trapper became standard gear in NHL creases. The man they called the Cat would play two seasons in Chicago Black Hawks before a trade took him to the Rangers, where he served mostly as a back-up to Chuck Rayner.

 

chuck talk

Listen Up: Members of the 1947-48 Chicago Black Hawks lend a post-practice ear to coach Charlie Conacher. They are, top, in back, from left to right: Bill Gadsby, Gus Bodnar, Ernie Dickens Middle: Conacher, Red Hamill, Metro Prystai, Doug Jackson, Emile Francis, Alex Kaleta, Doug Bentley, Bob Goldham Front: John Mariucci, Bud Poile, Adam Brown, Bill Mosienko, Roy Conacher, Gaye Stewart.

not as yet typical wild-eyed canadian hockey fans

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One On One: Two-year-old Annette Dionne, wearing Boston Bruins colours, faces her Maple Leaf’d sister Yvonne at their Corbeil, Ontario, nursery in 1936.

The story of the Dionne quintuplets is a long one, and sad enough. The latest chapter, which Ian Austen narrated in The New York Times over the weekend, continues to unfold tonight when the city council in North Bay, Ontario, votes on the future of the tiny log farmhouse where 24-year-old Elzire Dionne gave birth to her seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh children on May 28, 1934.

It was just another house, then, in the village of Corbeil, just south of North Bay. After the birth of Mrs. Dionne’s instantly famous quintuplets, the Ontario government made the children wards of the province, and promptly put them on public display. By 1936, the restaurant and parking lots of Quintland dwarfed the family home children, where the children lived in a new nursery near a fenced playground featuring shade trees, sand piles, and a swimming pool where (as The Toronto Daily Star enthused) “the babies may be watched without their knowledge.”

That summer, another newspaper reported, upwards of 6,000 visitors a day paid for the privilege of spying on them.

Later, the original house later became a museum. In 1960, it was moved to a site on the edge of North Bay. The city owns the house now, but wished it didn’t. The museum has been closed since 2015 and the land beneath it has been sold for development. Unwilling to maintain the house, or to pay to move it elsewhere in the city, North Bay was looking to sell it down the highway, to an agricultural society in Strong, Ontario, where it would feature in a new pioneer village.

The two surviving quintuplets, Annette and Cécile Dionne, are 82 now. They’ve written to North Bay councillors to suggest that they have a “moral obligation” to maintain the home as piece a Canadian history. With that and the attention that the feature in the weekend Times has focussed, the city is considering a new plan. That’s the one they’re voting on tonight. If passed, it would see North Bay retain ownership of the house and pay for its relocation to a downtown site near the Discovery North Bay Museum.

While we wait on word on which way the vote goes, a review of the quintuplets’ hockey careers is (obviously) in order. We know (for instance) that Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie didn’t attend their first professional game until 1948, when they were 14.

The Chicago Black Hawks visited North Bay in October of that year to play an exhibition game against the Kansas City Pla-Mors of the United States Hockey League. The New York Times reported on that, too, which is to say it carried the Canadian Press dispatch of the proceedings, noting that the girls attended the game with their father, Oliva, along with several schoolmates, as guests of Hawks president Bill Tobin.

Chicago prevailed, 8-5, with Ralph Nattress and Gaye Stewart leading the way with two goals each. Emile Francis was in goal for the Hawks, with Al Rollins facing him from the Kansas City net.

Chicago coach Charlie Conacher and his Kansas counterpart, Reg Hamilton, presented the girls with sticks autographed by their players. As the night went on, North Bay mayor Ced Price treated the Dionnes to candied apples and popcorn.

“Though their large dark eyes flashed at times,” the CP’s nameless correspondent wrote, “the quints watched most of the game with little change in expression. They have not as yet become typical wild-eyed Canadian hockey fans.”

It’s not as if their guardians hadn’t tried. They’d been outfitted with hockey sweaters and mini-sticks for a photo op as far back as 1936, when they were just two. The Ottawa Evening Journal, among others, put them on the front page:

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enemy bombers arriving in howell’s territory are rarely shot down

Baseball’s Opening Day yesterday, which is all the reason as I need to invoke the venerable name and prose virtues of Roger Angell who, at 96, remains the finest, most exacting of the game’s expressionists. I trust he watched the New York Yankees succumb on Sunday, 7-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays, and that he’ll be soon be weighing in at The New Yorker on Masahiro Tanaka and the flaws in his fastball.

Baseball, it’s true, has been Angell’s bread and … batter. But he knows his hockey, too. He’d tell you so himself, and there’s plenty of evidence in The New Yorker’s archives. Around this time of year in 1967, for instance, he penned a long “Sporting Scene” review of the up-and- down season of the New York Rangers as the team prepared to depart the third Madison Square Garden in favour of the brand-new fourth. “The Last Flowers in the Garden” finds Angell in a mood for nostalgia, recalling the heroes of good old days (Don Raleigh + the Gumper), even as he coddles hopes for the future (maybe they can hang on to second place as the playoffs loomed).

In the here-and-now of late-season ’67, Angell likes the team that GM Emile Francis has wrought, muscled as it is with Reg Fleming and Orland Kurtenbach, sped by forwards Rod Gilbert, Bob Nevin, and Phil Goyette, veteran’d with a 36-year-old Boom-Boom Geoffrion. Maybe the Rangers’ recent history has been one of failing at the finish, but Angell is feeling good: Francis, he feels, has “rebuilt their quaint, four-cylinder interior engine that used to poop out on every winter hillock.” The Rangers have been healthy and playing well: who knows what might happen once the Stanley Cup is in play?

It’s in this spirit that Angell keys in on another veteran, a 34-year-old son of Hamilton, Ontario, pictured here above. “The sudden and absolute apotheosis of Harry Howell, the handsome gray-haired defenseman who has been with the team since 1952 and has played in more Ranger games than anyone else in club history” is, in Angell’s eye, one of the best stories of the season. As he says, memorably:

Over the years, Harry’s sincere, fatherly competence had won him more admiration from the ladies at the Garden than from the sportswriters, but early this season it became apparent to everybody that at last, at the age of thirty-four, he had developed into the best defenceman in the league. Enemy bombers arriving in Howell’s territory are rarely shot down; they seem, rather, to fly into a wall of wet Kleenex and stick there, kicking. When carrying the puck through a cloud of opposing forecheckers and up to the safety of center ice, Howell has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic. This year, relieved by better defense and goaltending, he is no longer burdened with the notion that he must hurry back instantly, and help out at the steam tables, and his low, accurate shots from the blue line have brought him more goals and assists than most of the team’s forwards. In the midseason balloting, Howell was a unanimous choice for the league’s all-star team.

born with a black eye: one more requiem for reggie fleming

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Hat Trick: A hospitalized Reggie Fleming poses with Chicago policemen in his Hawk days in the early 1960s. In all his 14 years as a hockey professional, he never wore a helmet on the ice. (Image: Chris Fleming)

A version of this post appeared on page 132 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

Reggie Fleming’s brain made its NHL debut somewhere in the middle of January of 1967.  That, at least, is how the newspapers framed it.

By then, at age 30, six full seasons into his professional hockey career, Fleming knew the league’s penalty boxes better than its nets. He was a policeman, in the parlance, valued for his strength, bravado and professional surliness. Born with a black eye, a wag in the press wrote in 1961. He was a knuckleman, a bulldozer, a wild bucko. Reviews of his work are filled with references to his truculence and fistic prowess, his battle-scarred face.

But here was Emile Francis telling reporters that Fleming’s brain had caught up with his brawn. He wasn’t taking foolish penalties, only wise ones; he was scoring goals. “He’s playing it real smart,” said the coach of Fleming’s New York Rangers.

The truth is, Fleming could always play. He was just very, very good at being (as another chronicler put it) “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players.” Like hockey fighters before and since, Fleming was a beloved figure to teammates and fans alike, and much nicknamed: Reg The Ruffian, The Horse, Mr. Clean, Hardrock.

“He had a ferocious left hook, a decent right and a beautiful head butt,” Earl McRae would write in a famous profile that’s still known as one of the most penetrating pieces of hockey prose. “He fought all the tough ones: Howe, Fontinato, Lindsay, Harris, Ferguson — and seldom lost. His only clear defeats came in the last few years; he lost to age.”

Once he retired from the game, Fleming and his wild years might have lapsed into the background, the way the careers of workaday players do, enshrined on hockey cards and in the fond dimming memories of those who saw him play.

Something else happened. When he died in 2009, his family donated his brain for study by pathologists in Boston. What they discovered was a shock to both those who loved him and to the hockey world he’d inhabited for all his skating years. It not only shifted Fleming’s legacy, but it transformed — and continues to transform — the conversation about the calamitous toll hockey can take on those who play.

•••

If for some sinister reason you had to invent from scratch a comprehensive system for putting the human brain at risk, hockey might be what you’d conjure. The speed of the game, its accelerations and sudden stops, the potential for impacts in unyielding ice and boards, all those weaponized sticks and fists and elbows — just how is an innocent mass of neural tissue afloat in cerebrospinal fluid supposed to protect itself?

For much of the game’s history, guarding the head wasn’t exactly a priority. Toronto Maple Leafs’ star winger Ace Bailey underwent two brain surgeries in 1933 when he was knocked to the ice in Boston; he survived, though he never played again. Scared, many of his fellow NHLers donned helmets after that. Most of them soon vanished: they were cumbersome, hot. Even when they started to make a comeback in the late 1960s, hockey’s protocol for concussion cases remained simple: Got your bell rung? Shake it off, get back out there.

Not long before the Bailey incident, a pathologist in Newark, New Jersey by the name of Dr. Harrison Martland was studying boxers. In a landmark paper he published in 1928, he wrote about what every fan of the sweet science had witnessed, a fighter staggered by a blow to the head that didn’t knock him out acting “cuckoo,” “goofy,” “sluggy nutty” — “punch drunk.”

Dr. Martland was the first to propose that repeated blows to the head were doing deeper damages within fighter’s heads, and that it was cumulative, causing “multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.” His conclusions on “punch drunk” syndrome were limited — he may have been circumscribed, too, by the outrage he stirred among fight fans annoyed by his medical meddling in a sport they loved so well.

If Dr. Martland conceived that hockey players might be suffering similar injuries, he never wrote about it. Why wasn’t anyone making the connection between hockey and head trauma earlier? “I think because it’s an invisible injury,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a leading pathologist who heads Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “Because players aren’t getting pounded in the head like they are in boxing. You see a hook to the jaw, you think, ah. It’s not a big jump for the layperson to say that might be hurting their brain.”

But hockey players? “They look invincible. There’s no blood, no pain, usually, so I think it was just — I think even the field of medicine didn’t recognize that these low-level hits, the ones that aren’t even causing concussions or any symptoms — just the repetitive impact injuries are leading to long-term loss of quality. We were all sort of oblivious.”

•••

Reggie Fleming didn’t mind talking about the role he played on the ice. He was open, affable — “a soft-spoken, mild-mannered quipster,” one interviewer wrote. Born in 1936 into a large Catholic family in east-end Montreal, he first stirred tempers as a star for the Junior Canadiens. His mother hated to watch. Seeing his cuts, the blood he wore home from games, she wanted to talk to coach Sam Pollock. Her son told her no. That’s my job, he told her, the only way I’ll make it.

Pollock went on to a management job with the big-league Canadiens, and Fleming eventually followed him there, first as a fill-in defenceman, always as a willing warrior when a teammate wanted revenging, or Canadiens felt a need to send one of hockey’s proverbial messages to their opponents. Although I guess there’s such a thing as message overload — as the story goes, Pollock traded Fleming to Chicago in the summer of 1960 after he roughed up a couple of teammates in practice.

Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s

Got To Knock Them Down: Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s.

Rudy Pilous was the coach of the Black Hawks when Fleming arrived in the early 1960s. “We can’t skate with most teams,” he was explaining around that time, “we’ve got to knock them down.” Fleming remembered his first game with his new team for the brawl he viewed from the bench. Unacceptable, Pilous told him: he should have been out there in the middle of the messing. “So I went out and fought,” Fleming recalled later. “I didn’t do it to be cruel, I was just following orders.”

His time in penalty boxes would eventually tick up to total 1,468 career minutes, or just over 24 hours. The websites that archive and revel in hockey’s fights don’t have a good fix on just how many he fought: at least 69, but maybe 96, almost certainly many more. Still, he was relatively restrained compared to some of his heirs, the fearsome likes of Tie Domi (338 fights in 1,020 games) or Bob Probert (302 in 935).

A ledger of the punishments he dispensed and received during his career isn’t hard to coax out of the newspaper archives. There’s a whole angry thesaurus of NHL violence in there: Fleming struck Jack McCartan with a vicious right (1960), slugged Wally Boyer (1969). The NHL fined him $175 for charging a referee (1964). Other uproars he sparked by swiping a goalie (1967) and trying to cross-check Bobby Hull’s face (1972). Eddie Shack clotheslined Fleming with his stick (1964), sending him to hospital with a concussion and cuts that needed 21 stitches to close. He was incoherent when he left the rink, the papers reported.

Fleming was a proficient penalty-killer, too, and he was a key asset of Chicago’s when they won the 1961 Stanley Cup. One year, in Boston, he found the net 18 times.

“I would rather have been recognized as a guy who scored a lot of goals like a Bobby Hull or a Stan Mikita,” he’d say in 1979, aged 43. “But I did something I loved: played hockey. If it meant I had to be a tough guy, then I was a tough guy. I was brought up in an area where you had to fight to survive. I worked my butt off to get to the top in hockey, and I had to work twice as hard to stay there.”

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Fry Guy: Reggie Fleming serves up breakfast to Chicago teammates (left) Stan Mikita and (possibly) Ab McDonald … unless it’s Murray Balfour …  in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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