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) Murray Balfour in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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gump agonistes

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

Also? Gump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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yankers, yankees

Blame the Chicago Blackhawks. Or at least encourage the team to correct the bad information that’s in their 2013-14 Media Guide regarding the first NHL goaltender to have been pulled in favour of an extra attacker.

On Sunday, broadcasting the Blackhawks’ 4-1 win over the Red Wings, NBCSN’s Dave Strader mentioned that it was Chicago’s Sam LoPresti in 1941, though history suspects otherwise and earlier.

Strader says he was advised by the team’s former PA announcer, Harvey Wittenberg, who blogs about the team and also books, most recently with Tales From The Chicago Blackhawks Locker Room (2012). Both of them might be forgiven the error, given that it’s entrenched on page 346 of the team’s media guide, waiting patiently to be corrected.

The fact that the NHL.com has a whole other history? That’s not Chicago’s fault. They’re not even mentioned in that version.

A few further notes:

• If pull the goalie is the most common formulation, both yank and lift are acceptable verbs, too.

In many cases the phrase is qualified by words like desperate and gamble and last-ditch effort.

Where the phrase has migrated from hockey into the language at large, political usages are not as widely known as sexual.

Political: ahead of the 1979 national election, an observer warned that electing Joe Clark and his Progressive Conservatives would be so bad for the federalist side in any upcoming Quebec referendum it would be akin to “pulling the goalie before the third period.” Continue reading