see?

Bob Nevin of the Toronto Maple Leafs lost a contact lens on the ice at Chicago Stadium in 1962, as you’ve maybe heard. Maybe not, though: in all the glorious tumult of the NHL’s hundred-year history, it’s not exactly a highlight. If the momentary mishap lives on at all, it’s because there’s this great photograph of the aftermath, when Leafs and Black Hawks and referees joined together and did their very best to spy Nevin’s lost lens.

Turns out it wasn’t the last one to go missing on Chicago ice. Almost three years later, in February of 1965, Boston Bruins’ right winger Tommy Williams lost one of his contacts on Stadium ice, leading to the search depicted above. Williams was a member of the 1960 U.S. team that won Olympic gold at Squaw Valley before he found his way to Boston the following year. He was touted, then, as the first American-born player to play regularly in the league since Frank Brimsek’s retirement in 1950. Williams later played for the Minnesota North Stars, the California Golden Seals, and the New England Whalers of the WHA, before a last stint in the NHL with the Washington Capitals.

In ’65, Chicago’s Eric Nesterenko wass implicated in the second-period collision that separated Williams from his eyewear. Was the subsequent all-hands search successful? No, it was futile. That contact was good and gone. Other features of the game? In the third period, Boston’s Orland Kurtenbach swung his stick at Doug Mohns of Chicago, who swung back. Referee Bill Friday gave the two of them match penalties for attempting injury. Chicago won 7-0, with Stan Mikita scoring a pair of goals.

While we’re on this sight visit, let’s also add that the first NHLer to have donned glasses on the ice seems to have been Russ Blinco, when he was playing centre for the Montreal Maroons through the 1930s. His specs were, by one report, “made of shatterproof glass edged with a light steel netting and cost puh-lenty!”

First to deploy contact lenses regularly? That would seem to have been Montreal Canadiens’ left winger Tony Graboski in the early 1940s. He was an evangelist of sorts, too: when Dutch Hiller was working the Boston wing in 1942, he credited Graboski with convincing him to get fitted with contacts of his own.

 

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

mr. elbows at 85

IMG_2331 - Version 2At some point this afternoon during Detroit’s game with Chicago at the Joe Louis they’ll be singing “Happy Birthday” to Gordie Howe, who’ll be there, on the day he’s turning 85.

If we can’t all be there for that, maybe what we can do join with the pride of Wawota, Saskatchewan, to say, “Hi, Mr. Howe, my name is Brooks Laich, and on behalf of the Washington Capitals we’d like to wish you a happy 85th birthday and many more years of health and happiness.”

That’s from a short video that was making the rounds last week as NHL players including Dion Phaneuf, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Smyth, and Teemu Selanne — “You’re da man,” he said — stepped up with their happy returns of the day.

A few stray Howe notes on the day:

• As a boy growing up in Saskatoon, Howe caught sturgeon in the South Saskatchewan River, right behind the Bessborough Hotel, where they’d pay $10 a fish at the kitchen door. Also, in eighth grade, playing for King George School, he once scored 14 goals in a 15-0 win. He also added an assist.

• The headline on the front day of The Detroit Free Press the day after an 18-year-old Howe made his NHL debut against Toronto: “Goering Kills Self.” He — Howe — played on a line with Sid Abel and Adam Brown, who helped him score a goal in a game that ended in a 3-3 tie. The Leafs’ Bill Ezinicki helped him get into his first fight.

• In 1963, on his 35th birthday, the Red Wings beat Chicago 4-2. Howe, noted a reporter, “slipped away from his convoy, Eric Nesterenko” to score a goal and add two assists.

www.gordiehowe.com is the place to satisfy all your Howe souvenir needs, whether it’s a doubly signed unframed photograph of Howe with golfer Jack Nicklaus (US$999) or an autographed Red Wings’ sweater (US$599). Also available on the site is a gratis list of Howe’s nicknames, which include Mr. Power, Mr. Hockey®, The Great Gordie, Mr. Elbows, The King of Hockey, and Number 9.

• If you’re scoring at home, you may have had Howe’s career facial stitch-count at 300 — or as a newspaper put it in 1972, “enough to sew your average couch.” There’s no consensus on this, though. Other accounts put it at 500, of which 300 were to the face (“you have to peer closely to see their delicate tracery,” noted The Edmonton Journal in 1971). gordiehowe.com says 500, all of them in the face.

• In March of 1959, celebrating Gordie Howe Night ahead of a game with Boston, the Red Wings presented Mr. Elbows with an Oldsmobile station wagon. Inside were his parents, who’d flown in from Saskatoon. In Howe’s 13 years in the NHL, it was the first time his father Albert had seen him play.

• In 1964, Robert Rosenthal, 20, sued Howe for $25,000 for punching him in the mouth. Rosenthal, a Black Hawks fan, said Howe’s fist cut his lip, which needed eight stitches, and got infected, and swelled up to three times its usual size. He told a Chicago circuit court that he’d been humiliated, embarrassed, and held up to public ridicule. Howe said he’d punched an abusive fan “a good one” as the Red Wings were leaving the Chicago Stadium after a 5-4 win. Judge John Sullivan dismissed the suit. “On the basis of the evidence you’ve given me,” he told Rosenthal, “any judge in my opinion would find Mr. Howe not guilty, since you admitted you provoked him.”

• The Hallmark Channel has made a movie for TV about the return to hockey Howe made in 1973 at the age of 45, coming out of retirement to play with his sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros. Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story debuts May 4, with Michael Shanks in the lead role and Kathleen Robertson as Howe’s late wife Colleen.

• Asked in 1983 what he thought of the state of the game, Howe, 55, said this: “Not enough sacrifice, not enough discipline, not enough guts.” And this: “Take off the helmets and the face masks. Those things are turning mice into elephants.” Also: “I see everybody carry their sticks five feet over their heads now. My stick was always on the ice because it’s the only place you can handle the puck. The only things I kept high were my elbows.”

• From The Evening Independent in 1972:

There was the time not long ago that Gordie Howe had a distinct dislike for anything yellow. It made him see red.

He’d gladly sign autographs, but if you shoved a yellow legal pad in his face and asked for his signature, he’d refuse the request. “I’ve never been connected with anything yellow in my life,” he said yesterday. …

Howe’s own war with yellow took on other proportions. When he saw the proof of his book, Gordie Howe: Number 9, the color of the cover was yellow. The publisher should have known better. An indignant Howe raced to the printing plant. “I got them to change it to white. Yellow? Never.”

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Topps / O-Pee-Chee1965-66 O-Pee-Chee #59 Bobby Hull

FIRST. Available soon from the world’s worst distillery? Bobby Hull’s voice is, quote, testosterone aged in oak kegs, according to Gare Joyce in The Devil and Bobby Hull (Wiley).

SECOND. Russian president Vladimir Putin has not given up on hockey. As recently as February, the former and future prime minister couldn’t skate. He vowed to learn, though, and by April he was ready to take a tottery turn at practice with a youth team at Moscow’s Luzhniki Sports Palace. Then, last month, a sign that his focus was maybe straying: when future former p.m. Dmitry Medvedev took up racquet and bird to promote badminton to the people — “Those who play badminton well, make decisions quickly,” he advised — his opponent over the net was the future former president. Not to worry. ESPN magazine reports that Putin is taking regular skating lessons under the tutelage of fellow politician and erstwhile defenceman Viacheslav Fetisov. He has sights set, apparently, on skating at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Writer Brett Forrest put it to KHL president Alexander Medvedev: what kind of player will Putin be? “My personal feeling,” he said, “is that he will be a very disciplined player on the ice.”

THIRD. “It can be argued that the premium theorizing on most sports has fallen to the journeymen players — the Sheros and Nesterenkos of hockey, baseball’s Jim Bouton — and that the magnificently gifted — Rocket Richard in hockey, Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle in baseball — often appear to be in lifelong thinking slumps.”
• Roy MacGregor in a 1978 profile of Guy Lafleur, collected in his new compendium of hockey writings, Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (Random House Canada).