Born in Flin Flon, Manitoba, on a Tuesday of this date in 1933, Eric Nesterenko turns 86 today. Having made his NHL debut in 1952 as an 18-year-old right winger for Toronto, he played parts of five seasons with the Leafs and a further 16 in Chicago, helping the Black Hawks win the 1961 Stanley Cup. At the age of 40, he put in a single season in the WHA, 1973-74, for the Chicago Cougars. “He was a player who does everything well,” is a summing-up of Andrew Podnieks’. “He scored, played physically, stickhandled nicely, and backchecked.” He accumulated a whole parcel of nicknames over the course of his hockey career: Mr. Elbows, Nester, The Hinge, Eric The Great, Swoops, Sonja, the Shadow, the Silent One. Off the ice, he coached, worked for a brokerage firm, and as a ski instructor. He had a bit of an acting career, as well, featuring in a 1979 CBC movie about hockey violence called Cement Head. More famously, he took on the role of Blane Youngblood, father of the eponymous hero played by Rob Lowe in that 1986 epic of the ice, Youngblood.
There’s a scene midway through Goalie, the new Terry Sawchuk biopic that opened across Canada this month, and it’s a key one in the story of our beleaguered hero’s unwinding. It’s early in his career in Detroit, and Sawchuk, as rendered by Mark O’Brien, is already starring for the Red Wings, though the cost is already starting to tell. The puck that lies tauntingly behind him in the Detroit net has passed him by with maximum malice, which we know because he’s down on his knees, spitting out his teeth, bleeding his blood.
But that’s only the start of it. In the nearby stands, out of the Olympia hubbub, a needling voice rises: “Sawchuk! Sawchuk!” He’s nothing new, this heckler, just an everyday loudmouth, but Sawchuk has had it, enough. When Marcel Pronovost points him out, Sawchuk charges. Downs stick and gloves, skates headlong for the fence, which he scales quick as a commando.
But before the goaltender can clamber his way up to the fourth or fifth row to tear his tormenter apart, the man flees in a panic. Sawchuk’s the taunter, now. “Yeah,” he jeers, “you better run.”
Realizing where he is, he also apologizes to the fans whose midst he’s invaded. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
That’s the movie. The history is that Terry Sawchuk did scale the wire at Detroit’s Olympia, in 1954, in pursuit of a vociferous fan, though it wasn’t really about him, the goaltender was really only acting in a supporting role, backing up teammates.
Credit where credit’s due: it was Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay who led the charge. Lindsay didn’t have to do any climbing, it might be noted: whereas Sawchuk was on the ice and saw fence-climbing as his only option to join the fray, Lindsay was already off the ice, on his way to the dressing room, when he identified his antagonist and went at him.
In the days since his death on March 4 at the age of 93, Lindsay has been praised as a hockey giant, which he was, no question. A dominant force on ice, Lindsay was a tenacious leader who could do it all, and did, mostly on his own terms. His dedication off the ice to the cause of players’ rights has been highlighted, as has the price he paid for not backing down in the face of lies and intimidation of the men who were running the NHL.
Here, for the moment, we’ll focus on a lesserly known episode from his career, a single season among the 17 Lindsay played. I’ll propose that it offers insights into his later battles with the NHL, and more: it also adds context to events that exploded this very March day, 64 years ago, in Montreal.
To do that, we’ll follow Ted Lindsay through the 1954-55 season, which means pursuing him into the crowd for what must (I think) count as his most cantankerous year as an NHLer — it might be one of the most cantankerous season any player played, ever.
Lindsay was in his eleventh season with the Wings, his third as team captain. He’d finished the previous season third-best in league scoring, and was elected to the 1st All-Star. His Wings were on a roll: the defending Stanley Cup champions had won three Cups in five years.
The NHL’s 38th season is and forever will be charred at the edges by Montreal’s season-ending Richard Riot. It’s with no intent to diminish the importance or damages inflicted by those ructions, nor with any disrespect to Richard, that I’m going to posit here that, when it comes to instigating uproar, Ted Lindsay’s ’54-55 is a remarkable one in its own (if mostly forgotten) right.
Also: imagine, if you would, a circumstance by which, in today’s NHL, one of the league’s marquee players, captaining the defending Stanley Cup champions, finds himself implicated in altercations with spectators, not once or twice, but on four separate occasions. It would be the story of the season — though not in ’54-55. Is it possible that this player would still be around to be to contribute to his team’s winning a second successive Cup? It is, and was — in ’54-55.
A bit of background is in order here. Early in November, 14 games into the season’s schedule, Detroit traded centre Metro Prystai to Chicago in exchange for a mostly untested right winger named Lorne Davis. A valuable cog in the Red Wings machine that won Stanley Cups in 1952 and again in ’54, Prystai was also a good friend and roommate of Lindsay’s and Gordie Howe’s at Ma Shaw’s rooming house. With Howe out with an injured shoulder, Prystai had moved in to take his place on Detroit’s top line, alongside Lindsay and Dutch Reibel.
For the defending champions, this wasn’t so much a hockey trade as a league-mandated equalization pay-out. Detroit didn’t pull the trigger so much as the NHL decided that the swap would help out Chicago, of the league’s perennially worst teams.
Conn Smythe, Toronto’s owner and martinet-in-chief, seems to have engineered the whole affair, chairing a meeting of league moguls in New York for the purpose of improving have-not teams like Chicago and Boston. “A unique professional sports move toward sharpening competitive balance,” is how Al Nickleson described it in The Globe and Mail; The Detroit Free Press dubbed it a hockey “Marshall Plan.”
Call it collusion, set it aside as an exhibit for some future (never-to-be-launched) anti-trust ligation — to the men in charge of NHL hockey, it was merely good business. Four players were involved upfront: Chicago got Prystai and Montreal’s Paul Masnick, while Boston landed Leo Boivin from Toronto. The Leafs got Joe Klukay; Detroit landed Davis; Montreal’s piece of the pie was to be named later.
“We’re trying to apply logical business sense here,” Smythe pleaded in the days before the redistribution went through. He only had the customer in mind, he would continue to insist. “What we want to do is present hockey at its highest calibre in every rink in the NHL.”
But Detroit was seething. “Is big-time hockey a legitimate sport or just a family syndicate?” Marshall Dann wondered in the local Free Press. Marguerite and Bruce Norris co-owned the Red Wings while another brother, James Norris, ran the Black Hawks. The word was that Red Wings’ GM Jack Adams didn’t know about the Prystai deal until it was already done, telling Prystai, “I’m sorry, they ganged up on us.” Adams accused Smythe of trying to break Detroit’s morale. No more would he serve on NHL committees, he said, and he vowed that he’d be boycotting Red Wings’ road trips to Toronto forthwith, as well.
The Wings had a home game the week of the Prystai trade, on the Thursday, against Smythe’s Leafs. Before the Wings hit the ice, Lindsay demanded that the Norrises, Marguerite and Bruce, meet with the players and explain to them why Prystai had been shipped out. In his 2016 memoir, Red Kelly says it was just Bruce who showed up, and that the players weren’t impressed by his explanation. They talked about sitting out the game to make clear their unhappiness. “We weren’t going to go on the ice that night, no way. The people were in the stands, but we didn’t care.”
Somehow, someone convinced them to play. They did so, let’s say, in a mood.
Ted Lindsay’s didn’t improve as the evening went on. In the second period, he unleashed on Leafs’ defenceman Jim Thomson, punching him in the face as they tangled near the Toronto bench. “They both went at it,” the Globe’s Al Nickleson wrote, “with no damage done.”
As order, or something like it, was being restored, Leaf coach King Clancy chimed in. “That’s the first time I ever saw you drop your stick in a fight, Lindsay,” is how Nickleson heard it. What he saw, next, was Lindsay throwing a glove at the coach. “The glove — it belong to Thomson — brushed Clancy and was lost in the crowd behind the bench.” Lindsay threw a punch at Clancy, too, but missed his mark.
Toronto won the game. Sid Smith scored the only goal and Leaf goaltender Harry Lumley, a former Wing celebrating his 28thbirthday, contributed a shutout. That can’t have lightened Lindsay’s temper, and when a fan spoke up as the Wings were headed off the ice, the Detroit captain decided to climb the wire and chase him down.
It’s from the scene that followed that director Adriana Maggs’ Goalie drew when she had her Terry Sawchuk climb into the crowd. Here’s Nickleson on Lindsay’s non-movie incursion:
He may have landed a blow or two — certainly he was swinging — although the action was partially hidden by fans, and by other Detroit players clambering over the high screening. Even Sawchuk, goal pads and all, made it with the help of a boost from a teammate.
Bernard Czeponis was the heckler. A blow of Lindsay’s that did land blackened his eye. He was only too happy to describe what happened to Marshall Dann from the Free Press. “I only asked Glen Skov if he wanted my crying towel,” Czeponis said. “He used foul language. Then Lindsay, instead of stopping it as a club captain should, came after me and hit me.”
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.
“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
At 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.”
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).