maurice richard vous parle

Maurice Richard

Rocket To Pocket: Maurice Richard, in his basement, circa … the late 1960s, or early ’70s? Looking on are sons Jean and Paul. (Image: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

Is Rocket restless?

Vern DeGeer of the Montreal Gazette was someone who was wondering that in 1965; Maurice Richard himself seems to have been another.

He was 43 that year; he’d been retired from the glare and the glory of NHL ice for five years by then. He’d been a force to behold as a right winger for the Canadiens, a phenomenon unto himself, and he was working for the team still … as an assistant to president J. Davidson Molson, out and about as a team ambassador and sports-supper speechmaker, in the business now of gladhanding fans rather than goalscoring.

“When I retired five years ago,” Richard told DeGeer, “I was all wound up inside. I wanted to get away from it all. I seemed to be all worn out mentally and physically. The pressure had been great. I’d been going at top speed for 18 seasons. That’s a long time.”

Had the pressure let off since he’d stowed his skates? Not so much.

“Now I seem to be building new tensions,” Richard said. “I’ve found the calls for public appearances, travelling all across the country, even tougher than playing. The same old questions have to be answered, the same routines.

Would he coach? Maybe. “I haven’t given it much thought until now, but I think I might consider trying my hand as a coach,” said Richard. “I’m not sure. I’ve never had any offers. If they did come, I’d feel more like considering them than I did when I quit in 1960.”

I don’t know if the offers were extended in ’65, or in the years that followed; the Rocket never did, we know, end up coaching in the NHL. He took a brief turn behind the bench when the Quebec Nordiques launched with the WHA in 1972 — only to resign after just two games due to what the newspapers called “severe nervous strain.”

It wasn’t long after that exchange with Vern DeGeer that Richard quit his job with the Canadiens. This time, he announced his departure in the column he wrote for Dimanche-Matin, “Maurice Richard Vous Parle.”

It wasn’t, let’s say, a fond farewell.

“The title of vice-president or assistant to the president — take your choice — was never more than honorary,” he wrote. “I never had time to do it justice, though I would so much have liked to contribute constructively to the cause of the Canadiens. But I was never more than a good-will ambassador.”

As vice-president, he said, “I was never invited to a meeting behind closed doors, never asked for an opinion on anything whatsoever. I kept pace with the news the same way you did, by reading the sports pages.”

The image above comes undated. Could be … late ’60s, early ’70s, maybe? It was taken in the basement of the Richard family home, on Péloquin Avenue in north-end Montreal. The spectators in the background are (I’m pretty sure) Richard’s sons Jean and Paul.

I’ve been visiting the house by way of a couple of old magazine features and so can offer some more basement views. First up is June Callwood, writing for Maclean’s in May of 1959, when Richard was still in the NHL. His wife Lucille figures prominently in this piece, as does the couple’s domestic set-up in their “thirteen-room stone house.”

There were six Richard children at this point: Jean was still to come. “Their living-room windows overlook a strip of park,” Callwood wrote, “beyond which is the river where in summer the Richard boat is in constant use. towing the older children or their father on water skis.”

Indoors, Callwood found the house to be “warm, sparkling clean and bright with sunlight” — and teeming with the spoils of superstardom:

Lucille has stored literally dozens of cups, statues and plaques in a glass-doored case in the recreation room, along with boxes of pucks — all identical in appearance — labeled to indicate that this one won a Stanley Cup playoff game and that one broke a scoring record. The scrapbook situation is almost out of hand and so is the number of paintings of Maurice that fans have made from photographs and sent to him. Several are hung in the living room, others in the recreation room. One, a real trial, is over six feet high and leans against a basement wall.

Many gifts have been of great value, among them a colour television set, a freezer, a stove, a marble-statue floor lamp and four refrigerators. Lucille dispersed the abundance of refrigerators by putting the biggest one in the kitchen, another in the bar in the recreation room and two others in the back entrance vestibule. One of these is packed to the doors with beer, a reflection of an affiliation Maurice has with Dow Breweries, rather than of his drinking habits, which are only a notch above teetotaling.

Callwood found Mrs. Richard gracious and charming. Her first impression of the Rocket: “A thickbodied, not tall, man, Richard normally has an expression of remote sadness and his black eyes are fathomless.”

One of her questions, about dealing with fame, made him uncomfortable. “Sometimes I get fed up, but I can’t let it show,” he admitted. “It’s not nice for kids to hear about me being sore at people.”

Twelve years later, it was Alan Walker from The Canadian Magazine who dropped by to size up Richard and his household. He wrote it up in a feature published in May of 1971.

Richard was 49. “His hair is grey now,” Walker wrote, “and slicked down with Vitalis. His face is scarred by the crunch of sticks and pucks. His false top teeth are expensive, and so look real. His eyes, which used to be piercing enough to terrorize opposition goaltenders into helpless rigidity, now look smaller because his face has fattened.”

Richard was a vice-president again, but of S. Albert & Co. Ltd., a fuel company rather than a famous hockey team. He’d started as a salesman; now he oversaw a sales team of 20. He was still making public appearances and giving speeches, on behalf of breweries, Dow, O’Keefe, and Labatts, though there’s no mention in the piece of how refrigerators remained in the house.

Richard was working from home, too, running General Fishing Lines, a business he’d bought four years earlier.

Here’s Walker describing the Rocket’s set-up:

Richard’s cellar is so crowded that it is difficult for a big man to manoeuvre between the crates of fishing line and the billiard table that dominates the room.

In the adjoining laundry room, sharing scant space with Mrs. Richard’s automatic washer and dryer, Richard has a typewriter, a green filing cabinet, and a red telephone on a neat desk. Unpainted plywood cupboards around the walls hold miles of fishing line ready for labelling.

Back in ’59, talking to June Callwood, Richard did briefly talk about his extra-hockey interests.

“Every year I think I ought to get interested in another business,” he said then, “start a restaurant or something. But when the hockey starts, I forget about everything else. Maybe if I had other interests, I wouldn’t have lasted so long in hockey.”

“Are you afraid of anything?” Callwood wondered.

Richard was quiet a long time. “Yes, I am afraid of the future. I am afraid to grow older. I never used to think of it, now it’s on my mind every day. I will be so lonely when hockey is over for me.”

“Can you coach, maybe?”

“No, I can’t change the way a man plays hockey. Either he can play it or he can’t. I can’t help him.”

It was in May of 2000 that Richard died, at the age of 78. As far as I know, he lived in the house on Péloquin Avenue until the end. That October, Richard’s children put the house on the market, asking $649,000. I’m not sure what it sold for, finally, but by the time the deal went through the following May, the asking price had dropped to $399,000.

That same month, on the anniversary of Richard’s death, the strip of riverside greensward across the street from the Rocket’s house was officially renamed Parc Maurice Richard.

Rocketman: Jacques Doyon’s of Richard adorned the cover of Le Sport Illustre in 1952 and also, apparently, the Montreal legend’s rec room wall. You can see it in the background of the image at the top here.

les chandails de hockey

“Papa et Yvon,” is as much as the back of this snapshot divulges, “en 1945.” Papa would end up with bragging rights that fall and into ’46, as the Canadiens dominated the Leafs through the regular season, beating them seven times while losing two and tying one. I’m not saying past is necessarily prologue, but brace yourselves, Leaf fans: Toronto missed the playoffs in the spring of the new post-war era. After finishing first overall, Dick Irvin’s Canadiens went on to win the Stanley Cup.

walter gretzky, 1938—2021

Saddened to hear this morning of Walter Gretzky’s death yesterday at the age of 82. Son Wayne posted a message late last night announcing the news on Twitter. The Toronto Star has an obituary of the world’s most famous hockey dad here, and Kevin McGran weighs in with a fond collection of Wally stories — along with a lovely image of the man himself in what always seemed like his natural habitat, the storied backyard rink back home in Gretzkytown, Brantford, Ontario.

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phil esposito: frankly, I had my doubts

Call It Macaroni: From the early 1970s, Phil Esposito makes the case for Kraft Dinner at the airport. Out on the tarmac. With a side salad.

Hall-of-Fame centreman Phil Esposito is 79 today, so many happy returns of the rink to him. Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on a Friday of this date in 1942 a year before his goaltender brother Tony made his debut, Phil was the first NHLer to score 100 points in a season (ending up with 126 in 1969). In 1971, he set a new mark for goals in a season, with 76. Along with a pair of Hart trophies and five Art Rosses, he won two Stanley Cups, both with Boston. He played 18 years in the NHL, mostly with the Bruins, though he was a Chicago Black Hawk before he was traded to Boston 1967 and then, after another trade, this one in 1975, he joined the New York Ranger.

When hockey writer Andy O’Brien visited with Esposito’s parents in 1970 for a profile for Weekend Magazine, Patrick Esposito confided that, early on, he wondered whether his elder son had what it took to make the NHL.

“Frankly, I had my doubts,” he said. “He was big and tall but he was weak on his ankles. However, he could handle the puck, and even when he was playing juvenile he led the league and had everybody talking about him. He kept on leading leagues but, no, I never felt quite certain he would make it.”

Test Drive: Esposito suggests a Volkswagen in 1980.

co-pilote

Passing Show: Born in Kenogami, Quebec, on a Friday of this date in 1931, Pierre Pilote was three times a winner of the Norris Trophy in the 1960s as the NHL’s primo defenceman. He played 13 years for the Chicago Black Hawks, winning a Stanley Cup in 1961, and going on to captain the team for seven subsequent seasons. He spent his final campaign, 1968-69, with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Here above, in an archival newspaper print doctored for publication, Pilote skates with son Pierre Jr. at Chicago Stadium in October of 1963.

bentley bro

Dipsy Doodle Doug: A birthday today for Doug Bentley, Hall-of-Fame left winger and Saskatchewan wheat farmer, who was born on a 1916 Sunday of this date in Delisle. He died in 1972 at the age of 56. He played 12 of his 13 NHL seasons for Chicago’s Black Hawks, turning out (alongside brother Max) for one final campaign with the New York Rangers in 1953-54. In 1942-43, he led the NHL in scoring, amassing 33 goals and 73 points in 50 games. There were six brothers in the Bentley brood growing up in Saskatchewan, and seven sisters. “The girls had a hockey team when they were kids,” father Bill Bentley told Maclean’s in 1948, “and they could beat the blisters off the boys nine times out of ten.”

the only goaltender ever to have won a game in the nhl? for an hour or two in 1917, that was bert lindsay

Goaltender Bert Lindsay was 36 by the time he took his first NHL turn — though to be fair, before he skated out for that debut in the waning days of 1917, there was no NHL.

Tending the nets for Montreal’s Wanderers, Lindsay started the league’s very first game on the Wednesday night of December 19, 1917, against the team from Toronto. (The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators also played that night, but that game was delayed, and started later in the evening.) Toronto’s goaltender, Sammy Hebert, conceded the first goal in league history when the Wanderers’ Dave Ritchie beat him a minute into the first period.

The game, let’s just say, was a tough one for any of the goaltenders involved. After Montreal put five pucks past him in the first period, Hebert gave way to Art Brooks, on whom the Wanderers scored a further five goals. Going the distance, Lindsay was beaten on just nine occasions, helping his team to eke out a 10-9 win. That meant that he was not the first goaltender to win an NHL game: briefly that night, he was the only goaltender ever to have won one. That distinction, of course, expired as soon as the Canadiens finished their game in Ottawa, beating the Senators 7-4, and Georges Vézina joined Lindsay as the NHL’s winningest goaler.

Bert Lindsay was born in the village of Belwood, Ontario, just north of Guelph, on the 23rd day of another July, this one in 1881. He eventually found his way north and east, to Renfrew, which is where he made his name as a professional hockey. For a couple of years starting in 1910, manning the nets for the NHA’s star-studded Renfrew Creamery Kings, Lindsay had Cyclone Taylor, Newsy Lalonde, Lester and Frank Patrick lining up in front of him. He subsequently played six seasons for the PCHA’s Victoria Aristocrats before returning east to join the Wanderers in Montreal.

He was the man in their nets for the final two NHA seasons. That gets us to 1917 and the NHL, wherein Lindsay guarded the Wanderer goal in the only four games the team ever actually played in the league. That opening-night win was the only one the Wanderers managed in its brief history in the league: Lindsay was on the losing end of four subsequent games.

The Wanderers were already undermanned, desperate for players, when in early January of 1918 the Montreal Arena burned down. While the building’s other tenant, the Canadiens, saw fit to make a move to the Jubilee Arena, Wanderers’ owner Sam Lichtenhein decided to disband his team. They defaulted two more games before their final extinction, and while many of their players joined other NHL teams for the remainder of the year, Lindsay didn’t catch with the Toronto Arenas until the following year, his last in pro hockey.

There are a couple of other facets to Lindsay’s place in hockey history. For one thing, Bert begat a Hall-of-Fame son, Ted, who was born in Renfrew towards the end of July of 1925.

For another, some 20 years after that auspicious event, Bert Lindsay devised a new and improved piece of hockey furniture.

This is 1947 we’re talking about now. Bert, who’d originally retired to Renfrew to run a car dealership and coach some hockey, was north now, living in Kirkland Lake. I don’t know long he spent cogitating on a safer hockey net, nor whether it had been in the works going all the way back to his own goal-guarding days.

It was a serious effort that almost (but not quite) made it to the big league.

The standard NHL net in 1947 was one that Lindsay’s old coach and teammate with the NHL Wanderers had invented: the Art Ross Patent Goal Net.

After his long and distinguished career playing defence came to end with the demise of the Wanderers, Ross took up as an NHL referee and then as a coach, originally with the Hamilton Tigers. When Boston entered the league in 1924, he signed up to shape the newborn Bruins.

As shrewd as he was a judge of hockey talent, and as careful a tactician, Ross was also one of the game’s supreme innovators, constantly working to refine the game and its tools.

He designed a better puck, one that the NHL officially adopted before the 1918-19 season.

To mitigate the damage those very pucks threatened to do to players’ feet, he devised a chainmail boot to fit over skates long before plastic skateguards became commonplace.

Ross experimented with metal-shafted sticks, too, years before aluminum and composite models became fixtures in the hands of hockey players everywhere.

As Ross himself told it, he was forced into renovating the nets that had been employed on NHL ice for the league’s first decade. This was the same model that had featured in the old NHA: flat-backed, all straight lines, it looked a bit like the unfinished frame for a chest of drawers.

Introduced in 1911, this net had been designed by another famous goaltender, Percy LeSueur, who’d end up (like Ross, if not Bert Lindsay) in the Hall of Fame. The problem: pucks could, and did, bounce out as quickly as they made their way into the LeSueur net, often defying the best efforts of referees and goal judges to discern their passage.

Bounceback: From Percy LeSueur’s 1911 patent application, a rendering of the flat-backed net that served the NHL for its first decade on ice.

Ross’ patience for this lasted through the 1926-27 NHL season but not beyond. His solution was to invent the net that, in basic design, is the one we know today. Built on a base shaped like the number three, it featured angled metalwork within, along with a strip of interior mesh, all of which helped to corral pucks and keep them from bouncing out.

“After a game in Boston last winter in which four goals were disputed,” Ross said in the fall of 1927, “I began to plan it, and here it is.”

Net Work: In 1927, Art Ross unveiled his new net. Adopted for the 1927-28 season, it served the NHL for almost 60 years without alteration.

Hockey’s managers and mandarins were impressed when he revealed his prototype. “I wish we had thought of such a net years ago,” said Frank Patrick, no mean hockey visionary himself. The NHL was on board from the start, adopting the new Ross net for service effective that very season.

Affixed to the ice with steel pegs, the net that Ross conceived in 1927 did duty in the league for nearly 60 years, and it went more or less unchanged until 1980. That was the year that Mark Howe, then of the Hartford Whalers, suffered a horrific injury when he slid into and was badly sliced by the Ross net’s protruding middle plate. It was in the aftermath of that that the NHL did (eventually) get rid of the latter and switch out the uncompromising steel pegs in favour of the magnetic anchors used today.

While the fix that Bert Lindsay proposed in 1947 wouldn’t have adjusted the way nets were secured to the ice, he was focussed on the damage they could do to players, and how to improve their “yieldability.”

That’s a word from a patent application of his. “It is well known that in ice hockey,” Lindsay explained in his filing, “a player is frequently injured by collision with a rigid goal post. The object of this invention is to provide a goal that precludes or lessens such injury and is accomplished generally by the provision of yielding posts in the goal structure.”

Lindsay’s design put hinges in the goalposts, and backed them with heavy springs. Say Maple Leaf winger Gaye Stewart lost a wheel driving for the Detroit net one night, crashing into one of Harry Lumley’s posts. By Lindsay’s design, a mere seven pounds of pressure would cause the upright to give way. “When the force of the impact has been removed, the section … promptly returns to its normal position under the action of the springs.” The net itself might not be displaced, but Lindsay’s contention was that injuries to players would be “much less severe than if a rigid post were struck.”

Try, Try Again: Drawings for Bert Lindsay’s second patent application show his spring-loaded collapsible net.

Lindsay’s collapsing nets got some play in 1947, on the ice in Kirkland Lake, apparently. Then they gradually worked a way south. Following a demonstration in North Bay, Ontario, Lindsay Sr. arranged to ship a prototypical pair to Toronto towards the end of March.

He’d had discussions by then with the NHL president, Clarence Campbell, and it seemed possible that the new pliable nets would get a run out at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Leafs were hosting a Stanley-Cup semi-final. Starring for their opponents from Detroit was 21-year-old Ted Lindsay, all grown up now, and in his third season playing truculent left wing for the Wings.

Bert Lindsay’s nets didn’t get their chance in the NHL on Saturday, March 29, 1947, as it so happened. Press reports don’t get into the details but in the end, the experimental nets only ended up being tested before the second game of the Toronto-Detroit game that night. The Toronto Daily Star reported their findings, awkwardly and without attributing them to anyone by name: NHL officials “found them fine after they smooth out a few rough spots.”

While his net didn’t make the opening line-up, Bert Lindsay did get to see his son put a pair of pucks into the old Art Ross cages, as the Wings overwhelmed the Leafs by a score of 9-1. It was a big night all around for Red Wing parents: Sid Abel’s mother had travelled from Melville, Saskatchewan, to see her son play for the first time in his seven-year NHL career.

The next time Bert Lindsay’s nets rated a mention in the popular press seems to have heralded their last gasp. It was a year later, 1948, when they showed up in New York. I don’t know much about this, but they seem to have had a trial in (I think) in the Eastern Hockey League, (possibly) at Madison Square Garden. They also seem to have been given a test run in Windsor, as the caption for the photo below suggests.

They didn’t catch on. A rough spot that hadn’t been sufficiently smoothed was the concern that sly goaltenders would seek to bend back the posts to help them keep pucks out.

Their failure to prosper that year seems also to have had to do with the problem that Art Ross had wrestled with 20 years earlier. The Lindsay nets were, the Boston Globe advised, too shallow: “pucks bounce out too easily.”

The old goaltender kept on working on his novel nets, retooling, refining. This we know because in 1950, two years after he’d filed his original specs, Bert Lindsay was back at the Patent Office with paperwork for a new and improved version of his innovative net. In vain, it seems: while he may have fixed its early flaws to his own satisfaction, nobody else in the hockey world seems to have given it a third chance.

Bert Lindsay died at his home in Sarnia, Ontario, in 1960. He was 79.

four-score and 50 years ago: bobby soared as boston won the 1970 stanley cup

Show And Tell: Bruins’ captain Johnny Bucyk shows off the Stanley Cup to the Boston Garden faithful on Sunday, May 10, 1970, after Bobby Orr’s inimitable overtime goal won the team their first NHL championship since 1941. (Image: Brearley Collection, Boston Public Library)

Boston Bruins’ fans won’t soon forget the most famous goal to have been scored in the old Garden, but just in case there’s an 800-pound statue of Bobby Orr flying bronzely through across the concourse in front of the rink the nowadays Bruins play in, when they’re playing, the TD Garden. It was 50 years ago today, on another Sunday, Mother’s Day of 1970, that Orr scored the memorable overtime goal, just prior to take-off, that put paid to the St. Louis Blues and won the Bruins their first Stanley Cup since 1941.

Fans of that famous goal and/or of the unforgettable image that Boston Record-American photographer Ray Lussier snapped of it have plenty to keep them busy this anniversary weekend.

I recommend Dan Robson’s new oral history of the goal at The Athletic, where you’ll hear from Orr himself along with Derek Sanderson, Phil Esposito, Bruins coach Harry Sinden, and his counterpart from St. Louis, Scotty Bowman.

Also? At NHL.com, Dave Stubbs has a piece previewing an NHL Network Originals documentary that’s debuting tonight. The 1970 Boston Bruins: Big, Bad & Bobby is on-screen tonight across North America (8 p.m. ET on Sportsnet and the NHL Network).

In the flurry of remembrances, would we note how, 50 years ago, in the immediate chaos of the Bruins’ championship celebrations, a 22-year-old Orr accounted for what he’d done a few minutes earlier?

“I don’t know what I did,” Mike Widmer from UPI quoted him saying the dressing-room aftermath. “I saw it go in the net as I was flying in the air. Then I hit the ice and before I could get up the guys were on top of me.”

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Another unbylined UPI dispatch started with this:

How would you expect a 22-year-old to describe the biggest moment of his spectacular young life?

How about: “The Stanley Cup! Wheeeeee!!!”

A little in that same piece, Orr did venture a little further into detail:

“Turk [Sanderson] made a helluva play out of the corner,” Orr recalled while pleading with the team doctor “to please prescribe a beer for me.”

“I saw it go in,” Kevin Walsh from Boston’s Globe managed to glean from Orr. “Oh ya, it was in.”

“I didn’t know where it was going. I just shot the darn thing. I think it went between his [St. Louis goaltender Glenn Hall’s] legs.”

“Don’t ask me how the play started. I don’t remember. I don’t know how it happened.”

“I know what this win is for me. It’s so great.”

Something I would like to get cleared up — maybe tonight, in the documentary, we’ll learn the truth? — is just where Orr’s mother, Arva, was during all the nostalgic rejoicing that night in 1970.

Reading Gerald Eskenazi in the May 11 edition of the New York Times, you might have been gladdened to hear this:

Scoring in today’s game, the only close one of the series, started with Rick Smith of the Bruins getting a rising shot past Glenn Hall, underneath a sign that read ‘Happy Mother’s Day Mrs. Orr.’

This was for Bobby’s mother who had come from their home in Canada.

Orr himself mentions this Mother’s Day banner in his 2013 memoir, My Story, though he doesn’t say one way or the other whether the woman to whom it paid tribute was actually on the property.  

The Canadian Press report that ran across Canada had her in the building, too:

Bobby Orr, the 22-year-old wonder defenceman who scored the winning goal in overtime, stood grinning under television lights as his father fought through the crowd toward him.

Doug Orr, who came down from his Parry Sound, Ont., home with Mrs. Orr, left his wife outside the dressing room.

“This is the best day of my life,” he said.

Mr. Orr spilled more of his teeming heart to the Boston Globe’s Martin Pave. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but tonight I don’t care if Bobby gets higher than a kite. He deserves it. I’ve never seen him drunk, but the way we’re all feeling, who cares?”

Wheeeeee! Sculptor Harry Weber bronzed Orr flies through the Boston air in front of the modern-day TD Garden.

Pave wondered how Mr. Orr had reacted when his son scored. “I jumped,” the ebullient father said. “I screamed. Then I rushed to the phone to call my wife in Parry Sound. I can’t even remember what she said because she was crying her eyes out.”

“Then,” Pave continued, “Doug rushed to the Bruins dressing room and embraced his son. He grabbed a bottle and joined the celebration.”

Definitely in the tumultuous room, even if Mrs. Orr wasn’t: Dit Clapper. He’d been the Bruins’ captain, of course, back when they’d last lifted the Cup in 1941. Remarkably, he’d played on all three of the Bruins’ previous Stanley Cup-winning teams, in 1929, 1939, and ’41.

Now 63, he’d flown in from his home in Peterborough, Ontario. “This is a helluva club,” he said in the team’s dressing room as 1970 celebrations turned increasingly liquid. He was up on a bench, surveying the scene, as Globe columnist Harold Kaese told it.

“It was never like this when we won in 1941,” he quoted Clapper as saying. “I think we had a bottle of beer, maybe.”

The Goal: Photographer Chad Coombs echoed Number Four’s famous goal in “Hockey Night In Canada: A Bobby Orr Tribute.’ For more of his work, visit http://www.chadcoombs.com. (Image courtesy of Chad Coombs.)

the mothers of hockey players worry about injuries and, sometimes, freeze the living-room carpet for their sons to skate on

Home Ice: Pierrette Lemieux wields her spatula as goaltender to her sons Richard, Alain, and Mario, as seen by illustrator Nick Craine. (Image: HarperCollins Canada)

The fathers of hockey players write books, sometimes, about sons of theirs who’ve made it to the NHL, while mostly the mothers don’t — other than Colleen Howe, who perhaps deserves a bright asterisk for having published in her time books both as a hockey mother and a wife. I wish they’d write more books, hockey’s mothers, share their stories. As it is, in the hockey books, they’re mostly reduced to a few mentions, mostly in the early chapters. If you read all the hockey books, there’s a certain amount you can glean about hockey’s mothers, and a whole lot more you can’t. Herewith, some of the gleanings. Numbers in the text link to the list identifying the various mothers in the endnotes.   

Hockey mothers are descended from Sir Isaac Brock [1], some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England [2]. Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby [3] and Grace Nelson [4], Rose Pauli [5] and Agnes Mather Bell [6]. The former two have been described, respectively, as “charming” and “demurely pretty.” The third wanted to be a nurse, but found that she fainted whenever she got near a surgery. The latter married a cheesemaker.

Other mothers are described, sometimes, in biographies written about their sons’ lustrous careers as “the soft-spoken daughter of German immigrants [who] worked as a domestic before her marriage.” [7] Sometimes, as the daughters of cattle farmers from Saskatchewan, they’re waitresses who see their future husbands for the first time at a bowling alley. [8] In other cases, the mothers of hockey players meet their husbands in Pristina, in what’s now Kosovo, before they emigrate to Canada without knowing a word of English. [9] Or else they arrive in Canada from Ukraine at the age of 16 and end up in Fort William, Ontario, in 1912 where they soon meet their future husbands, who don’t necessarily tell the truth about how wealthy they are, such that after the wedding the young bride finds that her husband rents a tiny house with six boarders for whom she’s expected to cook and do laundry and, plus, also, he’s abusive, beating her for any reason at all, or none, including when she talks to other men, including when she fails to walk behind this husband on the way to church on Sunday,  causing the son of such parents to write, years later, “My father was a very cruel person.” [10]

The mothers of hockey players have an old six-string Spanish guitar they like to play. In 1928, they’re outside chopping wood when they feel the labour pains coming on. Having already given birth five times, they know what to do: drew water from the well, put it on the wood stove to boil, make themselves comfortable in bed. They’ll deliver their boy themselves, cut the umbilical cord, then suffer a serious hemorrhage that’s almost the end of them, but then they get help, just in time. “The strongest woman I have ever known,” is what the son of a mother like that will say, in time. [11]

You were a mistake, hockey mothers will sometimes tell their sons when the sons are grown and playing defence for the Detroit Red Wings, but you were a wonderful mistake. [12] Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. [13]

Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller. [14] They’ll pass on to their sons an inner strength by way of, when they’re in the country sometimes, they’ll pick up a snake, or play with spiders, while never betraying any fear. [15]

The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner. [16] They teach their boys to knit. [17] They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30. [18] They wash floors and make gallons of soup, and have their own version, some mothers, of fish and chips that consist of big slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-friend, served with French fries on the side. “We thought we were having fish and chips,” their sons will write in their autobiographies, “but actually they were potatoes with potatoes.” [19]

In 1922, when their sons are budding 19-year-old hockey stars but haven’t yet made it to the NHL where they’ll blossom into one of the league’s first genuine superstars, the mothers of hockey players will, sometimes, tragically, drown in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” as a Toronto newspaper reports it. [20]

King Clancy’s father was the original King, and while he was a very good football player, he may have been the only person in Ottawa who couldn’t skate a stroke. Not so Dolly Clancy: no-one, said King Jr., could match her grace on the ice, and he learned his skating from her.

Esther Dye (Essie, they called her) was the one who flooded the backyard rink when her Cecil was a boy, on Boswell Avenue in Toronto, got out the sticks, tied her son’s skates on, taught him the game. This was when skates were tied onto shoes; Cecil, of course, was better known as Babe, ace goalscorer and one-time captain of the Toronto St. Patricks. “My mother could throw a baseball right out of the park,” he said. “Or a hammer, or anything at all. She could run the other women right off their feet, and some of the men as well.”

Jeanne Maki’s boys, Chico and Wayne, were playing for Chicago and Vancouver respectively in 1971 when she was asked about their boyhoods. “Wayne used to imitate Foster Hewitt and got on everybody’s nerves,” she said. “Oh, he used to give me a headache, and even the neighbours threatened to kick his rear end.”

Here’s Edith Plager, mother of St. Louis Blues legends Barclay, Bob, and Bill:

They were never really indoors much, except to be in the basement and play hockey there — or sometimes they shot BB guns. Once Billy went off and broke about 50 jars of my preserves with his BB gun, and then another time, oh my, I was peeling potatoes and I started finding BBs in them. He’d been shooting into the bag, ha ha ha. Anyway, they had an understanding mother.

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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.

 

 

uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Call him the Flower, Mozart, something of a hockey maniac, pride of Thurso: how ever you care to tag him, Guy Lafleur turns 66 today. Most famously, of course, he was a Canadien, but after 14 seasons in Montreal, he did, you’ll recall, retire from retirement in 1988 to play three more seasons, first with the New York Rangers, then in Quebec with the Nordiques, before re-retiring for good in 1991. Lafleur did wear a helmet as a junior scoring sensation, notching 130 goals in 62 games in his final year with the Quebec Remparts. But after a slow start in the NHL, he eventually shed the headgear for good. I wrote a bit about this in Puckstruck, to this effect:

I don’t know whether Guy Lafleur could have taken his place among Canadiens greats wearing the bobbleheaded helmet he sported when he first played in the NHL. In 1974, at training camp, the story goes that he forgot it one day in his hotel room. He’d been a bit of a dud up to then, and the sportswriters were ready to write him off. Without his helmet, blond hair flowing free, he played with joy and with verve. The writers cheered. There, then, he decided he’d never again cover his head.

Biographer Georges-Hébert Germain writes about this in Overtime: The Legend of Guy Lafleur (1990). “As though by magic he had rediscovered the pleasure of playing.” It wasn’t what was on his head, of course, so much as in it. “But the helmet would be banished as a negative fetish for him, a bearer of unhappiness.” This was the age of the Flyer brawn and brutality, of course, and Canadiens’ management wanted Lafleur to put the helmet back on. “He would hear none of it — it was a burden, slowed him down.”

Guy’s dad wasn’t pleased, as noted in his autobiography. “I’ve always been afraid to see Guy play without a helmet,” Réjean Lafleur confided in Guy Lafleur: Mon Fils (1981). He and his wife worried when they saw him bareheaded, “especially when he falls or he’s checked against the boards.” When he asked Guy why, he said he’d damaged his helmet and the team hadn’t got him a new one yet. “I never much believed in the story,” his dad solemnly wrote.

(Image: Guy Lafleur by Serge Chapleau, graphite and watercolour on paper, 43.1 x 35.5 cm, © McCord Museum)