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.
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.”
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 onlygoaltender 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.
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.”
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.”
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-Cupsemi-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.
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.”
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?”
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 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 , some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England . Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby  and Grace Nelson , Rose Pauli  and Agnes Mather Bell . 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.”  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.  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.  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.” 
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. 
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.  Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. 
Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller.  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. 
The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner.  They teach their boys to knit.  They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30.  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.” 
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. 
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.
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.
Artish Proof: Goaltender Gump Worsley inspects artist Tex Coulter’s handiwork in early 1957. In April of that year, the portrait of the Rangers’ backstop accompanied by son Lorne Jr. would grace the cover of Hockey Blueline, which looked like this.
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)
“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
In January of 1957, Boston goaltender Terry Sawchuk announced he was quitting the NHL, for a bit, or maybe for always. He ending up coming back, of course, but at the time that was very much in doubt. “My nerves are shot,” he said, “and I’m just edgy and nervous all the time.”
So that’s what Gump Worsley was talking about, in April, when the New York Rangers’ goaltender was coverboy (along with his eldest son, Lorne Jr.) for Hockey Blueline. Inside, as told to Dave Anderson, he got right down to business: people thought it was funny, now, to wonder about his nerves.
“When are you going to crack up?” they say. First of all, it’s not funny because Sawchuk is a sick guy. Second of all, I’ll never crack up.
I don’t believe all this talk about “nerves” because a goalkeeper is under fire all the time. If that’s the case, I should be the first one to crack. They shoot more at me than any goalkeeper in the National Hockey League.
If the number of shots at a goalkeeper is so important, then why hasn’t Al Rollins cracked up? Or Harry Lumley? They’ve been around longer than me and had a lot of shots taken at them. But they’re all right. Maybe they’re like me. They don’t worry about something they can’t do anything about … a goal.
Worsley, 29, had been in the NHL for three-and-a-half seasons at this point. That was the key to keeping cool as a netminder, he found — failing to worry. “My wife, Doreen,” he confided, “tells me nothing bothers me.” He made a study of this, and always had. Never looked up his goals-against average, paid no attention to rumours that he was destined for the minors.
Some goaltenders worked themselves into such a state that they couldn’t sleep, or eat. Not Gump:
My wife will tell you how I eat before a game. And how I sleep two-and-a-half, three hours. I usually eat a real big meal — two filet mignons, baked potato, green vegetable, salad, toast and tea. And then I take my nap. Sometimes she has trouble waking me.
After a game — win, lose or tie — I come home and eat another big meal. Not a sandwich, a meal.
That’s what worked for him. But while he may have maintained the same appetite at a steady level as his hockey career went on, his worrying evolved. Ten years later, playing for Montreal now, he may have had occasion to recall that old vow. As detailed in They Call Me Gump, his 1975 Tim Moriarty-assisted autobiography, things had changed. “I finally wound up with the goaltender’s occupational disease during the 1968-69 season with the Canadiens,” he’d write. “I suffered a nervous breakdown.”
At the age of 39, he was playing well in the Montreal net, but he was suffering emotionally. He didn’t like flying. That was a big part of it. Also, the Canadiens had changed coaches: Toe Blake was out, replaced by Claude Ruel. The new boss thought Worsley didn’t practice properly, just went through the motions. Blake had tolerated Worsley’s reluctance to extend himself on the understanding that he’d stay in shape and be ready when the games came around. Ruel was different: he liked to “blow his damn whistle and bark orders. … This got under my skin, and by the time the season was a month old we weren’t speaking.”
Fans, too, were taunting the Gump. That was something else. On November 26, 1968, the Canadiens were en route to Los Angeles by way of Chicago. The first leg of the flight was turbulent, and that was enough for Worsley, which is to say too much. At O’Hare Airport, he left the plane, telling Jean Béliveau that he was retiring. He took a train back to Montreal.
As Worsley recounts it, the breakdown wasn’t severe: “I got over it quickly.” Montreal GM Sam Pollock arranged for him to see a psychiatrist, and he did, and they talked about “everything.” Late in December he started skating on his own at the Forum. By January, he was back in the Canadiens goal.
The Globe and Mail reported that he’d conquered his fear of flying. The pudgy goalie, they called him. “There were a lot of things,” he said. “My nerves were gone. “I had a lot of problems, personal things.”
“I didn’t say anything to the guys. I kept it all inside. I guess you could say I was carrying a lot of worries on my shoulder. Perhaps unnecessarily, but that’s the way it was.”