heard it through the gripevine

Now Hear This: Detroit GM Jack Adams argues his point with referee George Gravel at the Detroit Olympia on December 2, 1951, as Toronto Maple Leaf captain Ted Kennedy listens in.

Red Wings and Leafs squabbled in the first period at Detroit’s Olympia on the Sunday night of December 2, 1951, but it was in the second that the brawl broke out. Toronto ended up winning the game by a score of 2-1, but that was but a detail in the nasty narrative of the night. Detroit’s Fred Glover and Toronto’s Gus Mortson were the instigators; referee George Gravel ended up penalizing five players with majors and misconducts before tempers settled. Detroit GM Jack Adams had his say, as seen here: he’s reported to rushed from his seat on the opposite side of the rink to lodge his opinion of the matter with Gravel.

The upshot: Adams, who died on a Wednesday of this date in 1968 at the age of 73, was convinced that in the melee, Mortson had kicked Glover. “The vicious and cowardly attack of Gus Mortson on Fred Glover when flat on the ice was on the worst I’ve witnesses in all my association with the NHL,” Adams declared after the game. With the officials having missed this (Mortson’s penalty was two minutes for roughing), Adams demanded that NHL President Clarence Campbell launch an investigation into “the Mortson incident and the ineptitude of officials.”

The Wings had no doubt as to what had happened: winger Tony Leswick said that “even the Toronto players in the penalty box were mad at Mortson for kicking Glover when he was on the ice.”

Campbell wasn’t moved: he told the Globe and Mail that Adams’ protest would be ignored on procedural grounds. While Adams was the one to fire off a complaint to NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss, Campbell insisted that it should have come from Red Wings’ owner Jim Norris, and so could not be considered.

Mortson’s version of what went on found its way into the Toronto newspapers: according to him, Glover had crosschecked him in the neck, then kicked at him. Mortson insisted he’d only made as if to kick back, but hadn’t followed through.

The teams met again three nights later in Toronto in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie. For this one, Adams stationed himself in a rail seat beside the Detroit bench, in case of emergency. The game he saw was rough enough, but fight-free — until the teams filed off the ice after the game and (as the Globe’s Al Nickleson had it) Leaf captain Ted Kennedy and Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk “attempted to straighten some difference with bare knuckles.” They were separated before they landed any blows.

murph ’n’ turf

Old Hardrock: Born in Shawville, Quebec, on a Sunday of this date in 1915, Murph Chamberlain was an adept checker in his day, fore and back. An energetically abrasive forward, he started his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1937, and he saw service as well for the Boston Bruins and New York Americans. Mostly, though, he was a Canadien, spending eight of his 12 NHL seasons with Montreal, with whom he won Stanley Cups in 1944 and ’46.

This photograph dates to March of 1948, on a night when the Canadiens visited Toronto to beat the Leafs, 3-2. Chamberlain is #12; the referee sentencing him is Bill Chadwick, with linesman Sam Babcock inbound. Billy Reay is arriving on the scene (top of the face-off circle), and that’s Leaf defenceman Gus Mortson on his knee. In the first period, Mortson boarded Hab goaltender Bill Durnan, which brought down Chamberlain and Ken Reardon on his — Mortson’s — head. Chadwick assessed majors to all. According to NHL Rule 32b governing goaltenders and majors, Durnan didn’t go to the box, but faced a penalty shot instead … which Max Bentley missed. I feel it’s my duty to report here that Chamberlain and Mortson shared a nickname in those years, with wartime rationing still in effect, I guess: both were known as Old Hardrock.

 

Update: This post has been amended. Having speculated that the scene here might have been from a game in October of 1948, I stand corrected by hockey historian Paul Patskou: it was a Wednesday-night game at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1948.

under review: writing the good fight

 

A version of this review appeared in the December, 2021 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Why did a couple of Zacks feel the need to shed their gloves that October evening in Edmonton in early October to fling fists at each other’s heads? Could be, I guess, that Zack Kassian, a winger for the NHL Oilers, disparaged Zack McEwen’s manhood, mother, or mien. It was the NHL’s pre-season still, so maybe McEwen, then a Vancouver Canuck, wanting to audition for his own coach, asked his rival for the pleasure of the punch in the time-honoured way of these things: “You wanna go?”

Was this a warning we were seeing, or maybe a dose of vengeance? Was it fulfillment of an arcane rite only understood by Zacks? There was some suggestion that Vancouver’s forwards had sinned by skating too close to Oiler goaltender Mike Smith, and so there was (in the parlance) a price to be paid, which required (as laid out, possibly, in the game’s opaque Code) a message to be delivered.

It’s easy to make light of hockey’s theatre of the brutally absurd, but in the quick chaos, Kassian lost his helmet, then his footing, fell, headfirst, to the ice, was knocked out. He revived, eventually, and left the ice under his own power, a towel pressed to his right temple. It was all over, then, except for the talking. “He’s got a pretty good bump on his head,” said Kassian’s coach, Dave Tippett. “It’s one of those ones that upsets you when that happens.”

“It’s scary, it’s terrible, it’s not cool,” said a young Vancouver defenceman, Quinn Hughes. “It probably didn’t need to happen.”

And that was mostly it, so far as further reckoning went. There was nothing, certainly, forthcoming from the NHL, which maintains both a rulebook and a Department of Player Safety.

According to the website hockeyfights.com, where these things are reverently logged and parsed, that Zack-on-Zack fight was the 39th (and counting) of Kassian’s 12-year NHL career, the 13th in four years for McEwen. Nowhere is there such a ready archive where you can look into the motives of any given hockey fight, no register of messages sent and received, no docket of damages done. In Canada, we’re so generally socialized to hockey’s culture of on-ice assault that October’s clash of Zacks made no more impression within the sport, the culture, or the Edmonton Police Department than the last time one hockey player punched another in the head. Will the next time be any different?

•••

Questions, questions, questions.

They hang in a haze over the NHL’s ice that never quite dissipates, though the fighting goes on.

Are hockey fights a good idea? Is the difference between a brawl on the street outside Edmonton’s Rogers Place and one that breaks out inside, on the ice, still sufficient to accommodate hockey’s proud exceptionalism? Do angry physical attacks really deserve a place in a game that purports to be for everybody? What do they say about our civil society? What about the potential for harm? Why use them to market the product you’re selling? Could it possibly be true that the blows that the punches that hockey players punch are (actually) a marvelous safety measure without which the game would teach us all the true meaning of mayhem?

Madison Mayhem: “The fight was a honey,” the New York Daily News reported in November of 1937 after New York’s Phil Watson collided with Dave Trottier of Montreal’s Maroons. “They ditched sticks in a hurry and began throwing punches.”

You don’t have to be especially timid or a paragon of moral rectitude to interrogate hockey violence, despite what some fighting enthusiasts in the public square might suggest. You should know that the search for answers might take you in unexpected destinations. The bookshelf, for example, as old-fashioned a resource as that might seem in the digital present.

And yet it is true that the sport’s library has added, over the years, a positive melee of memoirs by former — I was going to say goons, but won’t, since that’s considered a dire insult to the honest folk who put in the time to do the dirty work that others won’t, the keeping of the peace, the protecting of the honour, the delivering of the messages, the doing of time in the penalty box. You’d know this if you’d come across Don’t Call Me Goon: Hockey’s Greatest Enforcers, Gunslingers, and Bad Boys, an actual book, from 2013, by Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen, or if you’d spent weeks immersed in the prose of hockey’s rowdies, ruffians, heavyweights, tough guys, and policemen. Take note: the term of art preferred by the artisans themselves seems to be enforcer.

What exactly do hockey enforcers enforce? That’s not always easy to glean, whether you’re watching the game or reading about it. Not the rules, obviously. John Ferguson (52 fights) offers an explanation in his 1989 memoir Thunder and Lightning, in which he makes the case that he was the league’s original enforcer. His remit, as he understood it: beyond his regular workaday within-the-rules duties, he was to intervene “to maintain decorum if anyone tried to trifle” with Jean Béliveau (7 fights), or Bernie Geoffrion (6), or with “any of our other stars.”

Uh-huh. Of course, Ferguson is here using “maintain decorum” in the hockey sense, where it more commonly means “commit assault.” But if you pay any attention to the NHL at all, you’re used to the ways in which language abstracts the game’s violent tendencies.

There’s nothing particularly insidious in a broadcaster, rinkside reporter, Twitterer, or NHL executive resorting to arcane terms (donnybrook, fisticuffs) or euphemisms (dropping the gloves i.e. the mitts, squaring off, going at it, chucking the knuckles, in a boutthat may also be a tussle, scrap, scuffle, or maybe just someone was taking liberties, that’s what the extra-curriculars are all about, other than showing emotion, sending messages, & etc.). It’s normal, natural enough — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t downplay and normalize the bone-hard brutality of hockey fights, the injuries that result, the examples they set.

They’re a conservative bunch, the enforcers, until, sometimes, they’re not. Dave Schultz was the primary puncher for the Philadelphia Flyers when they ran roughshod to a pair of Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s. The Hammer they called him in the unruly years when he was bashing out new records for penalty minutes, throwing his weight into 164 fights. In 1981, a year after he retired from all that, Schultz enlisted Stan Fischler as his co-writer and published a memoir in which he all but renounced the life he’d been living, pondering withal what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. He also accused his former captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.

Clarke (36 fights) happens to have led a call for the NHL to abolish fighting in 1976, when he was head of the players’ association. (It wasn’t heard.) Champions of bellicose hockey like to point out that the game has always been violent, how can you possibly engineer it otherwise at this late date? Chris Nilan played 13 NHL seasons, helped Montreal win a Stanley Cup championship; the nearly 60 hours he spent in penalty boxes count as the fifth most ever to be accumulated in NHL history, and they include sanctions for 196 career fights. What would hockey be without fighting? “It is simply part of the game, deeply embedded in it, and at its core,” he wrote in his 2013 book Fighting Back, “and it provides hockey with so much of the emotion, spirit, and energy that make it special.”

•••

The first rule of the NHL’s fight club is that no-one in the league’s corporate structure really wants to talk too much about all the punching or its consequences. The worry is, I believe, that all those wolfish lawsuits that roam the land might hear, and circle closer, which just puts everybody in danger.

When someone like the league’s Commissioner, Gary Bettman, does speak up, the message to reporters and legislators and sundry detractors tends to come in same frame that Clarence Campbell carpentered in the 1970s, towards the end of his 31-year reign as league president. When he wasn’t telling critics to mind their own business, Campbell would settle back on his long expertise, advising (as he did in 1975) that, “I feel that the safest and most satisfactory reaction to being fouled is by retaliating with a punch in the nose.”

It was Campbell, too, who may have first come up with the formulation of hockey as some kind of steam-powered 19th-century industrial sporting locomotive whose machinery, which is ever in danger of overheating, has never been upgraded. With temperatures running so hot, of course you need a regulator. “Fighting on the ice is a safety valve,” Campbell explained in 1969. “Stop it and players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.

Gloves Off: “The fight, or rather fights, were swell and snapped 5,000 dozing customers erect in their seats,” the New York Daily News advised after this Manhattan meeting between the local Americans and the Toronto Maple Leafs in March of 1940. Wearing #2 is Eddie Shore, along with (#6) teammate Charlie Conacher. Leafs’ Bob Davidson is their quarry.

The NHL has, it’s true, been beset by legal challenges in recent years. In 2018, the NHL arranged a US$18.9-million settlement with 318 former players who felt that the league has minimized the long-term risks of brain trauma. Hockey’s concussion crisis is separate from, if not unrelated to, the issue of fighting’s place in the game. The NHL doesn’t really want to talk about concussions, either, so that’s one area of overlap; another relates to what medical science has been steadily revealing about what can happen to brains that are battered in sports like hockey.

The brains of boxers have been showing signs of deep damage, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, going back to the 1920s. While post-mortem studies of the brains of football players confirmed the presence of CTE in 2006, the first hockey case wasn’t confirmed until 2009, following the death of a furious NHL enforcer from the 1960s and ’70s, Reggie Fleming (73 fights).

I’d contend that since then — post-Fleming — many of the default rationalizations that hockey leaders reach for when it comes to arguing that fighting is a necessity feel increasingly unconvincing. Less than plausible. Derek Boogaard (66 fights) died in 2011, followed by an appalling succession of other, too-young former fighters, some by suicide, other by “natural” causes: Wade Belak (136), Rick Rypien (38), Steve Montador (69), Todd Ewen (150).

Checking back in on Gary Bettman, he has at least updated the technological metaphor that his league uses to help stall on the status quo. “The threat of fighting,” he earnestly told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa in 2019, “has people believe it’s an important thermostat in the game.”

•••

Is there another sport with a literature so swollen with the memoirs of so many of its lesser talents? Can you name any other game that takes such serious interest in players whose main role and renown is in straying beyond the rules of play? Hockey’s goons are often, of course, beloved as teammates, fêted by fans. Tie Domi (278), Georges Laraque (142), John Scott (44), Bob Probert (242): all of them were celebrities in skates and out. Fans chanted their names, wore sweaters bearing their names and numbers; why wouldn’t they now buy the autobiographies the hockey fighters publish?

That they do is not surprising, or controversial. It’s not news that fans revere role players like Shawn Thornton, the latest heavily penalized NHLer, a puncher in 168 fights, to publish an autobiography. As Terry Ryan, an experienced hockey combatant in his own right (4 NHL fights) as well as a vivid storyteller, has written that hockey players who make a business of punching are “some of the most interesting, funny, charismatic players you’ll ever come across in sports,” as well as “the most genuine and charitable.” Do you have to deny that to wonder why it’s an argument in favour of keeping fighting in the game? You don’t.

•••

In his cocksure 2017 memoir Offside, Sean Avery (83 fights) tells how he once smoked a joint with actress Scarlett Johansson, also kissed her, and “gave her a bit of unexpected sass.” Tie Domi’s Shift Work (2015) explores the author’s views on manscaping, and divulges that he was the very first NHLer to own a Blackberry.

The literature of hockey enforcement, it’s fair to say, contains multitudes.

Some memoirs are livelier than others, more insightful, forthright, better-written. Georges Laraque’s self-titled 2011 foray, for instance. The son of Haitian immigrants, the former Edmonton Oiler winger reflects on the violence he faced from his own father and the racism that poisoned his childhood in Montreal. No-one he knew as a boy believed it was possible that he’d grow up to play in the NHL, “because of the colour of my skin, a colour that would never be suitable for the whiteness of the ice.” Hockeyfights.com tallies Laraque’s NHL combats at 142, and he spends plenty of time talking about those — when he’s not weighing in on why he’s vegan, his commitment to animal rights, or his time as deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada.

In The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior (2019), Stu Grimson (207 NHL fights) offers a thoughtful and often surprising accounting of hockey violence — and of his Christian faith and the peace it’s brought him. “Not everyone could reconcile that I was a Christian whose job involved hurting others,” he writes. He never saw a contradiction: “Who better than Christian to take on the role of protector?”

Pain Killer: A Memory of Big League Addiction (2021) is a harrowing chronicle of the toll that hockey fighting took on Brantt Myhres (58 fights). He survived his addictions and built back a life, he tells us, which makes his book something of a companion to Boy On Ice, John Branch’s devastating 2014 account of the life of Derek Boogaard’s tragic trajectory that ended with his death, in 2011, from an overdose of painkillers and alcohol.

Sean Avery’s is as frank as any of the hockey-fighter memoirs, but if that’s a solace, it’s a sour one. Avery has many titillating tales to share in Offside, lots of disdain to distpense, scores to settle; what’s not entirely clear is what it was — ego? arrogance? — that curdled his personality and left him wandering the world as Not A Nice Person.

The further you trail back with these memoirists, the less defensive they are on the page. “Hockey’s a fast game and tempers flare real quickly,” the late Dave Semenko (73) explains in Looking Out For Number One (1989). “That’s when the fighting comes in. It only lasts a little while. You don’t see a lot of guys getting hurt from it. The majority of times you’ll get your equipment messed up and that’s about it.”

Other than Dave Schultz, these are authors without regrets. “If I could, I’d do it all over again,” Chris Nilan declares in Fighting Back. “Wouldn’t change a thing.” That’s right before he talks about “swimming in alcohol and burying myself in pills” to deal with the pain he still suffers, 29 years after he last played in the NHL.”

The enforcers don’t generally lash out at fighting critics, either. Rob Ray (248 fights) is one of the few to come out whingeing about people who don’t (as he writes) “get it.”

Ray punched people for a living, but he didn’t just punch people. How was it his fault if people watching NHL games didn’t bother to learn that hockey’s “intangibles don’t get printed on the scoresheet.” And hey, parents: it wasn’t his job to be a role model, or to teach kids the difference between right and wrong.

As might be seen to befit his blue-collar roots as an Irish kid from Oshawa, Ontario, Shawn Thornton isn’t blaming anyone, or shifting his focus too far beyond his own understanding of the value (and values) of hard work and personal responsibility. Thornton, who’s 44, played 14 NHL seasons, winning two Stanley Cup championships along the way. He seems like a stand-up guy, a stout family man, a good friend, great teammate. It’s easy to cheer for him, if only because, well, everybody’s doing it, all through the book. Plumped by fond tributes from many former colleagues Fighting My Way To The Top, published in the fall of 2021, often has the feel of a going-away card that’s made its way around the office ahead of the retirement of a cherished co-worker — supposing that at your office you now and then bare your knuckles over by the copier.

“I knew full well the job I signed up to do,” Thornton writes. “I did what I had to do.” Why? Because “the game is a pressure cooker, and fighting helps remove the lid and relieve some of that pressure.” Being a sous-chef in charge of crockpots wasn’t easy, Thornton explains in his entirely affable way. It was actually hard, kind of like being a cop, or working in a steel factory, sometimes the anxiety made it hard to sleep at night, sometimes a teammate got hurt, which meant Thornton had a duty to do, that he did, even if sometimes that meant fighting friends who played for other teams, who then got hurt, he hurt them, unfortunately, nobody wanted that, but, hey: “It was just part of the job.”

The reward? Well, Thornton was, of course, paid well, a handsome US$3-million for his last three seasons in the NHL, though that doesn’t come up in the book. Respect is the currency that he seems to value over most others, and he sounds satisfied that he earned his share as an NHLer.

Thornton doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to tutor the next generation, which, I guess, counts as some kind of progress. Because whether you’re an eager student or not, these books do, taken together, amount to some of kind of masterclass in hockey fighting. John Ferguson: “When I fought, I liked to keep my hands moving and get my legs set wide apart.” Bob Probert: “The fights I did best in were the ones I was truly mad and upset.” Dave Schultz: “My technique was predicated on getting my right arm free to swing at my opponent.” Sean Avery: “My strategy is to be tactical and to not actually get hit, but to show patience until BOOM you can catch your opponent with a solid punch after he’s thrown four or five wild ones and is starting to get tired.”

If it isn’t outlandish enough that sentences like those are a recurring feature of Canadian letters, wait until you get into what the fighters are writing about their own breakages and the prospects of what the future might hold.

“My situation went from bad to nightmarish when he connected with three left-hand jackhammer punches to my face,” Stu Grimson confides. Rob Ray: “I broke my knuckles fighting against Ottawa’s Dennis Vial in 1994. I had my jaw broken, and all the disks in my jaw are gone.” (Vial’s fight total, since we’re keeping score: 87.)

In some of the memoirs published since signs of CTE were discovered  in Reggie Fleming’s brain,  the enforcers gaze grimly into the future. “Getting hit repeatedly in the head is a bad thing that happens repeatedly,” Chris Nilan allows in the opening chapter of his Fighting Back. “The trauma has to do lasting damage.”

Tie Domi bustles by, quick as he can. “I am not one of those people who can weigh in on concussions or the other health issues that some guys in hockey are going through.” That’s Shawn Thornton’s line, too, more or less: “I see that some people express concerns about head trauma, concussions, CTE … But as I said earlier, we all sign up for this and we all get the benefits of being NHL players.”

Saddest of all might be Rob Ray, who published Rayzor’s Edge in 2007, when he was 39: “I try to hope that medical technology will have improved enough in the future so that they’ll be able to fix me up when I’m older.”

•••

Questions, questions.

If hockey’s fighting is so dreadful, why has it endured so long? Aren’t the fighters consenting adults? How come fans all leap to their feet every time the fists flurry? Doesn’t the violence sometimes enliven a team that’s lost its mojo; can’t a punch-up change the energy of a game?

I’ve heard the answers, mulled them. Do they contain compelling arguments for maintaining the status quo when it comes to fighting? I don’t see them. Any of those, for me, are superseded by the potential for harm that every bare-knuckle fight presents. No matter what messages need sending, there has to be a better way.

Does the NHL’s own Department of Player Safety have an opinion on this? Not to mention (may I just mention) the official NHL rulebook. If you’re dipping into the statutes contained therein at all, I’d suggest you bypass the five pages of hows and wherefores relating to Rule 46, the league’s official ordinance on fighting. Instead, I’d direct you to Rule 21, which governs match penalties. The latter is much more succinct in stipulating the fate of any player who attempts to injure another — out of the game, gone. Intent doesn’t figure in; you only need to be attempting to do harm. What is a punch in the head if not an attempt to injure? But no NHL fight, Zacks-only or otherwise, ends with match penalties, and no-one is surprised by — or even discusses — the league’s ongoing willful flouting of its own explicit regulations.

Earlier this year, in another NHL season, Zack Kassian missed 17 games after breaking a hand punching an Ottawa defenceman. In the aftermath of his more recent October fight, he was ready to ready to return to Edmonton’s line-up just a week after hitting his head on the ice.

“It’s an unfortunate injury,” shrugged his coach, Dave Tippett (1 NHL fight as a player). “You can get hurt with by a shot, you can get hurt in a fight. Injuries happen in hockey. Always, all different ways, not just fighting.”

Kassian himself was just grateful. “It’s an emotional game and things boil over,” he told reporters. “Obviously when you see pictures of my situation, first thing that comes to mind is stop fighting. But fighting’s been in the game a very long time, it’s what makes hockey unique.”

He owed so much to punching and being punched, Kassian said. “It’s one of my attributes that made me a unique player. It’s given my family a great life and it’s something I enjoy doing.”

Why.

Emptied Benches: A meeting of Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden during the 1977-78 NHL season.

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eustace tilley on ice

Front And Centre: A gallery of some of the The New Yorker‘s hockey covers through the years. The first of them was Constantin Alajálov’s (bottom row, second from left), from January of 1927. Centred here is the newest exemplar, by Bruce McCall, from the magazine’s issue of February 7, 2022.

Professional hockey arrived in New York in 1925 wearing the stars and stripes of Bill Dwyer’s Americans, who skated their claim out on the ice of Tex Rickard’s newly built Madison Square Garden. That was the same year that Harold Ross launched The New Yorker and while the magazine’s offices on West 45th Street weren’t even a mile’s stroll away from the rink on Eighth Avenue, it was the winter of 1926 before hockey began to find a place in its pages.

The New Yorker’s first hockey cover, which adorned the magazine’s 100th issue, was the (charming) work of artist Constantin Alajálov. It debuted on January 15, 1927, by which time the New York Rangers had arrived in town, and were 19 games into their inaugural season. That same issue, R.K. Arthur’s “Sports of the Week” column featured the magazine’s first substantive hockey coverage with a round-up of recent Garden action that included a description of a rush by one of the Americans’ Sudbury-born Green brothers, Shorty or Red (Arthur didn’t say which), on Boston Bruins’ goaltender Doc Stewart:

Stewart, on one occasion, foiled Green after he had outwitted the entire Boston team, by nose-diving straight at the puck and the shot on the top of his head. Green could have been excused if he had retired to a corner and shed scalding tears.

This month, 95 years later, hockey players are back on the cover of the magazine. “Boxing Rink,” by illustrator, humorist, and long-time New Yorker contributor (also, Simcoe, Ontario-born) Bruce McCall, evokes a 1924 painting by George Bellows to make a point about the performative violence of NHL hockey. Fighting is on the slow wane and mostly, these days, out of the news, which is how the NHL prefers it. Still, I can’t imagine that the league can be pleased to see The New Yorker’s reminder of the game’s testy tendencies broadcast so broadly. McCall talks about the tribute to Bellows’ work on the magazine’s website, here, if not the punching that hockey still, somehow, tolerates.

In the years separating Alajálov and McCall, hockey scenes have appeared at least 15 times on the cover of The New Yorker, inspiring the talents of artists Abe Birnbaum, Robert Day, Peter Arno, Leo Rackow, and Charles E. Martin, among others.

The thorough chronicling of the game that the magazine has done since Niven Busch set up in the late ’20s as a regular hockey columnist has been undertaken over the years by the distinguished (and incisive) likes of Robert Lewis Taylor, Herbert Warren Wind, Roger Angell, Alec Wilkinson, Charles McGrath, Adam Gopnik, Nick Paumgarten, and Ben McGrath.

They’ve celebrated the joys of pick-up puck (see Charles McGrath’s 1993 “Rink Rat”) and recounted the costs of concussions (Paumgarten, “The Symptoms,” in 2019). They’ve explored the game’s hinterlands and the sublime talents its yielded: see Taylor’s 1947 profile of Phil Watson, Wind’s feature from 1970 on Bobby Orr, or Ben McGrath in 2014 on P.K. Subban.

McCall’s is the first cover to focus on fighting, but The New Yorker has a long tradition of reflecting on the battering hockey players do, lampooning and (persuasively, to me) lambasting it. There are lots of instances of the former, including here below, and here; for the latter, I’d refer you to Adam Gopnik’s online essay from 2012, “Hockey Without Rules.” That’s the one in which he writes, “Either the NHL is going to end the violence, or the violence is going to end the NHL.” You can read it here.

(Image: Nick Downes, The New Yorker, December 23, 2019)

 

 

box seats

Published 73 years ago today, the February 1, 1949 edition of Maclean’s magazine featured a couple of longstanding roughhouse rivals, Toronto winger Bill Ezinicki and Montreal’s Maurice Richard occupying the penalty bench at the Montreal Forum, as rendered by artist Franklin Arbuckle.

Richard was 27 that year and, as usual, in the thickest of things, scoring goals and, in the week before the magazine appeared, fighting Detroit’s Gordie Howe and Boston’s Fern Flaman.

But as the Globe and Mail reminded its readers later that week, Ezinicki, who led the NHL in penalty minutes, remained the Rocket’s “arch-enemy.” The main chatter as February got going was the — semi-serious? half-facetious? — offer the Leafs were said to be prepared to make to bring Richard to Toronto. Montreal’s management scoffed. “All the money in Toronto wouldn’t buy him,” said Canadiens GM Frank Selke. Coach Dick Irvin, a former Leaf himself: “It’s propaganda. All this is merely an attempt to upset my boys on the eve of a game.”

Maybe it worked. Thursday, February 3 was the date of the game in question, two days after Maclean’s hit the newsstands. In front of what Al Nickleson of the Globe described as “a violently partisan Forum gathering of 11,226,” Ezinicki and Richard duly engaged in the second period. Richard ran into Ezinicki, breaking his stick; Ezinicki loosed a “mild punch.” Nickleson:

Referee George Gravel blew his whistle to assess minors and both skated slowly toward the penalty box, talking quite earnestly, nose to nose.

Suddenly, Richard let go a right that caught Sweet William around the shoulders. Then they were into it, with [Leaf defenceman] Gus Mortson, never one to miss a battle, rushing to the fray, followed by other players. Combatants wrestled, tugged, and threw an odd punch as the main-bouters went into a wrestling hold. They were separated three times and at the end it looked as if the Rocket had earned a wrestling decision over Ezinicki, who took a couple to the chops, didn’t land any hard ones in return, although he tried mighty hard.

They went to off to serve the majors and minors that Gravel doled out. They were joined in detention by Mortson and Montreal defenceman Glen Harmon. Unlike the Maclean’s version, Canadiens and Leafs were separated in what was then still one big communal penalty box.

The Leafs won the game 4-1, on the strength of two goals by Max Bentley.

such a violent contact game: clarence campbell holds court at the statler hotel, 1951

Hearing Room: Ted Lindsay, NHL President Clarence Campbell, and Bill Ezinicki in Campbell’s suite at Boston’s Statler Hotel on the afternoon of Saturday, January 27, 1951. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Reasons hockey players ended up in hotel rooms in the 1950s: they were on road trips, with hours to kill before the game, or recuperating after it was all over, maybe it was the old Bismarck Hotel in Chicago, or the Croydon, could be that they were living there, in the Kimberly in New York, where some Canadian Rangers used to shack up during up the season, or in the Belvedere on 48th, or the Roosevelt on 45th, in the Theatre District. The Montreal Canadiens often put up at the Piccadilly, also on 45th, that’s where, in 1951, Maurice Richard grabbed a referee by the name of Hugh McLean “by the throat or tie,” to quote one account of the fracas — though I think that was in the lobby.

In Toronto, Richard and his teammates used to stay at the Royal York. The Mount Royal Hotel on Peel Street was a haven for NHL teams visiting Montreal in those years. The Sheraton-Cadillac in Detroit was where the Red Wings threw a big testimonial bash for Jack Adams in 1952 on the occasion of his having devoted a quarter-century to the cause of the wingéd wheel.

And in Boston? For years, hotelwise, hockey central was the Manger (rhymes with clangour), neighbouring the old Garden, which was built atop the city’s busy North Station. “Who could forget Boston and the old Manger Hotel where we stayed?” Canadiens’ captain Butch Bouchard wondered, years later. The coming and going of trains below would tremor the hockey players all night in their beds, he recalled. The Bruins used to convene there, too, in 1956, for example, when coach Milt Schmidt ran his training camp at the Garden. Herbert Warren Wind wrote about it in Sports Illustrated:

To make sure that his players were thinking of hockey, hockey, hockey, Schmidt made it mandatory for every member of his squad to live in the Hotel Manger, which adjoins the Garden. He moved in himself, the better to enforce a strict curfew of 11 p.m. Furthermore, every man had to be up by 7 — there would be none of that lolling in bed and skipping breakfast and then trying to slide through morning practice without a good meal to fuel you.

In his 2020 memoir, Willie O’Ree remembered arriving at the Manger in the fall of 1957 for his first NHL camp. “I’d never seen so much marble in my life. It was first-class, and just staying there made me feel as if I were already a full-fledged member of the Bruins.”

The Manger is where Bruins legend Eddie Shore is supposed to have chased another player through the lobby waving a stick— I’m not clear on whether it was a teammate or rival. It’s where, in his refereeing years, King Clancy got into a fight with Black Hawks’ coach Charlie Conacher. And the Manger was the scene of another momentous moment in Bruins history in 1947, when another Boston hero, Bill Cowley, summarily quit the team and his hockey career in a dispute with Bruins’ supremo Art Ross at a post-season team banquet.

Could it be that it was due to this long record of ruckus that NHL President Clarence Campbell chose to stay away from the Manger’s fray? I don’t have good information on that.

What I can say is that, in January of 1951 — 71 years ago last week — Campbell checked himself into the calmer — more commodious? — confines of the Statler Hotel, which is where he and a couple of his (concussed) players posed for the photo above. The Statler is about a mile-and-a-half south of the Manger and the Garden, down by Boston Common. The latter was razed in 1983; the Statler is Boston’s Park Plaza today.

And how did Campbell come to be entertaining Ted Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki (while showing off the bathroom of his suite) on that long-ago Saturday afternoon?

It all started two days earlier, in Detroit, where Lindsay’s Red Wings had been hosting Ezinicki’s Bruins.

The Red Wings were leading the NHL, eight points ahead of second-place Toronto; the Bruins were 23 points back, fourth-placed in the six-team loop. Three of the league’s top six scorers wore Red-Wing red that season, names of Howe and Lindsay and Abel; Milt Schmidt was Boston’s leader, eighth in the league. The game ended as a 3-3 tie, with Howe and Abel adding assists to their collections.

Scoring wasn’t what this game would be remembered for. “At Detroit, there was more brawling than hockey playing.” That was the Canadian Press’ reporting next day. Enlivened was a word in the version The New York Times ran: an NHL game “enlivened by a bruising battle between Ted Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki.”

“Fist fighting has no honest place in hockey,” Marshall Dann of Detroit’s Free Press wrote while also allowing that, for those in the 10,618-strong crowd who enjoyed hockey’s violence, what ensued was “probably … the best battle at Olympia this season.”

Ezinicki was 26, Lindsay a year younger. They’d been teammates once, winning a Memorial Cup championship together with the (Charlie Conacher-coached) 1944 Oshawa Generals. In 1949, playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ezinicki had led the NHL in penalty minutes, with Lindsay not far behind, in seventh place on the league list.

A year earlier, 1949-50, only Gus Kyle of the New York Rangers had compiled more penalty minutes than Ezinicki; Lindsay had finished third, a minute back of Ezinicki. Wild Bill the papers called him; the Associated Press identified Lindsay (a.k.a. Terrible Ted) as Detroit’s sparkplug. They’d clashed before in the NHL: in a 1948 game, in what the Boston Globe qualified as a “joust,” Lindsay freed four of Ezinicki’s teeth from his lower jaw.

In the January game in 1951, it was in the third period that things boiled over between the two malefactors. To start, they had exchanged (in Dann’s telling) “taps” with their sticks. “The whacks grew harder and finally they dropped sticks and gloves and went at it with fists.” Three times Lindsay seems to have knocked Ezinicki down: the third time the Boston winger’s head hit the ice, knocking him out.

Referee George Gravel assessed match penalties to both players for their deliberate efforts to injure each other. Both players were assessed automatic $100 fines.

In the aftermath, Red Wings physician Dr. C.L. Tomsu closed a cut from Lindsay’s stick on Ezinicki’s forehead with 11 stitches. He threaded another four into the side of Ezinicki’s head, where it had hit the ice, and four more inside his mouth. He also reported that Ezinicki had a tooth broken off in the violence.

Before departing Detroit, Ezinicki had his skull x-rayed; no serious injury was revealed, said his coach, Lynn Patrick. It took several days — and another x-ray — for Boston’s Dr. Tom Kelley to discover that Ezinicki’s nose was broken.

Lindsay took a stitch over one eye, and got treatment “for a scarred and bruised right hand.”

The Montreal Gazette’s Dink Carroll reported that Lindsay stopped by the Olympia clinic as Ezinicki was getting his stitching.

“Are you all right?” Lindsay asked. … The angry Ezinicki growled, “I’m all right,” and Lindsay left.

The Boston Daily Globe reported that the two had dropped their gloves and “slugged it out for more than a minute.” A Canadian Press dispatch timed the fighting at three minutes: “the length of a single round of a boxing match.”

None of the immediate (i.e. next-day) reports included the term stick-swingfest. That was a subsequent description, a few weeks after the fact, in February. Much of the reporting was couched in standard-issue hockey jovialese, as though the two men’s attempts to behead one another were purely pantomime.

The two teams were due to meet again in Boston two nights later, on the Saturday night, but before the two teams hit the ice, NHL President Clarence Campbell called for a hearing at the Statler to decide, hours before the puck dropped, on what today would be called supplemental discipline. The match penalties that referee Gravel had assessed came with automatic suspensions, but it was up to Campbell to decide how long the offenders would be out.

Campbell had been planning to be visiting Boston, as it turned out, on his way down from NHL HQ in Montreal to a meeting of club owners scheduled for Miami Beach. So that was convenient. NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss would conduct the hearing into what had happened in Detroit, then Campbell would come to his decision.

We Three: Lindsay, Campbell, and Ezinicki. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

And so the scales of what passed for NHL justice weighed the evidence. Ezinicki and Boston coach Lynn Patrick were scheduled to appear in Campbell’s suite at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, with Lindsay and Detroit coach Tommy Ivan following at 1 p.m. George Gravel was also on deck to report what he’d witnessed.

In the event, the teams were late arriving in Boston — their train from Detroit was delayed for five hours after hitting a car at an Ontario rail crossing — and proceedings had to be hurried along.

It would have been mid-afternoon when the scene above ensued. No-one else spoke to the reporters who assembled to hear the verdict: this was Clarence Campbell’s show.

“Everything has been said,” Ezinicki offered. Lindsay: “Nothing to say.”

“Neither of them had a whisper to offer in defence of their actions,” Campbell said.

The Boston Globe reminded readers that Campbell, himself a former NHL referee, had a lawyerly past, and that in 1945, just before assuming the NHL presidency, he’d been a Canadian Army prosecutor at the German war crime trials.

“There are three factors to be considered in settling a case of this kind,” he began. “First, the amount of incapacitation; second, provocation, and third, the past records of the players.”

“I don’t feel there was any real incapacitation in this instance,” Campbell continued. “I’m sure that Ezinicki would be able to play all right against the Wings if he were allowed.” (Ezinicki later concurred, for the record: he said he felt “all right.”)

“I don’t consider either of these men had provocation. They went at each other willfully.”

“These two fellows’ previous records are hard to exceed, not for one but for all seasons.”

His sentences? Campbell noted that the punishments he was handing down were the most severe of his five-year tenure as NHL president. Lindsay and Ezinicki were each fined $300 (including the original $100 match-penalty sanctions) and both were suspended (without pay) for the next three Boston-Detroit games. The fines were, in fact, more akin to peace bonds: so long as they behaved themselves, Lindsay and Ezinicki could each apply to have $200 of their fines returned to them.

“It depends upon their records the remainder of the season,” Campbell said, “if they’re not too proud to ask for it.”

Campbell did have some sharp words for the linesmen who’d been working the game in Detroit, Mush March and Bill Knott, who’d failed to quell the disturbance. “An order has been sent out reminding linesmen rules call for them to heed instructions in their rule books which say they ‘shall intervene immediately in fights,’” he said.

Campbell did, finally, have an important policy distinction to make before he concluded his sentencing session at the Statler Hotel. “I want to emphasize,” he told the writers gathered, “that I’m handing out these penalties entirely for the stick-swinging business and not for their fist-fighting.”

“In 1949, when there was a mild epidemic of match penalties, the board of governors instructed me to stiffen up on sticking incidents. I’m following that policy.”

“We want to stamp out the use of sticks. We’re not so concerned with fists . Fighting is not encouraged,” Campbell explained, “but it is tolerated as an outlet for the high spirits in such a violent contact game.”

It was the end of February by the time Ezinicki and Lindsay had served out their suspensions and were back on the ice to face one another in a game in Boston. They restrained themselves, I guess: neither of the antagonists featured in the penalty record or write-ups generated by the 1-1 tie that the Red Wings and Bruins shared in.

Campbell had a busy schedule all the same as February turned to March in ’51.

He took a suite at Toronto’s Royal York as the month got going and it was there that he decreed, after hearing from the parties involved (including referee Gravel, again), that Maple Leaf defenceman Gus Mortson would be suspended for two games and fined $200 for swinging his stick at Adam Brown of the Chicago Black Hawks.

“It appears to me as if he had a mental lapse,” Campbell said of Mortson.

Next up, a few days later, Campbell was back in his office in Montreal to adjudicate Maurice Richard’s New York hotel run-in with referee Hugh McLean.

During a game with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden that week, the Rocket had objected to a penalty he’d been assessed. For his protestations, he’d found himself with a misconduct and a $50 fine.

Later, when Richard happened to run into McLean in the lobby of the Piccadilly Hotel on 45th, just west of Broadway, he’d accosted him.

Campbell fined Richard $500 on a charge of “conduct detrimental to the welfare of hockey.”

Yes, he decided, Richard had appl wrote in rendering his decision, “that Richard did get McLean by the throat or tie …. Richard’s action in grabbing McLean was accompanied by a lot of foul and abusive language at the official which was continued through the entire incident lasting several minutes, and during which several women were present.”

Campbell did chide press coverage of the incident, which had been, he found, “exaggerated” the situation, since no blows had actually been landed in the fracas.

Campbell did say a word in defence of his referee, saying that Richard’s conduct was “completely unjustifiable.” His fine, Campbell insisted, would serve both as punishment for his bad behaviour and as a warning to other hockey players not to attack referees on the ice, or in hotels — or anywhere, really, at any time.

Justice League: Back row, from left, that’s Detroit coach Tommy Ivan, NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss, referee George Gravel, Boston coach Lynn Patrick. Up front: Ted Lindsay, Clarence Campbell, Bill Ezinicki. Lindsay, Campbell, and Ezinicki. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

 

 

do you want to look fancy, or do you want to get the job done?

Fancy This: Terry Harper aims a fist at Bruins’ centre Forbes Kennedy at Montreal’s Forum this week in 1964. The Bruins prevailed on the night 6-0. Looking on is Bruins’ #4, defenceman Bob McCord. (Image: La Presse)

“Do you want to look fancy,” Terry Harper was saying in 1978, “or do you want to get the job done?” Harper, who’s turning 82 today, was talking generally about hockey at the time, but he might have been professing his own personal creed, the one that saw him through a 19-year career as highly effective and hard-to-daunt NHL defenceman. Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, on a Saturday of this date in 1940, Harper won five Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens between 1962 and 1972. He went on to play for — and captain — the Los Angeles Kings and the Detroit Red Wings in the ’70s. He skated for the St. Louis Blues, too. He was an assistant coach for the Colorado Rockies in 1981 when, as a 41-year-old, injuries saw him drafted into the line-up for a 15-game run. “The game is 95 per cent mental,” Harper opined back in ’78. “A lot of people say it’s less than that, that it takes a lot of ability. It doesn’t. It’s 95 per cent or more here,” he said, tapping a finger to his head.

manhattan’s mauler

For our text this morning we turn to Hilary Stead’s 2002 book, Guelph: A People’s Heritage, and in particular its accounting of the life and times of Maria and Liberale, who emigrated to the seat of Wellington County in Southern Ontario from Treviso, in Northern Italy 60 years ago or so, arriving with a half-full suitcase as their only luggage. For 40 years Liberale worked at the International Malleable Iron Company in Guelph; he also tended a five-acre market garden on St. George’s Hill, with a milk-cow. Maria and Liberale were blessed with six children, five daughters and a son. His name was Lou, the son, and let it be known that in his boyhood he (Stead says) “played in the quarry behind the rubber plant” and burned “oil-soaked cotton batting pulled from around the bearings of the wheels of the trains at the roundhouse near Alice Street.”

Liberale, Maria, and Lou Fontinato

I don’t know just what that tells us about the manhood that followed for that young Guelpher: something, I’m certain. We do know, more solidly, that the kid in question, Louis Joseph Fontinato, was born on a Wednesday of this date in 1932. Also that as a hockey player, a defenceman, he played nine rough-hewn NHL seasons, mostly with the New York Rangers, also with the Montreal Canadiens, before a broken neck ended his hockey career in 1963.

Leapin’ Lou, they used to call him. He fought, a lot, taking on all comers, including Jean Béliveau, including (against everybody’s better judgment) Gordie Howe. How rambunctious was Lou Fontinato? In 1956, in pre-season practice, the bruising of his bodychecks put two of his Ranger teammates out of action for a couple of days, Dave Creighton and Red Sullivan.

More text: “If there were a prize for refrigerated misbehavior,” Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times that same year, “it’s a cinch that Louie the Leaper would win it.”

Fontinato was the first NHLer, I think, to shred an opponent’s sweater with his skates, though not the last. 1957 this was, in December, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, against the Montreal Canadiens. There was a 15-minute brawl, in the second period. While Fontinato punched, and was punched by, Canadiens’ defenceman Tom Johnson, Montreal’s Jean-Guy Talbot wrestled New York’s Andy Hebenton.

There’s not much on the record that I’ve seen about the aftermath, though we do have one key witness. Talbot lost his sweater at some point in the ruckus. NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss was on hand to watch what happened before the combatants were stowed away in the penalty box:

After the fighting had been stopped Fontinato spotted Talbot’s sweater still on the ice. He went over and made a big production of stomping on the Hab jersey with his skates. Then he went around breaking all the loose Montreal sticks he could find. What a showman that guy is. The New York fans loved it.

Fontinato’s sentence in the wake of all this 15 minutes, five for fighting plus a 10-minute misconduct. Carl Voss (as maybe you already guessed) saw no need for any supplementary discipline.

When the two teams met again in Montreal a few days later, New York coach Phil Watson fought a fan who kicked him outside the Rangers’ dressing room. Fontinato features in accounts of this game for his third-period heroics. When a Forum goal judge flicked on his light to indicate a Montreal goal that wasn’t, in fact, a goal, Fontinato dashed behind the New York net to make his case. From the Montreal Star:

He threw a mighty right hook at the glass protecting the judge, and kept throwing punches at no-one in particular … sitting next to the judge was “Rocket” Richard, and Fontinato had a few words for the injured Hab ace, too.

I can’t say how seriously shredded Talbot’s sweater was in 1957. We have a more detailed damage report from a 1986 incident.

In this one, the Edmonton Oilers were in Calgary to aggravate the Flames, and Edmonton defenceman Marty McSorley did his part by bumping Calgary goaltender Reggie Lemelin. Flames’ centreman Doug Risebrough saw this as grounds for punching McSorley who, of course, punched back in what the Gazette’s Red Fisher described as a “free-swinging affair.”

“Somehow,” Fisher noted, “he found himself in the penalty box with McSorley’s sweater and promptly ripped it to shreds with his skates.”

Edmonton coach and GM Glen Sather wasn’t happy. He called Risebrough “childish” and declared that their friendship was over. He lodged a complaint with NHL disciplinarian Brian O’Neill. “What’s more,” Sather said, “the Flames will be getting a $1,000-bill for McSorley’s shredded sweater.”

The NHL declined to take up the case. Risebrough was contrite. “I’m sorry I did it,” he said, after a day or two. “It’s something you when you’re really upset. It was a bad reaction on my part and I’m embarrassed by it.”

According to Fran Rosa of the Boston Globe, Risebrough had been methodical in the moment, soaking McSorley “in water to soften it” before going to work with his skates.

The Oilers subsequently retrieved the remains, which they hung in their dressing room to stir their memories and anti-Calgary choler.

 

 

(Top image: Tex Coulter, 1958)

a broad street bully reconsiders: regrets, he had a few

Born in Waldheim, Saskatchewan, on a Friday of this date in 1949, Dave Schultz is 72 today. He scored some goals in his 11-year NHL career, but mostly the man they called the Hammer is remembered as the muscle behind the Philadelphia Flyers’ back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in the early 1970s, which is to say the fist. In helping his team claim their second straight Cup in 1975, Schultz amassed 472 minutes in penalty minutes, a single-season record in NHL annals.

“The Flyers’ home, the Spectrum, is on Broad Street in Philadelphia,” Dick Brown wrote in Weekend Magazine the summer before that spree, “and newspapers have referred to Dave Schultz as ‘Broad Street’s biggest bully.’ Okay, then, what is it that goes into the making of a bully? As far as Dave is concerned, the answer is obvious: his fighting is his success. With all that it’s done for him, it would be big news if he decided not to fight.”

Schultz was 24, then, with a five-year contract in hand and “a fine, five-bedroom home across the river from Philadelphia in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.” He was “at an all-time heavy, all-time healthy 196 pounds on a frame of six feet one.” He smoked two or three cigarettes a day during hockey’s season, Brown reported, more in the summer; he liked beer and rye. “A star’s life,” the story went, “for a guy who might not be a star if he didn’t fight.”

After Philadelphia, Schultz carried on to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, where he continued to hammer away as a King, a Penguin, a Sabre.

So surprise was general across the hockey world when Schultz published his autobiography in 1981, a year after his retirement from the NHL. Schultz had Stan Fischler shaping his sentences for The Hammer: Confessions of a Hockey Enforcer, and together they questioned hockey’s propensity for violence, exploring the regrets Schultz now felt for the hockey life he’d led and weighing the question of what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. (They also, incidentally, accused Schultz’s former Philadelphia captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.)

“Hockey can be the most exciting sport on earth and the most artistic as well,” Schultz declared, to sum up his 200-page case, “but only when properly played and administered. Tragically, it has degenerated into a sloppy, brawl-filled mess. I certainly do not deny my own contribution to the problem, which I have tried to spell out as clearly as possible in this book. I hope that I succeeded and that the NHL will, in the future, sell hockey, not blood.”

 

leapin’ lou

Ruffian Ranger: Born in Guelph, Ontario, on a Wednesday of this date in 1932, Lou Fontinato was renowned for … well, if you know anything about his nine seasons in the NHL, mostly with the Rangers, finally with Canadiens, you know that he excelled at goading, inciting, shedding his gloves, punching, being punched. “He’s eager, he’s tough as nails,” said Muzz Patrick, his GM with the New York Rangers in the 1950s. “A hockey writer out west once said, ‘Fontinato is possessed of a violent refusal to lose.’” Fans loved him, and it was often reported, too, what a great guy he was, despite the violence he perpetrated. “A sweetheart — away from the rink,” Stan Fischler once advised. Lou Fontinato died in 2016 at the age of 84.

game on, again, 2020: fist bumps no, fist fights fine

Wrasslemania: Art Coulter of the New York Rangers fights Joe Cooper of Chicago’s Black Hawks at Madison Square Garden in January of 1941. Looking on at left is Chicago goaltender Sam LoPresti, along with an unidentified press photographer and (at right) his New York counterpart, Dave Kerr. Working on separating New York’s Muzz Patrick and John Mariucci of Chicago is referee Bill Stewart.

Like everybody, Gary Bettman was housebound at the end of May. Unlike the rest of us, the NHL commissioner was broadcasting live from his New Jersey home, announcing the plan his league would be following in the hope of rebooting a 2019-20 season that the global pandemic had so brusquely interrupted in mid-March.

It was another strange scene in this strange and scary year we’re in, and at the same time as familiar as yesterday’s Zoom call. The image was medium-res at best, and Bettman was looking slightly startled, though smartly turned out in his quarantine-formal blue jacket and open-necked white shirt. He was in his dining room, with a formal-looking high-backed chair sitting empty behind him, maybe to signify the absences we’ve all been enduring. Over his left shoulder the camera caught the corner of a painting rendered in greens that don’t naturally occur in hockey. The room itself was a hue that, if I’m reading my Sherwin-Williams colour chart correctly, sells as Decisive Yellow. Cacophonous and yet somehow consoling was the background percussion accompanying Bettman as he said his scripted piece: nearby, in the commissioner’s kitchen, his three-year-old grandson was happily hammering pots and pans.

“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said at one point in a 15-minute explanation of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan that laid out formats, match-ups, and a tentative calendar. While there were blanks yet to be filled in — just where games would be played still hadn’t been determined, for instance — on the well-being front, the commissioner was adamant. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”

In a 2020 context, it was the right thing to say. In a COVID-19 context, there was no not saying it.

There’s another context that applies here, too, a broader hockey framework in which proclamations of how seriously the NHL takes the health and safety of its players are rendered ridiculous even as they’re spoken by the fact that the league still — still! — insists that fighting is a fundamental part of the game.

Tweakings of rules have, in recent years, contributed to a reduction in fights. Coaching attitudes and strategies have shifted as the game has sped up, and intimidation no longer plays the part it did even five years ago.

The reasons why the NHL prefers this fading-away over an outright embargo on fighting remain opaque. Fans still love it, it’s always said, some of them, and cheer when the gloves drop. Bettman takes cover, when he’s cornered, by insisting that the players think it’s fine.

Otherwise, the league hasn’t bothered to renovate its rationale since Clarence Campbell was president almost 50 years ago. Fighting is a safety valve by which players release the pressure that builds up in such a bumptious game as hockey, he used to argue: without it players would be maiming one another with their sticks. That’s one of Gary Bettman’s go-to defences, too, though it’s a thermostat he likes to talk about.

Advances in medical science continue to reveal links between head trauma and the grim tolls of CTE, but that news hasn’t impressed the NHL, which wants more proofs before it decides that the safety of its players might be improved by not having them punch one another in the head.

The contradiction the league embraces when it comes to fighting remains baked into the rulebook. Which part of Rule 21 doesn’t apply to fist fights on the ice? “A match penalty,” it reads, “shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.”

Earlier this month, The New York Times imagined how major sports might have seized the opportunity of our global lull to re-imagine the way they go about their business. What about dispensing with baseball’s DH, the Times blue-skyed. Or, for the NBA, introducing a 4-pointer for really long-range shooters? And for hockey:

Though that was never going to happen.

Returning to the ice after a four-and-a-half months hiatus is no easy enterprise. You can understand why a league like the NHL, trying to get back to its business in extraordinary times, would seek to keep things as normal as possible, as familiar, as unchanged.

The times, though — they’re different. COVID-19 has sickened millions worldwide. Tens of thousands have died. Mid-pandemic, the movement against racial injustice and police brutality that grew after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman was such that it’s even shaken the NHL out of the complacency it’s preferred to shelter in for so long. (Granted, the response has been a little stilted, a little clumsy, but the fact that the league is getting around taking a stand on issues of systemic racism, equality, and social justice is, I suppose, a something in itself.)

As the NHL lurches back into action — the verb there is Michael Farber’s, from a TSN essay this week, and I think it’s the right one — as hockey goes lurching into its unprecedented and unpredictable future, we’ve learned all about the safety measures the league has put into place for the 24 teams hubbed away in a pair of Canadian bubbles, Toronto and Edmonton, from testing players every day for COVID-19 right down to counselling them to wash their hands frequently while singing “Happy Birthday.”

The league’s playbook on all this is available to any and all who might like to browse it, in two documents, neither one of which is exactly a riveting read. The 65-point Return To Play FAQ is the more accessible of the two; the Phased Return To Sport Protocol: Phase 4 Secure Zone is 28 pages of deeper detail, covering everything from the in-bubble roles of Hygiene Officers and what happens if a player or official tests positive for COVID-19 to Hotel Amenities and Dining Options.

It’s all very thorough, as it should be. But what about on the ice? How is that going to be affected, if at all? Looking in on European soccer over the past few weeks and even some Test cricket, I’ve been interested to see how pandemical conditions and precautions have changed the way games are actually being played.

Not a whole lot, as it turns out. Most of the adjustments have been of a peripheral sort.

Cricketers were told not to apply sweat or saliva to the ball.

The handsome guide issued by England’s Premier League, which resumed play in June, included these provisos:

Closer to home, North American Major League Soccer offered a short plan for “In-Match Prevention,” outlining “general hygiene measures [extending] to the field for official matches.”

Players, coaches and officials were asked, for instance, “to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose;” they were also “asked not to exchange jerseys or kiss the ball.”

Health and safety guidance governing the NBA’s bubbly restart in Florida was contained in a 113-page guide disseminated among teams, though not, as far as I can tell, released in any public way. It does, USA Today reported, mandate that players to “Avoid Gross Habits on the Court,” namely:

No spitting or clearing nose on the court; wiping the ball with jersey; licking hands (and touching other items such as shoes or the basketball); playing with or unnecessarily touching mouthguard (and touching other items.)

Baseball, benighted as its efforts to get back to bats and balls have proved, issued a detailed guide in its 101-page 2020 Operations Manual, which includes a section on the rules MLB has modified for its pandemic return-to-play as well as guidelines for best behaviours on-field. Those include wherein “players all other on-field personnel” are exhorted to “make every effort to avoid touching their face with their hands (including to give signs), wiping away sweat with their hands, licking their fingers, whistling with their fingers, etc.”

Not allowed: any spitting, “including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco.” (Chewing gum is okay.)

Also, says MLB:

Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action. Violations of these rules will result in severe discipline consistent with past precedent, which discipline shall not be reduced or prorated based on the length of the season.

Compare that to what the NHL is offering. As far as I can tell, the NHL’s guidance for what players should and shouldn’t be doing on the ice in the time of COVID-19 is limited to a single bullet-point on page 10 of the aforementioned Protocol, down at the bottom of the section headed “Safety Precautions.” It reads, in its entirety:

Avoid handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps.

So no more handshake lines, I guess, to finish off hard-fought playoff series? What about kissing the Stanley Cup, when it’s finally presented? On that and other matters the NHL seems to be keeping its own counsel. Maybe more advisories are to come. For now, not another word does the league have to say on how players might be advised to conduct themselves on the ice in a time of a highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Teams, I’ll assume, have their own careful systems to make sure water bottles aren’t shared; maybe they’re in charge, too, of reminding players not to be blowing noses or spitting. It may be that, like the NBA, the NHL — or maybe the NHLPA? — has issued comprehensive handbooks to teams to cover this whole tricky territory, they just haven’t been made public.

I guess it’s possible, too, that the league has been talking to players on an individual basis — putting in a call, maybe, to remind Boston’s Brad Marchand, for instance, not to be licking anyone for the next few months at least.

What seems just as likely is that it was decided at some point that short of rewriting the way game is played, there’s no way to govern or even guideline hockey into a safer, socially distanced way of doing things, so why even bother drawing attention to the awkward truth?

There’s nothing social about the game once it gets going on the ice, and no distancing. Players stand shoulder-to-shoulder at face-offs, they jostle, they bump. Once the puck drops, the game is a festival of mingling and milling, of sweaty human pushing and crowding and collision. That’s the game.

And the punching that sometimes ensues? Maybe you could direct players to disperse after whistles blow, to stand back a bit at face-offs. But if you did that, how could you not say something about the closer contact of bodychecking and fighting? While baseball might have no problem with explicitly forbidding melees, the NHL feels safer in silence, maybe, which is why it defaults to pretending that none of this is worth discussing.

The fighting that hockey has failed to inhibit didn’t make sense a year ago, long before COVID had capitalized its threat, and it doesn’t make sense now. But it’s not going anywhere: it’s firmly ensconced inside the NHL’s bubble for as long as this outlandish season lasts.

Even if you missed the exhibition games earlier this week and the several scuffles that happened there, if you tuned in this afternoon to the real thing, you didn’t have to wait long to see the new NHL meld with the old in Toronto.

When Carolina’s Jacob Slavin scored an early goal on Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, once he’d gathered with his linemates for a hug, he headed, as you do, to the Hurricanes’ bench to bump fists.

There was more of that a few minutes later, under angrier circumstances, as Carolina’s Justin Williams felt the need to drop his PPE to punch New York’s Ryan Strome in the head, and vice-versa.

Strome was bleeding from the nose by the time they’d finished. He headed for the Rangers’ dressing room, while Williams sat himself down in the penalty box. A couple of bemasked members of Scotiabank Arena’s rink crew skated out with shovels to scrape away the blood from the ice.

Game on, I guess.

Contact Tracing: Boston’s Brad Marchand showing how it’s not supposed to done in the Eastern Conference finals of 2018. Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan was the unfortunate recipient of the Boston winger’s attentions. The NHL’s handling of Marchand’s lick? The league told him if he did it again he’d be “subject to supplementary discipline.”

 

 

hockey’s mr. clean

Born in Montreal on this date in 1936, a Tuesday, Reggie Fleming played professional hockey for nearly 20 years, a fearsome force for six NHL teams. Montreal was his first, and it was there that Henri Richard gave him the nickname “Mr. Clean” because he thought Fleming resembled the avatar for the popular Proctor & Gamble cleanser. The name stuck with when Fleming moved on to Chicago, where he helped the Black Hawks win a Stanley Cup in 1961. Later, he played a prominent role for the New York Rangers. That included scoring some goals and working effectively on the penalty kill, but mostly it played out with punches and sticks swung in anger.

Reflecting on Fleming in 1963, NHL referee Red Storey told Maclean’s this: “He may never be a great hockey player, but he probably works harder than anyone else in the league. He reminds me of what Leo Durocher one said of the ballplayer Eddie Stanky: ‘He can’t run, he can’t field, he can’t hit, but he’s a hell of a ballplayer.’ If every team in the league had a Reggie Fleming, they’d all be better teams.” Stu Hackel’s overview for the New York Times of Fleming’s career, published after his death at the age of 73, is worth your while — you can find it here.

Mention is made there of Earl McRae’s searing 1975 profile of Fleming and the cheerless end of his career, in which McRae introduces his subject as “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players; short on talent but long on the stick, a bully who carved his notoriety in the flesh of opposing players.” Read that, too, along with everything else you can find that McRae wrote about hockey, some of which is between the covers of his 1977 collection Requiem For Reggie.

The final, devastating chapter of Reggie Fleming’s story is the one that’s been written posthumously: late in 2009, researchers at Boston University disclosed that he was the first hockey player to have tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). I wrote about that, and him, in a 2017 feature for The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus. That’s here. 

(Image: HockeyMedia & The Want List)