dave semenko, 1959—2017

d semenkoThe Edmonton Oilers have this morning announced the death of Dave Semenko. He was 59. Wayne Gretzky, who often during their careers together skated to Semenko’s right, contributed a foreword to his teammate’s 1989 autobiography. “When I think of Dave Semenko now, and I often do,” 99 wrote to begin Looking Out For Number One, “I don’t picture the piercing glare that caused other heavyweights to look down or up or anywhere but back at Dave. I remember instead the little smile, the quick wink, and the words, ‘Don’t worry, Gretz.’ And you know what? I never did.”

(Image, from 1984-85: The Want List, hockeymedia)

born with a black eye: one more requiem for reggie fleming

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Hat Trick: A hospitalized Reggie Fleming poses with Chicago policemen in his Hawk days in the early 1960s. In all his 14 years as a hockey professional, he never wore a helmet on the ice. (Image: Chris Fleming)

A version of this post appeared on page 132 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

Reggie Fleming’s brain made its NHL debut somewhere in the middle of January of 1967—that, at least, is how the newspapers framed it.

By then, at age 30, six full seasons into his professional hockey career, Fleming knew the league’s penalty boxes better than its nets. He was a policeman, in the parlance, valued for his strength, bravado and professional surliness. Born with a black eye, a wag in the press wrote in 1961. He was a knuckleman, a bulldozer, a wild bucko. Reviews of his work are filled with references to his truculence and fistic prowess, his battle-scarred face.

But here was Emile Francis telling reporters that Fleming’s brain had caught up with his brawn. He wasn’t taking foolish penalties, only wise ones; he was scoring goals. “He’s playing it real smart,” said the coach of Fleming’s New York Rangers.

The truth is, Fleming could always play. He was just very, very good at being (as another chronicler put it) “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players.” Like hockey fighters before and since, Fleming was a beloved figure to teammates and fans alike, and much nicknamed: Reg The Ruffian, The Horse, Mr. Clean, Hardrock.

“He had a ferocious left hook, a decent right and a beautiful head butt,” Earl McRae would write in a famous profile that’s still known as one of the most penetrating pieces of hockey prose. “He fought all the tough ones: Howe, Fontinato, Lindsay, Harris, Ferguson — and seldom lost. His only clear defeats came in the last few years; he lost to age.”

Once he retired from the game, Fleming and his wild years might have lapsed into the background, the way the careers of workaday players do, enshrined on hockey cards and in the fond dimming memories of those who saw him play.

Something else happened. When he died in 2009, his family donated his brain for study by pathologists in Boston. What they discovered was a shock to both those who loved him and to the hockey world he’d inhabited for all his skating years. It not only shifted Fleming’s legacy, but it transformed — and continues to transform — the conversation about the calamitous toll hockey can take on those who play.

•••

If for some sinister reason you had to invent from scratch a comprehensive system for putting the human brain at risk, hockey might be what you’d conjure. The speed of the game, its accelerations and sudden stops, the potential for impacts in unyielding ice and boards, all those weaponized sticks and fists and elbows — just how is an innocent mass of neural tissue afloat in cerebrospinal fluid supposed to protect itself?

For much of the game’s history, guarding the head wasn’t exactly a priority. Toronto Maple Leafs’ star winger Ace Bailey underwent two brain surgeries in 1933 when he was knocked to the ice in Boston; he survived, though he never played again. Scared, many of his fellow NHLers donned helmets after that. Most of them soon vanished: they were cumbersome, hot. Even when they started to make a comeback in the late 1960s, hockey’s protocol for concussion cases remained simple: Got your bell rung? Shake it off, get back out there.

Not long before the Bailey incident, a pathologist in Newark, New Jersey by the name of Dr. Harrison Martland was studying boxers. In a landmark paper he published in 1928, he wrote about what every fan of the sweet science had witnessed, a fighter staggered by a blow to the head that didn’t knock him out acting “cuckoo,” “goofy,” “sluggy nutty” — “punch drunk.”

Dr. Martland was the first to propose that repeated blows to the head were doing deeper damages within fighter’s heads, and that it was cumulative, causing “multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.” His conclusions on “punch drunk” syndrome were limited — he may have been circumscribed, too, by the outrage he stirred among fight fans annoyed by his medical meddling in a sport they loved so well.

If Dr. Martland conceived that hockey players might be suffering similar injuries, he never wrote about it. Why wasn’t anyone making the connection between hockey and head trauma earlier? “I think because it’s an invisible injury,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a leading pathologist who heads Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “Because players aren’t getting pounded in the head like they are in boxing. You see a hook to the jaw, you think, ah. It’s not a big jump for the layperson to say that might be hurting their brain.”

But hockey players? “They look invincible. There’s no blood, no pain, usually, so I think it was just — I think even the field of medicine didn’t recognize that these low-level hits, the ones that aren’t even causing concussions or any symptoms — just the repetitive impact injuries are leading to long-term loss of quality. We were all sort of oblivious.”

•••

Reggie Fleming didn’t mind talking about the role he played on the ice. He was open, affable — “a soft-spoken, mild-mannered quipster,” one interviewer wrote. Born in 1936 into a large Catholic family in east-end Montreal, he first stirred tempers as a star for the Junior Canadiens. His mother hated to watch. Seeing his cuts, the blood he wore home from games, she wanted to talk to coach Sam Pollock. Her son told her no. That’s my job, he told her, the only way I’ll make it.

Pollock went on to a management job with the big-league Canadiens, and Fleming eventually followed him there, first as a fill-in defenceman, always as a willing warrior when a teammate wanted revenging, or Canadiens felt a need to send one of hockey’s proverbial messages to their opponents. Although I guess there’s such a thing as message overload — as the story goes, Pollock traded Fleming to Chicago in the summer of 1960 after he roughed up a couple of teammates in practice.

Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s

Got To Knock Them Down: Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s.

Rudy Pilous was the coach of the Black Hawks when Fleming arrived in the early 1960s. “We can’t skate with most teams,” he was explaining around that time, “we’ve got to knock them down.” Fleming remembered his first game with his new team for the brawl he viewed from the bench. Unacceptable, Pilous told him: he should have been out there in the middle of the messing. “So I went out and fought,” Fleming recalled later. “I didn’t do it to be cruel, I was just following orders.”

His time in penalty boxes would eventually tick up to total 1,468 career minutes, or just over 24 hours. The websites that archive and revel in hockey’s fights don’t have a good fix on just how many he fought: at least 69, but maybe 96, and (almost certainly) many more. Still, he was relatively restrained compared to some of his heirs, the fearsome likes of Tie Domi (338 fights in 1,020 games) or Bob Probert (302 in 935).

A ledger of the punishments he dispensed and received during his career isn’t hard to coax out of the newspaper archives. There’s a whole angry thesaurus of NHL violence in there: Fleming struck Jack McCartan with a vicious right (1960), slugged Wally Boyer (1969). The NHL fined him $175 for charging a referee (1964). Other uproars he sparked by swiping a goalie (1967) and trying to cross-check Bobby Hull’s face (1972). Eddie Shack clotheslined Fleming with his stick (1964), sending him to hospital with a concussion and cuts that needed 21 stitches to close. He was incoherent when he left the rink, the papers reported.

Fleming was a proficient penalty-killer, too, and he was a key asset of Chicago’s when they won the 1961 Stanley Cup. One year, in Boston, he found the net 18 times.

“I would rather have been recognized as a guy who scored a lot of goals like a Bobby Hull or a Stan Mikita,” he’d say in 1979, aged 43. “But I did something I loved: played hockey. If it meant I had to be a tough guy, then I was a tough guy. I was brought up in an area where you had to fight to survive. I worked my butt off to get to the top in hockey, and I had to work twice as hard to stay there.”

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Fry Guy: Reggie Fleming serves up breakfast to Chicago teammates (left) Stan Mikita and (possibly) Murray Balfour in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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can still be closed for business: a literary companion to joey kocur’s hands

Joey Kocur's hand

Offhanded: Joey Kocur at rest post-surgery in 1985. Called up from minor-league Adirondack by the Red Wings, he had to take a detour to Detroit’s Harper-Grace Hospital, after punching Jim Playfair’s teeth. (Photo: Schroeder, Free Press)

Let’s remember this, first: when Joey Kocur played in the NHL, he was a crossword king.

Teammate Darren McCarty said Kocur was the best he ever saw when it came to wordy puzzles. USA Today, New York Times, didn’t matter, he’d zip through them all. “He was amazing,” McCarty writes in My Last Fight, a 2014 memoir.

McCarty does acknowledge that as a hockey player, it wasn’t for wordplay that Kocur was so widely feared. One of McCarty’s first fights as a rookie for Detroit was with Kocur, then a Ranger, before they became teammates. “One of his punches cracked my helmet,” McCarty writes. “The momentum of his fist connecting with my head sent us both crashing to the ice. We were both tangled up, and we went down head first and we landed face-to-face.” Kocur asked if McCarty was okay. “Thanks for not killing me, Mr. Kocur,” McCarty said.

The late Bob Probert was another of Kocur’s belligerent teammates with Detroit. Look him up at the Hockey Hall of Fame’s online register of NHL players and the potted biography they have on file takes a fairly straightforward run at his legacy: one of the most feared enforcers in the NHL, it alleges, says he could have been another Mark Messier but for having been groomed to lean more toward fisticuffs than toward the development of his playing skills and so is most remembered for punching a wide swath across the NHL.

Kocur’s profile is, on the other hand, strangely muted. He was a hard-nosed right-winger who was a good checker and intimidating presence on the ice. Also: better at handling the puck than most people realized with a deceptively hard shot.

Nothing about the fighting. No testimonials of the kind that St. Louis Blues center Adam Oates once volunteered: “No one in our league punches harder. In that regard, Joe’s the absolute best at what he does.”

Kocur played 15 seasons in the NHL, retiring in 1999. He won three Stanley Cups as a player, another one as an assistant coach in Detroit. He was mostly a Red Wing, though he also skated for the New York Rangers and, briefly, the Vancouver Canucks. He scored some goals — 80 in 821 regular-season games, another 10 in his 118 playoff games — but that’s not, again, where he got his renown. Dropping the gloves was a thing he did well, freeing up his bare fists in order throw them at those heads, helmeted or otherwise, that needed punching. From the ruthless efficient and generally dispiriting tables at Hockeyfights.com, I know that he did that — punching heads — in at least 218 altercations over the course of his career.

I’d assumed that the internet’s hockey-punching headquarters would be able to help with some other numbers I was interested in: how many concussions did Kocur sustain along his painful way, and how many did he administer to others? But for some reason, Hockeyfights.com (powered by Violent Gentlemen) doesn’t track head trauma. When I typed “CTE” into the Keyword Search window, there was no delay in the answer I got: Not Found.

Newspaper archives don’t have a lot to report on what all those fights did to Kocur’s head, either. Maybe he was lucky, and was never concussed. I hope so.

But if there’s nothing much to read about Joey Kocur’s head, his hands — the right one in particular — are another story. Like Bobby Orr’s knees, Kocur’s hands have an extensive literature to commemorate — well, I was going to say their achievements, when really it’s the damage they’ve suffered. Over the years, Kocur’s much-mangled hands have fascinated writers, and Don Cherry, too. The power in them, yes, that’s proved of interest as a literary subject, but more than that it’s how all their punching has disfigured them. “You wouldn’t believe the hands on Joey Kocur,” he writes in Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories, Part 2 (2011). “It looks like he’s had a Ping Pong ball implanted under each knuckle.”

As for the writers, Johnette Howard took a long look in 1990 for The National Sports Daily at what was happening beyond Kocur’s cuffs. That’s a piece in which she quotes then-Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano as saying he’d like to secure Kocur a job with the team after he retires because “he’s given his hand for the organization.”

She describes the one with he punched in fairly plain terms:

Along the back side of Kocur’s always bloated right hand, a three-inch red scar carves a crooked path from the middle knuckle toward the wrist.

George Vecsey of The New York Times consults his atlas for his 1992 survey of the same hand:

Joey Kocur’s right hand resembles a map of his native Saskatchewan. That bump is his boyhood town of Kelvington. That knob is nearby Nut Mountain. That long gash could very well be the Qu’Appelle River meandering its way into Mountain Lake. Those scars might be the Quill Lakes, and those over there could be Old Wives Lake. And that large bruise could certainly be the urban sprawl of Saskatoon.

Next up, Alec Wilkinson from The New Yorker. His “Examining Joey Kocur’s Hand” appeared in the magazine’s Talk of the Town pages on April 24, 1995. Wilkinson attends to some biographical preliminaries first —

He is six feet tall and weighs two hundred and ten pounds. His face is small, he has high cheekbones, a strong jaw, a gap between his front teeth, and a boyish and malevolent expression. Kocur grew up in Saskatchewan, on the Western Canadian prairie. He is of a physical type occasionally described in hockey circles as a hay baler; that is, he has the broad-back, slope-shouldered build of a farmer. On the Rangers, he occupies the position of enforcer, which obliges him to deliver the team’s response when one of its stars has been handled rudely by the opposition.

— before getting down to business:

Eleven seasons of hockey fights have built up sufficient scar tissue between the wrist and the knuckles that the skin there is taut and shiny and smooth. It feels like linoleum. Because of how tightly the skin is stretched, it can no longer be gathered and stitched. Here and there on his fingers and around his knuckles are dozens of small white scars, like the marbling in a piece of meat. Between the first and second knuckles is a long, thin surgical scar that was left after a tendon that had split down the middle was repaired. A crude, winding trenchlike scar begins between the two other knuckles and runs nearly to the wrist, the result of emergency surgery to control a staph infection. Kocur had cut his hand on another’s player’s teeth, and the doctor had stitched the wound without cleansing it thoroughly. ‘A day later, I woke up with my arm swelled to nearly the size of my leg,’ Kocur says.

George Vecsey talked to Tie Domi. Like McCarty, he’d played against and fought Kocur and skated with him as a teammate. “Joey’s still got the big bomb,” he confided. “I don’t come from the South Pole, like Joey does.”

One punch, Wilkinson wrote, was all that Kocur hoped to land:

He grabs an opponent with his left hand and tries to pull him nearer at the same time that he launches his right from somewhere down by his hip or behind his back. It is unusual for a player to be injured in a hockey fight, but it is not unusual for a player to be injured fighting Kocur. It is sometimes said of him, “When Joey hits people, they stay hit.”

“The hand has never been broken,” Kocur told Vecsey; “just a couple of scrapes here and there.”

Johnette Howard was reporting back in 1990 that doctors were already telling Kocur to expect arthritis and calcium deposits in his punching fist. “Put it this way,” he said, “I’ll never play piano.”Howard also told the fuller tale of the damage done in 1985, when Kocur ended up in the hospital bed pictured above:

He split the hand open during a 1985 minor league game in Halifax, when he knocked out a six-three, two-hundred-pound Nova Scotia defenseman named Jim Playfair.

In the dressing room later, a doctor needed forty stitches to close the gash. But when the rest of the team came off the ice, Kocur got some good news, too: The Red Wings had called him up to the NHL.

The next morning, Kocur took the first plane out and flew all day. He checked into a hotel in Detroit, then spent an excruciating, sleepless night watching his right arm balloon to three times its normal size. When sunrise finally came, he got to the rink early for the Wings’ morning skate. But a trainer noticed the new kid was wearing only one glove. The team doctor was summoned, then a hand surgeon, too.

“This was about 2 p.m.,” Kocur says, “and the next thing I knew, they got me a hospital room, got me an IV. I was in major surgery by five P.M.”

Because doctors in Halifax didn’t realize Kocur had cut his hand on Playfair’s teeth, they sewed the wound shut, preventing it from draining and allowing infection to take hold. Just a day and a half later, the poisoned tendons and tissue between Kocur’s third and fourth knuckles had already begun to rot.

When he emerged from a morphine-induced cloud two weeks after surgery, doctors explained what had happened. “If I’d waited even one more day, they might have had to amputate my whole right arm,” Kocur says.

And how did that make him feel?

“Well,” Kocur says, “it made me realize how bad I want to play hockey.”

Following, a chronological survey of some of the rest of the literature of Joey Kocur’s piteous hands: Continue reading

the wild man of guelph

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A birthday today for Lou Fontinato, who was born in 1932, in Guelph, Ontario, whereabout he still lives. A defenceman, he was mostly, in the NHL, a New York Ranger, though he ended his career with Montreal in 1963. The on-ice activities he’s most often remembered for may be (i) leaping, which he’s supposed to have done sometimes in rage when called for a penalty and led to the nicknames Leapin’ Lou and Louie the Leaper; (ii) punching; (iii) getting punched, most famously by Gordie Howe in 1959.

Tex Coulter painted him for the cover of Hockey Blueline in 1958, as you can see here; for five other Fontinato glimpsings, we’ll go to the archives. It was The New York Herald Tribune and syndicated columnist Red Smith who called him “the wild man of Guelph, Ont.,” and we’ll start with him:

It wasn’t clear exactly what happened in a skirmish near the boards on the Fiftieth St. side. Maurice Richard, skating to centre ice, tossed his stick away but didn’t seem to be aiming at anybody’s head. He shoved with both hands against Fontinato’s chest, like a small boy picking a fight on the playground.

The Rangers’ dark defenseman is no admirer of the Marquis of Queensberry. Strictly a London prize ring man, he had his padded gloves off the fragment of an instant.

A lovely right caught Richard just outside the left eye. Skin burst and flesh cracked and blood ran in little parallel trickles down the Rocket’s face, staining his white shirt.

Players and officials moved in and, to the crowd’s astonishment, Richard drew back, showing no disposition for further action. Fontinato was raging, trying to shove past officials who held him off, starting little flank movements around the knot of men who fenced him off from Richard.

Pure joy swept the galleries. Crumpled papers and bits of waste were flung onto the rink. Photographers were out on the ice shooting eagerly. At length Fontinato was led to the penalty box for the second time in the evening, taking a comfortable led over Detroit’s Ted Lindsay as the league’s most penalized badman.

• Red Smith, “What Red Smith Thinks,” Toledo Blade, January 13, 1956

When Fontinato hit, he hurts. He’s a 22-year-old who weighs a streamlined 191 pounds and stands 6-foot-1 — without skates.

Galleryites never feel neutral toward the big bruiser. In Vancouver one time an irate fan threw his shoes at Louie the Leaper.

“They were new shoes, too,” said Fontinato thoughtfully. “I ground my skates into them to remove the newness and tossed them back.”

• Arthur Daley, “Rock ’n’ Roll,” The New York Times, January 22, 1956

Lou is a bachelor. So he rooms with other bachelors on the Rangers when the team is in New York. He lives with Larry Cahan, Gerry Foley and Hank Ciesla in a three-room suite at the Kimberly Hotel, 74th St. and Broadway. Each player has his chores. Lou is the cook.

“He’s a good cook,” Foley says. “His best dish is spare ribs. But we don’t eat anything fancy. Steak. Roast beef. He cooks the breakfasts. Eggs any style. Everything.”

Does the trigger-temper explode occasionally?

“Oh, yeah,” Foley smiled. “We do the dishes. He gets mad if something’s not clean. Starts banging pots around.”

• Dave Anderson, “Rangers’ Leapin’ Lou,” Hockey Blueline, January, 1958

Howe’s most notorious altercation was with Ranger defenceman Lou Fontinato in Madison Square garden in 1959. Frank Udvari, who was the referee, recalled, “The puck had gone into the corner. Howe had collided with Eddie Shack behind the net and lost his balance. He was just getting to his feet when here’s Fontinato at my elbow, trying to get at him.

‘I want him,’ he said.

‘Leave him alone, use your head,’ I said.

‘I want him.’

‘Be my guest.’”

Fontinato charged. Shedding his gloves, Howe seized Fontinato’s jersey at the neck and drove his right fist into his face. “Never in my life had I heard anything like it, except maybe the sound of somebody chopping wood,” Udvari said. “Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”

Howe broke Fontinato’s nose, fractured his cheekbone, and knocked out several teeth. Plastic surgeons had to reconstruct his face.

• Mordecai Richler, “Gordie,” Dispatches from the Sporting Life (2002)

That’s the feeling around the NHL — an unwritten rule — you don’t fool around with big Gordie.

Lou Fontinato learned the hard way, one night in New York when the former tough guy of the Rangers tangled with Howe behind a net.

“I still hear that sound,” one of Fontinato’s former team-mates said recently. “I was only a few feet away. Gordie had his skates braced against the back of the net and he threw only one punch. It was the worst thing I’ve seen in hockey. It broke Louie’s nose, knocked him cold.

“I can still hear it — bone against bone. Nobody will ever know how much that hurt Lou. He had built a reputation as a tough guy and Howe destroyed it with that one punch. Louie was never the same after that.”

• Paul Rimstead, “Thwonk!,” Montreal Gazette, January 13, 1968

(Photo, taken January 14, 1961: Weekend Magazine/ Louis Jaques/ Library and Archives Canada/ e002505664)

this week: out there at twilight with a big machete, chopping up a beaver dam

maclean's room

As the Toronto Maple Leafs approach their centennial, the team is thinking of maybe updating, altering, or otherwise rejigging their logo — possibly. That was the news today, from the website sportslogos.net, quoting “sources” and hinting at plans for new sweaters, some of which may or may not be St. Patricks-green.

“Centennial plans will be announced in the New Year,” Dave Haggith, senior director of communications for Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, was telling Kevin McGran, from The Toronto Star. “We won’t be commenting until that time. There’s some fun stuff planned.”

Erik Karlsson is the most game-changing defenceman since Bobby Orr, said Adam Gretz this week at CBS Sports. And he is only getting better. (Italics his.)

The city of Edmonton commissioned artist Slavo Cech to fashion a small steel sculpture of a bison to present to former Oilers coach and GM and dynasty-builder Glen Sather this week. Cech, an Oilers fan, was honoured. “It’s not hockey-related,” he said, “but he’s more than hockey, right?”

“It’s difficult for me to put in my words the gratitude I feel for this honour,” Sather said on Friday night as a banner bearing his name lifted to the rafters of Rexall Place. “My sincere wish is that every one of you in this building gets to experience something, anything in your life that makes you feel like I’m feeling right now: the luckiest person on earth.”

New-Look Leafs: A Globe and Mail correspondent browsed the aisles at a Jordanian refugee camp earlier this week.

Brand New: A Globe and Mail correspondent browsed the aisles at a Jordanian refugee camp earlier this week.

“I say,” tweeted Don Cherry, “what kind of a world would we live in without the police?”

Everyone who paid attention to the New York Rangers’ advanced stats saw their struggles coming, said someone, on social media, somewhere.

On the ice in Boston a week or two back, it’s possible that a Bruin winger, Brad Marchand, may have kneed a Ranger goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, in the head. Boston coach Claude Julien said that Lundqvist was acting.

“Who would you rather have as a son,” said his New York counterpart, Alain Vigneault, “Henrik or Brad Marchand?”

David Akin of The Toronto Sun reported this week that hockey historian Stephen J. Harper has been sighted just twice in the House of Commons in Ottawa since he lost his day-job as prime minister of Canada in October. Akin writes:

His front-row seat is immediately to the left of the Speaker. That location lets the former prime minister enter and exit the House with little fanfare and without having to go near the press.

Paul Martin used the same seat after his Liberals lost the 2006 election.

To pass the albeit brief time he’s spent in the Commons, Harper arrived last time with a book: A just published biography by Eric Zweig of Art Ross, the Hockey Hall of Famer, NHL founding father, and long-time member of the Boston Bruins. Harper is a big hockey history buff.

Speaking of the Speaker, there’s a new one, Harperside: Nova Scotia Liberal MP Geoff Regan. He was on CTV’s Question Period today comparing the House of Commons to a hockey game.

“Only certain people get to play and it’s shaped in a lot of ways like an arena, with the two sides,” said Regan.

“And the people who aren’t actually in the game, they’d like to be in the game, and sometimes want to react to something, want to say something, the way you’d see at a game. But we’re not in a rink. We’re in the House of Commons.”

“I just love anything Michael Keaton is in,” Don Cherry told Jim Slotek of Postmedia.

Sather was a master psychologist: that’s what a defenceman who worked his blueline, Steve Smith, told Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal. “You can take Roger Neilson, maybe the best Xs and Os guy, but he didn’t win, maybe because he didn’t have the players elsewhere. But Glen managed all these personalities in Edmonton. That’s a special art to manage all those guys and keep them happy. It’s like Phil Jackson in basketball. He understood his players in Chicago and what buttons to push.”

“It was the managing of people that made Glen really good.”

No Logo: Leaf fans weighed in at The Toronto Star earlier today, hours after word of a possible new logo emerged online.

No Logo: Leaf fans weighed in at The Toronto Star earlier today, hours after word of a possible new logo emerged online.

Fighting is on its way out of the NHL, mostly everybody agreed this week — as they have been agreeing, more or less, since the season started in early October.

A kinder, gentler NHL is taking shape, said Dave Feschuk of The Toronto Star:

Given the rise in concern about the permanent nature of head injuries, there is also, in some eyes, a growing mutual awareness of the ultimate fragility of the human condition.

“Back in the day it used to be pretty malicious,” said Nazem Kadri, the only Leafs player who’s been penalized for fighting this season. “I think guys now respect the game and respect each other’s bodies and hope nobody gets seriously injured. I mean, anytime you see someone go down, it’s a frightening feeling because you know it could be you.”

Back in October, The Globe and Mail ran an editorial at that time to bid farewell to the age of the goon, noting that the NHL might even be showing signs of getting serious about dealing with its concussion problem. And yet:

… if players are still allowed to punch each other in the head during prolonged, staged fights, what’s the point? It is hypocritical to express concern for concussions on the one hand, and allow fighting on the other.

Pierre LeBrun of ESPN was wondering the same thing this week. “Shouldn’t we be asking why the NHL still allows bare-knuckle fighting?” he wrote in a piece you’re advised to read for yourself. “I’ve said this before, but it just seems so hypocritical to have introduced Rule 48 (illegal hit to the head) in 2010 but still allow bare-knuckle punches.”

More required reading: writing at Vice Sports, Dave Bidini’s take on the complicated cultural significance of fighting is a smart, counterintuitive view you haven’t heard before.

“My big heroes,” continued Don Cherry, “are Sir Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson, and Lawrence of Arabia. I really loved Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”

A latterday Oiler, Taylor Hall, on Sather:

“He was a guy who brought everyone together; he seemed like a great button-pusher. Having that much skill and that much talent on your team isn’t an easy thing.”

Blackhawks preternatural confidence rubs off on new players

was a recent headline on a Mark Lazerus feature in Chicago’s Sun-Times in which the coach praised his captain, Jonathan Toews:

Joel Quenneville calls it a “competitive” nature, that the Hawks, perhaps more than any team he’s ever played for or coached, are better physically prepared and better mentally equipped to handle any situation. And he said it starts at the top, with the captain.

“As a coaching staff, you’re in a good spot knowing that the message is always there [about] doing things the right way,” Quenneville said. “Guys definitely notice Jonny’s intensity and professionalism right off the bat.”

 Don Cherry gave another Postmedia interview, this one to Michael Traikos:

Q: Is it OK that enforcers have been run out of the league?

A: I never ever believed in guys that should sit there for two periods and then get thrown out there for a minute and fight. I never believed in that. I call that ‘Mad Dog Thinking.’ I remember with my Boston Bruins, we had more tough guys than any team and every one of them got 20 goals. That’s what they have now. Every one of them can play the game. And that’s the way it should be. You should never have a guy sitting on the bench like a mad dog.

A Nashville rookie named Viktor Arvidsson used his stick to neck-check a Buffalo defenceman, Carlo Colaiacovo. The former left the game with a five-minute major and a game misconduct on his record; the latter departed with what the Sabres at first classed, inevitably, as an upper body injury.

His coach, Dan Bylsma, had an update following the game: “Carlo is doing OK. He got the cross check to the throat. He did go to the hospital; he’s there now. I guess they’re saying he has a dented trachea.”

Bryan Trottier wrote a letter to his youthful self and posted it at The Player’s Tribune for himself to read, along with everybody.

When you tell people how you learned to skate later in life, they’ll think you’re messing with them. They’re not going to believe how your handyman father would clear off the frozen creek across from your house after a snowstorm. You know how he walks out there at twilight with a big machete and floods the creek by chopping up a beaver dam? That’s not a normal thing. Other kids’ dads have Zambonis, or at least a hose. Your dad has a machete and some Canadian know-how. Thanks, Mr. Beaver.

Sometimes you just have to go out to the beaver dam with a machete and start chopping wood.

Brandon Prust of the Vancouver Canucks paid $5,000 last week to spear Boston’s Brad Marchand in the groin.

“Best money I’ve ever spent,” Prust told reporters.

Why did he do it? “It was frustrations,” Prust explained. “It happens out there. I wasn’t trying to injure him. I was just coming back as the puck was coming back up the boards. On my swing by, I got my stick active.”

 “It wasn’t that hard,” he said. “He sold it pretty good. I saw him laughing on the bench afterwards.

Marchand, for his part, was only too glad to talk about what happened to Amalie Benjamin of The Boston Globe. “I think it was Prust,” he said. “I didn’t really see who did it when it happened, but just kind of gave me a jab, got me in the fun spot.”

Assuming it was who it may have been, Marchand understood. “Honestly,” he continued, “even if he wasn’t fined, I wouldn’t have been upset. It’s fine that he is, but I wouldn’t want to see him lose that much money over what happened. I think suspensions are worthy when guys get hurt or it’s a really bad shot. Like I said, I’ve done that before, lots of guys do that all the time. It is what it is. It’s part of the game.”

On he went, and on:

“It clearly doesn’t feel good,” Marchand said. “It hurts, so whether you’re upset at someone or you want to take a shot, it’s an easy place to target. You know it’s going to hurt. I think that’s why a lot of guys do it.

“A lot of guys take cheap shots, when there’s that much emotion in the game and it happens all the time. If you’re down by a few goals, if you’re having a bad game, someone takes a shot at you, someone says the wrong thing, guys get upset and they take shots at guys. I think it’s just human nature.

“There’s a lot of good players that take jabs at guys. People can say whatever they want. I’m not overly upset about what happened. It’s part of the game. I’ve done it. I’m sure he’s done it before. I’m sure it won’t be the last. It won’t be the last time I do it. It is what it is. It’s part of hockey.”

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electoral froth 2015: practicing barbaric culture

 

toronto’s mammoth sports centre: steam shovels at midnight

The House That Conn Built*: Carlton Street and Maple Leaf Gardens, looking northeast, circa 1934. *(with the help of several thousand actual contraction workers)

The House That Conn Built*: Carlton Street and Maple Leaf Gardens, looking northeast, circa 1934. *(with the help of several thousand actual construction workers)

A big day yesterday for Toronto’s grandest Loblaws, which marked the occasion with a recall of select varieties of PC® brand hummus, which may contain the toxin produced by Staphylococcus bacteria.

Actually, I’m not entirely convinced that the hummus emergency has anything to do with the anniversary of the start of construction of the famous building that has housed the supermarket at 60 Carlton since 2011, but that doesn’t matter: either way, it’s 84 years since work began on the house that Conn Smythe decided to build, mid-Depression, on the land that Timothy Eaton sold him.

Which is to say, of course, Maple Leaf Gardens.

smythe 1931The Leafs had outgrown their 8,000-seat rink on Mutual Street, is how it all began. Smythe, managing director, wanted to up capacity to at least 12,000, not to mention create a destination for Torontonians to go in evening dress, from a party or a dinner, a venue with (as he wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided autobiography) “everything new and clean, a place that people can be proud to take their wives or girl friends to.”

The first site the Leafs looked at was on the waterfront; another was at up at Spadina and College. The T. Eaton Company offered a parcel of land on Church just north of Carlton — not a hundred yards from where Smythe was born. But Smythe wanted to right on Carlton, near the streetcar lines, and so the deal was done, for $350,000.

“We knocked down all the old buildings,” Smythe writes in If You Can’t Beat ’Em in the Alley, with what might be glee, “starting with the tobacco store right on the corner.” People laughed when he hired a watchman to keep an eye on the levelled property — was he afraid someone was going to make off with the site? Anyway, he was a distinguished sentinel, a young Marlboro prospect named Buzz Boll who later turned into a scoring left-winger for the Leafs, Americans, and Bruins.

A local contractor, Thomson Brothers, got the job when they came in with the lowest bid: $989,297, not including the cost of steel. When it looked like the Leafs wouldn’t have the money to go ahead, Smythe and his assistant, Frank Selke, convinced the labour unions to allow their men to be paid partly in Gardens’ stock.

On Saturday, May 30, 1931, the day after the contract with the Thomsons was signed, The Toronto Daily Star heralded the imminent start of the race to finish the building by November 1: “steam shovels will commence excavating at midnight Sunday.” Some 20,000 yards of earth needed shifting initially, and it was estimated that it would five weeks before any structure began to rise. “The work will be continued by day and night shifts as long as is necessary,” The Star noted.

“I don’t know how you would build Maple Leaf Gardens today in five months,” Smythe wrote in the 1980s, “but partly it was accomplished because the men who built it believed in what they were doing. After all, they were going to be shareholders in it, weren’t they?”

Apparently, it didn’t all start quite as promptly as promised. Believing, I guess, what they’d read in the newspaper, nearly 1,000 men hoping to be hired showed up at midnight at the work site at Carlton and Church. The Daily Star was on the scene: “Despite assurances by motorcycle policemen that work would not be started, [the crowd] did not disperse until one o’clock in the morning.”

Some jostling ensued, The Star reported, and so it was that before a brick was laid, Maple Leaf Gardens got a christening that, for a famous hockey rink-to-be, only seems apposite: “two of the unemployed started a fist fight.”

Leafs Rebuild: A Toronto Transit Commission photograph showing work on streetcar tracks in late June of 1931 with the MLG construction site in the background.

Leafs Rebuild: A Toronto Transit Commission photograph showing work on streetcar tracks in late June of 1931 with the MLG construction site in the background.

 (Photos: City of Toronto Archives)