paul meger, 1929—2019

News yesterday that Paul Meger has died at the age of 90. Born in Watrous, Saskatchewan, he grew up in Selkirk, Manitoba, where he played, early on, for the local Fisherman. He arrived in the NHL in 1950, playing in parts of six seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, mostly wearing the number 20 on his back, aiding in the effort to win a Stanley Cup in 1953. He scored 24 goals in 1951-52; that’s him above trying to harry Lumley’s Toronto net in ’53 or so, as Leafs Jim Morrison and Tod Sloan do their best to badger him. Floyd Curry and Paul Masnick were Meger’s linemates on the Habs’ fourth line in 1954. He was 25 when, in the fall of that year, his playing career came to an end after he suffered a fractured skull in a collision with Boston’s Leo Labine.

 

(Image: HockeyMedia and The Want List)

the winnipeg arena’s royal quandary: if the queen herself walked in, would she know who it was?

Elizabeth The First: Gilbert Burch’s original Winnipeg Arena portrait, c. 1979. (Image: Winnipeg Tribune/Universty of Manitoba Archives, PC 18 A81-012, Box 64, Folder 6315, Item 18)

A birthday yesterday for hockey fan and (by the Grace of God), Queen of Canada and of Her other realms and territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Elizabeth II, who’s 92 today. She never did suit up for the Vancouver Canucks, despite what you may have been led to believe by B.C. painter Timothy Wilson Hoey. She has been attending NHL games since 1951 when, a few months before she succeeded her father on the throne, Princess Elizabeth attended her first professional hockey game in Montreal.

What else was she going to do on an autumn’s tour of Canada? She and her husband Prince Philip did see a game in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens that October before they got to the Forum, but it wasn’t a real one. The royals didn’t have time in their schedule to attend Toronto’s Saturday-night season-opener, so Leafs and the visiting Chicago Black Hawks accommodated them by playing a half-hour exhibition game that afternoon. Fourteen thousand non-royal fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock show. The Leafs had Ted Kennedy, Sid Smith, Max Bentley, and Tod Sloan in the line-up, while Chicago featured Bill Mosienko and Gus Bodnar, but neither team was able to show their majesties what a goal looked like on the afternoon. For those, the commoners would have to return for the evening’s encounter, Chicago beat the Leafs 3-1.

Two weeks later, the regal visitors did see Canadiens’ Floyd Curry score a hattrick in a 6-1 Montreal win over the New York Rangers.

I’m pretty sure that Maple Leaf Gardens still had a portrait hanging of King George VI. Once Princess Elizabeth was proclaimed queen throughout her realms, she would eventually ascend (via painted portraits) the walls of several hockey rinks across Canada. The Queen oversaw the Gardens ice in the 1950s and on through the 1960s, until Harold Ballard had her removed in the early 1970s in favour of more seating. I’d like to know what became of that portrait, but don’t. “If people want to see pictures of the Queen,” Ballard is supposed to have said, “they can go to an art gallery.”

In Winnipeg, where the Jets are thriving unseen by the Queen’s likeness, the old Arena knew Her Majesty in several distinctive versions. The first was in place when the rink opened in the fall of 1955. I’ve only seen that one depicted at a distance, and I can’t say who commissioned it or what the painter’s name was. This original Winnipeg Arena monarch was, let’s be honest, a somewhat distracted one, gazing away up into the stands to see what the ruckus might be rather than watching the action on the ice — as is, of course, her royal right. That’s her, here below, in September of 1972, when she was not really paying attention to the third game of the Summit Series — a good one, by most accounts, wherein Canada and the Soviet Union tied 4-4.

queen winnipeg 72

Royal Highness: The Winnipeg Arena’s original, non-Burch portrait of Queen Elizabeth presides over the pre-game anthems ahead of Team Canada’s Summit Series game against the Soviet Union on September 6, 1972.

This first Queen departed the Arena in 1976, as far as I can tell, when Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor, Jack McKeag, decided it was time to update the regal look. Twenty-one years had passed, after all, since the portrait of a 29-year-old queen as a preoccupied spectator had taken its place, and she was 50 now. McKeag paid for the new commission, which went to a company called Claude Neon. The painter tasked to do the job was a commercial artist on staff, 49-year-old Gilbert — Gib — Burch. When he died in 2006, a family remembrance mentioned his hometown, St. James, Manitoba, and his gentle spirit. “He started out as a coffee grinder,” it said, “but wanted to be an artist.”

Burch did his best with Her Majesty. Later, after this new 4.2-by-4.2-metre portrait went up on the Arena’s north wall, he confessed that it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. He complained that he hadn’t been given a proper photograph from which to work.

“I argued and argued that it wasn’t a good enough copy,” he told a reporter. “Even the lighting in the photograph was poor.” It was tiny, too: the distance from the Queen’s crown to her neck, he reported, was no more than a few centimetres.

Burch had gone looking at the library for a better image. “The previous portrait,” he said, “was taken from a beautiful photograph. This one was terrible. I left out some wrinkles. I couldn’t see the eyes. And the mouth was a plain mess. I tried the best I could with the photograph I had.”

He got a do-over. In 1978, there was a new lieutenant-governor in office, F.L. (Bud) Jobin, who felt that the Arena’s queen didn’t resemble the one who lived in Buckingham Palace. “If the Queen herself walked in there,” he said, “she wouldn’t know who it was, except for the jewelry and crown.” He wasn’t campaigning for a new portrait, he insisted that January: “It’s just my opinion that it should be changed.” But Jobin did eventually raise (a) enough of a ruckus and (b) money to see the second coming of the Arena’s Queen replaced by a third. His predecessor didn’t object. Burch’s original portrait did make HM look a little “stiff and solemn,” McKeag conceded. He even offered to help pay the cost — $1,600 — of a new edition.

So Burch started again. He worked from an official portrait this time, spending more than 200 hours on this new oil-on-plywood piece. The painting was bigger this time, five-by-seven metres, making it the largest portrait of the Queen in the world (until someone worked up a bigger one in 2012).

By the end of 1979, with the Jets embarking on their first NHL season, his new (new) effort was ready to be unveiled ahead of the team’s December 7 game against the Edmonton Oilers. The Queen looked happier. And more like herself? The Winnipeg Tribune took to the streets of Winnipeg to ask the people what they thought.

QE2: Gilbert Burch puts the finishing touches of his second 1979 portrait for the Winnipeg Arena. (Image: Peter Levick, Winnipeg Tribune/Universty of Manitoba Archives, PC 18, Box 2, Folder 49, Item 9)

Several said the new painting made her look “phony,” even “comical.” They didn’t love the eyebrows. A woman said, “She looks like a squirrel storing away nuts in her cheeks.” Many liked the smile; some thought she looked more “queeny” in the earlier rendering. One man objected to seeing her get older. “She may be aging,” he said, “but we don’t have to look at it all the time, do we?”

Lieutenant-Governor Jobin was pleased. “In my opinion,” he said, “it is excellent, and a very good likeness.”

The original Jets departed Winnipeg in 1996. The Arena lasted for another ten years, until March of 2006, when 200 kilograms of dynamite helped demolish it. Burch’s second queen was long gone by then, having been removed in 1999 by the rink’s management, dismantled, trundled away into storage. The portrait might have been destroyed but for Syd Davey, head of the Canadian Commonwealth Society, who persuaded Winnipeg Enterprises to give the pieces to him in the hope that he could find the portrait a new home.

That hasn’t quite happened, yet. After a long stay in a Whitby, Ontario, warehouse, the portrait did make it back to Winnipeg in 2015, when a pair of CN rail executives bought it. Burch’s work made a brief public appearance in a downtown parking lot in October of 2016 during celebrations surrounding the NHL’s Heritage Classic. There was talk  then that the painting would be reappearing in 2017 in a more permanent local setting, but that doesn’t seem to have happened to date.

Winnipeg reporters who asked in 2011 whether the the portrait might find a place in the Jets’ current home at the MTS Centre were told by True North Sports and Entertainment that Gilbert Burch’s Queen wasn’t in their plans. She was “outdated,” they said, and would block the view of too many spectators wanting to watch their hockey.

léo gravelle, 1925—2013

Parade Sportive Paul StuartThe blond Bomber the papers called him, sometimes, and fine and industrious and the fast-skating wing man. A Canadien and a Red Wing who played four-and-a-half NHL seasons, Léo Gravelle died on October 30 at the age of 88. One of his nicknames was The Gazelle.

“Léo Gravelle swished in Glen Harmon’s shot” is a sentence you might have seen after Montreal beat Chicago in 1947. He was born in Aylmer, Quebec. Witnesses who watched him play called him an extraordinary and sprightly skater. And of course there’s the time, in Chicago, that teammate Kenny Reardon hit a steelworker in the stands with his stick and the steelworker’s friends tried to throw a chair at him and Gravelle went to Reardon’s aid, and the two players ended up in jail, charged with assault with a deadly weapon. “I did not strike any of the spectators,” Gravelle said, later. “Everybody was standing up and leaning across the barrier so I hit the top of the barrier with my stick a couple of times to keep them from coming over.” (The charges were dropped.)

In May of 2007, Léo Gravelle was the guest of honour at the annual meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research in Ottawa. Speaking to an audience that included two Howie Morenzes (son and grandson of the original) as well as the hockey artist Mac McDiarmid, and the man who knows more about minor-league hockey than anyone in the whole world, Gravelle talked about his life in hockey. It was like a spell he was speaking, an incantation. “I’ve had a good life,” he began, and

A lot of people, they think it’s easy, the start in life. When I was six years old, it was hard times. We didn’t have electricity until I was 17 years old. When it comes time to play, I’m gonna tell you the truth. In those days the skates are not like today. It’s just a leather thing. When it gets wet it expands. I had to wear my cousin’s skates. At four o’clock in the afternoon it was my turn. I put on six pairs of socks. I don’t know if you still have your mother or not, but after you lose her you miss her a lot. I had a good father. Sometimes he had to walk from Hull to Aylmer after working his day’s work. We didn’t have radios. I was an office boy. I used to run everywhere. We had a hockey team. I will tell you what we used to do. Shinpads, it was a piece of felt. Hockey sticks, we were paying 25 cents. Excuse me, ladies, if I’m swearing sometimes. I was an altar boy for eight years. Have you heard of a hockey game after midnight mass? It was the choir versus the altar boys. In the morning when I got up there was an apple, an orange, and a piece of paper. Thank you, Lord. What do you get for Christmas today? I was working for the government, office boy, 39 dollars a month. My first suit cost me 39 dollars, so my mother had to pay my streetcar for the next month. I was playing Juvenile at 17 years old. Port Colborne. At St. Mike’s the coach was Joe Primeau. When you win the Memorial Cup, a fellow has to be proud. I went to the Montreal Royals. I had a line with Floyd Curry and Howard Riopelle. I could name you some names. When you play for a team like Montreal, they can decide to send you to Buffalo. They sent me to Houston. We win the United States Hockey League championship. The next year they brought me up to Buffalo. Then I graduate back to Montreal. Then this guy, Kenny Reardon. He used to call me Gravel. We did some damage. That was another thing that went by. I got traded for Bert Olmstead. I think I can brag about this. I’m the only one who played with Howe and Richard. Sid Abel was injured. I played with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Then Sid Abel came back. I sat on the bench for 13 games. Then they sent me down to Indianapolis. Jack Adams said, Léo Gravelle will never play another game in the NHL. I never did. I learned one thing in my life, when you go in to get a job, when they tap you on the back, that means they don’t want you. But I’ve had a good life. What I’ve told you today, it’s from the bottom of my heart. The Rocket could score on his knees. Gordie Howe was sort of a brute. They were two good guys for me. I don’t know how I’ve still got my nose, my face. Black Jack Stewart, he picked me up and drove me into the end. I didn’t know where I was.

Taking ray! can be recognized on the photo Butch Bouchard and Roger Léger

Looking Within: Léo Gravelle, left, steps up to have his chest x-rayed ahead of one of his Montreal seasons, circa the 1940s. Teammates Butch Bouchard and Roger Léger stand by. (Photos courtesy Denys Gravelle.)

l’apiculteur (ii)

For The Defence: Canadiens blueliners Roger Léger, Léo Lamoureux, and Hal Laycoe, with Butch Bouchard on his sled, circa 1946-47.

1. Bill Durnan said he was a sweet guy. His jokes were God-awful, the goaltender told Stan Fischler in Those Were The Days (1976). Bouchard’s answer: “It just doesn’t sound as good in English as it does in French.”

2. He was very sociable.

3. He loved to play Monopoly. That’s what his wife said. “He loves to Monopolize. It’s always him who wins.”

4. Gordie Howe said he wasn’t a villain.

5. “He was never a bully,” says Mike Leonetti in Canadiens Legends: Montreal Hockey Heroes (2009). “Bouchard maintained control and had to be seriously provoked to drop his gloves.”

6. This is a bit of a refrain, dating back at least to 1944, when Le Petit Journal observed that he had proved himself so able with his fists that he was no longer obliged to fight.

The Hockey Hall of Fame captions his profile this way:

To his credit, he never abused his powerful attributes and most opponents wisely avoided provoking him. In turn, he rarely fought.

Here’s what it says at ourhistory.canadiens.com:

The strongest man in the league, Bouchard played a robust brand of hockey. While other defensemen around the league resorted to more underhanded tactics, Butch hit with his hip rather than his fists. After a short period of introduction, he was rarely invited to engage in fisticuffs and probably stopped more fights that he took part in, often seizing both combatants and keeping them at arm’s length until they cooled off.

7. All of this filtered its way into the obituaries and tributes that have appeared over the last couple of weeks. Peaceful Pro, Ken Campbell’s column is headlined in the latest Hockey News. Didn’t fight much. Refused to use his physical advantage to be anything more than a peacekeeper.

8. His penalty minutes, it’s true, were relatively few. Or at least spread out: never in a season did he chalk up more than 100. You can’t say that about Wild Bill Ezinicki or Leapin’ Lou Fontinato, to name a boistering couple of names from the era. Among teammates, Ken Reardon and Murph Chamberlain spent more time on the penalty bench.

9. Dick Irvin called Chamberlain a stirrer-upper.

10. Irvin, talking about Maurice Richard: “His looks are deceiving. He’s the strongest man on the club. In dressing room wrestling matches he will beat even Émile Bouchard.”

11. Ivan Irwin was one of the more fearsome of New York Rangers in his time. He told Brian McFarlane that it might have been the fire in Richard’s eyes that deterred fellows from fighting him. “A much tougher guy was Butch Bouchard,” Irwin said.

One night Lou Fontinato was roughing up some of the smaller Montreal forwards when Butch, normally a quiet, easygoing fellow, got mad. He took Fontinato by the scruff of the neck, held him up, gave him about five good ones — pow! Then he pushed him away. Butch never bothered too many of us but we all knew he was the wrong guy to pick on.

12. “He was never an underhanded player,” noted Montreal-Matin in 1956: “he always hit from the front, and with confidence. He never attempted to injure or destroy his opponent.”

13. Why not? He was asked that. “I do realize,” he said, “that if I used my physical power to annihilate my opponents, I might hurt them seriously. I think they too play hockey for a living and they are professional athletes. I never thought of destroying anyone, though sometimes the temptation has been very strong.”

14. And yet. He did fight. Un batailleur de premier ordre, La Patrie reported in 1942. By then, he’d already made a name for himself against Chicago’s Johnny Mariucci and Bryan Hextall of the Rangers. Then, against Detroit one night, in the last seconds of the game, he clashed with defenceman Eddie Wares and

dealt him a direct blow almost crushing his nose and contradicting the illusion that if you keep your stick in your hands nothing can happen to you.

Sid Abel jumped Bouchard after that, causing a larger kerfuffle, which took time to play out, whereupon everybody picked up their sticks and their gloves just in time for Abel and Bouchard to start all over again. The Detroit News reported that referee Bill Chadwick had already decided he was in the wrong sport. “I should have been a boxing referee,” he said. Continue reading