johnny peirson, 1925—2021

Bruinhaha: From left, Johnny Peirson, Fleming Mackell, Jim Henry and Leo Labine pose for the camera against a background of trousers and underwear in the Boston dressing room circa 1953. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

He described himself as an “above-average not-great player,” but maybe flag that for excess of modesty, because Johnny Peirson was a very proficient goalscorer in the 11 seasons he played the right wing for the Boston Bruins between 1946 and 1958, scoring 20 goals in four of those campaigns, and finishing among the NHL’s top ten scorers three times. 

Peirson, who was born in Winnipeg in 1925, died on April 16 at the age of 95. The Bruins’ alumni site has an obituary, here. After 98-year-old former Detroit Red Wing Steve Wochy, Peirson was the second-oldest NHLer.

Peirson got much of his hockey upbringing in Montreal, where he chased high-school pucks for Westmount Academy before joining the Montreal Junior Canadiens. After a stint in the Canadian Army, he studied and skated at McGill. In 1946, he signed for Boston’s AHL farm team, the Hershey Bears, for a princely $4,500.  

As a rookie with the Bruins, Peirson found a berth on what teammate Woody Dumart dubbed the “Muscles Line,” for the irony: at 5’11” and 170 pounds, 22-year-old Peirson was the bulk of a unit that also counted centre Paul Ronty (6’, 150) and left winger Kenny Smith (5’7”, 155). 

“I would say I was above average because I was a better balanced player,” he told writer Frank Pagnucco, “a forward that knew how to backcheck. I had some defensive skills as well as being able to find the net sometimes.”

The first time he retired was in 1954, when he was 28. He stashed his skates to go into the furniture business with his father-in-law, across the river from Boston in Cambridge. He unretired after a year, rejoining the Bruins in 1955. His first game back, he played on a line with Cal Gardner and Vic Stasiuk, scoring a goal and setting up another to spark the Bruins to a 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks.

He played three seasons, after his comeback, and could have kept it going beyond that, maybe, but decided not to.  “You reach a point in your career where you realized you’ve lost half a step,” he said, looking back. “In those days, with six teams, there weren’t a lot of places to go. I had a job offer which I had to weigh against the possibility of making the team again or moving to another team … and with four kids, that didn’t make any sense.”

Regrets? Hockey-wise, he had at least a couple. “I’d have given my eyeteeth to play on a Stanley Cup winner,” he once said. He also wished he’d worked harder on developing his upper-body strength — his, well, muscles. “I would have been a better player. I lost a lot of battles and wasn’t able to do what I would like to have done from the point of view of strength.”

While the Bruins Peirson played for never won a Stanley Cup, he was at close hand when the team started winning championships in the late 1960s, serving as a long-time colour analyst on Bruins’ TV and radio broadcasts alongside Fred Cusick. 

Golden Bears: Boston’s Bruins, 1956-57 edition. Back row, from the left: Trainer Win Green, Larry Regan, Cal Gardner, Johnny Peirson, Floyd Smith, Leo Boivin, assistant trainer Hammy Moore. Middle, left to right: Doug Mohns, Jack Caffery, Floyd Hillman, Vic Stasiuk, Bob Armstrong, Don McKenney, Jerry Toppazzini. Front, from left: Allan Stanley, Fleming Mackell, GM Lynn Patrick, Terry Sawchuk, coach Milt Schmidt, president Walter Brown, Leo Labine, captain Fern Flaman.

frank mahovlich: guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music

Frank Mahovlich scored a pair of goals on this date in 1968, the day of his 30thbirthday, powering his Toronto Maple Leafs to a 2-1 win over the visiting Detroit Red Wings. But the man they called the Big M wasn’t long for the Leafs at that point: a little more than a month later, after almost 12 years in the blue-and-white, Mahovlich was traded to those very same Wings in a seven-player deal. Heading for Detroit with him were Pete Stemkowski, and Garry Unger (along with Carl Brewer’s rights); the return for the Leafs was Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith, Norm Ullman, and Doug Barrie.

Born in 1938 in Timmins, Ontario, Mahovlich grew up to be a golden boy in Toronto, of course, starting in the mid-1950s with a starring Junior-A role as a St. Michael’s Major. Profiled by Hockey Pictorial’s Margaret Scott after he won the Calder Trophy in 1958 as the NHL’s superlative rookie, Mahovlich divulged his boyhood heroes (Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay) and discussed what he liked to eat on a game-day (steak at lunch, eggs around four o’clock). In terms of his record collection, well, he admitted a partiality for musicals like Oklahoma! and the “semi-classical” stylings of Mantovani. An “enthusiastic” dancer, Mahovlich acknowledged that no-one had to coax him onto a dancefloor, unless the music playing was rock ’n’ roll. “I guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music,” he told Scott. “Something nice and quiet and not too fast.”

The impact that Mahovlich continued to have as a Leaf left winger is hard to overstate. Twice named to the NHL’s First All-Star team, he featured on a very good Toronto team that would win four Stanley Cups in six years through the 1960s. Writing in Maclean’sin ’61, Peter Gzowski thought he could be a defining figure in NHL history, the rightful heir to Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. At 23, Mahovlich was, Gzowski felt, “making an honest, exciting and, it appears now, worthy bid to claim the new era for his own.” Even if that didn’t quite work out as planned, The Globe and Mail’s Louis Cauz had no trouble deeming him “the most productive goalscorer the Leafs have ever had.”

That was in 1967. Earlier the same year, Leaf legend King Clancy offered this on Mahovlich: “He’s as nice a man as I’ve ever known in this game. Perhaps that is his trouble. He has the talent to be the greatest hockey player who ever lived, if only he was a little meaner. But he isn’t, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

For all the goals scored and the Stanley Cups hoisted, it’s true that life as a Leaf came with a cost for Mahovlich, who was twice treated in the 1960s for what the papers variously termed “emotional breakdown,” “tension,” and “nervous depressions.” The second time, in the fall of ’67, Mahovlich missed 11 games. Gordie Howe was one who weighed in with a diagnosis at the time — of the Leaf faithful. “If Toronto fans would appreciate his great talent and give him the cheers he deserves, instead of booing him, maybe the pressure wouldn’t cook the guy.”

Mahovlich had his ups and his downs when he returned to the fold in ’67, dominating one night, lagging some others. The boos continued. Leafs coach and GM Punch Imlach was said to be dissatisfied, too, with Mahovlich’s defensive play, and by time Imlach sent him to Detroit in March of ’68 all the talk of rifts between coach and fans and player meant that the trade didn’t come as a surprise to many.

That’s not to say it didn’t traumatize Toronto. Indignant fans jammed the switchboard at Maple Leaf Gardens with complaining calls the morning the deal was announced, while others out in front of the rink stopped traffic on Carlton Street with their moody milling. In the wake of the trade’s announcement, The Globe and Mail reported that shares in MLG Inc. fell by $1.50 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

For Mahovlich, the shift to Gordie Howe’s Red Wings was as good (on the ice) as a rest: he would thrive in Detroit, scoring a career-high 49 goals the following season, 1968-69. He eventually went to Montreal, where he enjoyed his best years, statistically, in a three-and-a-half-year stint that saw him help Canadiens to Stanley Cup championships in 1971 and ’73. Mahovlich played three seasons in the WHA after that, returning to Toronto as a Toro in 1975 before following the team when they moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and reconstituted as Bulls.

Lightly interrogated by Norman Brown for the 1965 edition of Canadian Boy, a magazine published by the Boy Scouts of Canada, Mahovlich had said he thought he had another eight years of hockey in him. “I don’t know. I’d say I might quit around 34 or 35.”

As it was, he was 41 in the fall of 1979 when he made a bid to return to the NHL with the Red Wings before deciding that it wasn’t to be. “He gave it everything he had,” said Detroit coach Bobby Kromm. “When the exhibition games were over, he came to us and said he didn’t think he could hack it. I’m glad it happened that way, that we didn’t have to go to him. He was a great player.”

 

 

 

 

imaginary numbers: maple leaf math edition

16524_10153427636924636_3430743109248134065_n

“Very proud,” Brendan Shanahan was telling the media at the Air Canada Centre, “very happy today. Happy to introduce Mike as the 30th coach in Toronto Maple Leafs’ history. Thank you, Mike. Welcome.”

Except, of course, that Babcock is the 31st man to coach the Leafs. Dick Duff is the odd man out, relegated to a footnote in the team’s media-guide list of head coaches, untallied in the overall count that runs, now, from Alex Romeril to the pride of Manitouwadge, Ontario (Babcock’s hometown) by way of Saskatoon (where he grew up).

The Leafs, of course, are free to count their coaches in any way they so choose. But the case for leaving Duff out is cloudy, at best; the logic for including him in is at least persuasive as that associated with several other names who are on the list.

Duff’s tenure was brief, just two came in March of 1980, as detailed here. It came on suddenly, overnight, when the incumbent Floyd Smith was injured in a car accident on a Friday night. Smith had a couple of assistants that year, Duff and Johnny Bower, and on the Saturday morning ahead of an evening game, GM Punch Imlach put Duff in charge. “I told the players that Duff had absolute control of the team,” Imlach told reporters, “and I wanted them to do exactly what he told them.”

Still, it was a stopgap measure, no question about that, an emergency measure, a battlefield commission. Much like (minus the highway accident) the situation that the San Jose Sharks found themselves in December of 2002. In that case, GM Dean Lombardi had fired his head coach, Darryl Sutter, and a pair of assistants, named a Shark scout, Cap Raeder, as a temporary replacement. He did the job for precisely one game, a 3-2 overtime win over Phoenix, before Lombardi got a new coach, Ron Wilson, into place. According to the Sharks’ media guide, he was the seventh coach in team history, just as the man who succeeds the eighth (Todd McLellan) will be the ninth — i.e. no bumping about in the footnotes for Cap Raeder.

Brevity shouldn’t sink Duff’s cause. Maybe, then, Leaf management and asterisk lobbyists would argue that everybody knew that Duff wasn’t going to last, he was no more than a placeholder, a bookmark, filling a space behind the Leaf bench until the new, real coach showed up.

On that basis, Alex Romeril shouldn’t count, either — he was only doing the job in the latter days of the 1927 season until Conn Smythe finished up his coaching commitment with the University of Toronto Grads. And what about Peter Horachek, this year? Like Duff, he was an assistant who found himself appointed interim coach when, in his case, GM Dave Nonis fired Randy Carlyle this past January. Nobody expected him be in the job beyond the end of the season. He was, but only for a day or so: Brendan Shanahan fired him and Nonis on the Sunday after the Leafs played their final game.

Ah-ha (as the Leafs might say, and do, in this imaginary debate I’m having with them, whether they know it or not) — ha-ha, but Punch Imlach never spoke the magic word, whatever the GM might have mentioned about absolute control, Dick Duff was never officially anointed with those three all-important syllables: interim.

Is that true, though? On Monday, March 17, 1980, the day Duff coached his second and last game in the NHL, newspapers across the continent published a brief Associated Press notice that included the words Dick and Duff and named and interim coach. The AP would have got their information from some reputable source — maybe the PR people at the NHL? Likewise The Toronto Star, wherein readers of the small print in the sports pages might have seen this:

duff interim

Is that enough to pluck Duff out of the margins and get him properly numbered as the fifteenth coach in Leaf history? I don’t know. Maybe Mike Babcock could put a word in for him. Continue reading