tell all the people of ottawa that I’ll never forget them

king-c-pkstrk

King Comes To Town: Clancy shows off his new Leaf togs at training camp in Parry Sound, Ontario, in October of 1930.

Trade your skipper across the province to your bitterest cross-province rival? It happens, every once in a while, as Dion Phaneuf recalls. In October of 1930, Frank Clancy was captain of the Ottawa’s (original) Senators, one of the best players in the National Hockey League, when Toronto’s irrepressible Conn Smythe came calling with his chequebook. As today’s Leafs continue to prepare for the new season — they were skating in Halifax earlier this week, awaiting coach Mike Babcock to finish up with the World Cup — maybe would we revisit how it happened that the man they called King ended up donning the blue 86 years this fall? Answer: yes.

Going into his tenth NHL season, Clancy was, by then, one of the NHL’s brightest stars. Montreal’s formidable Howie Morenz said he was the hardest defenceman to get around. Andy Lytle of The Vancouver Province watched him skate as a guest of the Vancouver Lions in April in a post-season exhibition versus Boston’s touring Bruins. “Clancy is the greatest hockey player in the game today,” he pronounced, rating him “vastly superior” to Eddie Shore.

There is no theatrical by-play to Clancy’s work. Once that whistle blows, he forgets the crowd and all else, except that there is ice under his feet, a puck to be followed, and that he possesses a pair of super strong legs, a hockey stick, an eagle eye, and a vision that functions every second.

Frank Patrick was alleged to have said he was in a class by himself. Even the Bruins concurred, inviting to join them as they barnstormed down to California.

The New York Rangers had tried to buy him during the 1929-30 season. And even as Clancy kicked up his skates on the west coast, the rumour simmering back on the east was that Montreal Maroons were in with an offer.

Clancy’s contract was expiring: that was the thing. Plus (the other thing): the Senators were in a rocky financial straits. By August, Clancy’s availability was front-page news in the capital.

“It is well known that the team here has been operated at a loss for a number of years past,” was what Major F.D. Burpee was saying, the president of the Auditorium Company that owned the team. “This company cannot refuse to consider the sale of one or two of its super stars, providing the price offered, whether it be cash or cash combined with players, is sufficiently attractive. So far that has not been the case.”

The strength of the team was paramount, he said. But: “At the same time, the Auditorium cannot afford to continue a losing team, and must see that it at least carries itself if the club is to remain in this city.”

Clancy’s price was high. Maroons were said to be willing to offer $40,000. The season started in November in those years, and as fall came on, the Bruins were said to be in the mix too.

And Toronto. Leafs supremo Conn Smythe was desperate to improve his team. The team he’d bought and transformed in 1927 had yet to raise a Stanley Cup, and it was coming on ten years since the old St. Patricks had done it. Smythe’s problem as a shopper was that his board of governors was only willing to spend up to $25,000. Another potential hitch: Clancy was said to have vowed that Toronto was the one team he’d never play for.

Smythe wasn’t a man easily fazed.

First, in September, he went to the races. He owned an underperforming filly, Rare Jewel, that he’d entered in the first race of the season at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, the Coronation Stakes, where the rank outsider won. Smythe’s take on the day was more than $14,000. As Smythe tells it in his 1981 memoir, he had one thought as he collected his winnings: Now we can buy Clancy. Now we are going to win the Stanley Cup.

Next: he sent his assistant manager, Frank Selke, to Ottawa to ask Clancy about playing for the Leafs. Love to, Clancy said, if you pay me $10,000.

For the defenceman, it was a simple enough calculation. As he writes in Clancy (1997), the memoir he wrote with Brian McFarlane, his Senators salary paid $7,200 with a $500 bonus for serving as captain. He had a full-time job at the Customs Department and that paid $1,800, which brought his annual earnings up to $9,500 a year.

Smythe told him that he could only pay him $8,500 — but that if the Leafs had “any kind of year at all,” he’d add a bonus of $1,500.

Clancy agreed.

As he considered the deal, Smythe sought other counsel, too — via prominent ads in Toronto newspapers, he polled everybody in town: what do you think?

k-clancy-ad-pkstrk

Fans answered, by telephone, telegram, they dropped by in person at Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, where more than 2,000 letters also showed up. The consensus? Go get Clancy.

The deal went through in October, and it was a blockbuster. The Globe suspected “that the reason Boston, Montreal and the New York Rangers did not take definitive action was because they did not believe that any other club would pay the price demanded by Ottawa. In this they erred, but Conny Smythe always did have the habit of crossing up the guessers.” Continue reading

that week: if he were a forest, he’d be a national park

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“There will never be another Gordie Howe,” is what Bobby Orr was saying last week, in the days following Howe’s death on June 10 at the age of 88.

“You couldn’t invent Gordie today,” Orr told Dave Stubbs from NHL.com. “If he was playing with today’s rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn’t take liberties with him. The way he played, he’d do real well.”

“He was everything to me,” Wayne Gretzky told NHL.com.

Adam Gopnik wrote a Howe tribute for The New Yorker. “Perhaps only Mark Messier, among players bright in our contemporary memory, combined the same qualities of grit, skill, desire, and accuracy,” he mused. “As Gretzky lived on the edge of his skates, Howe lived in his wrists: the accuracy, power, and quickness of his shot are the first things those who saw him up close, in his prime, often reference (after they reference the elbows that rose above those wrists).”

“My best Christmas ever, I was five years old and my dad — I mean Santa Claus — bought me a Gordie Howe sweater, which I wore for the whole year.” That’s Gretzky again, back in 1994. The same article, from Reuters, goes on to say that when young Wayne pleaded with his father, “a barber,” to cut his hair Gordiewise, Walter Gretzky had to explain that Wayne had too much hair and Gordie too little.

“His elbows were the best,” Joe Peacock wrote in 1997.

Gretzky, last week, helped to clarify that old Reuters story: “I was seven or eight years old and I’d go to the barber shop … and I’d say, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut.’ I was enamored by him at a young age.”

Eddie McCabe, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, circa 1979, said this: “Gordie is such a decent man, he makes up for the yahoos and the boors.”

Frank Selke said there was no-one better. “Gordie Howe is the greatest all-round hockey player I’ve ever seen,” he opined in 1961 when Selke was managing director of the Montreal Canadiens. “He’s a composite of some mighty fine players through the years, and I’ve been watching them all, amateur and professional, since the 1910s around my old hometown, Kitchener. I’ve never known any player combining so many faculties. He’s the greatest of them all.”

Gordie’s dad didn’t necessarily agree. Gordie wrote about this in his “authorized autobiography,” and … Howe! (1995):

According to my Dad, Vic was always the better player, better than me. He was so funny. And Vern, my oldest brother, was the best of us all, so Dad said. It wasn’t until Dad was old, on his death bed, that he finally gave me more credit. He was kidding me, and said, “Aw, I saw a few gams on television. I guess you were better than your brothers.”

“In street clothes, he looks quite slim, an impression heightened by his long arms, rather long neck and narrow face.” This is Peter Gzowski, from a famous Maclean’s profile of Howe from 1963. “His most outstanding physical characteristic is the slope of his shoulders; his trapezius muscles — the muscle you feel if you stretch your arm out to one side — rise into his neck at an angle not far from 45 degrees, while his deltoids, at the top of the arm, look scarcely better developed than the average dentist’s. The enormous strength he displays in hockey flows from him, rather than exploding, and the easy grace with which he moves on the ice, and which has given so many hockey fans pleasure over the years, is also evident in his loose, almost lazy walk.”

“He’s always at the outer edge of the rulebook,” Eric Nesterenko told Gzowski. “You never know when he’s going to slip over into what’s dirty.”

Howe’s longtime linemate concurred. “Gordie gets away with more than anyone else in hockey,” said Ted Lindsay. Andy Bathgate of the New York Ranger indicted Howe for “deliberately inflicting head cuts, of deliberately cauliflowering at least one ear, and of deliberately raising the puck at other people’s heads.” He did not spear, Bathgate said, nor butt-end. Gzowski: “He is a recognized master of ‘high sticking,’ an action that is almost impossible for the fans or even the referees to separate from an accident, and which has carved his signature on a good many faces around the league.”

Gary Ross wrote about Howe in 1978, the year Number 9 turned 50 playing for the New England Whalers, “If Gordie Howe were a building, he’d be sandblasted and declared an historic site. If he were a forest, he’d be made a national park. In an age of $100,000 flakes he’s the real thing. A hero, a wonder, a natural phenomenon.”

When a 45-year-old Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to play with sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who told him to go for it. “I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you’d find similar musculature,” Dr. Bailey said. “It’s a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That’s almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80.”

Herbert Warren Wind was first to profile Howe for the pages of Sports Illustrated. “When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone,” he wrote in 1955, “doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot. Also invisible is Howe’s great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete’s forearm.”

Mark Howe, in his 2013 memoir Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey: “He always regretted dropping out of school and felt that somebody from the hockey club should have stopped him. I think that’s why he took up crossword puzzles — a big-time passion of his — to improve his vocabulary.”

“His success is due in part to the fact that he has the ‘perfect body for hockey,’” Larry Bortstein was able to disclose in 1970. “His shoulders slope so sharply into his huge biceps, which flare out into huge forearms, wrists, and hands. His legs are very strong. ‘I conserve them by sitting down at places where I don’t have to stand,’ he says.”

“When Howe is on the ice,” Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964, “Detroit’s Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable.”

King Clancy was the one who suggested someone ought to bottle the man’s sweat: “It would make a great liniment for hockey players.” Continue reading

powers outage

Ed Powers Hawks-Leafs, slammed into baorad, “After three minutes of rest, Powers was able to continue.” Nov 11 1959

Horizontal Stripes: Slammed into the boards by (alleged) accident during a 1959 Leafs and Black Hawks game in Chicago, Eddie Powers took a moment. “After three minutes of rest,” a correspondent reported from the scene, “Powers was able to continue.”

Nobody said it was easy, the life of a hockey referee. Russell Bowie was one of the best players to play the game before the NHL got started, winning a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Victorias in 1898. After he hung up his stick, he quite naturally took up a whistle, though that didn’t last too long. In 1911, mid-season, he quit. “The continual nagging of the players all through the season has bothered me a lot,” is what he told reporters. “I have decided that there is nothing in it for me. I have had enough hockey refereeing to last for the rest of my natural life.”

It’s not just the carping, either, that officials have to endure. “A referee has to be fast on his skates,” confided Cooper Smeaton, who wielded a whistle in the early days of the NHL. “He may at any moment be forced to hurdle sticks, climb on the fence, or instantly reverse his direction in order to get out of the way of a play. At that, we get plenty of cracks on the shins — perhaps not all of them strictly accidental.”

Fast isn’t always fast enough, of course, as referee Eddie Powers (above) learned in November of 1959 in a game at the Chicago Stadium between the hometown Black Hawks and the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs. In what we’ll call an unfortunate mishap, he found himself “slammed” into the boards by players fighting for a puck. “After three minutes of rest,” the papers reported next day, “Powers was able to continue.”

Four years and a few months later he was in Montreal. February. At 45, he was a veteran by then of seven NHL campaigns. He walked into NHL headquarters in the Sun Life building where he called Carl Voss, chief referee, out of a meeting to tell him, “I quit as of now.” He didn’t stay to see NHL president Clarence Campbell. According to Voss, Powers left after saying that the two secretaries present could serve as witnesses of his resignation.

Voss was surprised. Campbell regretted the loss — Powers was one of the most experienced referees in the league. “But we’ll get along without him.”

Powers had refereed a game on the last day of January, Toronto at Montreal. That was the start of it. The Maple Leafs shot down the Canadiens, 6-3 (Red Burnett’s view, in The Toronto Daily Star), or else erased a 2-0 Montreal lead and ran away with the game on four third-period scores (Pat Curran in the hometown Gazette). Either way, the Leafs’ Red Kelly scored a hattrick. He was playing centre; also, as widely reported, as an opposition Liberal MP for the riding of Toronto West, he was missing a tumultuous day in Parliament as Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s government tottered on the edge of dissolution over its nuclear arms policy and what the United States thought about it.

Red Kelly, MP and centre-iceman

Red Kelly, MP and centre-iceman

In Montreal, the Canadiens were close to detonation by force of sheer disgruntlement. Kelly’s second goal, they thought, was scored while the Leafs’ Bob Nevin was in the crease. Montreal goaltender Jacques Plante chased after referee Powers to remonstrate and, eventually, to demonstrate how to smash a goalstick to flinders.

The Gazette reported that the Habs thought that Nevin had kicked the puck into the net. Coach Toe Blake screamed so much that Powers gave him a bench minor.

That was in the second period. The third was no calmer. Powers doled out misconducts to Montreal’s Bernie Geoffrion and Toronto’s Carl Brewer followed by a game misconduct for Geoffrion, along with a $75 fine (Brewer’s was $25). Montreal’s Bill Hicke was also charged with a $25 misconduct for (as Red Burnett wrote it) “questioning linesman Ron Wicks’ eyesight and ancestry.”

There was a penalty shot, too, for Red Kelly. That’s how he completed his hattrick. There was the Montreal crowd, stirred to a frenzy (the Gazette said), chanting “We Want Storey.”

Common decency prevented Pat Curran from printing much of what Toe Blake had to say after the game. Red Burnett quoted directly on what he thought of Powers. “He’s too inconsistent. Some of his calls were bad and he missed so many that you have to say his work was putrid. The whole league is getting bush all around.”

Montreal-Matin had Blake saying that the NHL should investigate the officials because they gave the impression of having bet on the outcome of the game. “Don’t tell me he’s not working against us,” The Montreal Star contributed to vituperative quote-quilt. “He let’s everything go and then he calls a chippy penalty against us.”

La Presse checked in with Montreal’s PR director, Frank Selke, Jr.: “I don’t know how much referees get for each game, but if he got more than $10 for tonight’s game he was overpaid.”

Blake wasn’t pleased with his players, either. “Our guys quit like dogs after they tied it up,” he said. “Maybe I used the wrong tactics in blaming the referee. That gave them an excuse and they folded.”

NHL president Clarence Campbell weighed in, of course. He was going to check with Blake; if he admitted to saying what he was supposed to have said, the fine could run to $1,000. Continue reading

fours: some

Selkeites: The farm system seeded by Canadiens GM Frank Selke in the later 1940s began to bear fruit in the early 1950s. In 1953, it yielded a Stanley Cup, the first of six he’d win with Montreal. Above, Selke sits in a grove of his recruits in a photograph dating to (at a reasonable guess) the start of that championship ’52-’53 season, which would put all four players at 21 or 22. From the left, those are centres Paul Masnick, Reg Abbott, and Jean Béliveau along with left winger Dickie Moore. Selke, Masnick and Moore got their names etched on the Cup that year; Abbott and Béliveau weren’t so fortunate. Each of them skated in three regular-season games but neither one saw any ice in the playoffs. Abbott’s statistics were and remain blanks — he failed register a goal or assist, incurred no penalty minutes — and he never played another NHL game. For his part, Béliveau, scored five goals in his three games, launching a career that nobody has to be reminded to celebrate. It is worth noting, Abbott-wise, that he did wear sweater number 4 in ’52-’53, a season before Le Gros Bill got hold of it and made it his own. Having started his Montreal career in 1951 wearing number 17, Béliveau was by this time sporting 12 — which, of course, Dickie Moore would go on to make sufficiently his own that the Canadiens ended up retiring it in his name. Paul Masnick? While he tried out both 22 and 23 during his Montreal career, in 1953 he was 11.

(Photo: Weekend Magazine/ Louis Jaques/ Library and Archives Canada/ e002505710)

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)

old bulwarks

l chabot

On this day in 1946 Lorne Chabot died in Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital at the age of 46, “his fighting heart finally stopped” (tolled The Globe) “by a lingering illness that had kept him bed-ridden for more than a year.”

His NHL career started in 1926 with the New York Rangers and he went on to play for Toronto, Chicago, and Montreal’s Canadiens and Maroons before his playing days came to an end in 1937 with the New York Americans. He won two Stanley Cups and a Vézina Trophy.

“Poison from osteo-arthritis and progressive nephritis, a chronic disease, had infiltrated his whole system,” The Globe reported, “and although Chabot had stoutly maintained he would recover, his friends have known for many months that he was a dying man.”

Frank Selke was manager of the Leafs during Chabot’s time in Toronto. He volunteered that the goaltender’s mechanical ability was exceeded only by his inspirational qualities. He was liked, Selke said, by all the players behind whom he had ever guarded a net.

training camp 1928: quoits and trout, jerks and pranks

Physical Jerks: The Leafs in Port Elgin, Ontartio, in October of 1928. That's Corporal Joe Coyne of the RCR in command at the fore. First row, left to right: Ace Bailey, Art Duncan, Joe Primeau, Hap Day. Middle: Shorty Horne, Dr. Bill Carson, Gerry Lowrey, Art Smith. Back: Lorne Chabot, Jack Arbour, Alex Gray, Danny Cox.

Physical Jerks: The Leafs in Port Elgin, Ontartio, in October of 1928. That’s Corporal Joe Coyne of the RCR in command at the fore. First row, left to right: Ace Bailey, Art Duncan, Joe Primeau, Hap Day. Middle: Shorty Horne, Dr. Bill Carson, Gerry Lowrey, Art Smith. Back: Lorne Chabot, Jack Arbour, Alex Gray, Danny Cox. (Photo: Imperial Oil-Turofsky/Hockey Hall of Fame)

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, on Saturday, September 27, 2014, on page S2.

In the famous photograph, the Leafs jig.

We can laugh, easy for us, but this is serious business, as it always is for Toronto’s hockey team this time of year, the season for the earnest, eternal calisthenics of trying to figure out how to get back into the playoffs. If that requires legendary Leafs with names like Day and Bailey to caper in full hockey garb when their skates and sticks are back home, a couple of hours away — who are we, really, to scorn that?

The year was 1928, and for the Leafs then it was the old story that’s still so familiar: in the spring, they’d missed the post-season again. In the year since Conn Smythe had become one of the team’s owners as well as manager and coach, they’d switched names (St. Patricks to Maple Leafs) and colours (green for blue). On the ice, injuries dogged the team’s season and despite a spirited March, the Leafs didn’t qualify to play for the Stanley Cup in April.

Smythe spent the summer retooling. That and running his sand and gravel business. On the non-aggregate side, he sent Butch Keeling to the New York Rangers for $10,000 and winger Alex Gray. To the defence he added Jack Arbour’s seasoned weight. He recruited junior stars Shorty Horne (a “clever and tricky” stickhandler) and tall Andy Blair, who reminded some of a young Hooley Smith.

Young Joe Primeau (“flashy centre ice man”) was tabbed for full-time duty. And just before the Leafs started jigging, Smythe traded goaltender John Ross Roach to the New York Americans, who sent back Lorne Chabot.

Returning veterans included Ace Bailey, Bill Carson, and the former University of Toronto pharmacy student who’d foregone a career as a druggist to captain the Leafs, Hap Day.

There was worry that August that he’d have to retire: in February, an errant skate had nearly severed his Achilles tendon. A heavy loss it would have been: Day was a dominant defenceman, and durable — Frank Selke said that because he didn’t smoke or drink or touch tea, coffee, or chocolate, he could play 60 minutes a game. He toiled hard over the summer, in the office at C. Smythe Limited by day, skating every evening at Ravina rink. By September, he was ready to go. Continue reading