Born this day in 1930, George Armstrong turns 87 today. He remains, of course, the most recent captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs to have hoisted the Stanley Cup in victory.
That was in May of 1967. Armstrong was 36, with four Cups to show for his 16 NHL seasons. In June, he announced a decision he’d made. “I’m retiring,” he said. “That’s it. It’s taken all my guts to quit. I wasn’t too happy with my year. Sure I played well at the end, but does one month make up for seven bad months?”
There was some question whether would be protecting in the summer’s expansion draft: that was another factor. Still, Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach was said to be shaken by the news. “I don’t accept his resignation,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I don’t even know about it.”
Four days later, after Los Angeles and California, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh had plucked Terry Sawchuck, Bob Baun, Kent Douglas, Brit Selby, Al Arbour, and others from the champions’ roster, Imlach did end up shielding Armstrong, and by September, when the Leafs headed to Peterborough, Ontario, for training camp, the captain was back in the fold.
He admitted to being a little embarrassed. “To say you’re going to quit is easy,” he told Louis Cauz. “It’s harder to do it, especially when hockey has been your whole life.”
He’d been thinking on it all summer. “I can’t pin it down to one day when I suddenly made up my mind. About a month ago, I started watching my weight. Maybe I made up my mind then and I didn’t know it. Subconsciously my mind was made up, though. You’d have to be a psychiatrist to figure it out.”
He played the season and, points-wise, improved on his 1966-67 numbers. He was back at camp in September of ’68, preparing for the new season when he called it quits again. He just didn’t think he could help the team.
The Leafs told him to take some time. “I guess they hope I’ll change my mind,” Armstrong said. “I could. The easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. But right now my mind is more or less made up — I’m through.”
He wasn’t. He ended up rejoining the Leafs in early December.
“When I said I was retiring, I meant it,” he insisted after he’d made his comeback. “I said I was going into the hotel business, but I didn’t try that hard to get into it. I missed hockey and Punch kept asking me to come back.”
Summer of ’69, he decided again that he was finished — no, really.
It didn’t take, though. “I got bored,” he said, back in Peterborough again, come September. “When you’re a hockey player, you don’t lose interest until you die.”
“My mind was more made up to stay retired last year,” he said, “than it was this year.”
He didn’t mind that the Leafs’ named a new captain that fall, Dave Keon. “The C is on the guy who should be wearing it,” he said. After all, Armstrong was only going to play that one last year.
The Globe had lost count of Armstrong’s unsuccessful retirements by the time the 1970 rolled around, announcing that he was ending his third retirement to rejoin the Leafs that fall when in fact it was his fourth.
Never mind. He signed a one-year contract in November, played out the year.
Do I even need to say that he was back getting ready for a new campaign in the fall of ’71? “I feel good,” he said, “and am enjoying camp.”
Coach John McLellan wasn’t making any promises, though. “The Chief is a tremendous guy to have around,” he said, “great with the younger players.”
“But he has to beat out a young guy and right now that looks like a rough job.”
He was still in the picture as the new season approached. “He is skating every day in Toronto,” the coach said, “and would be ready if we called him.”
It didn’t work out, in the end. It was mid-October when the Leafs announced that George Armstrong would be packing his skates away for a fifth and final time, and joining Leafs’ management as a scout.
(Image, from 1963: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505690)
Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.
These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.
There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.
It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.
Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.
This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).
In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.
To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.
Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.
The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.
And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.
Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.
The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:
Goal Scoring Ability
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”
At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”
All of the nine wrote back.
“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.
“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”
King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.
Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.
I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.
I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.
Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:
Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.
Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”
If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:
Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.
Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:
My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.
Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?
Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:
I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.
Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”
I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.
I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.
Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).
When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:
- Howie Morenz
- Maurice Richard
- Bobby Orr
- Gordie Howe
- Bobby Hull
- Jean Béliveau.
Zander Hollander died in Manhattan on April 11 at the age of 91. If you grew up in the pre-Google age with any appetite for hockey trivia, you’ll recall the name from the covers of the indispensable annual handbooks he filled with a nerd’s cornucopia of quizzes and line-ups, schedules, records, scouting reports, vital statistics. Douglas Martin recalled his legacy in The New York Times earlier this week, here. From Hollander’s 1972 Complete Handbook of Pro Hockey, some selected biographical intel from the season’s crop of NHL talent:
Nicknamed Smiley Bates because of his addiction to country music. (Bruce Gamble)
A rugged type, he once dropped down to block a shot with his mouth and it cost him 40 stitches. (Ed Van Impe)
Call this little Frenchman the Lone Star North Star. (Jude Drouin)
Real first name is Hubert. (Pit Martin)
Allergic to Toronto air, he lives outside of the city and comes into town only for games and practices. (Norm Ullman)
Possesses a fiery temper and often explodes in anger. (Henri Richard)
After each game, he jots down a check list of his own mistakes. (George Armstrong)
Nicknamed Gump after Andy Gump, his childhood comic strip favorite. (Lorne Worsley)
Married daughter of Red Wings’ team dentist. (Bert Marshall)
Known as something of a flake among fellow players. (Eddie Shack)
Not appreciated as much by the fans as he is by his teammates and other hockey players. (Bob Nevin)
Joined Canadian Army, lying about his age, and attained rank of sergeant. (Emile Francis)
Wife, June, is an expert figure skater. (Dean Prentice)
Takes 55 units of insulin every morning and drinks sweetened soda and orange juice to keep up his strength during games. (Bobby Clarke)
Native of Finland pronounces name “You-ha Vee-ding.” (Juha Widing)
The power is in his wrists. (Jacques Lemaire)
It’s good to have a dad. If you don’t have one there’s no way you can make pro. That’s too bad but that’s just the way it is.
Pete McCormack, Understanding Ken (1998)
Hockey fathers are titans, if you read back into the game’s histories and its biographies and memoirs, that’s what you find, the fathers are like characters from folklore. They have bear-paw hands and their strength earns them the nickname Magilla Gorilla. If they felt like it, they could trace their ancestry back to the Duke of Rutland.
They’re painters and five-foot-one butchers.  They’re tinsmiths with the MacDonald Sheet Metal Company in Winnipeg, as strong as an ox, and one day they knock a man down, one punch, at the corner of Selkirk and MacGregor, and then the man’s pal comes along, name of China Pete, and studies the downed man and says it’s Harry Dillon, the light heavyweight boxing champion. Or else they work for the CNR in Lucknow, Ontario, in the wintertime, where they singlehandedly lift back onto the road a car that has skidded off. Once, on a dare, they hoist a 600-pound salt barrel onto a scale. They’re excellent swimmers, and compete in three Olympics: 1968, 1972, 1976. At one point they own a Coca-Cola franchise and then a Kuntz’s Brewery franchise out of Waterloo, Ontario. They have two big Geoffesson trucks. They’re pleasant-looking men – five-foot-eight with brown hair, grey eyes, and head tilted at a jaunty angle to the right. Nobody wants to embarrass them, so they never ask the reason for the jaunty tilt. They have no affinity for Americans. If they’re driving from Ontario to Saskatchewan in the summertime, even though it would make for a shorter trip, they refuse to travel through the United States. One of their hobbies was mice. They’re maintenance men at a textile factory in Ruzomberok. They’re machinists in the Angus Shops of the Canadian Pacific Railway in east-end Montreal, and also they’re bakers in Chicoutimi. During the years when their son George is captain of the Maple Leafs, they work in Sudbury’s mines for Falconbridge and if a co-worker abuses Toronto, the fathers of hockey players piss on the heads of the abusers as they come up in a cage from underground. Continue reading