pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall

Stamp Act: From 2017, Canada Post’s Official First Day Cover for a new stamp commemorating Paul Henderson and his 1972 Summit Series teammates.

The second day of September was a Saturday in 1972, and in Montreal the forecast called for the morning’s sun to give way to clouds and afternoon showers with no chance whatever, come the evening hours, for a Soviet win over our invincible homegrown hockey heroes.

It’s 48 years ago today that the momentous Summit Series first hit the ice, at Montreal’s famous Forum. For Canadians, nothing went as it was supposed to that night, of course, with the good guys ending up on the wrong end of a 7-3 rout. For a sense of just how much that result dazed and confused the nation, I’ll refer you to the prophecies that hockey’s non-Russian cognoscenti were making on the morning of that shocking day, weighing in with predictions for the eight-game series.

“Canada will win handily,” ventured Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell; “they might lose one in Moscow. Say seven to one.”

Mark Mulvoy, from Sports Illustrated, was just as generous: “Canada, seven to one.”

“Here’s a flatly positive that Canada will win at least seven of the eight games,” wrote Southam columnist Jim Coleman. “This prediction isn’t based on flag-waving chauvinism. This is a cold-blooded prognostication.”

Foster Hewitt, who’d be up in the gondola on play-by-play when he puck dropped: “Canada’s two goals a game better. It looks like eight to nothing Canada.”

 “The NHL team will slaughter them in eight straight,” advised Gerald Eskenazi from The New York Times.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ goaltender Jacques Plante agreed: “Eight straight for Canada.”

Fran Rosa, from Boston’s Globe? “Eight to nothing Canada — and that’s the score of the first game.”

Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes had placed his bet a few days earlier. “Make it Canada eight games to zero. If the Russians win one game, I will eat this column shredded at high noon in a bowl of borscht on the front steps of the Russian embassy.”

To his credit, if not his digestive delight, Beddoes was true to his word, and took his soup a few days later.

four-score and 50 years ago: bobby soared as boston won the 1970 stanley cup

Show And Tell: Bruins’ captain Johnny Bucyk shows off the Stanley Cup to the Boston Garden faithful on Sunday, May 10, 1970, after Bobby Orr’s inimitable overtime goal won the team their first NHL championship since 1941. (Image: Brearley Collection, Boston Public Library)

Boston Bruins’ fans won’t soon forget the most famous goal to have been scored in the old Garden, but just in case there’s an 800-pound statue of Bobby Orr flying bronzely through across the concourse in front of the rink the nowadays Bruins play in, when they’re playing, the TD Garden. It was 50 years ago today, on another Sunday, Mother’s Day of 1970, that Orr scored the memorable overtime goal, just prior to take-off, that put paid to the St. Louis Blues and won the Bruins their first Stanley Cup since 1941.

Fans of that famous goal and/or of the unforgettable image that Boston Record-American photographer Ray Lussier snapped of it have plenty to keep them busy this anniversary weekend.

I recommend Dan Robson’s new oral history of the goal at The Athletic, where you’ll hear from Orr himself along with Derek Sanderson, Phil Esposito, Bruins coach Harry Sinden, and his counterpart from St. Louis, Scotty Bowman.

Also? At NHL.com, Dave Stubbs has a piece previewing an NHL Network Originals documentary that’s debuting tonight. The 1970 Boston Bruins: Big, Bad & Bobby is on-screen tonight across North America (8 p.m. ET on Sportsnet and the NHL Network).

In the flurry of remembrances, would we note how, 50 years ago, in the immediate chaos of the Bruins’ championship celebrations, a 22-year-old Orr accounted for what he’d done a few minutes earlier?

“I don’t know what I did,” Mike Widmer from UPI quoted him saying the dressing-room aftermath. “I saw it go in the net as I was flying in the air. Then I hit the ice and before I could get up the guys were on top of me.”

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Another unbylined UPI dispatch started with this:

How would you expect a 22-year-old to describe the biggest moment of his spectacular young life?

How about: “The Stanley Cup! Wheeeeee!!!”

A little in that same piece, Orr did venture a little further into detail:

“Turk [Sanderson] made a helluva play out of the corner,” Orr recalled while pleading with the team doctor “to please prescribe a beer for me.”

“I saw it go in,” Kevin Walsh from Boston’s Globe managed to glean from Orr. “Oh ya, it was in.”

“I didn’t know where it was going. I just shot the darn thing. I think it went between his [St. Louis goaltender Glenn Hall’s] legs.”

“Don’t ask me how the play started. I don’t remember. I don’t know how it happened.”

“I know what this win is for me. It’s so great.”

Something I would like to get cleared up — maybe tonight, in the documentary, we’ll learn the truth? — is just where Orr’s mother, Arva, was during all the nostalgic rejoicing that night in 1970.

Reading Gerald Eskenazi in the May 11 edition of the New York Times, you might have been gladdened to hear this:

Scoring in today’s game, the only close one of the series, started with Rick Smith of the Bruins getting a rising shot past Glenn Hall, underneath a sign that read ‘Happy Mother’s Day Mrs. Orr.’

This was for Bobby’s mother who had come from their home in Canada.

Orr himself mentions this Mother’s Day banner in his 2013 memoir, My Story, though he doesn’t say one way or the other whether the woman to whom it paid tribute was actually on the property.  

The Canadian Press report that ran across Canada had her in the building, too:

Bobby Orr, the 22-year-old wonder defenceman who scored the winning goal in overtime, stood grinning under television lights as his father fought through the crowd toward him.

Doug Orr, who came down from his Parry Sound, Ont., home with Mrs. Orr, left his wife outside the dressing room.

“This is the best day of my life,” he said.

Mr. Orr spilled more of his teeming heart to the Boston Globe’s Martin Pave. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but tonight I don’t care if Bobby gets higher than a kite. He deserves it. I’ve never seen him drunk, but the way we’re all feeling, who cares?”

Wheeeeee! Sculptor Harry Weber bronzed Orr flies through the Boston air in front of the modern-day TD Garden.

Pave wondered how Mr. Orr had reacted when his son scored. “I jumped,” the ebullient father said. “I screamed. Then I rushed to the phone to call my wife in Parry Sound. I can’t even remember what she said because she was crying her eyes out.”

“Then,” Pave continued, “Doug rushed to the Bruins dressing room and embraced his son. He grabbed a bottle and joined the celebration.”

Definitely in the tumultuous room, even if Mrs. Orr wasn’t: Dit Clapper. He’d been the Bruins’ captain, of course, back when they’d last lifted the Cup in 1941. Remarkably, he’d played on all three of the Bruins’ previous Stanley Cup-winning teams, in 1929, 1939, and ’41.

Now 63, he’d flown in from his home in Peterborough, Ontario. “This is a helluva club,” he said in the team’s dressing room as 1970 celebrations turned increasingly liquid. He was up on a bench, surveying the scene, as Globe columnist Harold Kaese told it.

“It was never like this when we won in 1941,” he quoted Clapper as saying. “I think we had a bottle of beer, maybe.”

The Goal: Photographer Chad Coombs echoed Number Four’s famous goal in “Hockey Night In Canada: A Bobby Orr Tribute.’ For more of his work, visit http://www.chadcoombs.com. (Image courtesy of Chad Coombs.)

u!s!a! crossing the finnish line, 1980

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“Tell your whole team I love them,” U.S. President Jimmy Carter commanded Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, when he got him on the phone in the moments following the Americans’ 4-2 gold-medal victory over Finland on this date, a Sunday, in 1980. It was the game two days earlier, of course, that everyone remembers, the one where Eruzione, goaltender Jim Craig (above, celebrating gold), and all their star-spangled teammates overthrew the mighty Soviet Union. Mostly they forget that the U.S. team still had plenty of work to do against the Finns. Under the complicated medal-round formula, an American loss combined with a Swedish win over the Soviets could have left the U.S. in fourth place. As it was, goals from Phil Verchota, Steve Christoff, Rob McClanahan, and Mark Johnson sealed the U.S. win, while the Soviets crushed Sweden 9-2. “Outside the arena an exultant throng counted down the final seconds,” Gerald Eskenazi reported for The New York Times, “then started to cheer as a Dixieland band began to play. When the doors of the field house opened, the crowd of 10,000 (including 1,500 standees) streamed into the Olympic Center driveway with chants of ‘U.S.A’ and ‘We’re Number One.’”

Book It: The U.S. victory at Lake Placid got the graphic-novel treatment in this 2008 recounting by Joe Dunn and illustrator Ben Dunn.

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

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