a man called pie face

Paperboys: “Pie” they called him, though sometimes it was “Pie Face.” Remembered mostly for his years as a right winger for the Boston Bruins, Johnny McKenzie, right, was reported to have died Saturday at the age of 80. Born in High River, Alberta in 1937, he also skated for Chicago, Detroit, and the New York Rangers in the NHL, and for a bevy of WHA teams, including the Philadelphia Blazers and New England Whalers. Here, in Bruin days circa 1969, he peruses a paper alongside teammate Glen Sather. “Pesky” is an adjective sometimes appended to McKenzie’s name during his career, and “disturber extraordinaire” is a phrase. He won two Stanley Cups with Boston, in 1970 and ’72.

happy birthday, 1986: fuhrsie was late getting back in the net, and smitty just tried to cut the corner

It was his birthday, of course, happened to be. I can’t say how much that multiplied the misery for the man in question, if at all, or how much of a sting he still feels, 32 years on from that day in 1986 — like yesterday, April’s last — when, as a rookie defenceman for the Edmonton Oilers, he scored what has become hockey’s most famous self-inflicted goal, which I (obviously) don’t have to specify further due to how notorious it is, though maybe I should all the same (just to be clear) by naming the man now synonymous with putting a puck past your own surprised goaltender: Steve Smith.

Calgary was in Edmonton that long-ago day, playing Game 7 of the Smythe Division Final. Smith was 63 games into his career with the Oilers, who were hunting their third Stanley Cup in a row. He’d just turned — was still not finished turning — 23. The score was tied 2-2 when, at 5:14 of the third period, Smith found himself behind his own net, rapping the puck off Grant Fuhr’s leg, into that net, to score the goal that not only won the reviled Flames the game but eliminated the Oilers from the playoffs.

Owning It: Smith sags, Flames celebrate

So, a big mistake. But other defencemen have done what Steve Smith did, in important games, as have lots of forwards. He’s the only one to have had his entire career as a hockey player reduced to a single misdirected pass. As recently as 2016, a writer in a major American magazine referred to Smith as having suffered “perhaps the most devastating embarrassment the NHL has ever seen.”Really — ever? How is it that his goal has become both the exemplar for hockey self-scoring and, for Smith, the act that has come to define an otherwise distinguished 16-year career on NHL bluelines to those of us who were watching the game in the 1980s? And how can that be fair?

I take this all a little personally. Smith is a player I’ve followed with special interest since he first skated into the NHL. At first my attention was almost entirely nominal. He’s not much older than me, and grew up in Cobourg, Ontario, just to the south of where I was in Peterborough. I ended up taller; he managed to win many more Stanley Cups than I ever could. It wasn’t hard to imagine his career as my own. No problem at all: I’ve got way more imagination, in fact, than I do actual hockey skills, so it was easy to fancy myself out there, numbered 5, in William-of-Orange/Oiler colours, alongside the most exciting players of the age, Gretzky and Messier and Kurri and Coffey. Smith wasn’t exciting, but I liked his lanky style, which had just a hint, in those early years, of my own trying-too-hard clumsiness. I felt for him in 1986, and maybe even thought I could help him shoulder the burden. I couldn’t, of course — how could I? For a long time, years, any time I got on the ice for a beer-league game I did think demon thoughts about shooting the puck past my own goaltender midway through the third period. I never did it, though I’m pretty sure some of my teammates expected me to, also — especially the goaltenders.

•••

Smith’s old goal is old news, but it’s also (like everything else) as current and quick-to-the-fore as your Google search window. Search (go on) and the page that beams up with an efficiency that’s easy to mistake for eagerness shows Smith prostrate on the ice after the goal and tearful in the dressing room.

The goal has eternal life, of course, on YouTube. Funny Moments In Sports — Steve Smith Scores On Himself the footage there tends to be titled, and the commentaries run on and on. Some of them do their best to exonerate Smith —

Grant Fuhr should have been hugging the post when Smith attempted his pass

— while others are more interested in forensic dissections:

After about 50 viewings over 20 years, I finally see how it happened… Fuhr’s stick came downwards just as Smith passed the puck, and it went off Fuhr’s stick and in, Smith thought there was a lane there to clear it cause Fuhr’s stick was up at the time… does that sound right?

There’s every degree of pity, and plenty of character-witnessing—

Poor guy

if i didnt know any better it looks almost as if that was purposely done. but still i feel sorry for smith

this isnt funny

i played for steve smith. greatest guy in the world.

People enjoy the goal as entertainment —

lol you know whats funny. next season, when the oilers played the flames in the saddledome, flames fans would yell “SHOOOOT!!” when smith was behind his net looking for a play LOLOLOL. by the way, the 07 stanley cup was won by almost the exact same “anti-play”

and also count it as revenge —

Steve Smith is also the guy who made a dirty play that took Pavel Bure into the boards and hurt his knee. Bure was never the same again. Smith took out the most exciting player in the game at that time, what a jerk.

A conclusion drawn by some online commentators on the Smith goal?

oilers suck.

More formal reviews of what happened were plentiful, of course. Terry Jones was one who described the goal for newspaper readers the next morning with minimal drama:

When Steve Smith passed the puck from behind his net and hit goaltender Grant Fuhr on the back of his left leg, the puck bounced into the net, breaking a 2-2 tie and breaking the backs of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

Jones wrote for The Edmonton Sun, so the headline went for maximum blare:

BIGGEST BLUNDER EVER?

For a lede he went with “one of the biggest bonehead plays in the history of all sport.” There was a lot of that. Infamyis another  word that repeats through subsequent accounts of the goal, almost as abundantly as gaffe. Mentions of mortal woundsand witness protection programsfollow on allusions to the caprice of the hockey gods. The Oilers’ collective overconfidencewas seen early on as a contributing factor to what happened to them via Smith’s own goal, along with their arrogance.

Smith’s birthday featured prominently in the coverage, e.g. Rex MacLeod’s Toronto Star lede asserting that he will never forget the one in which he aged a lifetime.

Often recalled in the aftermath was the fact that Smith only played that night because Lee Fogolin was injured.

Flames’ winger Perry Berezan got the credit for the goal as the last Calgary player to touch the puck. “I think I am the only man in history to score a series-winning goal from the bench,” he said later. “I had dumped the puck into the Edmonton zone when I was front of my own bench, and I didn’t even see it go in. I remember how strange it was on the bench when the goal was scored. It was quiet. We were asking, What just happened?and guys were saying, Steve Smith bounced the puck off of Fuhr. It’s a goal!

That’s a later take, so far as I can determine. On the night, Berezan was quoted as saying, “This is too unbelievable to be true” and “I couldn’t dream it any better.”

There was wide acknowledgement in those contemporary accounts that Berezan was the only native-born Edmontonian on Calgary’s roster, and that his birthday was Christmas Day, following which he grew up as an Oilers’ fan. Also: his uncle was the organist at the Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum.

Berezan’s sympathy took year’s to emerge into the wild: until 2016, in fact, when Ben Arledge at ESPN The Magazine stirred the grave of Smith’s unmeant goal. This is the piece wherein you’ll see Smith’s mortification rated “the most devastating” the NHL has ever witnessed; other than that, it’s plausible. Berezan, interestingly, tells Arledge that he wanted to say something to Smith back in ’86, but he was 21, and some of the Flames veterans told him never to feel sorry for a beaten opponent, and so he kept quiet, not a word. “But,” he says, “I felt terrible for the guy.”

I doubt that Lanny McDonald was one of those unnamed veterans implicated here — that just doesn’t sound like Lanny. In the moment, right after it was over, McDonald made clear that Smith really had no choice in the matter. “When I saw the goal go in,” McDonald confided in the Calgary dressing room that night, “I couldn’t believe it. Then I felt it was meant to be. We did a lot of praying in this room and God finally answered our prayers.”

Huge, if true.

At the time, the Oilers seemed to have no inkling that He’d forsaken them. Over in their room, they were still focussed on the passion of Steve Smith.

“It’s not his fault,” Wayne Gretzky was saying after the Oilers had failed to tie it up. “One goal did not lose these playoffs.”

Rex MacLeod of The Toronto Star described him and several of his teammates as “red-eyed from weeping. “It was an unfortunate goal,” Gretzky said. “We tried not to let it bother us. We tried to keep our energy at a high level and I think we did. It was a big disappointment, but I’ve had a few before. It hurts when you’re good enough to win and you expect to win. That’s tough, but we lost fair and square to a team with a lot of heart.”

“I don’t think anyone in this room should be pointing a finger at another guy,” Gretzky also said. “I think you should look yourself in the mirror.

That raw-eyed 99 from just now I imagine standing there with his gear only half-off, naked to the shoulderpads, sadly sockfooted. But by the time Robin Finn of The New York Times got to studying him, he was showered and dressed. “His face freshly scrubbed and every burnished hair in place,” Finn wrote, “he stood and faced wave upon wave of microphones and pointed questions. He wore a white shirt and a brown tie flecked with dots of royal colors, and flecked, too, with stray tears. But Gretzky was in control, and the only evidence of his distress was in the fluttering of his eyelids as he politely answered all queries concerning his dethroning.”

Grant Fuhr said, “It was right on the back of my leg. I was trying to get back in the net, but I didn’t expect it to go through the crease.” He told someone else, “I can never recall a goal going in in like that. You never expect something like that. I’m not real big on losing.”

Smith played not another second of the third period following the goal he scored on Berezan’s behalf. That was Edmonton coach Glen Sather’s decision, of course. “I feel sorry for Smith,” he told reporters when it was all over, “but I told him he can’t let it devastate him. He’s gonna be a good hockey player. I still think we’re a great hockey club, but I guess we still have some growing to do.”

Smith was devastated, but that didn’t stop him from facing the press. His eyes were wet and red, according to most accounts; Al Strachan, then of The Globe and Mail, has him “sobbing.” Either way, he would be roundly commended for failing to hide himself away. “Sooner or later I have to face it,” he said. Of course he was expected to explain what had happened. “I was just trying to make a pass out front to two guys circling,” an Associated Press dispatch has him saying. “It was a human error. I got good wood on it, it just didn’t go in the direction I wanted.”

Was there not one of those scribbling correspondents who might have stepped up to give the man a hug?

I guess not. Smith went on talking. “I’ve got to keep on living,” the papers all reported next day. “I don’t know if I’ll ever live this down, but I have to keep on living. The sun will come up tomorrow.”

It did, revealing new newspaper analyses of what Smith had wrought. George Vecsey of The New York Times called it a “true disaster.” Another reporter there tracked down Rangers’ defenceman Larry Melynk. He’d started the season as an Oiler, only to lose Sather’s confidence and have Smith supplant him before a trade took him to New York. “I would have fired it around the boards,” Melnyk opined. “Just stay with my game. Shoot it around the boards.” He wasn’t gloating, though. “What happened to him could have happened to anybody.”

There were examinations of what had gone wrong with the Oilers for every taste, including the worst possible. David Johnston of The Gazette felt sure that once “hockey pathologists” got around to conducting an autopsy, they would discover that the team had been suffering from “cancers” of both the soul and the mind, which would account for their having (“like Ernest Hemingway”) “turned their formidable weapons on themselves and committed suicide.”

•••

After I published my book Puckstruck in 2014, I had several conversations with passersby at bookstore events who saw my name on the cover and lit up under the lightbulb that appeared over their heads.

Them: Hey. You played for the Oilers.
Me: No, no, not me, different guy. Better hockey player in terms of … everything hockey. And I go by Stephen, mostly.
Them: Oh. So you wrote Steve Smith’s biography?

No. That’s a book, so far, that’s still to be published. Smith hasn’t seen fit to/hasn’t had time for/has no interest in autobiographying — maybe one day? Several other frontline Oilers who’ve written memoirs have, of course, revisited that night in ’86.

Start with Kevin Lowe, whose autobiography/history of Edmonton hockey was guided by Stan and Shirley Fischler. Champions (1988) has this to say:

Steve Smith, our big young defenseman who had replaced the injured Fogie, was behind our net in the left corner looking to make our standard fast-break play. That means the puck goes up the ice pretty quick. Unfortunately, Steve kind of bobbled the puck a bit and he never did get good wood or a handle on it. Since he knew that the objective of the play was to do it as quickly as possible, he moved the rubber without having all the control he should. The puck just sprayed off his stick, hit the back of Grant’s left leg and went into the net. Just like that!

Here’s Jari Kurri, from 17 (2001), in an autobiography he authorized himself to write with Ari Mennander and Jim Matheson:

He tried a long cross-ice pass, but it bounced off the leg of Fuhr and into the net. Fuhr wasn’t hugging the post and Smith was a little too adventuresome. When the puck went in, Smith dove to the ice, covering his face, looking like he wanted the ice to open and swallow him up.

Grant Fuhr has published a couple of books of his own, starting with a manual for would-be puckstops, Fuhr On Goaltending, written with Bob Mummery’s aid and published in 1988. The Smith goal might seem like a perfect teaching moment for such a project as this, but there’s no mention of it, not on the page headed Asleep At The Switch, and not in Communication, either. “Be alert, concentrate on the puck, and stay in the game,” Fuhr advises in the former; in the latter, he specifically references teammates handling the puck behind the net. But only, as it turns out, to remind novice goalkeeps that a defenceman back there must be kept informed about incoming opponents. “Keep up the chatter,” he says.

In 2014, with Bruce Dowbiggin lending a hand, the goaltender published a fuller memoir. But Grant Fuhr: The Story of a Hockey Legend doesn’t go into even as much detail when it comes to “the lovely Steve Smith goal” as Fuhr did the night of. The playoffs, Fuhr concedes, ended on “a crushing note,” which marked “kind of a gloomy end to a gloomy month:” his father had died two weeks earlier. Next up: the Oilers were only a few days into their off-season when Sports Illustrated published an exposé alleging cocaine use by sundry Oilers, including Fuhr.

“That month,” he concludes, “kind of turned everything bad.”

Number 99 got his account out in Gretzky: An Autobiography (1990), which he crafted with Rick Reilly’s help. Here’s how they frame the goal:

Steve Smith was this big, good-looking defenseman of ours, only twenty-three years old, a future star, a Kevin Lowe protégé. He is a real smart player, but that night he made a mistake. He took the puck in our own corner and tried to clear it across the crease: the cardinal no-no in hockey. It’s like setting a glass of grape juice on your new white cashmere rug. You could do it, but what’s the percentage in it? Without a single Flame around, the puck hit the back of Grant’s left calf and caromed back into our net. Hardly anybody in the arena saw it but the goal judge did. The Flames suddenly led 3-2. It was a horrible, unlucky, incredible accident, but it happened. Steve came back to the bench and, for a minute, looked like he’d be all right. But then he broke down in tears.

The fact that Gretzky’s most recent book, 99 Stories of the Game (2016, assist to Kirstie McLellan Day), makes only passing mention of Smith, and none of his infamous goal, might seem to signal that the story has been wholly written, nothing more to say. Two books from 2015 undermine that notion.

I briefly held out some hope that Gail Herman’s Who Is Wayne Gretzky? might prove to be an existential tell-all by 99’s rogue therapist, but it’s nothing like that.

It is, instead, a handsome 106-page biography intended for younger readers. It’s abundantly illustrated by Ted Hammond and (if it does say so itself) “fun and exciting!” The young readers it’s intended for, I’d have to say, would non-Canadian and hockey-oblivious. If you are such a youthful person, an 11-year-old, say, living on a far-flung Scotland Hebride that wifi has yet to reach, and yet still, somehow, you’ve developed a curiosity about hockey that so far hasn’t divulged what exactly Brantford, Ontario’s own paragon could do and did, then this is just the book for you, congratulations, and hold on: you are going to learn a lot about Gretzky.

You’re also going to come away with a full understanding of Smith’s renowned goal. Chapter 8 is the where you’ll find what you’re after on that count, the one entitled “Dynasties and Dating.” The latter has to do with what followed after Wayne went to a basketball game in 1987 in Los Angeles and this happened: “American actress and dancer Janet Jones came over to say hello.” More important for our purposes here is what happens two pages earlier, back on the ice as the Oilers battle for the 1986 Cup, and well, guess what.

To Herman, no matter what Steve Smith did, the puck had its own agenda:

Oilers defenseman Steve Smith skated to the net to stop a goal by the Flames. He tried to clear the puck. But the puck hit the Oilers’ goalie, Grant Fuhr, on the leg. Then it bounced into the net.

The graphic generosity Herman pays to Smith is worth noting, too: in Chapter Eight’s six pages, he features in no fewer than three line-drawings, which is as many as Janet Jones gets, just before she becomes Mrs. Gretzky in Chapter Nine.

The Battle of Alberta can’t compete when it comes to illustrations. But what Mark Spector’s 2015 history of the years of Oiler-Flame rivalry lacks in artwork, it makes up with what may be the definitive post mortem, devoting a full 15 pages to what happened that night in a chapter titled “The Right Play The Wrong Way: Oiler Steve Smith’s Unforgettable Goal.”

Spector begins by recounting how, in the immediate aftermath of what he calls “the worst experience of [Smith’s] life,” the wretched defenceman found a grim joke to offer. “I got good wood on it,” Spector has him telling reporters. “I thought the puck went in fast.”

Maybe that’s right. But looking back at the contemporary accounts, only the first phrase seems to have appeared in any of the immediate coverage of the game in the spring of 1986.

Reporters at the scene who took down “I got good wood on it” tend to have heard what came next as “it just didn’t go in the direction I wanted.” (Kevin Paul Dupont of The Boston Globe heard “but not in the direction I hoped.”) The original is self-deprecating rather than actually humorous, and doesn’t so fully support Spector’s framing premise that Smith was “having a laugh at his own misfortune.” It’s no more than a minor mystery, I’ll grant you. But given the descriptions of the mood in the Oiler room, and of Smith’s own demeanor on the night, I’m skeptical that anyone heard him jibing about the speed of the puck that night. From what I can glean, Spector’s amended version doesn’t seem to have shown up before a 2010 article of Jim Matheson’s in The Edmonton Journal.

Otherwise? Spector calls Smith another mobile defenceman who could fight and play. He describes him as gangly. He asserts that he took nothing for granted and (cleverly) not good enough to feel any entitlement.

Spector does provide a valuable service in breaking down just what Smith was attempting to do. As Kevin Lowe tells him, this was the Oilers’ new quick-up play designed to catch an opponent offguard as they dumped the puck in and changed. The centreman and maybe a winger would be waiting high up on the opposite boards, over by the penalty boxes. “You just went back and you almost didn’t look,” Lowe explained. “You just forced it up to the spot.”

But then: “Fuhrsie was a little late getting back in the net, and Smitty just tried to cut the corner a bit.”

“He’s gonna be a good hockey player,” Glen Sather said back on that April night, and so it proved. When the Oilers roared back in 1987 to win another Cup, Smith and his story arc’d to a perfect redemptive close. “A year after Smith’s mistake,” Spector writes,

after the Oilers had regained their place atop the hockey world with a seven-game ouster of Philadelphia in the Final, Gretzky made a classy gesture when he handed the Stanley Cup to Smith and sent him off on a celebratory whirl around the Northlands Coliseum ice.

It didn’t end there, of course. As noted on the Oilers’ own Heritage website,

Smith persevered and became one of the key players of the team’s drive for three more Cups in 1987, 1988, and 1990. Smith best year came in 1987-88, when he scored 12 goals, added 43 assists, and received 286 penalty minutes. Smith proved he was a tough customer, and the disastrous goal was nothing more than a fluke.

Gretzky has gone even further. Diligent, down the years, in making sure Smith’s name stays cleared, Gretzky has even claimed that the Oilers were actually fortunate to lose in ’86. “I know that sounds strange,” he’s reasoned, “but sometimes you lose for a reason. After that season, we made some changes, got hungrier, and stopped thinking we had sole rights to the Stanley Cup. Maybe Smith wonus two more Cups. Who knows?”

Smith himself has said that the whole experience was life-changing. “It taught me humility,” he told Spector. Ben Arledge talked to him about this, too, in the ESPN piece. “I really believe that incident had a lot to do with making me a much humbler person,” Smith said to him. “It probably taught me more about humility than a person could ever learn. From that day forward, I sincerely cheered for people. I didn’t want to see people fail. I didn’t want to ever see people have that type of day.”

Mark Spector’s Battle of Alberta chapter comes with a fairly perfect ending, in which Smith tells of playing a subsequent pre-season game in Calgary. The fact that Spector doesn’t bother to date it could indicate that he (a) preferred to render it as legend as much as a fact or (b) couldn’t be bothered. It did happen, on a Tuesday night, September 25, 1990, in front of a crowd of 20,132 fans who, as usual, called for Smith to “shooooot” every time he touched the puck. Smith was prepared, having warned Oilers’ goaltender Bill Ranford that there might come a point in the game where he actually did just that. “And,” Smith told him, “you’d better fuckin’ stop it.”

And so it happened, in the first period, that Smith lobbed a backhand at Ranford that the goaltender did, indeed, save. Smith raised his stick to the Calgary faithful who, it’s reported, laughed.

“The whole place stood up and gave me a standing ovation,” Smith tells Spector. “It was kinda cool. For the most part, they left me alone after that.”

(Drawings: Ted Hammond, from Gail Herman’s Who Is Wayne Gretzky?)

 

 

 

 

this week: out there at twilight with a big machete, chopping up a beaver dam

maclean's room

As the Toronto Maple Leafs approach their centennial, the team is thinking of maybe updating, altering, or otherwise rejigging their logo — possibly. That was the news today, from the website sportslogos.net, quoting “sources” and hinting at plans for new sweaters, some of which may or may not be St. Patricks-green.

“Centennial plans will be announced in the New Year,” Dave Haggith, senior director of communications for Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, was telling Kevin McGran, from The Toronto Star. “We won’t be commenting until that time. There’s some fun stuff planned.”

Erik Karlsson is the most game-changing defenceman since Bobby Orr, said Adam Gretz this week at CBS Sports. And he is only getting better. (Italics his.)

The city of Edmonton commissioned artist Slavo Cech to fashion a small steel sculpture of a bison to present to former Oilers coach and GM and dynasty-builder Glen Sather this week. Cech, an Oilers fan, was honoured. “It’s not hockey-related,” he said, “but he’s more than hockey, right?”

“It’s difficult for me to put in my words the gratitude I feel for this honour,” Sather said on Friday night as a banner bearing his name lifted to the rafters of Rexall Place. “My sincere wish is that every one of you in this building gets to experience something, anything in your life that makes you feel like I’m feeling right now: the luckiest person on earth.”

New-Look Leafs: A Globe and Mail correspondent browsed the aisles at a Jordanian refugee camp earlier this week.

Brand New: A Globe and Mail correspondent browsed the aisles at a Jordanian refugee camp earlier this week.

“I say,” tweeted Don Cherry, “what kind of a world would we live in without the police?”

Everyone who paid attention to the New York Rangers’ advanced stats saw their struggles coming, said someone, on social media, somewhere.

On the ice in Boston a week or two back, it’s possible that a Bruin winger, Brad Marchand, may have kneed a Ranger goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, in the head. Boston coach Claude Julien said that Lundqvist was acting.

“Who would you rather have as a son,” said his New York counterpart, Alain Vigneault, “Henrik or Brad Marchand?”

David Akin of The Toronto Sun reported this week that hockey historian Stephen J. Harper has been sighted just twice in the House of Commons in Ottawa since he lost his day-job as prime minister of Canada in October. Akin writes:

His front-row seat is immediately to the left of the Speaker. That location lets the former prime minister enter and exit the House with little fanfare and without having to go near the press.

Paul Martin used the same seat after his Liberals lost the 2006 election.

To pass the albeit brief time he’s spent in the Commons, Harper arrived last time with a book: A just published biography by Eric Zweig of Art Ross, the Hockey Hall of Famer, NHL founding father, and long-time member of the Boston Bruins. Harper is a big hockey history buff.

Speaking of the Speaker, there’s a new one, Harperside: Nova Scotia Liberal MP Geoff Regan. He was on CTV’s Question Period today comparing the House of Commons to a hockey game.

“Only certain people get to play and it’s shaped in a lot of ways like an arena, with the two sides,” said Regan.

“And the people who aren’t actually in the game, they’d like to be in the game, and sometimes want to react to something, want to say something, the way you’d see at a game. But we’re not in a rink. We’re in the House of Commons.”

“I just love anything Michael Keaton is in,” Don Cherry told Jim Slotek of Postmedia.

Sather was a master psychologist: that’s what a defenceman who worked his blueline, Steve Smith, told Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal. “You can take Roger Neilson, maybe the best Xs and Os guy, but he didn’t win, maybe because he didn’t have the players elsewhere. But Glen managed all these personalities in Edmonton. That’s a special art to manage all those guys and keep them happy. It’s like Phil Jackson in basketball. He understood his players in Chicago and what buttons to push.”

“It was the managing of people that made Glen really good.”

No Logo: Leaf fans weighed in at The Toronto Star earlier today, hours after word of a possible new logo emerged online.

No Logo: Leaf fans weighed in at The Toronto Star earlier today, hours after word of a possible new logo emerged online.

Fighting is on its way out of the NHL, mostly everybody agreed this week — as they have been agreeing, more or less, since the season started in early October.

A kinder, gentler NHL is taking shape, said Dave Feschuk of The Toronto Star:

Given the rise in concern about the permanent nature of head injuries, there is also, in some eyes, a growing mutual awareness of the ultimate fragility of the human condition.

“Back in the day it used to be pretty malicious,” said Nazem Kadri, the only Leafs player who’s been penalized for fighting this season. “I think guys now respect the game and respect each other’s bodies and hope nobody gets seriously injured. I mean, anytime you see someone go down, it’s a frightening feeling because you know it could be you.”

Back in October, The Globe and Mail ran an editorial at that time to bid farewell to the age of the goon, noting that the NHL might even be showing signs of getting serious about dealing with its concussion problem. And yet:

… if players are still allowed to punch each other in the head during prolonged, staged fights, what’s the point? It is hypocritical to express concern for concussions on the one hand, and allow fighting on the other.

Pierre LeBrun of ESPN was wondering the same thing this week. “Shouldn’t we be asking why the NHL still allows bare-knuckle fighting?” he wrote in a piece you’re advised to read for yourself. “I’ve said this before, but it just seems so hypocritical to have introduced Rule 48 (illegal hit to the head) in 2010 but still allow bare-knuckle punches.”

More required reading: writing at Vice Sports, Dave Bidini’s take on the complicated cultural significance of fighting is a smart, counterintuitive view you haven’t heard before.

“My big heroes,” continued Don Cherry, “are Sir Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson, and Lawrence of Arabia. I really loved Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”

A latterday Oiler, Taylor Hall, on Sather:

“He was a guy who brought everyone together; he seemed like a great button-pusher. Having that much skill and that much talent on your team isn’t an easy thing.”

Blackhawks preternatural confidence rubs off on new players

was a recent headline on a Mark Lazerus feature in Chicago’s Sun-Times in which the coach praised his captain, Jonathan Toews:

Joel Quenneville calls it a “competitive” nature, that the Hawks, perhaps more than any team he’s ever played for or coached, are better physically prepared and better mentally equipped to handle any situation. And he said it starts at the top, with the captain.

“As a coaching staff, you’re in a good spot knowing that the message is always there [about] doing things the right way,” Quenneville said. “Guys definitely notice Jonny’s intensity and professionalism right off the bat.”

 Don Cherry gave another Postmedia interview, this one to Michael Traikos:

Q: Is it OK that enforcers have been run out of the league?

A: I never ever believed in guys that should sit there for two periods and then get thrown out there for a minute and fight. I never believed in that. I call that ‘Mad Dog Thinking.’ I remember with my Boston Bruins, we had more tough guys than any team and every one of them got 20 goals. That’s what they have now. Every one of them can play the game. And that’s the way it should be. You should never have a guy sitting on the bench like a mad dog.

A Nashville rookie named Viktor Arvidsson used his stick to neck-check a Buffalo defenceman, Carlo Colaiacovo. The former left the game with a five-minute major and a game misconduct on his record; the latter departed with what the Sabres at first classed, inevitably, as an upper body injury.

His coach, Dan Bylsma, had an update following the game: “Carlo is doing OK. He got the cross check to the throat. He did go to the hospital; he’s there now. I guess they’re saying he has a dented trachea.”

Bryan Trottier wrote a letter to his youthful self and posted it at The Player’s Tribune for himself to read, along with everybody.

When you tell people how you learned to skate later in life, they’ll think you’re messing with them. They’re not going to believe how your handyman father would clear off the frozen creek across from your house after a snowstorm. You know how he walks out there at twilight with a big machete and floods the creek by chopping up a beaver dam? That’s not a normal thing. Other kids’ dads have Zambonis, or at least a hose. Your dad has a machete and some Canadian know-how. Thanks, Mr. Beaver.

Sometimes you just have to go out to the beaver dam with a machete and start chopping wood.

Brandon Prust of the Vancouver Canucks paid $5,000 last week to spear Boston’s Brad Marchand in the groin.

“Best money I’ve ever spent,” Prust told reporters.

Why did he do it? “It was frustrations,” Prust explained. “It happens out there. I wasn’t trying to injure him. I was just coming back as the puck was coming back up the boards. On my swing by, I got my stick active.”

 “It wasn’t that hard,” he said. “He sold it pretty good. I saw him laughing on the bench afterwards.

Marchand, for his part, was only too glad to talk about what happened to Amalie Benjamin of The Boston Globe. “I think it was Prust,” he said. “I didn’t really see who did it when it happened, but just kind of gave me a jab, got me in the fun spot.”

Assuming it was who it may have been, Marchand understood. “Honestly,” he continued, “even if he wasn’t fined, I wouldn’t have been upset. It’s fine that he is, but I wouldn’t want to see him lose that much money over what happened. I think suspensions are worthy when guys get hurt or it’s a really bad shot. Like I said, I’ve done that before, lots of guys do that all the time. It is what it is. It’s part of the game.”

On he went, and on:

“It clearly doesn’t feel good,” Marchand said. “It hurts, so whether you’re upset at someone or you want to take a shot, it’s an easy place to target. You know it’s going to hurt. I think that’s why a lot of guys do it.

“A lot of guys take cheap shots, when there’s that much emotion in the game and it happens all the time. If you’re down by a few goals, if you’re having a bad game, someone takes a shot at you, someone says the wrong thing, guys get upset and they take shots at guys. I think it’s just human nature.

“There’s a lot of good players that take jabs at guys. People can say whatever they want. I’m not overly upset about what happened. It’s part of the game. I’ve done it. I’m sure he’s done it before. I’m sure it won’t be the last. It won’t be the last time I do it. It is what it is. It’s part of hockey.”

prust fine

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journeyman, scrapper, tomato: I always liked playing

1976-77 O-Pee-Chee WHA #56 Glen Sather

The Edmonton Oilers are honouring erstwhile captain, coach, GM and president Glen Sather tonight, ahead of their game against the New York Rangers, for whom he left them. Now 72, the pride of High River, Alberta, oversaw five Oiler Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s, of course, with teams of Gretzkys and Messiers, Kurris and Coffeys, Lowes and Fuhrs, and now a banner bearing his name will hang with theirs in the rafters of Rexall Place.

With Sather stories trending today all around the Alberta capital, you’re advised to take in a few choice offerings from veteran Oiler-watchers like Jim Matheson at The Edmonton Journal and Terry Jones at The Edmonton Sun. The Oilers, too, are savouring Sather at their website.

Peter Gzowski got to know Sather when he spent the 1980-81 season embedded with the young, rising Oilers. His first impressions, from the inimitable book that followed, The Game of Our Lives (1981):

He has light hair and a pale complexion that rouges when he is emotional. When he was a player, his nickname, Slats, which is still used by those who are or would be his friends, occasionally gave way to Tomato. There are blushes on his cheeks tonight.

“I played my first game as a pro in this rink,” he says. “No, wait, I played my first game as a defenceman here.”

Sather sometimes has difficulty remembering the details of his career. He was a prototypical journeyman, a scrapper. In nine seasons, he played for six teams: Boston, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, St. Louis, Montreal, and Minnesota. He racked up an impressive number of penalty minutes, 724, but a paltry number of goals, 80. Wherever he went, he impressed both his coaches and his teammates with his competitive zeal. “You can tell it’s getting close to the playoffs,” Vic Hadfield, then the captain of the New York rangers, wrote in a diary he kept for the season of 1972-73. “Slats is getting bitchy.” Hadfield, the thirty-second highest goal-scorer in NHL history, sits down the pressbox from Sather tonight, smoking a cheroot. In the off-season, he is a successful golf professional, and the owner of substantial golfing real estate. But in hockey he is a part-time scout for the Oilers and Sather is his boss.

“I thought you were a defensive forward,” someone says to Sather.

“Yeah, sure,” he replies. “But sometimes they put me back on defence.” His mind seems to be somewhere else for a moment. “Jeez, I liked playing,” he says. “I always liked playing.”

(1976-77 O-Pee-Chee WHA card image courtesy of Hockey Media)

veal scallopini sather, with a side of beef gretzky stir-fry

The Edmonton Oilers published a cookbook during the 1980-81 season as fundraiser for the Evelyn Unger School for Language and Learning Development. I don’t know what they were selling it for, but I can report that the cerlox-bound, 62-page epic includes everything you need to know to whip up Jari Kurri’s Karelian Ragout, Glenn Anderson’s Cherry Cheese Cake, and/or a Kevin Lowe Tourtiere. Not to mention:

gretzky beef

sather veal

messier cake

[notes and annotations] dave dryden

Where once there was only a blog, now there’s a book, too: this month, Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession went on sale at booksellers across Canada and the United States. If you get to reading it, and you make it as far as page 402, you’ll find yourself steered back here, to puckstruck.com, for a list of sources cited and quoted. That’s coming next week; stay tuned.

The same page in the book also mentions notes and annotations. Those will be appearing here on the blog on an ongoing basis through the course of the winter. They’ll include outtakes, updates, oddments, detours, dead-ends, and goose-chases as well as, like today’s installment, illustrations. They’ll appear first here on the front page of the site, according to no particular schedule, in no special order; later, they’ll migrate to the Notes page, navigable via the contents bar above. They’ll refer to a page number in (and perhaps quote a passage from) the book which, as may already have been mentioned, is on sale now.

dave dryden

[p. 322]

In my Dave Dryden drawing, when I look at it now, I can see no Dave Dryden. Studying the eyes — well, there aren’t any, just a vacant mask. The rest of his equipment is stacked up artfully, with the help of coat hangers or pipe cleaners. Dave himself didn’t even notice this, or else he was too polite to say anything. I’d sent the drawing to my grandfather in Edmonton, and he’d passed it on to the Oilers. What was I thinking, sending him a drawing of his empty equipment? He autographed it anyway, and returned it with his regards.

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