winged wheeler dealer
emile francis, 1926—2022
A birthday today for Art Ross, the man who defined and built and (for 30 years) guided the Boston Bruins, who was born in Naughton, Ontario, near Sudbury, on a Tuesday of this date in 1885. That’s him up to the left of this undated image, putting his players through their paces at the Boston Arena on St. Botolph Street. The message on the boards behind him: The Management Will Not Be Responsible For Accidents On The Ice. I’d venture that this is the either the 1926-27 season or the following one. The goaltender at ease by Ross might be Doc Stewart. Eddie Shore is easy to pick out among the stoppers-and-starters, facing the tall, capped figure of #3, Lionel Hitchman. #8 might be Archie Briden (or Dutch Gainor?) and folded-over #9 (maybe) Harry Oliver. #15 could be Hago Harrington. Bottom left, with stick raised, that looks like Dit Clapper, I think, no?
Below, Ross takes a call in 1954, the year he retired. Beyond his Bruinsing, of course, Ross was a scintillating player in his own right, a coach of the NHL’s long-lost Hamilton Tigers, an NHL referee, and a tireless thinker on and innovator of hockey equipment, rules, and strategies. Art Ross died in 1964 at the age of 79.
the dawn-defying whoopee
A birthday today for Lester Patrick, legendary rushing defenceman (and stopgap goaltender), hockey innovator, and architect of the New York Rangers, born in Drummondville, Quebec, on a Monday of this date in 1883. Here he is, with headgear, at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto in April of 1940, when his Rangers seized the (detachable) Stanley Cup from the Maple Leafs in six games. Patrick was 56 that year, and just GM, having handed over coaching duties that year to Frank Boucher after 13 seasons on the bench. This was the sixth Cup of Patrick’s illustrious career. It was the Rangers’ third championship; they wouldn’t win a fourth (as New York fans might remember) until 1994. Cavorting with Patrick are Rangers (from left) Bryan Hextall and Neil Colville.
“Pandemonium reigned in the Ranger dressing room,” a CP dispatch noted of events at Maple Leaf Gardens before the party moved over to the Royal York, “as [Toronto] manager Conn Smythe and members of the Leaf team congratulated the New York players. In their own quarters, the Leafs proved good losers and many of them later joined the Rangers in the dawn-defying whoopee.”
Stu Cowan at Montreal’s Gazette doesn’t think that Patrick Roy will be the Canadiens’ next GM: Mathieu Darche and Daniel Brière look like the leading candidates to him.
And Roy himself? He’s made his interest in the job abundantly clear. “What do they have to lose by trying me?” he wondered, possibly rhetorically, a few days ago. “Since 1993, the club has been going in circles,” the former Colorado Avalanche coach elaborated. “What do they have to lose by giving me the chance to see what I can do with this club? At the same time, I understand the situation. The club is owned by Geoff Molson and he’s the one pulling the strings. It’s his team and at the end of the day I might not be the guy for him. I accept that.”
We’ll see what happens. But even if Roy’s arrival onto the Montreal job scene isn’t imminent, we can, in these early days of December, clang a bell to mark the 26th anniversary of Roy’s departure from the club.
Roy, of course, steered Montreal to a pair of Cup championships in the salady days of 1986 and ’93. Those wilted significantly on a Saturday night in December of ’95. Canadiens were hosting the Detroit Red Wings, if that’s the verb: the visitors pumped nine goals past Roy on 26 shots on their way to an 11-1 whupping.
“Nobody died,” then-Gazette sports editor Red Fisher autopsied the next day, “but this was, truly, a night in hell for the Canadiens, as a team, and for Roy in particular.”
Pulled by coach Mario Tremblay in the second period, an infuriated Roy made a beeline for Canadiens president Ronald Corey, perched in his seat just behind the team’s bench, to purge his soul, pronounce his truth, predict his future. “This,” Roy seethed, “is my last game in Montreal.”
And so it was. Four days later Roy was headed to Colorado in the best hasty deal that GM Réjean Houle could scrabble together, joining captain Mike Keane on a rail out of town that led to Colorado. Some in Montreal might need reminding that it was Andrei Kovalenko, Martin Rucinsky, and Jocelyn Thibault who came back the other way. Most Canadiens fans won’t have forgotten that it was just a year later the Avalanche (and Roy) won a Stanley Cup championship.
paying for it with punch
Could be, I guess, that Punch Imlach’s job experience as a youthful bank teller shaped the methods he used, later on, as an NHL coach.
Imlach, who died of heart failure at the age of 69 on a Tuesday of this same date in 1987, piloted the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, including the team’s last (er, most recent) championship in 1967. He also had several stints as GM of the Leafs, and served, in his time, as coach and GM of the Buffalo Sabres.
“Crusty and short-tempered at the best of times,” is how Donn Downey described Imlach in an obituary in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “No-one disputed his astute knowledge of hockey, but when it came to people, Mr. Imlach lacked what is referred to in the personnel offices as communication skills.”
“He understood players in terms of the six-team league when hockey jobs were scarce and bargaining between a player and management usually consisted of five words: take it or leave it.”
As a young centreman growing up in Toronto, Imlach played for Ed Wildey’s junior Young Rangers, and it was Wildey who got him a job at the Dominion Bank in the late 1930s. The salary was eight dollars a week, with all the bank-league hockey he could play thrown in as a bonus.
The value of a buck did re-surface as a bit of a theme during Imlach’s tenure with the Leafs. There’s the famous scene in March of 1960, for instance, when Toronto was down a game in their Stanley Cup semi-final against the Detroit Red Wings.
Ben Ward of the Canadian Press described Imlach’s pre-game prepping of his team:
Just before the start of the game, while the Leafs were warming up, Imlach dropped 10 wads of $1 bills on the dressing room floor and scrawled this message on the blackboard:
“Take a good look at the centre of the floor. This represents the difference between winning and losing — $1,250.”
The money represents the extra pay for each player on the clubs reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
(Toronto won that game, and the series, to make the finals, though they fell there to the Montreal Canadiens.)
Imlach was also fond of fines.
In 1967, when defenceman Tim Horton delayed his arrival to the Leafs’ training camp in Peterborough, Ontario, in a contract dispute, Imlach declared that he’d be penalized $500 plus a further $25 for each additional day he missed.
A year later, Imlach celebrated the NHL’s new era by decreeing that each Leaf would be fined $100 for every game Toronto lost to an expansion team. This seems to have been a post-Christmas measure imposed in early 1968, after the defending champions had already dropped games to the neophyte Oakland Seals, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, and Pittsburgh Penguins.
It doesn’t seem to have worked quite as effectively as the coach might have wished: by mid-February, the Leafs were down $300 a man after losing again to the Seals, Flyers, and Kings.
Imlach also fined his players $5 every time they gave the puck away in a game. I don’t just how long this was in effect, or how much it raised, though I’d love to know the totals and the dressing-room grumbling associated with that.
The money accrued did find its way back to the players, it turns out: in the ’60s, at the end of each season, the Leafs gathered with wives and partners for an annual Giveaway Party, funded by their own on-ice sloppiness.
Imlach avoided these occasions, usually, until 1969. “He had always been invited,” the Globe and Mail noted that spring, “but stayed away so the players wouldn’t feel crimped with the boss around.” The venue that April was the midtown restaurant Ports of Call, located at the time on Yonge Street, where today the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto has its offices.
Imlach and his wife Dodo sat at a table with Bob and Rosyln Pulford, Paul and Eleanor Henderson, Bibs and Norm Ullman, and assistant trainer Tommy Nayler. Nobody felt crimped, apparently — but then Imlach wasn’t the boss any longer: he’d been fired as Leafs coach and GM three days earlier, within two minutes of the team’s having been swept out of the playoffs in the first round by the Boston Bruins.
sons of sea-captains, butchers, hod-carriers, haberdashers: a short history of managing in montreal
The Montreal Canadiens fired GM Marc Bergevin yesterday, two dismal days after the team made some unhappy history: Friday’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres meant that Montreal’s 12 meagre points in 22 games are the fewest the team has gathered to open a season in all of the 104 years it’s played in the NHL.
Bergevin, who lasted nine years in the job, ended his tenure with a gracious statement. “The last years have been high in both emotions and learnings,” it read, in part. “You have witnessed my journey leading the organization. You won’t be surprised to hear me say it has not been a long, quiet river, and at times, it felt like we were living in a TV show. Despite the challenges, the organization I led with passion always fought back. For me, each experience, good or bad, made me a better leader.”
Seventeen men have now managed the Canadiens since the club was founded in 1909. For those keeping count, 12 of Montreal’s historical GMs were born in Quebec, four in Ontario, while one (Léo Dandurand) originated in Illinois. Five of them played for the team before they moved into the team’s executive suite, Bob Gainey being the most recent of those.
Before owner Geoff Molson names an 18th GM, here’s a quick journey back down the river with Bergevin’s predecessors in the job, going back to Montreal’s NHA start:
• Joseph Cattarinich was a goaltender, the Canadiens’ very first, in 1910, though he didn’t last long between the Montreal posts: he was soon supplanted by Teddy Groulx and, the following season, Cattarinich and Jack Laviolette signed up Georges Vézina, a stripling goaltender from Chicoutimi, to take care of future Montreal’s puckstopping. Son of a Croatian sailor, Cattarinich was an owner, subsequently, of racehorses and the tracks they ran on, Laviolette was known in business, apparently, as The Silent One and also Silent Joe. He was co-owner of the Canadiens between 1921 and 1935; in the ’30s he was in on a brief effort to put an NHL team in Cleveland.
• Jack Laviolette, Hall-of-Fame defenceman, was a playing manager when managers were also, sort of, coaches, too. His on-ice career ended when he lost a foot in a car accident in 1918. According to the Hockey Hall of Fame, that didn’t keep him from refereeing the benefit game that was organized on his behalf in 1921.
• George Kennedy, son of a sea-captain, was born George Kendall: he changed his named when he got into wrestling. He was good at that, a Canadian amateur champion before he turned to managing other wrestlers, and lacrosse teams, and buying the Canadiens, which he did in 1910, paying Ambrose O’Brien $7,500.
As manager Kennedy shaped the team that won Canadiens’ first Stanley Cup in 1916. “A natural humorist,” he was called in 1921, alongside a tale of a retort of his from a year earlier, during a particularly feisty spell in the NHL rivalry between Ottawa and Montreal. When the Senators’ secretary wired to wonder how many tickets the Canadiens would require for an upcoming game in Ottawa, the reply Kennedy sent back was: “None. None of my friends want to see you or your yellow team again.”
Kennedy was sickened in Seattle in 1917 in the outbreak of Spanish flu that killed Joe Hall and stopped the Stanley Cup finals. He never really recovered his health after that: Kennedy died in 1921 at the age of 39.
• With partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau, Léo Dandurand bought the Canadiens in 1921 (for $11,500) after George Kennedy’s untimely death. Dandurand was, in his time, a busy man, the owner of many horse racing tracks, a boxing and wrestling promoter, and (in 1946) founder of the Montreal Alouettes. In his 14 years managing the Canadiens, Dandurand oversaw three Stanley Cup championships. Among other things, he’s remembered as the man who brought Howie Morenz to Montreal and the owner of a restaurant called Drury’s. Dandurand forbade his players from driving cars because of the risk of leg and hand cramps.
• Ernest Savard was a stockbroker and sometime owner of Montreal’s baseball Royals, who headed up the syndicate that bought the Canadiens for $165,000 in 1935 from Dandurand and Cattarinich. An “expert golfer,” the Gazette called him that year, and “outstanding sportsman.” He served as GM for just a year before handing over to Cecil Hart; one of Savard’s first moves was to name Canadiens captain Sylvio Mantha as the team’s (playing) coach. The appointment, intoned the Ottawa Journal, “was believed to be the start of a re-organization program which it is hope will make the club a dangerous factor in the coming campaign.”
In 1937, when talk arose of Montreal’s two teams possibly amalgamating, Savard said that the Canadiens would never change their name.
• Cecil Hart, an insurance man, coached the Canadiens to a pair of Stanley Cups before he came back to manage them in 1937, insisting that he’d only take the job if the team brought back Howie Morenz to play. Lester Patrick called him “one of the best managers who ever sat on a hockey bench.”
• Jules Dugal was the Canadiens long-time secretary and business manager in 1930s who did some stand-in coaching when Leo Dandurand was indisposed. In 1938, the Montreal Gazette reported that he crossed words with Chicago Black Hawks owner Major Frederic McLaughlin during a heated game at the Forum and also “whipped off his glasses and prepared to trundle into battle” when Bill Tobin, Chicago’s business manager, taunted him.
As Canadiens GM, Dugal got into a hoo-ha in 1940 with Bill Stewart in a game in New York after the referee claimed that Dugal had sent out the Canadiens to “get me” because “I put him out of the arena five years ago and he’s never forgotten.” After the game, Stewart stormed into the Habs’ dressing room, furious about the curses Dugal had been yelling at him and challenging him to a fight, which Dugal didn’t accept. About sending players after the ref, Dugal said, “I’d be crazy to do anything like that. Much as I dislike the man, I would not do a thing like that.”
• Tommy Gorman won a gold medal in lacrosse at the 1908 Olympics. He was a sportswriter and editor at the Ottawa Citizen, too, not to mention, before that, a parliamentary page, at the age of nine. “The other boys used to stuff me in wastepaper baskets,” he recalled. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier is supposed to have seen him bloodied from the bullying and told him to keep the peace.
Gorman started his management career with his hometown Ottawa Senators in the 1920s, winning three Stanley Cups along the way. In 1934, he coached the Chicago Black Hawks to their first Cup; the following year, he was at the helm of the Montreal Maroons when they won the Cup. He coached the Maroons until they folded in 1938 before joining the Canadiens in 1940, overseeing more Cup wins in 1944 and ’46. All in all, Gorman won seven Stanley Cups with four teams.
• Frank J. Selke stood 5’4” in skates. In the later 19th century, his parents emigrated from Poland, when it was still a part of the German Empire. In Berlin, Ontario — it’s Kitchener, now — Selke’s father worked as a labourer and a hod-carrier on construction sites. Selke worked construction himself, and as an electrician; later on, when he wasn’t rearing hockey teams, he raised fancy chickens, Patridge Wyandottes and Golden Pencilled Hamburgs.
For years he worked for Conn Smythe in Toronto, but then they fell out, and in 1946 Selke resigned and joined Montreal as GM. “I’ve never liked the Leafs since we left Toronto for Montreal,” his wife, Mary, told Vern DeGeer in 1964, “but we won’t go into that. Just say I’m a dedicated rooter for the Canadiens. I stand up and cheer like everybody else when we score a goal. And I don’t mind telling you I can boo the referees, too, when they make a mistake.” In Montreal, Selke was on the job for nine Stanley Cup championships. In 1948, he said in a speech that if the boys of Europe had been taught team games and learned how to make national heroes of men like Howie Morenz, “there would be no Hitlers or Stalins necessary for them.”
• Sam Pollock, another nine-time Cup winner, was an English haberdasher’s son. Appointed to the job of Montreal GM in 1964, he was described as a roly-poly little man, as well as a nervous one who often chews on a handkerchief during an interview or a meeting. At 16, when he showed up try out for the Montreal Junior Royals, the coach took one look at him and told him to go home. Everybody assumed that Ken Reardon would be Selke’s successor, but no, wrong. Pollock brought Ken Dryden to Montreal and wangled the trade that allowed the Habs to draft Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, and Larry Robinson.
• Irving Grundman spent seven years as managing director of Montreal’s Forum before he took over from Pollock. Many people thought that Scotty Bowman would get the job, or maybe Ron Caron, but wrong, no. Before he got into rink-running, Grundman ran bowling alleys. He was 50 when he succeed Pollock, described in a profile that years as “a medium-built man” with “gray hair and blue eyes.” His clothes were “handsomely tailored;” his office, on the Forum’s second floor, featured “beige carpeting and beige drapes and several mighty modernistic and expensive paintings on the walls.”
“I grew up near the intersection of Pine and Saint-Laurent in the northeast end of the city,” Grundman attested. “It’s a tough neighbourhood. He was a butcher. I worked for him for 14 years, getting up early in the morning, going to the meat market and plucking chickens. When I look back on those days, running the Canadiens is not a tough job.”
• Serge Savard’s grandfather, Adélard, was a buttermaker in Landrienne, Quebec, who some Sundays refused to eat his supper, as a recent Savardian biography tells it, “feeling that he hadn’t accomplished enough on the weekly day of rest.”
Serge Savard’s association with the Canadiens began as a top prospect when he was 15, and he went on to win eight Stanley Cup championships playing on the team’s defence, overseeing another two as GM. In May of 1995, five months before Savard lost his job, team president Ronald Corey wrote him a memo that began, “The season that ended May 3 was certainly the most disappointing in the history of the Canadiens. We took a step backwards and also suffered significant financial losses.”
• As a player, Réjean Houle’s adjectives were exuberant and effective. As general manager in Montreal, he traded away Patrick Roy, Mike Keane, Mark Recchi, Vincent Damphousse, and Pierre Turgeon. He had tears in his eyes in 2000, when he was fired. “I did the best I could to put together a team within the budget I had,” he said, “and I think we’re in the middle third of the NHL.”
“When a team loses,” he went on, “the coach and the general manager are held responsible, but I think the players have to look themselves in the mirror and ask whether they did the job.”
“I’m 51 and this is the first time in my life I’ll be getting up and I won’t have a job to go to. I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t have any hobbies. I’ve always enjoyed working.”
• The Boston Bruins picked André Savard, sixth overall in the 1973 NHL amateur draft, two spots ahead of Montreal’s choice, Bob Gainey. A centreman, Savard played a dozen NHL seasons for the Bruins, Sabres, and Nordiques. As Montreal’s GM, he brought in Jan Bulis, Andreas Dackall, and Doug Gilmour, among others, and discarded Brian Savage, Trevor Linden, Shayne Corson. After three years as Canadiens’ GM, Savard went into a meeting with club president Pierre Boivin to present his plan for the future of the team and came out having agreed to step down.
• “Gainey’s back? Yes! It’s going to be different now.” That was a Montreal taxi driver, quoted in 2003, en route to the South Shore on the June day that Savard stepped aside to make way for the Habs’ legendary winger to make a Montreal return. Gainey’s mother worked at his hometown newspaper, the Peterborough Examiner; his father spent 40 years in shipping and receiving for Quaker Oats. Gainey’s playerly adjectives were hardworking, painstaking, honest, flawless. He won five Stanley Cups and captained the team. In 1981, Viktor Tikhonov said he was the best player in the world. In Peterborough, as a junior, he got a job putting up TV aerials after he quit the one at a clothing store. “I didn’t sell too many clothes,” he said. “I guess I didn’t have the gift of the gab.”
“I can’t separate myself from my history,” he said when he took over as GM. Yes, he’d played on some famous teams in his time. “But this is new. The city has changed since I left Montreal. The team has changed. I’ve changed. We’re going to have to get to know one another.”
His plan? “We’re going to take the younger players and we’re going to improve them and we’re going to make them better. We’re going to push the players to do the things that need to be done to be a good team. It’s about tomorrow. It’s not about the 1970s … the 1980s or the 1950s.”
Seven years later, 2010, Gainey stepped down mid-season. “I’ve done my best,” he said, “and now it’s time for me to pass the torch.” Was it too soon? “If I had to choose between leaving a little earlier or a little later, I’d prefer earlier.”
• Pierre Gauthier was next. He’d co-managed the Canadian team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and oversaw hockey operations in Ottawa and Anaheim before returning to Montreal, his hometown. In California, when he was assistant GM of the fledgling Mighty Ducks, he fined team employees and players $100 each time they used the word “expansion,” because he thought it sounded like an excuse for losing.
When he arrived in Ottawa, he objected to players wearing big numbers on their sweaters, and caused Radek Bonk (76), Alexandre Daigle (91), and Stanislav Neckar (94) to reduce to 14, 9, and 24, respectively. Otherwise, he kept enough of a low profile with the Senators to earn the nickname The Ghost. “He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Gauthier,” an Ottawa reporter, Wayne Scanlan, wrote in 2012, a vegetarian in a steak-and-beer fraternity.” The flow continued when Gauthier got to Montreal, where columnist Jack Todd called him “a pint-sized bottle of vinegar.” As Canadiens GM, Gauthier was the man who fired the coach, Jacques Martin, who spoke French to hire another one, Randy Cunneyworth, who didn’t.
• Gauthier himself was fired in May of 2012. Introducing his replacement that month, team owner Geoff Molson said that the hiring of Marc Bergevin “represents the first step in re-establishing a culture of winning in Montreal.” Asked at the same press conference just how long it would take to turn the Canadiens’ fortunes around, Bergevin said, “I don’t have a time frame, but my vision of this team is that it has a good nucleus. To rebuild something, you start from scratch. I believe the pieces we have are good.”
charlie burns, 1936—2021
Sorry to hear of the death, late last week, of Charlie Burns at the age of 85. Born in Detroit in 1936, he grew up in Toronto and went on to join the OHA Junior A Marlboros in the early 1950s. He was 19 in 1954, starting his third year with the Marlboros, when he suffered a double skull fracture falling into the boards in an accident at practice. He underwent brain surgery, during which a silver plate was installed to stabilize his skill; he wasn’t expected to play hockey ever again. He recovered and did indeed return to the ice — wearing a helmet.
It was in 1958, with the Allan-Cup-champion Whitby Dunlops of the EOHL that Burns starred at centre at the World Championships in Oslo, Norway, when Canada won gold. His teammates included Harry Sinden and tournament-leading-scorer Connie Broden; a 21-year-old Burns distinguished himself an ace penalty-killer, and was named the tournament’s outstanding forward.
Burns launched into his NHL career that same year, with the Detroit Red Wings, and he went on to play 11 seasons, taking turns over time with the Boston Bruins, Oakland Seals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Minnesota North Stars. Numberswise, his best year was 1968-69, when he notched 13 goals and 51 points for the Penguins.
Midway through the following year, 1969-70, Burns was named playing-coach of the North Stars, succeeding Wren Blair, the man who’d coached him with Whitby a decade earlier. After going 10-22-12 in the regular season, Burns saw his regime come to an end after the North Stars were eliminated in six games in the Stanley Cup quarter-finals by the St. Louis Blues. He does maintain the distinction of being the last playing-coach in NHL history.
After hanging up his skates in 1974, Burns served as assistant GM in Minnesota, making a return to the bench that year when he replaced Jack Gordon. His record that time around was 12-28-2 and in the summer of ’75, Burns gave way to a new coach, Ted Harris, returning to his GM duties.
this week in 1951: frank boucher turns 50, redraws the nhl rink
Frank Boucher’s legacy as an altogether upright and admirable citizen was already well-established in the fall of 1951 as the NHL prepared to launch into its 34th season on ice. Scion of a famous Ottawa sporting family, he’d served as a constable in the RCMP before starting into a stellar career as a pro hockey centreman for Ottawa’s original Senators, the old PCHA Vancouver Maroons, and (most notably) New York’s Rangers.
Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958, Boucher had helped engineer Stanley Cup championships for the Rangers in 1928 and ’33, combining superlative skills with good graces, such that he was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy seven times in eight years in the NHL’s first decades. The respect for fair play he learned, he always said, from his hero, the original winner of the Lady Byng, Frank Nighbor. Boucher took as coach of the Rangers in 1939, and served a decade in the job. By 1951, he was concentrating on his role as the team’s GM — and on refining the hockey that was playing out on NHL ice.
Born in Ottawa in 1901 on a Monday of this past Thursday’s date, October 7, Frank Boucher found himself turning 50 this mid-century week in ’51. He was with his team at training camp in Guelph, Ontario, working with Rangers’ coach Neil Colville to evaluate his team’s talent and, ever an innovator, tinkering with the tenor of the game.
Rangerswise, Boucher considered his team to be 25 per cent better than it had been the previous year, when the Rangers had finished fifth — out of the playoffs — in the six-team NHL.
“The big difference will be in offensive power,” he told Al Nickleson from the Globe and Mail. “Now we have more fellows who can put the puck in the net. One of the new ones, Gaye Stewart, can help us plenty. The team is in much better shape than at this time last year. Centre Ed Laprade looks better right now than he has for the last three seasons and shows no effect from the leg he fractured last winter.”
If the previous season had been a write-off for the Rangers, it did include, for Boucher, at least one rewarding night. In February of ’51, ahead of a Madison Square Garden meeting with the Chicago Black Hawks, the Rangers celebrated Boucher with a generous testimonial. Bill and Bun Cook, Boucher’s old Ranger linemates, were on hand, along with Murray Murdoch, another Ranger original. New York mayor Vincent Impelliterri presented Boucher with the keys to a brand-new black 1951 Studebaker sedan, paid for by fan subscription.
Other gifts included a typewriter (from New York’s hockey writers); a tool chest (from the St. Paul Saints, a Ranger farm team); a pen-and-pencil set (from the MSG Corporation). Ranger captain Frank Eddolls and his Ranger teammates chipped in for a television — and a 5-1 win over the Black Hawks.
In September, as the off-season dwindled away, Boucher was back in the news, advocating for the NHL to institute an amateur draft. The league didn’t get around to doing that, of course, until 1963; in the meantime, as the longtime chairman of the NHL’s Rules Committee, Boucher was doing his best to streamline (and possibly even improve) the game the league was unleashing on the ice day-to-day.
By the first week of October, with the opening of the new season just a week away, Boucher’s mind was on the perennial challenge of how to keep players focussed on playing the hockey they were of capable of rather than concentrating on straying outside the rules to thwart their opponents.
A pre-season report from Guelph noted that he was telling his own players to cut out “hacking, slashing, boarding and other illegal tactics.”
“No particular person is to blame for the type of play that is spoiling the game,” he expounded. “The rules haven’t changed. The only thing needed is for the referees to call the play according to the book, and this rough stuff will be cut out.”
Boucher maintained that the rules committee was all for a crackdown. “Spectators like a good tough check, if it is clean, and the fans, players, club officials, and referees should be told that any rules infractions will be penalized. Then we’ll see some hockey.”
Unleash the league’s stars, Boucher implored. “[Montreal’s Maurice] Richard would be a truly great player if he didn’t have a couple of guys draped around him during a game.”
There’s no record of any official NHL response to Boucher’s opinionating — none that I’ve been able to unearth, anyway. League president Clarence Campbell was focussed on a project of his own: replacing the two 20-foot face-off circles that traditionally flanked NHL nets at either end of the rink with a single one, 30 feet in diameter, directly in front of each goal.
A decade had passed since the NHL’s introduction of the ten-foot circles. They’d been introduced to augment the face-off dots that had been in place since 1937 at the same time as the penalty-shot circle was erased from the high slot. The new-old face-off circle was described in press reports as Campbell’s “brainchild.” It quickly proved unpopular.
Campbell’s motive for refiguring each zone with a single central face-off circle? “It is his idea,” Windsor Star columnist Doug Vaughan explained, “that it will provide spectators with a clearer view of what takes place, livelier action, and prevent a lot of the old jamming along the boards.”
Frank Boucher didn’t agree. “Suicide,” he called it. The central face-off circle was, he said, unfair to goaltenders. “Also,” he argued, “the new circle will only prolong something we have long been trying to eliminate. At least under the old system the teams spread out for a face-off. Now they gang up in a huddle in front of the goal.”
Toronto Maple Leaf managing director Conn Smythe was with him. “In sport,” he ventured, “you want rules that won’t prevent the better side from winning. But you also them so that the better side doesn’t get the advantage of a rule. This new circle gives the advantage top the better team which can put on the pressure and keep the puck in there.”
“A goalie can make a great save, but can’t get rid of the puck before the whistle blows. Then, under this new plan, he’s actually penalized because the face-off is made directly in front of him. That’s not right.”
NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss watched a couple of pre-season games in which the new circle was deployed and came out as another naysayer. “I was for it at first,” he said. “But now, in the last two games I’ve seen, the players seem to be getting on to it, and it’s not working out the way we had hoped.”
Major changes in the rules needed approval from all six teams. “It won’t get it,” Boucher said of unanimous support for Campbell’s plan. Never mind settling for the status quo, Boucher had his own variation to offer: keep the two face-off circles on either side of each net but enlarge them from 20 to 30 feet across.
The Rangers quickly put the expanded circles to the test in a pre-season game against the Black Hawks in Guelph. In Toronto, Smythe had them drawn in at Maple Leaf Gardens for a Leaf scrimmage. Both goaltenders, Turk Broda and Al Rollins, declared them a success.
Clarence Campbell, too, came around. He agreed that his idea posed problems for goaltenders. “We don’t want any rule which makes a good team better at the expense of its opponent,” he conceded. All six team were in favour of Boucher’s fix, Campbell said; it was duly adopted for the new season.