paul thompson, chicago’s high-flying sniper

Born in Calgary on a Friday of this date in 1906, Paul Thompson played 13 seasons in the NHL, five of them as a Ranger in New York, the rest with the Chicago Black Hawks. A younger brother to goaltender Tiny Thompson, Paul was a left winger. Three times he got his name on the Stanley Cup, with the Rangers in 1928, in 1934 and 1938 with the Black Hawks. “Chicago’s high-flying sniper” is a phrase associated with him in ’36, when he finished up third in NHL scoring behind Sweeney Schriner of the New York Americans and Marty Barry of the Detroit Red Wings. Two years later, he was third-best again, this time chasing Gordie Drillon and Syl Apps of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Twice named to the NHL’s All-Star Team, Thompson would go on to coach Chicago for five seasons after he retired from playing in 1939. Here, above, he’s pictured going into his last year steering the Black Hawks and showing of their livery, in September of 1944, just before the team departed for training camp in Hibbing, Minnesota. Paul Thompson died at the age of 84 in 1991.

tangled up in blue

Happy Day: The last Leaf to lead the NHL in regular-season scoring, Gordie Drillon, left, poses with coach Hap Day and defenceman (and future MP) Bucko McDonald. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

Question: who’s the last Toronto Maple Leaf to have led the NHL in regular-season scoring?

The answer, of course, is Gordie Drillon, a right winger who topped the table back in 1937-38, when the league’s eight teams played a 48-game schedule. He finished the year with 26 goals and 52 points, just ahead of his Leafly linemate, centreman Syl Apps, who counted 50 points. Moncton-born in 1913, Drillon died on a Tuesday of this date in 1986 at the age of 72. Big, obstinate, and opportunistic in front of the net, he was a purveyor of what in Phil Esposito’s day would come to be known as the garbage goal, the kind you score at close range, mostly out of pure doggedness, because you’re there with your stick on the ice, refusing to be evicted. Drillon served just four penalty minutes in ’38, and that won him a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy to go with his scoring title. He was also named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team that year, and the next. All of this you’ll find listed in his Hall of Fame profile; he was elevated to that hockey pantheon in 1975.

Given that Drillon played six of the seven seasons he skated in the NHL for the Leafs, you’d think he might rate as one of the team’s all-time greats, except for, well, no, he isn’t, is he, having been more or less booed out of town in 1942. Later Leafs (thinking of you, Larry Murphy; hey there, Jake Gardiner) would find themselves similarly hounded by fickle Leafs fans, accused of — what, exactly? Drillon was deemed to be lazy, a floater, not a team man. None of those subsequent Leafs, I’m going to say, suffered so harshly as him. ’42, was the year Toronto roared back in the finals from three games down to overthrow the Detroit Red Wings in seven games and win the championship. Gordie Drillon got his name on the Cup, but he wasn’t on the ice for the heroics. By then, Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe had turned on him, too, sending word to coach Hap Day to bench him. Drillon was peddled to the Montreal Canadiens that off-season, but he only lasted a year there. He was out of the NHL at 29.

the winter crop of the snow-covered fields

Come for the views from bygone days deep inside the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room, stay for the priceless glimpse of Frank Nighbor out on the pond, schooling the youngsters in the lost art of stealing pucks from charging forwards.

Hot Ice is a short Canadian-government confection from 1940, a meandering piece of propaganda that American director and writer Irving Jacoby devised to congratulate Canadians on the “national folk dance” they practice on skates, with sticks. Morley Callaghan contributed “extra commentary,” the credits say; I guess we can forgive him that. “Wherever they are, whatever they’re doing,” our narrator innocently blathers, “whenever Canadians get together, hockey is news. Good news — good enough to bring us from the fireside, crowds of us — gay, hopeful, good-natured crowd, with faith in their own spirit.” Yay for us, I guess — though the us depicted, it’s worth noting, is so very white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, male. Still, the hockey footage is fascinating. Guided into the Leafs’ dressing room, we find the self-conscious players getting into gear, Red Horner and Sweeney Schriner, Gordie Drillon with some stagey rough-housing, Turk Broda padding up. Here’s trainer Tim Daly showing off his cabinet of salves, and Tommy Nayler at the skate-sharpener  — and coach Dick Irvin taping up Syl Apps’ sore shoulder. Conn Smythe prepping the troops before battle! Or pretending to. The final minutes of Hot Ice take us out onto Maple Leaf Gardens’ ice for Foster Hewitt narrating the Leafs and the New York Rangers having at it. Alf Pike! Bingo Kampman! Muzz Patrick! Ott Heller! Referee Bill Stewart! All of them, and (for some reason) a series of cutaways to fake fans for their insights on the action — and incitements to attack the Ranger goaltender. “Why don’t they hit [Dave] Kerr in the head with a brick?” you’ll hear amid the chatter, should you choose to endure it.

The best part, for me? Back before we get to Leafs and Rangers, at the nine-minute mark or so, there’s a 40-second cameo by a 47-year-old Frank Nighbor. Yes, the Hall-of-Famer just happens to be passing by the old frozen slough where the kids are out playing, and yes, the Peach has his skates on, and his stick — and he just happens to be wearing his old striped sweater from when he helped the 1927 Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup (this very one). It would be great to hear Nighbor’s voice here, instead of the narrator’s, droning on, but never mind: Nighbor is about to show the boys his sweep-check. Pay attention — the demonstration lasts just a few seconds. The sweep may only have been the second-best of Nighbor’s legendary defensive weapons (after the hook-check), not to mention mostly obsolete by 1940 as an effective hockey utensil — still, though, make no mistake, this is like a visit with Monet at Giverny, meeting the artist as he quietly deigns to show you a masterpiece.

congratulations to all — and for aurèle joliat, a big black cat

Rocket-Watcher: Ray Getliffe was a Bruin first, but after four seasons in Boston, he joined Montreal in 1939. He played six seasons for the Canadiens, including 1942-43, when his teammates (see below) deemed him to be one of their most effective penalty-killers. Born in Galt, Ontario, this very week in 1914, he died in 2008, aged 94. Another claim for his fame? He’s the man credited with coining one of hockey’s most enduring nicknames. In 1942, the story goes, he commented that teammate Maurice Richard skated like, yes, a rocket.

No more will Canadiens play in Montreal this season: it’s all over there for another year. The team does have one last road game, in Toronto on Saturday, but at the Bell Centre, it’s all over, now, but the raw, animal moaning.

Amid the disappointment of a inferior year, the team did find some achievement to celebrate this week, and there was silverware to go with. Brendan Gallagher was named winner of this year’s Molson Cup, team’s de facto Player of the Year award, as measured by three-star selections.

Paul Byron got the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy, by which local media celebrate a player whose exploits have gone otherwise unsung — or, as the team phrases it, the member of the team who played a dominant role during the regular season without earning any particular honour.

The Molson dates back to 1973, when Ken Dryden won it. Since then, it’s been awarded to many likely achievers (Guy Lafleur and Carey Price, seven times each one) along with some others who qualify as lesser lights — Wayne Thomas, Steve Penney, Cristobal Huet.

Named for the venerable newspaperman who worked his words in both Montreal-Matinand Le Journal de Montreal, the Beauchamp was established in the 1981-82 season, when Doug Jarvis was the inaugural winner. Others who followed him have included the quietly contributing likes of Craig Ludwig, Lyle Odelein, Jan Bulis, and Steve Begin.

Further back in Canadiens history? The Montreal branch of Mappin and Webb, jewelers and silversmiths, does seem to have donated trophies on the Molson model in the 1920s with a notion of recognizing local excellence. Details are sketchy, but the lost, lamented Maroons seem have embraced this more than Canadiens. Babe Siebert won the Maroons’ Mappin and Webb Trophy as team  MVP in 1928, while Jimmy Ward was the man for the Maroons in 1931.

The only instance of Canadiens awarding a Mappin and Webb Trophy that I can trace is at the end of the 1927-28 season. Ahead of their last regular-season game at the Forum, before they went out and whupped Ottawa 4-0, Canadiens paraded the year’s haul of hardware — and pets.

NHL President Frank Calder handed over the O’Brien Cup, still the prize in those years for the NHL team finishing first overall. As the league’s top goaltender, George Hainsworth collected his second consecutive Vézina Memorial Trophy. In reporting that Howie Morenz got the Mappin and Webb, the Gazette noted that it specifically recognized his MVPlaying during the team’s homegames.

Also, that the crowd at the Forum was pleased to see Morenz acknowledged, giving him “a stirring ovation.” La Patrie: “une immense acclamation salua ce geste.”

The fans had further tributes to offer. In those earliest NHL decades, the die-hardest of the Canadiens’ faithful occupied the 50-cent seats in the upper gallery of the Forum’s north-end. They were, largely, French-speaking and working-class, and they proudly identified as the Millionaires.

Apart from devotedly hailing their heroes, these fans often rewarded the Montreal players, as they did on this night in 1928. George Hainsworth was the pre-game recipient of four-leaf clover, described in the papers as both “massive” and “metallic.”

Better yet was what the fans had in store for Morenz’s linemate Aurèle Joliat.

He, delightfully, was presented with a black cat, on a string. The Gazettereported that giftand giftee “immediately got into a scratching battle.” La Patrie said nothing of that, describing the cat (in translation) as “big” with“nice, smooth fur,” an altogether “beautiful beast.” Also: “Joliat, a little surprised at the gift at first, accepted it with good humor and offered to take good care of it.”

I’d be glad to know (a) the cat’s name, as well as (b) what became of it and (c) did anyone think that making such a fuss over a black cat boded ill for the team’s playoffs run? Please get in touch if you have leads. I can confirm that while Canadiens did pass on a bye to the semi-finals, they were eliminated there in two games by the Maroons, who in turn failed to beat the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals.

One last stop on a tour of in-house recognitions of old might take us to October of 1942. Canadiens had gone 11 years without a championship at that point, and would be waiting another two seasons before they found themselves raising the Cup again. Still, Dick Irvin’s players were apparently feeling loose and confident enough as their pre-season wound down to take a poll among themselves to predict at least some of what was to come in the campaign ahead.

This was, I think, an enterprise cooked up by a newspaperman (Dink Carroll, possibly) from the Gazette, where the results were published. The consensus among the players was that they’d finish the season with 56 points. Most of them, 10, thought that this would be good enough for third place in the six-team NHL, while four predicted they’d finish second. Just one was bold enough to say they’d come in first. (As it turned out, Canadiens finished the 50-game schedule with 50 points, good enough for fourth place and the last playoff spot.)

Individually, 11 of 15 players voted that goaltender Paul Bibeault would be the team’s outstanding player. (Winger Joe Benoit, with two, came second.) Bibeault did end up playing in all 50 games, finishing with a record of 19-19-12, which was good enough (I guess), though among his NHL peers, the only statistical categories he led at season’s end were the ones headed Most Losses(he tied with Toronto’s Turk Broda) and Goals Against.

Also in their pre-season poll, the players decided that Gordie Drillon, newly acquired from the Leafs, would lead the team in goals, with 23, followed by Benoit (22) and captain Toe Blake (21). (In fact, Benoit got 30, Drillon 28, and Blake 23.)

The players voted Jack Portland and Elmer Lach as the fastest skaters among them. Benoit was deemed best stickhandler, while Buddy O’Connor was the best puck-carrier. Rating penalty-killers, they couldn’t decide between Charlie Sands and Ray Getliffe, pictured here. They each collected seven votes.

maurice richard had a bad night; fern majeau picked up a pocketful of pennies

Punch-Line Original: Joe Benoit played three seasons for the Canadiens in the early 1940s before the war interrupted his skating. He returned after it was all over, in 1946-47, but only briefly.

Seventy-four years ago tonight, Maurice Richard had a terrible night.

That’s not the anniversary that tends to be observed, of course. Seems like people prefer to recall that it was on a night like this in 1943 that Montreal coach Dick Irvin debuted a brand new first line, one featuring wingers Toe Blake (left) and Maurice Richard (right) centred by Elmer Lach, that would soon come to be known, then and for all time, as the Punch Line.

October 30 was a Saturday in 1943, and it was opening night for four of the NHL’s six teams. Montreal was home to the Boston Bruins. After an injury-plague start in the Canadiens’ system, Richard, 22, was healthy. Having played just 16 games in 1942-43, he was ready to start the season as a regular. The Canadiens had lost some scoring over the summer: Gordie Drillon was gone and so was Joe Benoit, both gone to the war. The latter had scored 30 goals in ’42-43, leading the Canadiens in that department as the right winger for Lach and Blake. That line was already, pre-Richard, called Punch, with Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald claiming that he’d been the one to name it.

Richard didn’t recall this, exactly. In autobiography Stan Fischler ghosted for him in The Flying Frenchmen (1971), Richard erred in saying that he took Charlie Sands’ place on the Punch Line rather than Benoit’s.

Roch Carrier added a flourish to the story in Our Life With The Rocket (2001), a poetic one even if it’s not entirely accurate.

Richard’s wife Lucille did (it’s true) give birth to a baby girl, Huguette, towards the end of October of 1943, just as Montreal’s training camp was wrapping up in Verdun. True, too: around the same time, Richard asked coach Irvin whether he could switch the number on his sweater. Charlie Sands wasn’t a Punch Liner, but he was traded during that final week of pre-season: along with Dutch Hiller, Montreal sent him to the New York Rangers in exchange for Phil Watson. Richard had been wearing 15; could he take on Sands’ old 9? “He’d like that,” Carrier has him explaining to Irvin, “because his little girl weighs nine pounds.”

“Somewhat surprised by this sentimental outburst, Dick Irvin agrees.”

Here’s where Carrier strays. To celebrate Huguette’s arrival, he writes, Richard promised to score a pair of goals in the Canadiens’ season-opening game: one for mother, one for daughter. “The Canadiens defeat the Bruins,” Carrier fairytales, “three to two. Maurice has scored twice. And that is how, urged on by a little nine-pound girl, the Punch Line takes off.”

Huguette’s birthday was October 23, a Saturday. The following Wednesday, Richard did burn bright in the Canadiens’ final exhibition game, which they played in Cornwall, Ontario, against the local Flyers from the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Maybe that’s when he made his fatherly promise, adding an extra goal for himself? Either way, the Canadian Press singled him out for praise in Montreal’s 7-3 victory: “Maurice Richard, apparently headed for a big year in the big time, paced Dick Irvin’s team with three goals in a sparkling effort.”

That Saturday, October 30, 1943, the home team could only manage to tie the visiting Bruins 2-2. Montreal had several rookies in the line-up, including goaltender Bill Durnan, who was making his NHL debut. Likewise Canadiens centre Fern Majeau, who opened the scoring. Herb Cain and Chuck Scherza replied for Boston before Toe Blake scored the game’s final tally. The Boston Daily Globe called that one “a picture goal” that same Blake skate by the entire Boston team. “The ice was covered with paper and hats after the red light flashed.”

That was the good news, such as it was. Leave it Montreal’s Gazette to outline what didn’t go so well. “Four Bruins Are Casualties,” announced a sidebar headline alongside the paper’s main Forum dispatch, “Maurice Richard Has Bad Night.” Details followed:

richard oct 30 43 (1)

hockey players in hospital beds: maurice richard, trop fragile pour la nhl

This was the second ankle-break of Maurice Richard’s fledgling career: in 1940, as a 19-year-old, he lower-body-injured himself playing in a game for Montreal’s Quebec Senior league farm team. He returned from that in 1941 … only to suffer a wrist fracture. He was sufficiently mended in 1942 to make the big-league Canadiens before he broke himself again. Richard himself got the timing of this 1942 incident slightly wrong: it happened during Montreal’s late-December game home to the Boston Bruins rather than in an away game earlier in the month, as he told it in the 1971 autobiography he wrote with Stan Fischler’s help.

At the time, a Boston reporter described the scene this way:

Maurice Richard was knocked from the game when elbowed by Johnny Crawford and had to be carried from the ice. There was no penalty …

Here’s Richard’s Fischlerized memory, picking up as headed in Boston territory with the puck on his stick:

The next thing I knew, big Johnny Crawford, the Bruins’ defenceman who always wore a helmet, was looming directly in front of me. He smashed me with a terrific but fair body check and fell on top of me on the ice. As I fell, my leg twisted under my body and my ankle turned in the process.

Once again I heard the deathly crack and I felt immediately that my ankle must be broken. As they carried me off the ice, I said to myself, “Maurice, when will these injuries ever end?”

The awful pattern was virtually the same as it had been the year before, and the year before that! I was out of action for the entire season and missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, too.

Roch Carrier’s version of events is, by no surprise, much the more vivid. From Our Life With The Rocket (2001):

The puck is swept into Canadiens territory. Maurice grabs it. He’s out of breath. For a moment, he takes shelter behind the net. With his black gaze he analyzes the positions of his opponents and teammates, then lowers his head like a bull about to charge. With the first thrust of his skates the crowd is on its feet. It follows him, watches him move around obstacles, smash them. The fans begin to applaud the inevitable goal.

He still has to outsmart Jack Crawford, a defenceman with shoulders “as wide as that.” He’s wearing his famous leather helmet. Here comes Maurice. The defenceman is getting closer, massive as a tank. The crowd holds its breath. Collision! The thud as two bodies collide. Maurice falls to the ice. And the heavy Crawford comes crashing down on him. Maurice lands on his own bent leg. When Crawford collapses on him he hears the familiar sound of breaking bone: his ankle. He grimaces. This young French Canadian will never be another Howie Morenz.

Carrier goes on to describe the dismay with which Montreal management considered this latest setback. Coach Dick Irvin and GM Tommy Gorman offered their fragile winger to both Detroit and the New York Rangers. “The future is uncertain,” Carrier writes. “He wants to play hockey, but it seems that hockey is rejecting him just as the sea in the Gaspé rejects flotsam, as his mother used to say. Maybe his body wasn’t built for this sport.”

(Ilustration: Henri Boivin, 1948)

the happy gang

Joy Division: As the regular season wrapped up in March of 1938, many pundits thought it would be the New York Rangers playing the Boston Bruins when the playoffs reached their finals and the Stanley Cup was at stake. That’s not quite how it worked out, of course. The Rangers fell at the first fence, making way for the eventual champions from Chicago to forge ahead. As for the Bruins, who finished the season in first overall, they went out to a feisty Toronto team in a semi-final sweep that saw the Leafs take all three games in overtime. Above, some of those victorious Torontonians celebrate in their Boston Garden dressing following their series-clinching 3-2 win on March 29. At the back, from left to right that’s Busher Jackson, Leafs coach Dick Irvin, and Murph Chamberlain. Up front: Bob Davidson helps to hoist game-winning goalscorer Gordie Drillon — Syl Apps is on the other leg. Alongside are Reg Hamilton, Bill Thoms, and Pep Kelly. (Image: Acme)

red alert

horner

If you were reading Maclean’s through the 1930s, mostly what you were seeing week by week on the covers of Canada’s National Magazine were portraits of happy women, most of them young, all of them white and serene-looking, confident, and free from cares. Sometimes they were packing suitcases (June, 1932) or clutching Christmas presents (December, 1933); they played a bit of ping-pong, too, (November, 1932) and also went after garden pests with malevolence and insecticide (May, 1936). They were aviatrixes, in at least four cases (including August, 1931 and May of ’32). A lot of the time, they sported bathing costumes (Julys and Augusts of 1932 + 1933; Augusts, 1935 + 1936; June, 1938; August, 1938).

That’s not to say that Maclean’s only covered young women in ’30s, but about 35 per cent of the time they did. Babies were also abundant (nine of them across 224 issues), along with young boys (usually up to no good) and golfing men (five). Not a lot of diversity there, either, which is to say, none whatever. In October of 1930, unfortunately, a group of happy kids dressed up for Halloween did include a boy in black face.

Hockey players? They were as abundant through the ’30s as Santa Claus, which is to say they fronted Maclean’s just four times that decade. Whether that’s a big distinction or kind of pitiful, well, I don’t know, guess it depends on your outlook. Hockey players did outnumber kings (just two of them made Maclean’s in the ’30s ) and football players and people playing tennis, so that’s … encouraging?

The hockey covers: first up was artist Joseph Farrelly’s impression, in 1933, of a handsome generic skater poised for action in what looks like Ottawa Senators garb, which is thoughtful, given that the original Senators would be folding within the year.

W.V. Chambers painted hockey’s next coverboy, in February of 1935. That’s it here, above: Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenceman Red Horner in a comical funk, cartoonishly fed-up at having been exiled, once again, to the penalty bench.

Hockey didn’t yet have goons in those years, what it had was bad men, among whom Horner was one of the baddest. For three years running he’d led the league in penalties, and the following year he’d do it again, amassing 167 minutes, which set a new single-season record that stood for 20 years, until Lou Fontinato barged his way to 202 in 1955-56.

macleans-aug1A colourful character, then, Horner. There were others, of course, playing in the NHL through the 1930s. If we’re only talking about players who were skating with Canadian teams, what about Charlie Conacher, King Clancy, Hooley Smith, Syl Apps, Lionel Conacher, Nels Stewart, Aurèle Joliat? Howie Morenz! If the life he led on the ice wasn’t worth Maclean’s coverage, then wouldn’t his sudden death in March of 1937 have been news, mourned by so many thousands across the hockey map? No, not even then. The week of Morenz’s death, Maclean’s went with a humorous illustration of a hotel lobby boy on its cover, with nary a mention within of the hockey star’s death. True, it was a different kind of a magazine in those years, heavy on fiction and issue-oriented features. Still, I don’t know how you explain what happened in the very next issue, dated April 1, 1937 (poultry on the cover): in a perky article on NHL players deserving of all-star honours, author Jim Hendy somehow neglected in a passing mention of Morenz to note that the poor man was no more.

It was good to be a Leaf if you hoping to see yourself on the cover of the (Toronto-based) magazine in the ’30s. Goaltender Turk Broda was next up after Horner, photographed for a February, 1938 issue. A year later, separated by covers featuring turkeys, lumberjacks, and no fewer than three swimsuited women, the Leafs’ Gordie Drillon got his turn.

While neither Broda nor Drillon rated articles within the editions they fronted, the same can’t be said for Red Horner in 1935.

Along some flippant racism in the editor’s notebook, the contents for that week features a helpful column suggesting that the stout man — i.e. overweight — stands a better chance of resisting disease than the thinner one. There’s a column, too, about the “coloured races” in France. Amid all the fiction (including a hockey story, “The Not-So-Yellow Kid” and a timeless tale of the theatre called “Gentlemen Don’t Spank”), Horner penetrates the inside pages of the magazine in a serious way, featuring not only in a feature editorial profile but also, alongside his wife, Isabel, in a full-page advertisement touting stoves.

I gather that the new Moffats Electric Ranges were not only beautiful (“soft gleaming finish”) but “staunch and rugged.” Mrs. Horner loved hers, with its Therm-O-Matic Oven Control and Cook-Quik Element; it made her proud.

The Mr. Horner profile, is by Lou Marsh, Toronto Daily Star sports editor, former NHL referee, and all-round Toronto sporting personality. It is, let me say with respect, mostly puffery. A poem, supposing you were determined to extract one from Marsh’s paragraphs describing his subject, might look like this:

the large pleasant looking, red-headed young man
this fighting fireball
this curly-head wolf of the blue lines
a fellow who is just a bit headlong, a trifle strenuous
a heavy man
an excellent team player
a genuinely modest athlete.

 

for faster and flashier hockey: building a better, oilier skate

WO-00579

Skateguard: King Clancy, circa 1953, strikes a pose in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room — with a plain old unimproved skate. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, R11224-2910-X-E, Walter Curtin, Liberty Magazine)

In Gordie Drillon’s dream, he sped and stole pucks. “I dreamt I had on a pair of motorized skates,” he told a teammate the next morning, not long after the Hall-of-Fame right winger joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1942. “Nobody could get close enough to me to tap me on the heel with a stick. It was a great feeling.” He was equipped with a telescoping stick, too. “I pressed a button in the handle and the blade shot out a couple of feet. It was great for backchecking. I was taking the puck away from everybody.”

Drillon did fine without enhanced equipment — he was a first-team all-star in his heyday, leading the league in scoring in 1938 as a Maple Leaf, and taking the home the Lady Byng, too, as the NHL’s gallantest player.

That doesn’t mean other dreamers, including the NHL itself, haven’t entertained waking designs over the years of stretching sticks and speeding skates.

Actually, I don’t know about the sticks — but enriched skates definitely figure in NHL history.

Maybe you recall Tory Weber. Or, no, probably not. But his big idea might ring a bell, if only because it attracted Wayne Gretzky’s interest and endorsement a few years ago, and looked like it might even be on the verge of a breakthrough onto NHL ice.

Weber was the Calgary inventor who dreamed that heated skate blades would revolutionize hockey, increasing the speed of players and thereby the game they were playing. His Thermablades started to gain traction in the hockey world in 2005. Gretzky was an enthusiastic investor, and so was Harley Hotchkiss, one of the owners of the Calgary Flames and the presiding chairman of the NHL’s board of governors.

Skates glide on a film of water that’s created by pressure. Heated by a tiny lithium battery, Weber’s prototypes increased the layer of lubrication that forms, reducing friction, enhancing smoothness, increasing speed.

Gretzky testified that that its “performance benefits” would boost the game by making it “more exciting to play and watch.” Hotchkiss felt that it could reduce injuries. NHL players who tried Thermablades liked them; Craig Conroy of the Calgary Flames was getting ready to wear in his team’s home opener in 2008.

That was before the NHL nixed them. The league’s GMs had their doubts, including concerns about cost and damage that might be done to the ice. They wondered whether Thermablades might make hockey too fast. Without NHL support, Tory Weber’s company struggled. By the summer of 2009, it slid into bankruptcy.

It wasn’t the first time a speedier skate almost accelerated onto NHL ice. Forty years earlier, another inventor had a flash of inspiration not so far removed from Troy Weber’s, and by 1960, Wilfrid Vaillancourt — Monk, to his friends — was on the brink of his breakthrough with the — well, it was either the “lubri-skate” or the “lubra-skate,” depending on the newspaper you were reading back then.

Vaillancourt was a steelworker at this time in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We know that he later went on to take charge of maintenance projects at the Soo’s International Bridge, a job he kept for 33 years, through to his retirement in 1995. A sizeable idea that came out of that job was a new and efficient mobile scaffolding structure he conceived of that (he said) would slash maintenance costs on big bridges by 70 per cent. Continue reading

leaf haul

piggyback

Carry Cases: Conn Smythe’s Toronto Maple Leafs gathered in Galt in October of 1937 to prepare for the NHL season ahead. With coach Dick Irvin at the helm, it would turn out to be a good one, if not quite good enough: the Leafs lost in the Stanley Cup finals to Chicago. Paired up, above, members of the Leafs and farm hands from the Syracuse Stars get in some work with the weights. Left to right, they’re: Busher Jackson and (atop) Charles (a.k.a. Beef) Corrigan; Red Horner and Jimmy Fowler; Gordie Drillon and Syl Apps; captain Charlie Conacher and Eddie Convey; Bud Jarvis and Bazel (a.k.a. Bummer) Doran.

Preparations for the season had started even earlier, in fact: back in March, just days after the Leafs fell out of the playoffs with a first-round loss to the New York Rangers, Smythe had the team and some of its young prospects back on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens for a 10-day spring camp. Smythe joined them, as Bill Roche of The Globe and Mail took note:

All dolled up like Mrs. Astor’s horse in Leaf livery and wearing No. 5 on his back was Manager Smythe. His stick-handling and skating didn’t cause Referee-Coach Dick Irvin to do any enthusing; in fact, Rookie Smythe didn’t show a thing, but his roars over failure of the hired hands to provide him with enough passes were magnificent.

“If this bunch were half as good at giving passes as they are in getting passes from the box office, we’d still be in the Stanley Cup hunt,” said Smythe.

He was grinning, though, throughout this exchange, and eager to get a message through to the Leafs’ long-suffering followers:

“The fans gave us wonderful support this season, and we are starting out right now to show them that we appreciate it.”