a sturdy six-footer

“Old Reliable” and “a sturdy six-footer,” The Star Weekly dubbed Boston defenceman Bob Armstrong in the copy accompanying this 1960 photo spread featuring him keeping tabs on Detroit’s Gordie Howe. At 29, having spent a decade on defence for the Boston Bruins, Armstrong played in his only NHL All-Star Game in 1959-60. He racked up his best offensive statistics that season, notching five goals and 19 points in 69 games — along with the 96 penalty minutes that put him ninth on the list of most-penalized NHLers that year, a little ahead of Ted Lindsay. Armstrong, who died on a Tuesday of this date in 1990 at the age of 59, wore number four for the Bruins for 11 seasons. Pat Stapleton got it after him for a while, then Bob McCord, then Al Langlois, before Bobby Orr made it his own in 1967.

(Image: Harold Barkley)

ode to roy

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A tribute, on a summer’s Friday, where tribute’s due: today is Roy MacGregor’s last day at The Globe and Mail, where he’s been a columnist for the past 17 years. That trim word, columnist, doesn’t quite contain his talents, of course, or do them proper justice: again and again across the almost 50 years during which he’s worked his words in Canadian newspapers, magazines, and books, MacGregor (seen here, above, in a 1983 incarnation) has reminded readers just how thoughtful and sharply incisive a chronicler of our hockey obsession he is. Beyond the Globe, the papers he’s improved have included The Ottawa Citizen and The National Post, and the magazines, Maclean’s and The Canadian. His work therein was duly recognized in 2012 when he won the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for distinguished reportage. The marvelous books that confirm his standing as our finest hockey storyteller include The Home Team and the novel The Last Season. (Parents and younger readers might not forgive the lack of a mention of the Screech Owl mysteries, so here it is.) For all his icy writings, he is (again: of course) not only a hockey writer: do we have, on the page, any more reliable canoe and river guide, a better companion to Tom Thomson studies or Ottawa or Algonquin wildernesses? MacGregor is a true Canadian explorer; we’ll see where he leads us next.

The occasion seems to call for a look back at where he’s taken us before. Here then, from Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada, the 1989 book on which he collaborated with Ken Dryden, a brief excerpt in which he carries us back to his Muskoka childhood in Huntsville, Ontario:

It is difficult now to convey how deeply hockey could penetrate a life back then. We had no television. My brother had a table-top hockey game, the kind where the metal players fit on and are controlled by steel rods running beneath. There were no slots, however, so the players could no go up and down the ice. All you could do was turn the rod between the thumb and finger so they could pass and shoot. All four defence rods eventually broke and we realized a shot was faster if we flicked the players from above rather than turned from below. And marbles were better than pucks. My brother found he could raise the marbles if he slightly bent his man, I suffered my first serious hockey injury wearing my pajamas in his bedroom.

Our father took us to Maple Leaf Gardens to see the Leafs play Detroit. Neither of us had ever seen lights so bright or felt air so alive. In an instant we more than doubled the number of other humans we had seen in our lives. The urinals spooked me. Our father pointed to Gordie Howe and said he was the greatest hockey player of all time. At least once a year in the thirty-odd years since he asks if we remember. We will always remember, even when he can no longer remind.

no ordinary joe

Red Fisher said that Claude Provost was the Bob Gainey of his day. “He wasn’t as big, probably didn’t have as much skating talent, and maybe didn’t hit as hard as Gainey,” the Montreal Gazette’s longtime columnist enthused, “but he was terribly effective. He had to be to stop somebody like Bobby Hull the way he did … and he was definitely a better scorer than Gainey.”

The question of whether Provost deserves a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame may or may not be answered this coming Tuesday when a new class of inductees is named. Provost, only ever played for the Montreal Canadiens during his 15-year NHL career, certainly has a bevy of Stanley Cup championships to endorse him: he helped the Habs win nine in his time. Renowned as a right winger for his prowess as a checker, he also led the Canadiens in goalscoring in 1961-62, when he scored 33 in a line-up that included Bernie Geoffrion and Jean Béliveau. In 1964-65, he was named to the First All-Star Team, ahead of a pretty good right winger from Detroit named Gordie Howie. Provost also won the first Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 1968 in recognition of his dedication, sportsmanship, and perseverance.

After Provost’s death at the age of 50 in 1984, Tim Burke of the Montreal Gazette remembered him as “one of the best-liked guys ever who ever wore CH on his chest and the premier defensive forward of his time.” Toe Blake assigned him to shadow Bobby Hull whenever Montreal played Chicago during the 1960s, and he had some success in (to borrow Burke’s phrase) trussing up the explosive left winger. Provost wasn’t always convinced that he was winning that duel, though. “I used to have pretty good success in checking,” he said of Hull in 1964, “then I got caught twice and scored two goals. What am I supposed to do, sit on him?”

Henri Richard was his roommate in junior and throughout his Montreal career. “He had very little talent,” he said, fondly, “but he made up for everything with hard work. … He even became a goalscorer by just getting in front all the time. We used to kid him that more goals went in off his ass than his stick.” He’d anchor himself in the slot with a distinctive bow-legged stance, digging his skates into the ice so hard that, as Canadiens’ equipment manager Eddie Palchak recalled, “he needed his skates sharpened after every period.”

“That’s why we started calling him Cowboy Joe,” Richard said, “those bow legs of his. He was the perfect guy to room with. You couldn’t stay down in the dumps with him around. He was always fun and a great team man.”

and howe

It was three years ago today that Gordie Howe died at the age of 88 in Sylvania, Ohio. On June 14, 2016, some 15,000 mourners paid their respects at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. At the funeral next morning at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, amid an outpouring of love and sorrow and respect and nostalgia, rector the Reverend J.J. Mech delivered the homily. “I just hope he doesn’t elbow too many angels,” he said. In September of 2016, Howe’s family and friends gathered outside SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, about 30 kilometres north of Mr. Hockey’s birthplace of Floral. The solemn ceremony that day saw his ashes interred with those of his wife Colleen (who died in 2009) beneath the statue (above) by sculptor Michael Martin that’s been in place since 2005. “Whenever he talked about wanting to go home,” Howe’s daughter Cathy told The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, “especially when things got really confusing for him … I would often ask him ‘where’s home?’ He would look at me and say ‘Saskatoon,’ like I should know.”

(Image: Stephen Smith)

hockey players in hospital beds: gordie howe

It was on this day in 1950 that Gordie Howe was grievously injured in a clash with Toronto’s Ted Kennedy, falling head-first into the boards at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium on the opening night of that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Rushed to Harper Hospital, Howe was soon in surgery, where neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Schreiber saved his life by draining fluid building up near the brain. In the memoir that writer and broadcaster Paul Haavardsrud ghosted on Howe’s behalf in 2014, the patient recalled being aware of the noise of the operation, and pressure on his head. “My most vivid memory from the 90-minute operation,” the tale is told in Mr. Hockey: My Story, “is hoping they’d know when to stop.”

There was much debate in 1950 about just what had happened on the ice that night. (In later years, the incident would be fodder for the pages of comic books.) Many witnesses at the Olympia held that Kennedy had high-sticked Howe with purpose, sending him into the boards, though Kennedy swore it wasn’t so. Howe’s version, circa 2014: “As I recollect it, I believe his stick hit me, but I don’t blame him for it. He was just following through on a backhand and trying not to get hit. Hockey’s a fast game and sometimes things happen.”

While Howe recovered (and, above, tended his mail) in hospital, Detroit went on without him to beat Toronto in seven games. They did the same to the New York Rangers to win the 1950 Cup, the Red Wings’ first since 1943. “As close as I came to shuffling off into the sunset at the tender age of 21,” Howe narrates in My Story, “I bounced back relatively quickly from surgery.” He joined Detroit for training camp that fall, donning a helmet, if only for a short spell, on the advice of his doctors.

fray dates: over the boards and into the crowd with ted lindsay

Up + Over: Detroit goaltender Terry Sawchuk follows his captain, Ted Lindsay, into the crowd at Detroit’s Olympia in November of 1954. That’s Glen Skov, number 12, getting ready to follow their lead.

There’s a scene midway through Goalie, the new Terry Sawchuk biopic that opened across Canada this month, and it’s a key one in the story of our beleaguered hero’s unwinding. It’s early in his career in Detroit, and Sawchuk, as rendered by Mark O’Brien, is already starring for the Red Wings, though the cost is already starting to tell. The puck that lies tauntingly behind him in the Detroit net has passed him by with maximum malice, which we know because he’s down on his knees, spitting out his teeth, bleeding his blood.

But that’s only the start of it. In the nearby stands, out of the Olympia hubbub, a needling voice rises: “Sawchuk! Sawchuk!” He’s nothing new, this heckler, just an everyday loudmouth, but Sawchuk has had it, enough. When Marcel Pronovost points him out, Sawchuk charges. Downs stick and gloves, skates headlong for the fence, which he scales quick as a commando.

Oh, boy.

But before the goaltender can clamber his way up to the fourth or fifth row to tear his tormenter apart, the man flees in a panic. Sawchuk’s the taunter, now. “Yeah,” he jeers, “you better run.”

Realizing where he is, he also apologizes to the fans whose midst he’s invaded. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

That’s the movie. The history is that Terry Sawchuk did scale the wire at Detroit’s Olympia, in 1954, in pursuit of a vociferous fan, though it wasn’t really about him, the goaltender was really only acting in a supporting role, backing up teammates.

Credit where credit’s due: it was Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay who led the charge. Lindsay didn’t have to do any climbing, it might be noted: whereas Sawchuk was on the ice and saw fence-climbing as his only option to join the fray, Lindsay was already off the ice, on his way to the dressing room, when he identified his antagonist and went at him.

In the days since his death on March 4 at the age of 93, Lindsay has been praised as a hockey giant, which he was, no question. A dominant force on ice, Lindsay was a tenacious leader who could do it all, and did, mostly on his own terms. His dedication off the ice to the cause of players’ rights has been highlighted, as has the price he paid for not backing down in the face of lies and intimidation of the men who were running the NHL.

Here, for the moment, we’ll focus on a lesserly known episode from his career, a single season among the 17 Lindsay played. I’ll propose that it offers insights into his later battles with the NHL, and more: it also adds context to events that exploded this very March day, 64 years ago, in Montreal.

To do that, we’ll follow Ted Lindsay through the 1954-55 season, which means pursuing him into the crowd for what must (I think) count as his most cantankerous year as an NHLer — it might be one of the most cantankerous season any player played, ever.

Lindsay was in his eleventh season with the Wings, his third as team captain. He’d finished the previous season third-best in league scoring, and was elected to the 1st All-Star. His Wings were on a roll: the defending Stanley Cup champions had won three Cups in five years.

The NHL’s 38th season is and forever will be charred at the edges by Montreal’s season-ending Richard Riot. It’s with no intent to diminish the importance or damages inflicted by those ructions, nor with any disrespect to Richard, that I’m going to posit here that, when it comes to instigating uproar, Ted Lindsay’s ’54-55 is a remarkable one in its own (if mostly forgotten) right.

Also: imagine, if you would, a circumstance by which, in today’s NHL, one of the league’s marquee players, captaining the defending Stanley Cup champions, finds himself implicated in altercations with spectators, not once or twice, but on four separate occasions. It would be the story of the season — though not in ’54-55. Is it possible that this player would still be around to be to contribute to his team’s winning a second successive Cup? It is, and was — in ’54-55.

A bit of background is in order here. Early in November, 14 games into the season’s schedule, Detroit traded centre Metro Prystai to Chicago in exchange for a mostly untested right winger named Lorne Davis. A valuable cog in the Red Wings machine that won Stanley Cups in 1952 and again in ’54, Prystai was also a good friend and roommate of Lindsay’s and Gordie Howe’s at Ma Shaw’s rooming house. With Howe out with an injured shoulder, Prystai had moved in to take his place on Detroit’s top line, alongside Lindsay and Dutch Reibel.

For the defending champions, this wasn’t so much a hockey trade as a league-mandated equalization pay-out. Detroit didn’t pull the trigger so much as the NHL decided that the swap would help out Chicago, of the league’s perennially worst teams.

Conn Smythe, Toronto’s owner and martinet-in-chief, seems to have engineered the whole affair, chairing a meeting of league moguls in New York for the purpose of improving have-not teams like Chicago and Boston. “A unique professional sports move toward sharpening competitive balance,” is how Al Nickleson described it in The Globe and Mail; The Detroit Free Press dubbed it a hockey “Marshall Plan.”

Call it collusion, set it aside as an exhibit for some future (never-to-be-launched) anti-trust ligation — to the men in charge of NHL hockey, it was merely good business. Four players were involved upfront: Chicago got Prystai and Montreal’s Paul Masnick, while Boston landed Leo Boivin from Toronto. The Leafs got Joe Klukay; Detroit landed Davis; Montreal’s piece of the pie was to be named later.

“We’re trying to apply logical business sense here,” Smythe pleaded in the days before the redistribution went through. He only had the customer in mind, he would continue to insist. “What we want to do is present hockey at its highest calibre in every rink in the NHL.”

But Detroit was seething. “Is big-time hockey a legitimate sport or just a family syndicate?” Marshall Dann wondered in the local Free Press. Marguerite and Bruce Norris co-owned the Red Wings while another brother, James Norris, ran the Black Hawks. The word was that Red Wings’ GM Jack Adams didn’t know about the Prystai deal until it was already done, telling Prystai, “I’m sorry, they ganged up on us.” Adams accused Smythe of trying to break Detroit’s morale. No more would he serve on NHL committees, he said, and he vowed that he’d be boycotting Red Wings’ road trips to Toronto forthwith, as well.

The Wings had a home game the week of the Prystai trade, on the Thursday, against Smythe’s Leafs. Before the Wings hit the ice, Lindsay demanded that the Norrises, Marguerite and Bruce, meet with the players and explain to them why Prystai had been shipped out. In his 2016 memoir, Red Kelly says it was just Bruce who showed up, and that the players weren’t impressed by his explanation. They talked about sitting out the game to make clear their unhappiness. “We weren’t going to go on the ice that night, no way. The people were in the stands, but we didn’t care.”

Somehow, someone convinced them to play. They did so, let’s say, in a mood.

Ted Lindsay’s didn’t improve as the evening went on. In the second period, he unleashed on Leafs’ defenceman Jim Thomson, punching him in the face as they tangled near the Toronto bench. “They both went at it,” the Globe’s Al Nickleson wrote, “with no damage done.”

As order, or something like it, was being restored, Leaf coach King Clancy chimed in. “That’s the first time I ever saw you drop your stick in a fight, Lindsay,” is how Nickleson heard it. What he saw, next, was Lindsay throwing a glove at the coach. “The glove — it belong to Thomson — brushed Clancy and was lost in the crowd behind the bench.” Lindsay threw a punch at Clancy, too, but missed his mark.

Toronto won the game. Sid Smith scored the only goal and Leaf goaltender Harry Lumley, a former Wing celebrating his 28thbirthday, contributed a shutout. That can’t have lightened Lindsay’s temper, and when a fan spoke up as the Wings were headed off the ice, the Detroit captain decided to climb the wire and chase him down.

It’s from the scene that followed that director Adriana Maggs’ Goalie drew when she had her Terry Sawchuk climb into the crowd. Here’s Nickleson on Lindsay’s non-movie incursion:

He may have landed a blow or two — certainly he was swinging — although the action was partially hidden by fans, and by other Detroit players clambering over the high screening. Even Sawchuk, goal pads and all, made it with the help of a boost from a teammate.

Bernard Czeponis was the heckler. A blow of Lindsay’s that did land blackened his eye. He was only too happy to describe what happened to Marshall Dann from the Free Press. “I only asked Glen Skov if he wanted my crying towel,” Czeponis said. “He used foul language. Then Lindsay, instead of stopping it as a club captain should, came after me and hit me.”

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