under review: reading your way through a hockey hiatus

Is it really 50 days since the pandemic stopped hockey, and everything else, except for in Belarus? Yes, that’s right, it was, this Thursday past — two score and ten scoreless days since the rinks closed up on March 12. Does it feel like a hundred days? Two hundred? As David Remnick was saying on The New Yorker’s podcast a couple of weeks into this strange spring, the loss of big-league sports is not — by far — the worst we’ve sustained, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bitter.

In the absence of hockey, and everything else (except in Belarus), it’s the questions that multiply to fill the ever-expanding void. They’re bulky and awkward, mostly unanswerable, and all but impossible to shepherd out of mind: How did this happen? Will everything be okay? When does it end?

Some of them are smaller, too, with a mosquito’s whine, no less nagging for being non-essential. Does hockey matter? What, really, are we missing? Were this year’s Leafs any good, does anyone recall? How do I know if my sourdough starter is still alive? Did you see those 1980s Oilers on Sportsnet the other night — how great were they? Not to mention Don Wittman on the play-by-play. Also: should I wash my hands again now? Also: anybody been able to zoom in on Ron MacLean’s good-looking bookshelves to see just what he’s got back there?

Hockey did focus itself on books in the first late-March weeks of isolation, back when we were still getting used to distracting ourselves. Remember? Back when we were focussed on tricks with rolls of toilet paper, before advent of multi-paned Zoom conclaves of housebound NHLers really got going? I suppose that people are still reading books, quietly, thoughtfully, off-screen, but in those days, the hockey world seemed to be as intent on talking books, hockey and otherwise, as much as zone starts or PDO.

San Jose Sharks captain Logan Couture started a book club.

Washington’s goaltender-on-hiatus Braden Holtby made a steeple of the books he’d been reading, or his wife Brandi did — she was the one, anyway, who tweeted out the photo:

In Seattle, the NHL’s newest franchise revealed … no, not the team’s much-anticipated name, that’s still to come — when “the mood is right,” as Greg Wyshinski of ESPN reports. The should-be Metropolitans did proffer some literary advice, even if it wasn’t exactly adventurous.

Hockey Canada weighed in:

Others turned their cameras to their shelves to advocate for hockey-minded favourites, historian and L.A. Kings writer Mike Commito had some counsel:

To which some of us answered back:

I added a novel to this massif of mine; I could have elevated more. I’ve written elsewhere about hockey fiction, superior and not-so-much. Ranking the novels I’ve enjoyed most of all, and learned from, the ones that rise above the regular, I tend to back up Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season (1985) with books like Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (1987), The Divine Ryans (1990) by Wayne Johnston, Fred Stenson’s Teeth (1994), and Mark Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya! (1997). Pete McCormack’s sweet and underappreciated novel Understanding Ken(1998) would be on it, and so would The Good Body by Bill Gaston (2000). And, from 2011, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist.

So much for the best. What about the rest? A couple of years ago, when I was working hard to read allthe hockey books, every one of them — well, I didn’t do that, is what happened: I failed. It turns out that there are just too many, and not enough time, plus while a whole lot of them are vivid and insightful and even beautifully rendered, many others are … not.

I did read a lot, though. And for all the hockey narrative I made it through, I acquired a whole lot more, much of which I have shelved here behind me, with the fiction closest to hand, in case of emergency. It’s not all novels; this is a library rich with juvenile and genre editions, mass-market, pulp, serialized, and self-published sagas, too. Colonizing three shelves and part of a fourth behind the desk I’m sitting at, they’re all here, the great and the good and the just-entertaining mixed in with the middling, the muddled, the dumbly offensive, the merely harmless. It’s some of the latter that I’m thinking of paying some attention to here, in this space, over this next little stretch of our Great Hiatus, with a particular focus on the made-it-halfway-through and the couldn’t-get-myself-past-the-second-page. If now’s not the time to take a walk on the pulpier, predictable, prosaic side of hockey’s library, when is?

That’s not to say that some the fiction that comes under consideration in this upcoming series isn’t deftly done, incisive, insightful. We’ll look for that, without necessarily counting on finding it. The cover-art we’ll see along the way will be, I’ll mention, as fantastic as this. How far will we wander, through just how much turgid prose, down how many clichéd plotlines? We’ll see. No judgment … unless, no, I guess it’s too late for that. No harm, then — that’s what I’ll say: no harm intended. I’m not here to blame or berate or bicker. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the books discussed here, I forgive you. Same thing if you happen to have written any of them. So: stay tuned.

 

department of throwing stuff: bernie parent’s mask

Fling a waffle to the ice in Toronto in the early decades of this parlous young century of ours and chances are you’ll end up kicked to the Bay Street curb and banned for ever more from the premises. Lobbing a catfish you happen to have been carrying around in your underwear in Pittsburgh may well get you arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, possessing instruments of crime, and disrupting meetings and processions.

Maybe, in Pittsburgh, the charges won’t go forward. The outrage associated with the waffle and what it represents will, in time, fade away, even if the ban persists. The overall message, though, is clear: today’s NHL (or, I guess, yesterday’s) has decided that the time has come to break hockey’s vivid tradition, long and lustily favoured by fans, of expressing themselves by hurling whatever they might have at hand at the ice.

Fans were throwing stuff well before 1917, but it was in the NHL that the practice truly evolved into (a messy, disruptive, and often dangerous) art form. In Montreal, fans used to toss toe rubbers by the dozens to express their approval of the all-conquering Canadiens; in Chicago, live rabbits, dead squirrels, whisky bottles, and a life-sized dummy of Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich used to rain from the upper balconies of the old Chicago Stadium. Cataloguing hockey’s debris is an ongoing effort — evidence of my attempt to keep is in my 2014 book, Puckstruck, and peppered across this site, here and here and over here. And if, at some point, it becomes clear that the stuff that’s thrown sometimes goes the other way, from the ice to the stands? I think we have to look into that, too. Why not now?

Today is, after all, Bernie Parent’s 75th birthday. Born in Montreal on a Tuesday of this date in 1945, Parent had just 26 back in 1971 as his Toronto Maple Leafs headed into an opening-round playoff quarter-final against the New York Rangers.

Parent had already been a Philadelphia Flyer at this stage of his career. A trade had brought him to Toronto in February of ’71. He stay another season in Toronto before decamping to the WHA’s Philadelphia Blazers and, thereafter, back to the Flyers. It was in this second stint in Philadelphia that Parent was instrumental in the Flyers’ Stanley Cup triumphs of 1974 and ’75, as he won (let’s not forget) Vézina and Conn Smythe trophies in both those years.

But back to the Leafs in ’71: Parent was sharing the net that year with a 42-year-old Jacques Plante. It was Plante who started the first game of the playoffs early that April at Madison Square Garden, a 5-4 loss. Parent got the call for the second game the following night, and in that one, the Torontonians roared back to even the series with a 4-1 win.

Both teams were feeling sourly on the night. In the second period, New York left winger Vic Hadfield roughed up Toronto defenceman Bob Baun, and vice-versa. Hadfield and Leafs forward Jim Harrison were penalized for punching each other, too. In the third, when those two clashed again, they started a brawl in the Toronto zone, at the Seventh Avenue end of the rink. In the foolery that followed, Parent made his way into the melee, where he got a hold of Hadfield, if only briefly — Rangers’ goaltender Ed Giacomin was quick to attend and haul Parent away.

At some point during these proceedings, Hadfield got hold of Parent’s mask and donated it to the Garden crowd.

“Hadfield ripped off my mask,” Parent said in the immediate aftermath, “and threw it into the crowd.”

That’s now how Hadfield recalled it.

“He jumped me from behind,” he said. “Then I saw the mask sitting there, so I just threw it. But I lost a glove, too. Somebody threw a glove of mine into the stands.”

Initially, Parent stuck to his story. “Hadfield took the mask off my head and threw it in the seats,” he insisted. Somewhere, somehow, the goaltender relented. “When things settled down,” Parent writes in Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!, his exclamatory 1975 autobiography, “Hadfield picked up my mask and threw it in the stands.”

On the night, MSG police did their best to recover the mask, but the fans weren’t interested: it was, as The New York Times noted, “passed along, bucket-brigade style, around half the Garden. Appeals for its return rang from the arena PA. “But,” as Dick Beddoes reported in the Globe and Mail, “exuberants among the demonstrative 17,250 fanatics chanted ‘Don’t give it back! Don’t give it back!’”

The Leafs’ 68-year-old vice-president, King Clancy, thought he might be able to help with the search, though he soon found himself in hostile territory, and ended up retreating to his seat near the Toronto bench.

“Hadfield throwing the mask away was the most childish thing I ever saw,” Clancy said. “Those things cost $150 and the Rangers have to pay for it.”

Parent did have a back-up mask, but it was at home, in Toronto.

“I wouldn’t continue in the game without the mask,” Parent wrote in his autobiography.

His coach, Johnny McClellan, didn’t blame him, even if others did. “Parent has played with a mask since he was a 12 years old,” he said after the game. “He has never been in the net without a mask in 13 years, so you’re not going to send a guy into the net without a mask. He could get a shot in the face and that’s it.”

So in went Plante, who knew what that was like — though, of course, in 1959, the Andy Bathgate shot he took in the face just before he donned his mask for the first wasn’tit. This time out, he was only called on to play the final 4:42 of the game, stopping two shots and preserving Toronto’s win.

Another brawl ensued 30 seconds after he’d stepped in, when the Leafs’ Jim Dorey engaged with New York’s Ted Irvine. Going to teammate Ron Ellis’ aid, Plante (by the account of the New York Daily News’ Dick Young) “skated over and began banging on [Glen] Sather’s head.” That brought Giacomin back: “skating the length of the rink and taking a flying leap onto Plante.”

Giacomin, for what it’s worth, wondered at the time that Parent didn’t continue bare-faced. “That’s what I would have done,” he said. “Hell, for four minutes, why let Plante credit?” Though, of course, Plante didn’t get the win; that went into the books as Parent’s.

“Some writers actually suggested I was a coward for not playing without the mask,” Parent recalled in his book, take up Johnny McClellan’s line. “This one New York writer even said I’d never be the same goalie again. In other words, this writer thought I was chicken. Bull. If I got hit not wearing a mask, I might really never be the same again. A goalie is putting his life on the line out there.”

 

Danger Close: Having tossed Bernie Parent’s mask over the boards on April 8, Vic Hadfield added insult to injury on April 13 by scoring on Parent (and his new mask) at MSG.

With the series set to shift to Toronto, Leafs’ GM Jim Gregory put out an appeal. “If a guy who’s got a mask returns it, I’ll get him two tickets for Saturday’s game and pay his way to Toronto.”

In Toronto, meanwhile, NHL president Clarence Campbell visited a CBC studio to catch up on what had gone down in New York. The fact that the footage didn’t show Hadfield with the mask didn’t concern him too much: he said there was a standard $50 fine for throwing equipment overboards. “I wanted to get a general impression of what this affair looked like to the people who saw it there and on television,” Campbell said.

Upon further reflection, Campbell fined each team $5,000 — to that point, the largest bad-behaviour tax ever to be levied in the NHL. Further individual fines to players from New York added up to $3,300, including $400 to Giacomin for twice departing his crease. Toronto’s players were punished to the tune of $3,250, including $200 each to Plante and Parent for straying from their creases.

The missing mask was the one Parent had started using when he arrived in Toronto from Philadelphia. It was very comfortable — and happened to have been made by Fibrosport, Jacques Plante’s company, based in Magog, Quebec. The back-up Parent didn’t have in New York when he needed it was his old Flyers’ mask, which he’d used for about two years previously.

He didn’t have to revert to that one, as it turned out: with his connections, he relied on Plante getting on the telephone the morning after the night to call his Fibrosport partner, Marc Andre Beaudin, in Montreal. He in turn called in a couple of employees from their Good Friday holiday and got going on crafting a new model in time for Saturday’s game.

“The three of them would have to work all day to make the mask,” Plante said. “They would have the mold already, but there is a lot of work to making a hand-crafted mask.”

Saturday morning it was handed to an Air Canada pilot for the flight from Montreal to Toronto — the pilot, no less. Howard Starkman from the Leafs was there to retrieve it when it landed — he later went on to serve as PR director for the baseball Blue Jays — and he delivered it to Maple Leaf Gardens. Parent put it to use that night in helping defeat the Rangers by a score of 3-1.

The Leafs’ momentum didn’t last, though: with Parent and Plante and their respective masks sharing the net, the Rangers won the next three games to take the series and advance to play the Chicago Black Hawks.

That’s not quite the end of the story. There’s the part, too, about Vic Hadfield scoring a hat trick against Chicago at MSG towards the end of April, his first in the playoffs. Picking up one of the hats that landed on the ice in his honour, Hadfield put it on before skating to the boards and flinging it to the fans.

“I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,” he said. “I felt so good about scoring all those goals, I wanted to show my emotion. It was a tremendous feeling, one of the highlights of my career.”

As for Parent’s mask, Leafs’ VP Harold Ballard said he was invoicing the Rangers. “We should send the bill to Bill Jennings,” Ballard said, “but I guess we’ll send it to [New York coach and GM] Emile Francis — it’s his department.”

I can’t confirm whether any such paperwork was submitted. But Jennings, who was the president of the Rangers, did send a bill of his own to the Leafs in the amount of $175 — for Vic Hadfield’s bespoke glove, said to have been manufactured and specially sewn in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis’ hometown.

Ballard took it for a spoof. “At least,” he said, “I hope Jennings isn’t serious.”

The story might end there, which is to say right here, except for, no, sorry, there’s more.

Towards the end of that same April, the Chicago Tribune made fleeting mention of the mask’s having been returned to Parent by a 7-year-old boy. “It was mailed back to Bernie in a shoe box,” was how that story went, but no further.

That seems to be fanciful. In 2006, the mask did show up in a sports memorabilia auction, and then again in 2012, when a buyer, unnamed, decided the time had come to get the goaltender and his mask back together. Greg Wyshynski reported on this at the time for Yahoo! Sports — you can read about that here.

The old goaltender knew the mask he’d once worn the moment he set eyes on it, 41 years after Hadfield absconded with it. “Life is full of surprises,” Parent said. He only got to visit with the mask briefly, apparently: the owner’s plan was to keep it for himself, then donate it, posthumously, to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In Phil: Bernie Parent in Flyer kit + mask in the mid-1970s.

 

sorrier still

113 Days Later: Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft’s “The Martyrdom of St. Donald” (2006), which doesn't purport to depict the state of the NHL after its third Bettman-era lockout, but could. For more of Thorneycroft's scintillant northern visions, visit dianathorneycroft.com.

113 Days Later: Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft’s “The Martyrdom of St. Donald” (2006), which doesn’t purport to depict the state of the NHL after its third Bettman-era lockout, but could. For more of Thorneycroft’s scintillant northern visions, visit dianathorneycroft.com.

So then the NHL did apologize, Wednesday afternoon, in the persons of Boston Bruins’ owner Jeremy Jacobs and commissioner Gary Bettman, in New York, once the owners had voted to ratify the new CBA. Jacobs, who chairs the league’s Board of Governors, said, “This great game has been gone for far too long, and for that we are truly sorry.”

When it was Bettman’s turn, he dug deep to find as personal a statement as might ever have left his lips in the 20 years he’s been manning the bridge at the NHL.

“To the players,” he said, “who were very clear they wanted to be on the ice and not negotiating labor contracts; to our partners, who support the League financially and personally; and, most importantly, to our fans, who love and have missed NHL hockey, I am sorry,” Commissioner Bettman said. “I know that an explanation or an apology will not erase the hard feelings that have built up over the past few months, but I owe you an apology nevertheless.”

The early reviews of Bettman’s soliloquy were generally warm, -ish, especially if you compare them to what the critics were saying about him during the stoppage, with Detroit defenceman Ian White rating him “an idiot” and Kris Versteeg, from Florida, calling him cancerous. “I think when you look at Bill Daly and Bettman, they’ve been polluting the game for far too long,” Versteeg added. Chicago’s Dave Bolland Twittered out a fan’s wish for Bettman’s death — though he, Bolland, felt bad about that and apologized. Continue reading