peter gzowski’s arbitrary list of hockey’s all-time greats

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

Stratford’s Own Streak: Howie Morenz in Hab finery in the 1920s. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.

These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.

There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.

It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.

Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.

This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).

In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.

To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.

Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.

The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.

And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.

Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.

The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:

Goal Scoring Ability
Strength (Roughness)
Speed
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
Flair (Color).

“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”

At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”

All of the nine wrote back.

“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.

“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.

I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.

I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.

Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:

Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.

Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”

Who else?

If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:

Red Kelly
Max Bentley
Bill Cook
Milt Schmidt
Eddie Shore
Dit Clapper
Harry Watson
George Armstrong
Bill Barilko.

Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.

Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:

My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.

Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?

Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:

I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.

Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”

I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.

I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.

Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).

When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:

  1. Howie Morenz
  2. Maurice Richard
  3. Bobby Orr
  4. Gordie Howe
  5. Bobby Hull
  6. Jean Béliveau.

fh

 

the ship they sailed out on

Sail, Past: The Canadian Pacific steamship (and conveyor of Europe-bound hockey teams) SS Montcalm makes a mid-channel turn in April of 1937. (Photos: Top, Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-063360)

Sail, Past: The Canadian Pacific steamship (and conveyor of Europe-bound hockey teams) SS Montcalm makes a mid-channel turn in April of 1937.
(Photos: Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-063360)

Canada opened the IIHF World Championships on Friday and they played another game today. In both cases, this year’s team did what Canadians usually do when the tournament is played in Prague: they skunked a lesser hockey nation. On Friday it was Latvia, we crushed (Sportsnet), downed (CBC), levelled (The Score) and/or piled on (Hamilton Spectator) by a score of 6-1. Today it was Germany we steamrolled (IIHF.com), routed (National Post), dominated (CBC.ca), and/or trumped (Hockey Canada). The score this time was 10-0.

I’m exaggerating, of course: we haven’t always made a clobbering debut in Prague. In fact, with today’s win, we’re only just now up to 50 per cent in terms of initial Euro-whuppings in the Czech capital. The breakdown looks like this: of the ten occasions the competition has been played there since 1930, Canada has been in attendance eight times. Those have indeed included some smoking starts, with keelhaulings of Germans (5-0 in 1933), bushwhackings of Poles (9-0, 1959) and fricasseeings of East Germans (9-1, 1985). But we’ve also only lightly pan-fried Swedes (3-2, 1938) and barely deglazed France (4-3, 1992), while in 1978 we — somehow; wait, what? — Canada actually lost to Finland (4-6).

The last time the world played in Prague, 2004, Canada opened its account by rallying to tie Austria, 2-2. Though not to worry: we did eventually win gold that year, as we’d done before in Prague, in 1959 and 1938.

The first time the world went there to play hockey was in February of 1933. Canada was represented by the Toronto Nationals, who’d earned the trip by winning the 1932 senior hockey championships, beating Fort William to claim the Allan Cup. That’s how it worked in those years, mostly, the Allan-Cup winner taking up the cause of the maple leaf on European ice — except when the runners-up went, as they did (for instance) in 1934, when the Saskatoon Quakers went to Milan in Italy to play.

With a name like Nationals the 1933 team seemed perfectly suited to the job they were taking on, but there was more to their name than plain patriotism. Sponsored by Toronto’s National Yacht Club, the Nats were known colloquially as the Yachtsmen or, more often, the Gnats. That they owed to their full and not-to-so-mighty-after-all name: the Toronto National Sea Fleas.

See Flea: Ready for racing, a sea flea on the water at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition in September of 1929.)

See Flea: Ready for racing, a sea flea on the water at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition in September of 1929.

The team’s manager was a fan of marine parasites, I guess — no, sorry, the actual story is that he was a keen racer of the small outboard hydroplanes — early jet-skis, sort of — that enjoyed a bit of a heyday in the 1920s and ’30s across North America and Europe. So that’s why Canada’s national hockey team went to the world championships in ’33 with a logo on their red sweaters that looked like a rising torpedo or a … speedy cucumber? While teams before and after them donned new national-team sweaters for the world tournament, the Sea Fleas were satisfied to play in their regular duds.

Wearing those in 1932, they’d claimed the Dominion championship in Montreal, beating Fort William (a.k.a. the Forts and/or Thundering Herd) in two straight games. Harry Watson was the Flea coach for that, a star of the Toronto Granites team that won gold at the 1924 Chamonix Olympics and a subsequent Hall-of-Famer. (Unlike another, later Hall-of-Fame Harry Watson who won five Stanley Cups, mostly with the Leafs, this earlier Watson never played in the NHL.)

That was a good year to be a hockey fan in Toronto: on the night of the April day that the Sea Fleas arrived back in town with their cup, the Maple Leafs beat the New York Rangers to win the club’s first Stanley Cup. When in May the Leafs threw themselves a banquet at the Royal York, they were good enough to include not only the triumphant Sea Fleas in the festivities but a raft of other accomplished local teams, including O.H.A. junior Marlboros and National midgets as well.

Mayor William James Stewart regretted that city bylaws prevented him giving gifts to the professional Leafs, but he was pleased to lavish the senior Fleas with wrist-watches.

Harry Watson didn’t return as the coach the following year, though most of the players stayed on. There some ongoing question about who would replace Watson before the team’s hydroplaning manager decided to take the bench. Beyond his interest in boat racing, he had experience in international hockey, having served as assistant manager with the 1928 University of Toronto Grads when they won Olympic gold at St. Moritz in 1928. He was 32, scion of a sewing-machine and skate manufacturer. His name was Harold Ballard.

On the domestic front, the team fell out of the 1933 Allan Cup early on, a failure that did free them to head off to Europe in plenty of time to get to their Prague appointment. On February 2, Ballard and his ten players caught the 10.45 p.m. train from Toronto’s Union Station for Halifax.

Two days later the team took ship and sailed away. It was the Canadian Pacific steamship SS Montcalm they were aboard, a lucky ship for Canadians on their way to win hockey titles, as might or might not have been noted as they headed out in the Atlantic chop: she’d borne Harry Watson’s Granites to Europe in 1924.

 

sharpie

fonds 1266, Globe and Mail fonds

Was there anyone better at the skate-sharpener than the Toronto Maple Leafs’ revered equipment man Tommy Naylor? World and Olympic figure-skating champion Barbara Ann Scott wouldn’t let anyone else touch her blades; Frick and Frack, world-famous Swiss comedians-on-skates, swore that Naylor was the best. “As valuable as most players,” offered The Globe and Mail which, in 1947, when this photograph ran, was saying something. The Leafs were about to play for and win the Stanley Cup, beating the Montreal Canadiens, though not before Naylor put an edge to the players’ skates piled in front of him. That’s left winger Harry Watson attending at Nayler’s lair, beneath the stairs in the northeast corner of Maple Leaf Gardens.

If he wasn’t quite born to the grind, well, close enough. As a younger man Nayler held the Ontario half-mile speed-skating record, and he’d gone to work in 1918 as a messenger boy for A.G. Spalding Sporting Goods. When the regular skate-sharpener quit, Nayler took his job.

With the Leafs, he was the de facto equipment manager, “a bit of an expert with the needle,” as The Globe told it, offering an alternate spelling of his surname, and guardian of the sticks. (The Leafs went through 600 in 1946-47.) But:

Skates are the No. 1 priority. Each Toronto players has three sets of blades, which are kept sharpened at all times. After every practice or game the skates are rushed into Naylor’s shop for a going-over.

Every player has his favourite set and uses them, if possible, in every game, saving the extras for practices. Thus when the Leafs hit the road for an out-of-town game after a Saturday night stand at home, Tommy Naylor is a very busy man.

Between the time the players get into the dressing-room and change into street clothes for a rush to the train, Naylor sharpens 16 pairs of skates. Each player waits fro his own blades and carries them with him.

the last goal he ever scored (won the leafs the cup)

Pro and Conn: Leaf boss Smythe congratulates Bill Barilko after his overtime goal won Toronto a Stanley Cup. "We just out-Irished them,” Smythe said at the time, alluding to Leaf luck in a tight series.

Pro and Conn: Leaf boss Smythe congratulates Bill Barilko after his overtime goal won Toronto a Stanley Cup. “We just out-Irished them,” Smythe said at the time, alluding to Leaf luck in a tight series.

Bill Barilko still hadn’t disappeared on April 21, 1951, and there was no mourning for his memory, yet, just as there were no songs about him and (for a few more hours at least) no famous photographs of him falling to ice as he scored the goal that won the Toronto Maple Leafs their seventh Stanley Cup.

They were close-fought, those Finals, that year: “five consecutive sudden-death overtime heart buster” is how The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond wrote it. This last one, the Leafs’ Tod Sloan tied the score at twos with 32 seconds remaining in the third period, goaltender Al Rollins on the bench.

Barilko’s goal came at 2.53 of overtime. You can hear Foster Hewitt’s frantic call at CBC’s Digital Archives, here. James Marsh, founding editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia, attended the game as a seven-year-old, deciding early on, before the goal, that Barilko was going to be his favourite player — I’d read about that, if I were you, here.

barilko parkhurst

Referee Bill Chadwick supervises in the 1951-52 Parkhurst card based Turofsky’s famous photo.

As for the songs, I’ll leave you to spin, repeatedly, The Tragically Hip’s “Fifty Mission Cap” at your leisure — but have a listen, too, to “The Bill Barilko Song” by (NDP MP) Charlie Angus and The Grievous Angels. You’ll find it here.

As for the photographs, the best-known is the Turofsky, snapped (most likely by Nat rather than Lou) from behind, with the puck already in the net though Barilko is still falling. “It’s a flawless image, of course,” Andrew Podnieks writes in Portraits of the Game (1997), his fond celebration of the Turofskys’ rich hockey archive, though I have to say I prefer the view from the front, as caught by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns from the opposite side. (At first glance, I thought that must be one or other of the Turofskys in the corner, but of course it can’t be, the sightline isn’t right.) I like the handsome hopeful look on Barilko’s face that I’m glad to see in the Burns. In the Turofsky, as Podnieks notes, none of the spectators has realized yet that it’s a goal. They’re still in a time before the Leafs have won.

Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil knows, though, I think, even though he’s got his eyes closed.

Won The Leafs The Cup? Barilko looks to see if he's scored in this view by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns.

Won The Leafs The Cup? Barilko looks to see if he’s scored in this view by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns.

This is another Burns, below, I’m assuming. It shows the moment of Barilko’s arising from the ice, just before he’s mobbed by teammates.

Game Over: A few fans have begun to celebrate. On the ice we see, from the right, referee Bill Chadwick. Behind the net, Habs' defenceman Tom Johnson (10) tussles at Howie Meeker. Gerry McNeil sits while Bill Barilko arises. Butch Bouchard stands in front, looking lost, while Leaf Harry Watson (4) makes for the goalscorer. In the far corner, Cal Gardner (17) lifts his stick while Maurice Richard mimics Barilko's heroic moment. Hard to say who the fifth Hab is, far left.

Game Over: A few fans have begun to celebrate. On the ice we see, from the right, referee Bill Chadwick. Behind the net, Habs’ defenceman Tom Johnson (10) tussles at Howie Meeker. Gerry McNeil sits while Bill Barilko arises. Butch Bouchard stands in front, looking lost, while Leaf Harry Watson (4) makes for the goalscorer. In the far corner, Cal Gardner (17) lifts his stick while Maurice Richard mimics Barilko’s heroic moment. Hard to say who the fifth Hab is, far left.

Danny Lewicki was a 19-year-old rookie for the Leafs that year. He recalls the aftermath in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks to the NHL: A Hockey Life:

The roar of the crowd was deafening. I have never heard, nor probably will ever hear such pandemonium. What an unbelievable series! …

The next hour was a blur. We skated around the ice in glee. We posed for pictures. I hugged so many people and shook so many hands that I was sore. But I felt no pain. We went into the dressing room to change into civies [sic] and the Stanley Cup was carried by Ted Kennedy into the Maple Leafs’ dressing room. They brought the Cup in and then they just whisked it out. I didn’t even get the chance to touch it.

Kevin Shea later collected Gerry McNeil’s unhappy view of things for Barilko: Without A Trace (2004). “It’s been my claim to fame,” the old goalie said before his death in 2004. “I still get a lot of mail from that goal — people asking me to autograph their picture of the Barilko goal.”

It wasn’t a hard shot, he said.

“I just simply missed it. You have a sense on most goals of the puck coming and you get ready, but on this one, I don’t know what happened. I had to look at pictures after. It surprised me — I don’t know how the puck got in. At the time, I didn’t even know who shot it — I never knew who scored most of the goals that were scored against me. But there was Barilko. He was right at the face-off circle.”

“It was just a shocker. It was an awful disappointment.”

skoningslös

canada sweden 1924

Mercy Rule: Canada opened the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France, with three games in three days, beating Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Switzerland by a combined score of 85-0. Represented by Toronto’s Granites, Canada featured Harry Watson (he scored 37 goals in six games) and Hooley Smith (playing at left defense rather than more forwardly, as he tended to do, later, in the NHL). The Canadians — spoiler alert — went on to win the gold.

The Swedes — pictured here, above, in the dark sweaters — kept it close, sort of. The weather had been Black-Sea balmy, but a snowstorm briefly blinded the game during the first-period, which ended with Canada ahead by 5-0. In the second, Sweden’s goalkeeper got a warning from the American referee for dropping to his knees. Soon after that, the goalie, Ohlsen, stopped a shot from Canada’s captain, Dunc Munro, with his forehead. The players paused, as you’d hope they would, and Ohlson woke up after three minutes. Watson scored just twice on the secondary Swedish goalie before Ohlson returned near the end of the middle period. Brave man. To honour his pluck, Beattie Ramsey put two quick goals past him.

The Canadians took it easy in the third, reported the correspondent from Toronto’s Daily Star. It was during “a spell of loafing” that Holmkvist, the Swedish captain, almost got his team a goal. It was threat enough that the ever vigilant Ramsey woke up and scored for Canada, goading his teammate Smith to immediately add two more goals.

Next, well — we just couldn’t help ourselves, could we?

22

Final score: 22-0.

the cons of prose

Jaromir Jagr isn’t the first right winger to be filing copy for newspapers even as he’s playing NHL hockey. Charlie Conacher was a Globe and Mail columnist in the 1930s, and an outspoken one at that. In the mid-1950s Boom-Boom Geoffrion had a writing gig at Parlons Sport around the same time that his fellow scribe and teammate Rocket Richard was using his column at Samedi-Dimanche as a platform from which (among other things) to blast away at NHL president Clarence Campbell.

And if you followed the syndicated column that Gordie Howe wrote in the 1960s you’d know that the reason the ice improved in the old Boston Garden around 1964 was because (in Gordie’s opinion) they’d reduced the number of trains through the North Station a level below. “They had little ripples in the ice from the vibrations caused by the trains,” Howe wrote. “The shaking also brought down dust filaments.”

Among left wingers, Montreal’s Aurele Joliat wrote a column for La Patrie in the 1930s, which appeared, sometimes, on the same page as that of a column by his friend and centreman Howie Morenz. Wayne Gretzky wrote for The National Post, of course, in the 1990s — although that was after he’d retired from the ice. I’m not sure that wrote is the right word, either: he helped Roy MacGregor write a column, is maybe what we’ll say. Continue reading