new england nine

Recalling Mr. Hockey: It’s four years ago today that the great Gordie Howe died, on a Friday, at the age of 88, in Sylvania, Ohio. He was 49 when he joined the WHA’s New England Whalers in May of 1977. In 1979, after the WHA folded and the team joined the NHL as the Hartford Whalers, Howe played his final year, all 80 games, contributing 15 goals and 41 points. He turned 52 before the season was over, by which time the Whalers’ line-up also featured Dave Keon, 40, and 41-year-old Bobby Hull.

coeur de lion

Richard Brodeur was born on this date in 1952 — it was a Monday there, then — in Longueuil, Quebec, which means he’s 67 today. Drafted by the New York Islanders in the seventh round of the NHL’s 1972 amateur draft, Brodeur decided instead to apply his goalguarding talents in the WHA, where he played five seasons with the Quebec Nordiques, helping them to win the 1976-77 Avco Cup.

As an NHLer, he played (not for long) with the Islanders and finished up (only just briefly) with the Hartford Whalers. In between, he featured for eight seasons in the nets of the Vancouver Canucks. In 1982, he helped steer the Canucks into a Stanley Cup finals meeting with the Islanders, who prevailed in four straight games. King Richard, fans nicknamed him then. Grant Lawrence was one such, and he wrote about his admiration in his 2013 book The Lonely End of the Rink:

Unlike many modern-day goalies, where less movement is more, King Richard would excite fans by seemingly throwing his entire body into every shot, making every save look incredibly dramatic and exciting, all four limbs always in action and in full extension. If King Richard was making a high glove save, the glove would shoot straight up in the air whiles his legs would do the splits and his stick hand would shoot out to the side.

During that Cup run in ’82, an Englishman who’d landed in Vancouver put together a group of fellow musicians (he called them King Richard’s Army) and recorded a cheerful dud of a tribute song in Brodeur’s honour. Sample “King Richard!” lyrics: “King Richard/ the lionhearted/ with you in command/ victory shall be ours.” Released as a single, it was given away to frenzied fans at Canucks’ games that spring. On the b-side? A cover of the national anthem of home hockey fans taunting a visiting team on losing night, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”

 

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

zarley zalapski, 1968—2017

Bad news today from the NHL: former defenceman Zarley Zalapski has died at the age of 49. Born in Edmonton, he played 12 NHL seasons, mostly for the Calgary Flames, though he also skated for Pittsburgh, Hartford, Montreal, and Philadelphia. “I played defence,” he once recalled, “’cause we were short defenceman.” His father disagreed: as Zarley’s earliest coach, Len Zalapski said he’d consigned his son to the blueline. “I always had a theory that defencemen get more ice time.”

Long before Ken Hitchcock found his way to the Stars’ bench in Dallas, he cut a 15-year-old Zalapski from his team in Sherwood Park, Alberta. (The coach confessed his regret, later.) In 1984 the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux first overall, and they followed that up in ’85 by claiming Craig Simpson. Zalapski was next: Pittsburgh made him their first-rounder in ’86, fourth overall. He also wore the maple leaf, patrolling bluelines for several Team Canadas. At the 1986 Izvestia tournament in Moscow, he was voted top defenceman ahead of Vyacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov. At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Calgary (Canada finished fourth), he joined a defensive corps that also counted Randy Gregg and Trent Yawney. “I’ve never really expected anything out of hockey,” Zalapski said in those years. “It really didn’t matter as long as I kept at it, kept enjoying it.”

The name? His father borrowed that from his favourite golfer, Kermit Zarley. “It’s always worthwhile if you have a unique name,” Len Zalapski said.

 

hanged, fired

Ottawrath: Senators' fan Kevin Fabian puts a flame to an effigy of Alexei Yashin in Arnprior, Ontario, in October of 1999. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward)

Ottawrath: Senators’ fan Kevin Fabian puts a flame to an effigy of Alexei Yashin in Arnprior, Ontario, in October of 1999. (Image: Jonathan Hayward)

Chicago fans went to the trouble of noosing up a fake Frank Mahovlich in 1962 in order to … intimidate the visiting Leafs? Disturb the sleep of one of their rival’s prominent scoring forwards? Show how much they loved their Black Hawks? Subtly state a nuanced position on capital punishment? Hard to say what exactly might have been in the hearts and/or heads of those zealous executioners, but it wasn’t the first time that hockey’s faithful had rigged up an effigy to punish in public, and it wouldn’t be the last. Herewith, several other instances of hockey fans with rough justice in mind:

 1955

Fans hurled abuse and vegetables at NHL president Clarence Campbell after he suspended Montreal’s Maurice Richard that year for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs, too, and they threw a city-wrecking riot in his honour, too — not to have organized a ceremonial lynching would have just seemed lazy. As Rex MacLeod wrote in The Globe and Mail, Campbell was indeed “hanged in effigy and some lawless elements were even determined to improve on that.”

1962

The Boston Bruins had missed the playoffs for three years running and things weren’t exactly looking up: after starting the 1962-63 season with a win over Montreal, the team ran up a 13-game winless streak. In November they lost at home on a Sunday night to Detroit and that’s when fans at the Garden strung up coach Phil Watson in effigy. GM Lynn Patrick soon took their point, firing Watson and replacing him with Milt Schmidt — the man he’d succeeded a year and a half earlier.

Watson was philosophical. “It’s the old story,” he told Jack Kinsella from The Ottawa Citizen. “You can’t blame the players, or the ice, or anything else for losing. So you blame the coach. But I don’t blame management too much. After all, they’re in a business, and when the fan starts demanding action, something has to be done.

The team had offered him a front-office job, he said, but he wanted to coach. What about with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the Eastern Professional Hockey League? They were in need. Kinsella pressed: would Watson be interested?

“You’re darn tootin I would,” said Watson. “Besides, I haven’t heard of an Ottawa coach hanged in effigy yet.”

1969

As a hard-cored Leafs defenceman, Pat Quinn earned the wrath of Boston fans in the spring of the year by persecuting their beloved number 4. As was plentifully noted at the time, last month, of Quinn’s death, over the course of a couple of games in March and April, he crosschecked Orr into a goalpost; punched him; kicked him; flattened him with an elbow; knocked him unconscious; left him concussed. Newspaper accounts from the time describe shoes hurled at Quinn and punches thrown, death threats, too; I haven’t come across any contemporary mentions of noosed effigies. But Milt Dunnell says there were those, too, hanging from the galleries at the Garden, so we’ll say it was so.

1974

Another spring, another Leafs-Bruins playoff match-up. The Bruins won this one with dispatch, offing Toronto in four straight games, the last of which was a 4-3 overtime win at Maple Leaf Garden. Boston right wing Ken Hodge scored two goals, including the winner, while fans dangled a dummy in his likeness overhead. He’d been playing dirty, they apparently thought, though Hodge himself was perplexed. “I can’t understand why the fans in Toronto think I’m vicious,” he said after the game. “In Boston, the fans boo me because they wish I was even tougher.”

1988

When Edmonton Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington decided to trade/sell Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in August, fans keened and wailed. Edmonton’s mayor was shocked — letting Gretzky leave, he said, was like removing all the city’s bridges. There was talk of cancelling season’s tickets, of boycotting the team. And in front of city hall that week, a small group of disgruntled fans burned Pocklington in effigy.

1996

Florida beat Philadelphia in the Prince of Wales Conference semi-finals that spring, but the Flyers didn’t go down easily, winning two of the first three games. Eric Lindros scored game-winning goals in both of those victories which, I guess, you know, is a capital offence in Florida. The Associated Press:

During the [third] game, fans sang anti-Lindros chants, threw objects at the Philadelphia bench and hung the center in effigy from the upper deck of the Miami Arena.

“I don’t know if I feed off the crowd,” said Lindros. “It’s not something I’ve not been through before. I could care less.”

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