aurèle joliat: tiny, but hockey star

The anniversary last week of the death of Aurèle Joliat might elsewhere have triggered an impassioned rant highlighting the outrage and injustice associated with the little left winger’s absence from the list the NHL published earlier this year of its 100 best all-time players. Not here. That’s not to dispute that when Joliat died at 84 on June 2, 1986, hockey lost the greatest of its left wingers — official puckstruck.com policy, in fact, agrees that it did. The case for Joliat’s greatness, a solid one, is buttressed by the resumé the man whose name was often anglicized to Aurel built skating (mostly) alongside Howie Morenz: it includes the three Stanley Cups he helped Canadiens win, his Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1934, all those goals, his elevation to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947, & etcetera.

But we’re not going to get into that here. Today, we’ll focus instead on two other important matters relating to Joliat’s 16-year NHL career: his weight and his hat.

If once the Ottawa-born winger towered over Montreal Canadiens’ history, he was never what you’d call an imposing physical specimen. Check in with today’s standard reference sites — hockeyreference.com or nhl.com — and you’ll find Joliat listed as standing 5’7” and displacing 136 pounds. That’s small — slight, even. During his playing days, The Mighty Atom was a nickname he bore, and you’ll find many contemporary newspaper accounts in which he appears as Montreal’s “mite wingman.”

“Probably the tiniest player in the National League,” the Detroit Free Press tagged him in 1934, as ridiculous an insult to Roy Worters (5’3”/135 lbs.) as you’re going to see today, but never mind. Eddie Gerard played with Joliat in Ottawa before both men graduated to stardom in the NHL. “If he should walk into this room now,” he testified in 1932, “the last thing you’d take him for would be a hockey player, with his thin, pale face and frail body.”

“I don’t believe even with his hockey togs on he weighs 145 pounds.”

It’s not unusual to see the weights of hockey players bandied at length in newspaper accounts from the early decades of the 20th century. Makes sense — in an age before TV, with radio broadcasting still in its infancy, fans who weren’t seeing games live and in person relied on prose descriptions of play and players far more than we do today.

Still, even in that context, Joliat’s weight seems to have been oddly, ongoingly, in focus. Not only that: the way it fluctuated in the press seems to suggest that at least one prominent newspaper kept bathroom scales at the Montreal Forum in order to monitor his mass.

Watching Joliat play in the spring of 1924, PCHA President Frank Patrick sized him at 155 pounds. That’s as high a number as I’ve ever seen quoted. By 1929, Charles Grafton of Detroit’s Free Press had him down to 135 in a feature that bore this helpful subhead:

Joliat One Of The Light Men Who Overcomes Weight Handicap By Fast Thinking

By 1930, he’d lost a bit more newspaper poundage: “weighs only 130 pounds,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. Joliat and his teammate Johnny Gagnon, Honolulu’s Star-Bulletin advised in 1931, “weigh only 136 and 139 pounds respectively.” Another year, another headline, this time from a 1932 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Joliat’s 138 Pounds Are Very Deceptive if You Don’t Know Hockey

Up and down went the newspaper scales as the decade moved on. “Weighs only 135 pounds,” said Dunkirk, New York’s Evening Observer in 1933. “Probably the smallest player in the circuit at 133 pounds” (Detroit Free Press, 1934). “Weighs only 135 pounds” (Chicago Tribune, 1935). “Weighs only 130 pounds” (NEA, 1938).

The Evening News, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, weighs in, 1935.

Joliat was 37 when he retired in the spring of 1938. As the hockey season neared that fall, he professed he didn’t know what was next for him. “My plans are indefinite,” he said as September struck, still holed up at his vacation camp in the Gatineau hills. “I will be in Montreal Monday, when I may decide what to do.”

He ran a grocery store, eventually, in Montreal’s west end, and thought about opening a night club (but didn’t). After a few years, he’d return to NHL ice as a linesman. Later still, he worked as a ticket agent at Ottawa’s train station.

In 1941, when he gave up the store, he announced a new plan: he was thinking of taking up as a ski instructor. He told a reporter that he’d lost eight pounds in just the previous month, and his reasoning was that the outdoor life at Mont Tremblant in the Laurentians might help to restore his health. He was down to 129 pounds. “If I kept losing weight like that,” he said, “in another year, there wouldn’t be anything of me left.”

•••

“Colourful Canadien,” Montreal’s Gazette headlined him, the day after his death in 1986. His final numbers? “Five-foot-six and 135 pounds at his heaviest.” His stature, readers learned, had been an on-ice asset. “He used his small size to his advantage, stickhandling around large defencemen and tucking the puck between their legs.”

Also? “Mr. Joliat became famous for wearing a tuque while playing.”

That was wrong, of course, and still is. A tuque. Joliat’s hat was in fact — well, take your pick of comtemporary descriptions, which range from “a black peaked-hat” and “his old baseball cap” to “a polo cap” and “the blue peaked cap that has become a landmark around the circuit” to “that tight-fitting piece of headgear with its sombre visor.”

There’s some suggestion that he wore it to cover up a bald-spot, though nothing conclusive: it may just have been habit. Rivals quickly learned how to knock Joliat off his game.

“The players of other teams made it a point to aim for that cap,” Harold Burr wrote in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1932.

Punch Broadbent, now with the Canadian Flying Corps, reached perfection at the trick. All he had to do was skate close to Joliat, nudge upward with his elbow and the cap would fall to the ice.

It didn’t matter if Joliat had possession of the puck. He would always let it go, stoop down and replace his cap. But he has discovered a way this Winter to circumvent his tormenters. He doesn’t wear the cap any more.

This was big news across the NHL. “The enemy players stared when Aurel was seen without his black cap,” John Kieran wrote in The New York Times.

Jack Carveth of Detroit’s Free Press had a different explanation for Joliat’s stowing of the cap: it was all about curing a scoring slump.

I’m not so sure about that, though: Joliat scored Montreal’s only goal in the first game of the season that 1931 November with his hat in place. Canadiens then went to Toronto, where Joliat, now bareheaded, again scored the team’s lone goal. He counted three hatless assists in a 5-2 win over the Montreal Maroons, and scored against Boston in his team’s next game, too. I can’t say whether he’d put the cap back on by then or not, just that he did go back to it at some point. He replaced it with a helmet for a few games in 1937 after hurting his head in a fall, but otherwise the remaining years of his NHL career were hatted.

In February of 1934, he played his 500th game, and before the puck dropped to set Canadiens and Maroons going, there was a ceremony at centre Forum ice. NHL President Frank Calder was there, along with other dignitaries. Canadian Press:

Referee Mike Rodden of Toronto summoned Joliat with a wave of his hand, and the mighty atom, who is playing his 12th season with Canadiens, pulled his black cap over his eyes and skated over to receive a beautiful loving cup presented by his teammates, and a handsome chest of silver and a golf bag, tributes of his many friends and admirers among the fans.

 

jacques plante’s new face-saver

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Mask + Man: Before he added his famous mask to his game equipment one night in 1959, Jacques Plante was protecting his face in practice. After having both cheekbones broken in training mishaps in 1954 and ’55, he first tried a welder’s mask donated by a fan. He later switched to the plexiglass apparatus he’s holding above, the creation of a St. Mary’s, Ontario, inventor by the name of Delbert Louch. “Louch’s New Head-Saver” had its shortcomings: it left a goaltender’s forehead vulnerable and tended, too, to fog over on the ice. Plante modified his, as shown above, by cutting out eye-holes. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

You can guess, maybe, the species of shot that truly distressed Jacques Plante. “Oh brother, that damned slap shot!” he wrote, to the point, in 1971. “You have no idea what an effect the slap shot has had on goalies.” Heading into a game against Chicago, he said, knowing he was gong to facing Bobby Hull, his nerves would start their rattling two days before the teams hit the ice.

Plante was 41 by then, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs — with another three seasons to go before he’d wrap up his 21-year professional career. He was wearing a mask by then, of course — had been for 11 years, ever since the night in 1959 when Andy Bathgate of the Rangers moved in on him in early minutes of a game in New York.

You know the story. It was this week, 57 years ago, November 1. It wasn’t a slapped shot that did the damage and launched a Heritage Minute. No, Bathgate’s effort was a malign backhand. He told Plante biographer Todd Denault that he’d done it on purpose, vengefully — Plante had tripped him into the boards, he was bleeding, and mad. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” he said.

The puck struck Plante to the left of his nose. Dave Anderson: “He toppled face down on the milk-white ice at the right side of the net.” Red Fisher, covering the game for The Montreal Star, would describe Bathgate rushing in and lifting Plante’s head.

Plante stayed down for 15 seconds. He got up with a towel fixed his face, skated off under escort by Maurice Richard and Dickie Moore. A pair of Garden policemen helped him to the medical room. Rangers’ doctor Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa sewed in seven stitches. After 20 minutes, Plante was ready to return. There are varying versions of the conversation that took place between coach and goaltender before Plante rejoined the game. In his biography Behind The Mask, Raymond Plante (no relation) has Plante lying on the medical table, seeing Blake, saying I want to play with my mask on. Blake: We’ll see, we’ll see.

Dave Anderson wrote a Plante feature for The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. As he tells it, Blake is the one to mention the mask, tell Plante he can put it on. Good, Plante told him, because I wouldn’t go back without it.

Todd Denault’s biography is Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (2010). He has a stricken Plante departing the medical room, heading back out to the ice (where — a superior detail — the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), then on the Canadiens’ dressing room where he had it out with his coach. Continue reading

bill gadsby, 1927—2016

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By Gads: News today that Hall-of-Fame defenceman Bill Gadsby has died at the age of 88. Born in Calgary, he finished his distinguished career with the Detroit Red Wings in 1966 after a 20-year NHL career that also included stints with Chicago and the New York Rangers. (The Red Wings pay tribute to his life and eventful times here.) Above, some time in the 1950s, Toronto hatter Sam Taft takes a measure of Gadsby’s brow. (Photo: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4450)

dipsy doodle dandies

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Hatcheck: A birthday today for the incomparable Max Bentley, born this day in 1920 in Delisle, Saskatchewan. (He died in 1984, aged 63.) He’s the man on the left here, standing alongside Chicago teammates Red Hamill and brother Doug Bentley. That’s young Bill McLaughlin playing shop assistant in livery — son of the Black Hawks’ owner, Major Frederic McLaughlin. The photo comes undated but it’s annotated with a key piece of information: Hamill and the Bentley boys were getting new hats in reward for recent hat tricks. That might make it the fall of 1942. November 8, Hamill scored all the Chicago goals in a 3-3 tie with Detroit. Doug Bentley’s got three on November 19, also against the Red Wings and their goaltender, Johnny Mowers. Paul Bibeault was in the Montreal net on December 5 when Max put three past him in a 5-2 Chicago win. That was enough to lift him into a tie atop the NHL scoring chart with Lynn Patrick of the New York Rangers, each with 21 points. Doug was right behind them with 19 and indeed, when the season ended the following March, had crept ahead. There was no Art Ross Trophy then (Elmer Lach won the first one in 1948), so Doug Bentley was simply the NHL’s leading scoring champion, finishing with 73 points, just ahead of Boston’s Bill Cowley (72) and brother Max (70), followed by Patrick (61).

this ought to remind us that canada is a fur country

Credit: William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-138394

No Ennui: Sir Frederick Middleton strikes a pose in skating garb in 1889. When he arrived in Canada five years earlier to take command of the nation’s militia, reporters who met him at Quebec described him as red-faced, very short, and friendly. (Photo: William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-138394 ; bio: Dictionary of Canadian Biography)

Reverend John Bevan, M.A., who came out from England to pay a winter visit to Montreal, has written of his impressions. “In the winter,” he says, “Montreal is a paradise for the strong and young. There is surely no place where those who revel in sports and love the open air can enjoy life with such zest as they can and do here.”

In the course of time we shall have a great many sport loving people from Britain coming across the Atlantic for the winter sports here. They swarm in Switzerland, but the Canadian winter will bring them yet. Mr. Bevan was fascinated by hockey. The ice game as played here he found to be the fastest game in the world.

Some of the impressions Mr. Bevan got here are worth considering. The telegraph poles he describes as a blight on the streets — they are never straight and are usually drunkenly askew. The last syllable of genuine rhymes with wine and hoi polloi are called roughnecks. The policemen in Montreal wear funny little Russian hats of astrakhan, and the mounted ones wear leather shield flaps to their stirrups. This ought to remind us that Canada is a fur country and we ought to be able to cap our own policemen.

He says further:

“The streets are bilingual, so are the captions of the films at the movies, so that if one is bored with the film one can always gets a French lesson for nothing. If the answer to a question is in the affirmative the word used is sure not yes. The rule of the road is opposite from ours, and all the cars have the left-hand drive.”

Another thing that impressed the visitor was that in Canada people work hard, but play like mad — there is no ennui, they go full out with what they have in hand.

• from an editorial, “Canada As A Visitor Sees Her,” in The Toronto Daily Star, April 30, 1927; excerpted, edited, and poemized.

bru crew

 

Boston Cream: Never mind the world at war, the big hockey news in Boston in the winter of 1939-40 was that, in his 14th year as leader and idol of the Bruins, Eddie Shore was on his last turn. It wasn’t a particularly glorious ending: Shore played in just four Boston games that year and though the Bruins said they’d never trade him (right up to the moment they did), he ended the year (and his career) with the New York Americans. Without the man they were calling Old Mr. Hockey, a new generation of Boston stars took the team to the top of the NHL standings, where they finished the regular season. With his 22 goals and 52 points in 48 games, centreman Milt Schmidt led the league in scoring, followed in the charts by Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer, his two Kraut-Line wingers, each with 43 points. The Bruins couldn’t keep it going in the playoffs, though, losing out in the first round to the eventual champions, the New York Rangers. Above, in hats and spiffy jackets, a bevy of Bruins gather in a Garden stairwell. Front, from left, that’s: Jack Crawford, Schmidt, Bauer, and Dumart. Behind, left to right: Flash Hollett stands with Art Jackson, Frank Brimsek, Roy Conacher, Jack Shewchuk, and Dit Clapper.

(Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)