“Do you want to look fancy,” Terry Harper was saying in 1978, “or do you want to get the job done?” Harper, who’s turning 82 today, was talking generally about hockey at the time, but he might have been professing his own personal creed, the one that saw him through a 19-year career as highly effective and hard-to-daunt NHL defenceman. Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, on a Saturday of this date in 1940, Harper won five Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens between 1962 and 1972. He went on to play for — and captain — the Los Angeles Kings and the Detroit Red Wings in the ’70s. He skated for the St. Louis Blues, too. He was an assistant coach for the Colorado Rockies in 1981 when, as a 41-year-old, injuries saw him drafted into the line-up for a 15-game run. “The game is 95 per cent mental,” Harper opined back in ’78. “A lot of people say it’s less than that, that it takes a lot of ability. It doesn’t. It’s 95 per cent or more here,” he said, tapping a finger to his head.
Having ventured to wonder earlier in the week that this might be the earliest known photograph of a hockey mask, I’m back today knowing that … it’s not.
That’s the proof, above, on the face of Bill Cantillion, the captain and star goaltender for Exeter Academy, the august New Hampshire independent school, who’s posed here with his teammates in the winter in 1920 wearing an apparatus that, even in this fairly murky image, looks almost identical to E.W. Gould’s get-up from Thursday’s post.
Cantillion, I can report, was a son of Joe Cantillion, the Major League Baseball manager and umpire. The Exeter team the younger Cantillion played on 1920-21 was a good one: in February, they overcame the previously unbeaten Harvard freshman team by a score of 3-1. On the defence for Harvard: George Owen, a future captain of the Boston Bruins. Bill Cantillion himself would attend Harvard, where he played hockey and baseball … maybe with his mask? I haven’t found a photograph of that. In the mid-’20s he played for the Los Angeles Monarchs of the amateur Pacific Hockey League.
I guess we can surmise, then, that E.W. Gould’s mask wasn’t one that he pioneered. Also (almost definitely) that Bill Cantillion wasn’t the first to wear this half-face model. I’m guessing that these rudimentary masks were common up and down the U.S. east coast, on high-school and college rinks as well as on basketball courts and football fields.
Gould isn’t shown wearing glasses, but (I’m fairly confident) Cantillion is, and I think that was the original point: these rudimentary masks were manufactured to safeguard spectacles in the sporting rough. If they are masks. Can they, in the specific context of the evolution of hockey protection, be considered in same conversation as, say, the custom-made tackle that Clint Benedict wore in 1930? I’d say they can, but not everybody thinks so: hockey historian (and president of the Society for International Hockey Research) Fred Addis holds that the glasses-protectors we’re talking about here belong in a separate category.
Either way, they do seem to have been popular, particularly on New England rinks, and show up more and more in photographs as we get into the 1930s.
While NHL goaltenders continued bare-faced through the 1920s, goaltenders in lesser leagues were resorting to the fuller fortification of a baseball catcher’s mask in these earlier years, often on a temporary basis: Iver Anderson, for instance, who played for the USAHA Duluth Hornets, donned one in February of 1922 for a game against the Cleveland Indians after having had several teeth knocked out in an earlier contest.
A few months earlier, in December of 1921, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association had stepped up to try to aid the health and well-being of goaltenders by adding a goal crease to the rules of its rinks. (The NHL didn’t follow suit until the 1933-34 season.)
While a proposal stipulating that no-one but the goaltender could enter the new crease was rejected, some sovereignty was established. “This arc shall be the goaltender’s territory,” the CAHA’s language went. “No player shall come in bodily contact with the goaltender while the latter is within his own territory, and any goal scored by any player while the goaltender is being charged shall not be counted.”
A further 1921 amendment permitted a goaltender to wear a mask, “to protect his face and head.”
This was at least partly in response to the tragedy of a 23-year-old amateur goaltender, Edgar Hawthorne, who was struck in the temple by a puck in January of 1921 during a game in Toronto and died of a blood-clot the following day.
Checking in a few months after this last new CAHA rule took effect, the Globe found that in Ontario it appeared “to be a useless provision, and unpopular, to say the least.”
Few, if any, goalkeepers have availed themselves of the privilege of equipping themselves with ‘bird cages.’ Referees throughout the Province report an utter absence of the paraphernalia in league games.”
Hawthorne’s case was a terrible accident, the consensus seemed to be; it had more to do with poor lighting in the arena in question than with any lack of a face-guard.
“Goalkeepers prefer not to have their vision hampered by the use of masks,” the Globe concluded. Of a recently introduced papier-mâché baseball catcher’s mask with wider eye-openings, the Globe reported:
The new mask is light, strong and easy to see through, but, as the fashion gazettes are wont to remark, “are not being worn.”
I’ll assume that the glass-protectors of the sort that Gould and Cantillion were sporting were available in Canada, too, in the 1920s, though the earliest visual evidence I’ve come across showing they were in use in the north are from the 1930s. Roy Musgrove had a set when he was guarding goals for the University of Manitoba in 1930-31. (And wore them in England, too, later in the ’30s, playing for the Wembley Lions.)
In 1933, you could order a pair for from the Harold A. Wilson sporting goods company in Toronto, for $3.10 delivered: “carbon steel wire, electro welded, outside wires are padded and covered with leather,” the catalogue promised.
That’s all (for now). Well, one more update: thanks to another diligent member of SIHR, Connor Mah, we know that E.W. Gould was Edward Wanton Gould, Princeton class of ’22. Born in Staten Island, he was schooled as a boy at hockey hotbed of St. Paul’s in New Hampshire, which maintains a claim as the site of the first organized hockey in the U.S. (in 1870) and was Hobey Baker’s alma mater. Ed Gould went into the oil business in New England after he left Princeton. A memorial following his death in 1978 noted that he continued his interest in swimming and skating throughout his life — and that he was also interest in horticulture.
I lost track of the bidding soon after the bidding started, in October, on the Gordie Howe NFTs. If there was bidding. Was there? I wasn’t bidding, but I think people were, if I’m not mistaken, people who saw an opportunity to acquire exclusive works of art depicting one of the greatest hockey players ever to have played, for the purpose of … not hanging them on the wall, or anywhere, due to the non-fungibility of the works in question, as I understand it, which I don’t, entirely.
I’ve been slow on the NFT uptake, I confess. Trying to catch up. Gordie Howe’s token efforts snared my attention because (i) Gordie Howe and (ii) I’m always interested in the artwork that hockey inspires. I didn’t need to be seeking to acquire any of the vaporous masterworks on offer to activate my curiosity in the subject-matter and the history on which they draw. That came naturally.
Howe’s grandson, Travis Howe, is the founder of this feast — Mark Howe’s son. There’s a video you can watch that has Travis explaining the whole concept behind The Gentl9man 2021 NFT Art Collection. The idea, in short, is to be sharing “some really special stories that have true meaning to the Howe family” while raising money for the good causes that the Howe Foundation has long believed in and supported. I can get behind that, even if I’m not bidding: the Howe Foundation does worthy work in aid of both getting kids active and in backing women aspiring to make their way in the world of sports business.
Along with a reproduction of a sketch of Mr. Hockey’s own, there were eight works originally on offer in October, by a Detroit artist, Matt Zelley, a.k.a. just plain Zelley. Among them is a great piece of puck-pointillism, reproduced at the foot of this post; another portrays Gordie Howe as an oncoming locomotive — at least I think that’s the concept. Promised as a premium bonus to the lucky buyer of the poppy Roy Lichtenstein-inspired piece at the top of the post: “a game-used pair of Gordie’s elbow pads” currently on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Zelley’s interpretations of some of the landmarks of Howe lore are to your taste or not; all the works are up for viewing at the Howe Foundation site.
It’s not the commerce involved with these NFTs that I’m interested in, particularly, nor Zelley’s decisions as an artist. What I’m here for (sorry if you’re not) is the storytelling that’s behind the project, and the messages it’s sending — and ignoring. While there’s plenty to consider and to discuss in each of these Howe Zelleys, the one that catches my attention in particular is the vivid one we’re looking at above, the one titled “Gordie ‘Pow!’”
Let me just disclaim, up front, any desire to mess with Gordie Howe’s legacy. He remains one of hockey’s undeniable greats — Maurice Richard himself will be testifying to that a little further down. Howe’s talents were mountainous, as was his strength and his durability. I’m not denying any of that. He played the game at such a high level for such a long time, was an idol to so many, worked tirelessly as an ambassador of the game he loved, seems to have been just a great guy, so long as you were meeting him in circumstances in which you weren’t trying to take the puck away from him or otherwise stymie his progress on NHL ice.
But also? There’s no getting away from the fact that, on that ice, he was a clear and present danger to anyone who got in his way. Gordie Howe was violent and he was mean.
You don’t have to take my word for it. “Meanest player in the league,” Andy Bathgate called him in 1959, “uses all the tricks plus.” A sampling of the press Howe got when he first retired in 1971 might include Dave Anderson’s verdict in the New York Times: “Sure, this soft-spoken man was dirty. Some say the dirtiest.” Son Marty has called him (with, I guess, affection) “the toughest, meanest guy I’ve ever seen on a pair of skates.” Howe was often injured, we know; he also did a lot of injuring. I’ve written about both, including here and here.
Hockey, which is to say hockey people, long ago found ways to reconcile itself to and excuse the violence it tolerates within the game. One of them is to insist that assaults that take place on the ice are somehow different from those that occur elsewhere, beyond the confines of arena boards. (That this fiction has taken hold and, mostly, been accepted in the wider world is a magic no-one truly understands.) There’s a rhetorical trick hockey people like, too, the one that seeks to detach hockey players from the anti-social behaviours they sometimes perpetrate by emphasizing what wonderful people they are away from the game. I’ve written about this before — specifically in reference to Gordie Howe, in fact — without ever really understanding the logic at work. The Howe Foundation’s NFT project blithely embraces the contradiction by including the concept of [sic] gentl9manliness in the title of a collection that includes portraits of our hero punching and knocking out opponents.
In those works, Zelley honours and adds to another tradition of hockey’s tendency to downplay its own brutality, whether or not he’s actually aware it. “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is an actual cartoon, so it’s hard to blame it for doing (and doing well) what cartoons are meant to do: brighten, distort, exaggerate, spoof the real world for entertainment’s sake.
Here’re the rubric accompanying the piece in the Howe Foundation’s online gallery:
“It’s better to give than to receive.”
— Gordie Howe
With playful colors and a comic-inspired style, a smiling Gordie Howe uses one of his infamous elbows on Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Contrary to popular belief, there was no bad blood between the two players. That myth began when Howe hit Richard coming across the line, and according to Howe, “he spun like a rocket and fell down.” Howe went on to explain, “He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.”
Where to begin? Also: how to begin, without sounding like a serious finger-wagging pedant? I guess maybe would I get going by pointing out that elbowing, infamous or otherwise, is a penalty, following up to ask why the act of knocking out an opponent, even rendered with a playful palette, would be one you’d want to spotlight? Yes, I think that’s how I’d do it.
Definitely looks like a headshot, too, that grinning Gordie has delivered here. We’re late to the scene, but I’d say that the Richard we’re seeing is unconscious, even before he’s down — which won’t be good for his head when it does hit the ice in the next (purely notional) panel. I guess if you were aiming to portray both Howe’s cheery nature and his grim record of administering concussions to opponents, this is how you’d do it, but again I’m going to fall back on questioning: why?
I know, I know: it’s comic-inspired, not an accurate portrayal, what’s the big fuss, why do I hate fun?
It just strikes me as stoutly strange that (i) this is the one of the (quote) really special stories that has true meaning to the Howe family and (ii) that no-one involved in the project saw any dissonance in turning hockey head trauma into a cartoon for a Howe-related project.
Mr. Hockey, after all, spent the last years of his life with dementia that, as son Marty talked about in 2012, was surely related to the injuries he suffered in his hockey-playing years. “You play 33 years at that level without a helmet,” the younger Howe told the Toronto Star’s Mark Zwolinski, “and things are going to happen.” Did he have CTE? It’s not clear; as far as I know the family didn’t donate Howe’s brain for study after his death in 2016 at the age of 88. In 2012, Marty Howe said that the Howes had no plans to do so.
Marty and Mark and their two other siblings, Murray and Cathy, did write an afterword to the autobiography that Howe published in 2014. My Story is a bright and entertaining package, written in the confident first-person; only on a back-end acknowledgments page does Howe credit Calgary writer Paul Haavardsrud for helping “to take the thoughts in my head and put them down on paper.” As John Branch wrote in a review of the book for the New York Times, the whole enterprise raises “at least two questions, both unanswered: What kind of damage did hockey do to Howe’s brain? And how does someone with dementia, which severely impacts memory, write a memoir?”
The afterword, which the Howe children presumably penned themselves, does actually attempt to rationalize the punishment and pain that were such prominent parts of their father’s professional brand. It’s almost endearing.
“How can someone who’s so kind and soft-spoken at home become so remorseless once he puts on skates,” they ask. Answer: “It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde duality that’s not easy to reconcile.”
It comes down to his professionalism. That’s what they believe. His job was to win; he did his job.
“He decided early in his career that to be successful in the NHL he’d need to give the opposition a reason to slow down when they came to get the puck. If that meant throwing an elbow or putting some lumber on a guy, then it seemed like fair game to him. After all, everybody in the NHL was being paid to be there, and the odd cut or bruise was just the cost of doing business.”
Here’s where differ from those earlier (and forthcoming) witness statements. “Ironically,” the Howe siblings propose,
it was the respect he had for other players that made him feel like he had a license to play as ruthlessly as he did. He wasn’t mean-spirited or dirty; he just figured that a few stitches or a knock to the ribs didn’t cause any real harm. If it gave him the extra split second he needed to make a play, then that was justification enough for him. In his mind, playing any other way would be shortchanging the team. Some people might not approve, but his tactics gave him the space he needed to operate for more than 30 years. There was definitely a method to his madness.
I can’t decide if the generosity of this reading outweighs its naïveté, or whether do they just cancel each other out? That the Howe children decided to address their father’s on-ice vehemence at all should be recognized — but then so should the fact that they then so studiously avoid any serious discussion of the head trauma that Gordie Howe suffered and administered even as they’re leading up to their mention of his “cognitive impairment” in the last few pages of the book.
The jolly anecdote that Zelley and company have attached to “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is, if nothing else, of a piece with the reputational reset that Mr. Hockey proposes.
I know, I know: the quote about the supposed bad blood between Detroit’s most famous number 9 and his Montreal counterpart is accurate: it’s something that Gordie Howe did indeed tell Dave Stubbs, then of the Montreal Gazette, in 2007. They were in Montreal, at a gala celebrating the charitable works of a mutual acquaintance Howe knew as “John” — Jean Béliveau. Most of the account Stubbs wrote focussed on the amicable relationship that those latter two enjoyed through the years. Here’s a fuller excerpt:
They fought hard, but within the rules during a time of bitter rivalries, when teams met each other 14 or more times per season. Neither recalls ever dropping the gloves against the other.
It was the late Rocket Richard, a fellow right-winger, that lore has Howe detesting.
“There was no dislike,” Howe said. “I respected him. I’d watch every move he made, if it could benefit my hockey. …
“They always thought there was bad blood because I hit him once coming across the line and he spun like a rocket and fell down. He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.
“I felt sorry for the Rocket. I never felt he enjoyed the game. If he wasn’t having a good night, he’d just as soon explode. That fellow didn’t know when to stop, did he? But I admired him.”
So much so that Howe named his dog for Richard. Surely the four-legged Rocket is a ferocious, brooding beast?
Howe leans in close.
“A toy poodle,” he whispered, his playfulness worn in a grin.
A great party piece, that last bit, if a little cruel. The pity, just before that, is interesting. As for Howe’s assertion that there was no antipathy between the two superstars — I’ll grant that it’s entirely likely and unsurprising — allowable, even — that at that late date, when Howe was 79, with almost half-a-century gone by since the two men last met on NHL ice, that’s how he chose to remember the way it once was, benevolently, generously, electing to settle back on the comforting chimera that as old rivals they two had engaged in honourable sportive struggle against one another with reverence and esteem as their mutual watchwords.
The historical record isn’t entirely contradictory — let’s just say that it has a finer grain to it.
Howe and Richard were fighting each other on the ice as early as 1949, when Richard was 27 and Howe was 20. Detroit and Montreal had a bad-tempered meeting that January at the Forum wherein Richard engaged in what the local Gazette rated as “determined slugfests” with Howe and Red Wing captain Sid Abel. In both cases, the Gazette decided, he was “on the short end of the punch-throwing.” The Rocket was hurt, too, in one of those melees, tearing a muscle in his hip.
Red Wing defenceman Red Kelly later recalled that the referee on the night, King Clancy, skated in to adjudicate when Howe and Richard first began to scruffle, calling off the players who were trying to separate the two. “Let ’em alone. Let ’em fight. Let’s see who is the best fighter,” Clancy said, by Kelly’s 1970 account. (Before it was all over — accidentally or not — Richard ended up punching Clancy, too.)
That wasn’t the only occasion on which Howe and Richard brawled. There was this time, too, which I don’t have a precise date for, though the details of the respective uniforms would seem to say it’s pre-1956:
However warmly Howe and/or members of his family have spoken of Richard in recent years, both men did see, in their time, see fit to putting some pricklier feelings on the page.
Here’s the Rocket writing about Howe in his 1971 Stan Fischler-mediated autobiography:
He was big and strong and skated with great ease. He could do what no other player in the league could do, shoot the puck from either the left or right side. I noticed Howe when he first joined the Red Wings in the late forties and he impressed me as a good, but not a great, hockey player.
That changed, with the years. “Looking back,” Richard says, “I would say that Howe is the best all-around hockey player I’ve ever seen, and that includes Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.”
The next paragraph, I guess, counts as … praise?
Another thing about Gordie that I experienced firsthand was that he was a dirty hockey player, not tough, mind you, but dirty — and he would take absolutely nothing from anybody. If you gave him a bad check, you could be sure he’d get even with you, in spades! But he wouldn’t start it. In that sense, Howe and I were the same. I would never hit anybody first if he hadn’t done anything to me before.
In their 2000 book, 9: Maurice Richard, Reluctant Hero, Chris Goyens, Frank Orr, and Jean-Luce Duguay quote Richard near the end of his career. “Howe is a great player, the best I ever played against, but he should hustle more. He doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as he could. He was a better all-round player than I was, maybe the best ever. But I think he should have scored more big goals, like in the playoffs.”
Finally, the 1995 memoir Howe produced with Tom DeLisle’s help is instructive, too, and offers more nuance on the relationship than what we’re getting from the Howe Foundation’s NFT catalogue. Billed as “an authorized autobiography by Gordie and Colleen Howe,” And … Howe! includes a chapter called SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT. Here’s the salient sub-head followed by Howe’s reminiscence as it appears on the page:
THE ROCKET AND GORDIE HAVE NEVER BEEN FRIENDS SINCE GORDIE BROKE THE ROCKET’S GOAL RECORD OF 544.
GORDIE: Things have changed but, at the time, I hated the old (bleep). Of course, he hated me too. There were a few guys he hated worse than me, like [Ted] Lindsay and Stan Mikita. But that was then. Now, Rocket and I are pretty good friends. We do a few things together, and he and his now deceased wife, Lucille, were our first choices to be included in a book Colleen produced a few years ago about former players and their families, entitle After The Applause. So I think that shows our respect for him.
Rocket said once in the paper that “Gordie might have more goals, but my goals were more important.” I told somebody, “I don’t want to fight with Rocket, but I’d like to say that his goals meant bugger-all to me.” Essentially he’s such a proud man. He was a goalscorer, I was a goalscorer. I had to take him out, he had to take me out. That was our job from the blueline in. Rocket was such a powerful man. He had one habit I perceived, however, he would come down and cut across the blueline because he liked to get to the center of the ice and shoot. Everything was quick wrist shots. So one time, as he came across the blueline, I really nailed him. We ended up in a fight.
This is the 1949 clash described earlier. As the Detroit Free Press saw it, “Richard and Howe met heavily inside the Detroit blueline and came up fighting. They kept swinging lustily with bare fists and tumbled to the ice.”
Back to Howe’s telling:
There was a flurry of people around. Somebody pushed me from behind and I went down on one knee. And for some reason, Rocket was under my left knee. I waited, and when he looked up, I popped him. I whacked him a pretty good one. Then all hell broke loose, and when they got us apart we were yapping like jaybirds at one another. Then Sid Abel poked his nose in, and said to the Rocket, “Aw, you big frog, you finally got what you were asking for.” And Rocket goes — BAM! — and breaks Sid’s nose. Then I started to laugh, it looked so darn funny. Then Sid went in an did a job on the Rocket, again.
Rocket was talking about that episode a little while ago. He said, “I took on your whole damn team, no wonder I lost.” Even in a loss, he could be so proud. The guy is unbelievable.”
Sorry to hear of the death, late last week, of Charlie Burns at the age of 85. Born in Detroit in 1936, he grew up in Toronto and went on to join the OHA Junior A Marlboros in the early 1950s. He was 19 in 1954, starting his third year with the Marlboros, when he suffered a double skull fracture falling into the boards in an accident at practice. He underwent brain surgery, during which a silver plate was installed to stabilize his skill; he wasn’t expected to play hockey ever again. He recovered and did indeed return to the ice — wearing a helmet.
It was in 1958, with the Allan-Cup-champion Whitby Dunlops of the EOHL that Burns starred at centre at the World Championships in Oslo, Norway, when Canada won gold. His teammates included Harry Sinden and tournament-leading-scorer Connie Broden; a 21-year-old Burns distinguished himself an ace penalty-killer, and was named the tournament’s outstanding forward.
Burns launched into his NHL career that same year, with the Detroit Red Wings, and he went on to play 11 seasons, taking turns over time with the Boston Bruins, Oakland Seals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Minnesota North Stars. Numberswise, his best year was 1968-69, when he notched 13 goals and 51 points for the Penguins.
Midway through the following year, 1969-70, Burns was named playing-coach of the North Stars, succeeding Wren Blair, the man who’d coached him with Whitby a decade earlier. After going 10-22-12 in the regular season, Burns saw his regime come to an end after the North Stars were eliminated in six games in the Stanley Cup quarter-finals by the St. Louis Blues. He does maintain the distinction of being the last playing-coach in NHL history.
After hanging up his skates in 1974, Burns served as assistant GM in Minnesota, making a return to the bench that year when he replaced Jack Gordon. His record that time around was 12-28-2 and in the summer of ’75, Burns gave way to a new coach, Ted Harris, returning to his GM duties.
Lionel Conacher played 12 seasons in the NHL, but if you want to know why in 1950 he was voted Canada’s greatest athlete for the first half of the 20th century, I’m going to have to ask that you consider the pre-NHL years of the man they called The Big Train. Born in Toronto on a Thursday of this date in 1900, Conacher was a superlative talent in whichever sport he tried … which was pretty all of them. He was a wrestler and a boxer, starred on the grass at baseball and football and lacrosse, as well as on the ice. He’s in Canada’s Football and Lacrosse halls of fame, and was elected to hockey’s pantheon in 1994.
In December of 1921, after scoring 15 points that helped the football Argonauts win the Grey Cup at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, 21-year-old Conacher headed over to the rink at Arena Gardens to captain the Aura Lee senior hockey team in the title game for the Sportsmen’s Patriotic Association senior trophy. Aura Lee lost that one, though Conacher did score a great goal. Turns out this kind of thing was almost routine for the kid: three years later, in the summer of 1924, he hit a double to win a game for his baseball team, the Hillcrests, before catching a taxi across Toronto to score two goals in a winning effort for the lacrosse Maitlands.
He made his NHL debut in 1925, and was a dominant defensive force there, mostly for teams that don’t exist now: other than a year as a Chicago Black Hawk, he did his skating for the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Americans, and Montreal Maroons. His NHL CV includes 82 goals in 527 games, along with two Stanley Cups; twice he finished runner-up in voting for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. He also compiled a gruesome catalogue of injuries, including eight breaks of the nose. Charlie and Roy, his younger brothers, are both in the Hall of Fame, too.
After hockey, he went into politics, first in the Ontario legislature and then, in 1949, as a federal MP in Ottawa with Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. Conacher was just 53 when he died — of coronary thrombosis in the sixth inning of a Parliamentary softball game, after hitting a triple.
A writer for Ottawa’s Citizen was one of many to write a remembrance that May, in 1954. “It was a strange twist of fate that the game Conacher played least well kept him in public life longest,” Austin Cross wrote of his hockey career. And yet Conacher wasn’t a natural on the ice the way he was on the grass, Cross felt: starting out, he was “poor on skates.” He continued:
I first remember him, not as a football player, but in baseball uniform. He came to Ottawa to play for Hillcrests, and after he had murdered the ball out at Lansdowne Park, I went out with my camera and took a picture of him in his ‘monkey suit.’ I had the print until just recently. It revealed a fair-haired young boy, tall and handsome, and a face without guile. His nose was not broken in those days, and he was a most attractive type of man. Members of parliament who looked at him these last few years, and who studied that beat-up face, and looked at the atrociously pounded-in nose, have remarked more than once that it was hard to get into their heads that this bald-headed man with the comic nose was once Canada’s greatest athlete.
(Top image, c. 1937, from the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
Jimmy Orlando played six seasons on defence for the Detroit Red Wings, helping them win a Stanley Cup in 1943. Born in Montreal in 1915, Orlando died on a Saturday of this date in 1992 at the age of 77. His wife noted that week that he’d watched hockey right up the end of his life. “He thought they were all overpaid, I’ll tell you that,” Doris Orlando said. “His favourite was Mario Lemieux.”
Uncompromising might be one word for Orlando’s approach to the game when he played, excessively violent two more. He led the NHL penalty minutes the last three seasons of his career. In Chicago in 1941, after he punched a fan and knocked him unconscious, he went unpunished by league or law. A year later, at Maple Leaf Gardens, he infamously swung his stick at Toronto rookie Gaye Stewart’s head, who swung his back at Orlando’s. Photographer Nat Turofsky was on hand to document the bloody aftermath. Both players were assessed match penalties, and each was summarily fined $50 by referee King Clancy.
Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman called for NHL president Frank Calder to ban Orlando outright. “If the president and directors of the league fail to act swiftly and firmly, they might as well close up shop.” Calder waited almost a week to come to his decision: Orlando and Stewart were each ordered to pay $100 to the Red Cross or any other war charity, and Orlando was barred from playing games in Toronto while Stewart was forbidden to represent the Leafs in Detroit — “until further notice.” Those sentences lasted not quite four months — Red Dutton rescinded them when he stepped in as interim NHL president after Calder’s death in February of ’43.
Born in Sutherland, Saskatchewan, on a Wednesday of this very date in 1920, Charlie Rayner played a couple of seasons with the New York/Brooklyn Americans before he made his mark with the New York Rangers through the late 1940s and into the ’50s. For all his heroics in those years, they were mostly strugglesome for the Rangers, though the team did make it to the Stanley Cup final in 1950, the year Rayner won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, outpolling Ted Kennedy and Maurice Richard. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973.
To play goal in the early decades of the NHL was to be cut, contused, and concussed, by even by the painful standards of the profession, Rayner stands out for his suffering. In a feature published midway through the 1950-51 NHL campaign, The New York Post noted that Rayner had already been carried from the ice eight times to date.
“So far this season, he’s lost five front teeth and required a total of 20 stitches.” Several of the latter were applied in an October game at the Montreal Forum, when Rayner was cut once (on the nose) and then a second time (on the back of his head) by skates belonging to Canadiens forward Frank King.
All in all, the Post calculated, Rayner’s 12 years of hockey goaling had cost him four broken noses and “innumerable stitches” along with fractures of the jaw and cheekbone. It was a knee injury that put an end to his NHL career, in the winter of 1953, when he was 32. A 23-year-old Gump Worsley was his successor in the New York net.
Like everybody, Gary Bettman was housebound at the end of May. Unlike the rest of us, the NHL commissioner was broadcasting live from his New Jersey home, announcing the plan his league would be following in the hope of rebooting a 2019-20 season that the global pandemic had so brusquely interrupted in mid-March.
It was another strange scene in this strange and scary year we’re in, and at the same time as familiar as yesterday’s Zoom call. The image was medium-res at best, and Bettman was looking slightly startled, though smartly turned out in his quarantine-formal blue jacket and open-necked white shirt. He was in his dining room, with a formal-looking high-backed chair sitting empty behind him, maybe to signify the absences we’ve all been enduring. Over his left shoulder the camera caught the corner of a painting rendered in greens that don’t naturally occur in hockey. The room itself was a hue that, if I’m reading my Sherwin-Williams colour chart correctly, sells as Decisive Yellow. Cacophonous and yet somehow consoling was the background percussion accompanying Bettman as he said his scripted piece: nearby, in the commissioner’s kitchen, his three-year-old grandson was happily hammering pots and pans.
“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said at one point in a 15-minute explanation of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan that laid out formats, match-ups, and a tentative calendar. While there were blanks yet to be filled in — just where games would be played still hadn’t been determined, for instance — on the well-being front, the commissioner was adamant. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”
In a 2020 context, it was the right thing to say. In a COVID-19 context, there was no not saying it.
There’s another context that applies here, too, a broader hockey framework in which proclamations of how seriously the NHL takes the health and safety of its players are rendered ridiculous even as they’re spoken by the fact that the league still — still! — insists that fighting is a fundamental part of the game.
Tweakings of rules have, in recent years, contributed to a reduction in fights. Coaching attitudes and strategies have shifted as the game has sped up, and intimidation no longer plays the part it did even five years ago.
The reasons why the NHL prefers this fading-away over an outright embargo on fighting remain opaque. Fans still love it, it’s always said, some of them, and cheer when the gloves drop. Bettman takes cover, when he’s cornered, by insisting that the players think it’s fine.
Otherwise, the league hasn’t bothered to renovate its rationale since Clarence Campbell was president almost 50 years ago. Fighting is a safety valve by which players release the pressure that builds up in such a bumptious game as hockey, he used to argue: without it players would be maiming one another with their sticks. That’s one of Gary Bettman’s go-to defences, too, though it’s a thermostat he likes to talk about.
Advances in medical science continue to reveal links between head trauma and the grim tolls of CTE, but that news hasn’t impressed the NHL, which wants more proofs before it decides that the safety of its players might be improved by not having them punch one another in the head.
The contradiction the league embraces when it comes to fighting remains baked into the rulebook. Which part of Rule 21 doesn’t apply to fist fights on the ice? “A match penalty,” it reads, “shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.”
Earlier this month, The New York Times imagined how major sports might have seized the opportunity of our global lull to re-imagine the way they go about their business. What about dispensing with baseball’s DH, the Times blue-skyed. Or, for the NBA, introducing a 4-pointer for really long-range shooters? And for hockey:
Though that was never going to happen.
Returning to the ice after a four-and-a-half months hiatus is no easy enterprise. You can understand why a league like the NHL, trying to get back to its business in extraordinary times, would seek to keep things as normal as possible, as familiar, as unchanged.
The times, though — they’re different. COVID-19 has sickened millions worldwide. Tens of thousands have died. Mid-pandemic, the movement against racial injustice and police brutality that grew after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman was such that it’s even shaken the NHL out of the complacency it’s preferred to shelter in for so long. (Granted, the response has been a little stilted, a little clumsy, but the fact that the league is getting around taking a stand on issues of systemic racism, equality, and social justice is, I suppose, a something in itself.)
As the NHL lurches back into action — the verb there is Michael Farber’s, from a TSN essay this week, and I think it’s the right one — as hockey goes lurching into its unprecedented and unpredictable future, we’ve learned all about the safety measures the league has put into place for the 24 teams hubbed away in a pair of Canadian bubbles, Toronto and Edmonton, from testing players every day for COVID-19 right down to counselling them to wash their hands frequently while singing “Happy Birthday.”
The league’s playbook on all this is available to any and all who might like to browse it, in two documents, neither one of which is exactly a riveting read. The 65-point Return To Play FAQ is the more accessible of the two; the Phased Return To Sport Protocol: Phase 4 Secure Zone is 28 pages of deeper detail, covering everything from the in-bubble roles of Hygiene Officers and what happens if a player or official tests positive for COVID-19 to Hotel Amenities and Dining Options.
It’s all very thorough, as it should be. But what about on the ice? How is that going to be affected, if at all? Looking in on European soccer over the past few weeks and even some Test cricket, I’ve been interested to see how pandemical conditions and precautions have changed the way games are actually being played.
Not a whole lot, as it turns out. Most of the adjustments have been of a peripheral sort.
Cricketers were told not to apply sweat or saliva to the ball.
The handsome guide issued by England’s Premier League, which resumed play in June, included these provisos:
Closer to home, North American Major League Soccer offered a short plan for “In-Match Prevention,” outlining “general hygiene measures [extending] to the field for official matches.”
Players, coaches and officials were asked, for instance, “to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose;” they were also “asked not to exchange jerseys or kiss the ball.”
Health and safety guidance governing the NBA’s bubbly restart in Florida was contained in a 113-page guide disseminated among teams, though not, as far as I can tell, released in any public way. It does, USA Today reported, mandate that players to “Avoid Gross Habits on the Court,” namely:
No spitting or clearing nose on the court; wiping the ball with jersey; licking hands (and touching other items such as shoes or the basketball); playing with or unnecessarily touching mouthguard (and touching other items.)
Baseball, benighted as its efforts to get back to bats and balls have proved, issued a detailed guide in its 101-page 2020 Operations Manual, which includes a section on the rules MLB has modified for its pandemic return-to-play as well as guidelines for best behaviours on-field. Those include wherein “players all other on-field personnel” are exhorted to “make every effort to avoid touching their face with their hands (including to give signs), wiping away sweat with their hands, licking their fingers, whistling with their fingers, etc.”
Not allowed: any spitting, “including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco.” (Chewing gum is okay.)
Also, says MLB:
Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action. Violations of these rules will result in severe discipline consistent with past precedent, which discipline shall not be reduced or prorated based on the length of the season.
Compare that to what the NHL is offering. As far as I can tell, the NHL’s guidance for what players should and shouldn’t be doing on the ice in the time of COVID-19 is limited to a single bullet-point on page 10 of the aforementioned Protocol, down at the bottom of the section headed “Safety Precautions.” It reads, in its entirety:
Avoid handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps.
So no more handshake lines, I guess, to finish off hard-fought playoff series? What about kissing the Stanley Cup, when it’s finally presented? On that and other matters the NHL seems to be keeping its own counsel. Maybe more advisories are to come. For now, not another word does the league have to say on how players might be advised to conduct themselves on the ice in a time of a highly contagious novel coronavirus.
Teams, I’ll assume, have their own careful systems to make sure water bottles aren’t shared; maybe they’re in charge, too, of reminding players not to be blowing noses or spitting. It may be that, like the NBA, the NHL — or maybe the NHLPA? — has issued comprehensive handbooks to teams to cover this whole tricky territory, they just haven’t been made public.
I guess it’s possible, too, that the league has been talking to players on an individual basis — putting in a call, maybe, to remind Boston’s Brad Marchand, for instance, not to be licking anyone for the next few months at least.
What seems just as likely is that it was decided at some point that short of rewriting the way game is played, there’s no way to govern or even guideline hockey into a safer, socially distanced way of doing things, so why even bother drawing attention to the awkward truth?
There’s nothing social about the game once it gets going on the ice, and no distancing. Players stand shoulder-to-shoulder at face-offs, they jostle, they bump. Once the puck drops, the game is a festival of mingling and milling, of sweaty human pushing and crowding and collision. That’s the game.
And the punching that sometimes ensues? Maybe you could direct players to disperse after whistles blow, to stand back a bit at face-offs. But if you did that, how could you not say something about the closer contact of bodychecking and fighting? While baseball might have no problem with explicitly forbidding melees, the NHL feels safer in silence, maybe, which is why it defaults to pretending that none of this is worth discussing.
The fighting that hockey has failed to inhibit didn’t make sense a year ago, long before COVID had capitalized its threat, and it doesn’t make sense now. But it’s not going anywhere: it’s firmly ensconced inside the NHL’s bubble for as long as this outlandish season lasts.
Even if you missed the exhibition games earlier this week and the several scuffles that happened there, if you tuned in this afternoon to the real thing, you didn’t have to wait long to see the new NHL meld with the old in Toronto.
When Carolina’s Jacob Slavin scored an early goal on Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, once he’d gathered with his linemates for a hug, he headed, as you do, to the Hurricanes’ bench to bump fists.
There was more of that a few minutes later, under angrier circumstances, as Carolina’s Justin Williams felt the need to drop his PPE to punch New York’s Ryan Strome in the head, and vice-versa.
Strome was bleeding from the nose by the time they’d finished. He headed for the Rangers’ dressing room, while Williams sat himself down in the penalty box. A couple of bemasked members of Scotiabank Arena’s rink crew skated out with shovels to scrape away the blood from the ice.
Game on, I guess.
Born in 1903 on a Friday of this date in Bracebridge, Ontario, Ace Bailey only ever played for Toronto during his short NHL career. He debuted with the St. Patricks in 1926, the year they transformed into Maple Leafs, and played seven further seasons after that, on the right wing. He was speedy, and prone to scoring, leading the league in goals and points in 1928-29, and notching the goal, in 1932, that won the Leafs the Stanley Cup. His career came an end when he was 30 years old, one December night in 1933, after Eddie Shore of the Bruins blindsided him at the Boston Garden. His head hit the ice hard; a doctor at the scene diagnosed a lacerated brain. Two subsequent surgeries saved his life. “It’s all in the game, Eddie,” is what he’s supposed to have told Shore at the rink when the Boston defenceman apologized for knocking him down. After he didn’t die, when he’d recovered enough to never play hockey ever again, Bailey went on to coach the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues men’s hockey team. Later, he worked as a timekeeper at Maple Leaf Gardens. His number, 6, was the first in NHL history to be retired. Inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1975, Ace Bailey died in 1992. He was 88.
On a Wednesday of this very date in 1934, an aggregation of NHL all-stars took on Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens in a benefit for and tribute to Leaf right winger Ace Bailey. Bailey, of course, was grievously injured, and his career ended, the previous December when Boston defenceman Eddie Shore knocked him to the ice in a fit of pique. Before the Leafs got around to beating the All-Stars by a score of 7-3, Bailey dropped a ceremonial puck, above, with the Leafs’ Joe Primeau (left) and Montreal’s Howie Morenz standing in. The referee is Mike Rodden. Shore played on the All-Star defence. Before the game he and Bailey met at centre ice as the crowd of 14, 074 cheered. “Shore leaned over and whispered to Bailey as the two clasped hands,” a witness noted. “Bailey was smiling.” Then he presented his attacker with a commemorative windbreaker from Eaton’s and a gold medal. The gate for the game, and for Bailey: $20,909.40, about $396,000 in today’s dollars.
(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 32487)
He was a Lindsay Midget and a Brantford Redman, a Port Hope Pro. In the old NHA he was a Montreal Wanderer before he was a Toronto Blueshirt. Mostly he played on the defence, though he also deployed as a winger and, back when the game was a seven-man affair, as rover. In Saskatoon he played for a team called Hoo-Hoos and another one called Real Estates. Out east, he was a Sydney Millionaire before he returned to central Canada in time to join the Toronto Hockey Club when the NHL started up in 1917. He stayed with the team when it became the Arenas and then the St. Patricks. Later, still in the NHL, but in Hamilton, he was a Tiger and, in New York, an American. In his later years, career winding down, Ken Randall was a Niagara Falls Cataract, a Providence Red, and an Ottawa Patricia.
Yesterday’s the day he was born, in Kingston, Ontario, in the year 1887, when December 14 was a Wednesday.
Toronto was where Ken Randall’s fame as a hockey player flourished, along with his infamy. He played in the city’s very first professional game, around this time of year in 1912, when the Blueshirts hosted the Montreal Canadiens, losing 9-5 in front of 4,000 fans at the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. The line-ups that night featured some of the greatest names the game has ever known, Georges Vézina, Newsy Lalonde, Jack Walker, Frank Nighbor, Didier Pitre.
Five years later, when the NHA expired and was all but instantly reborn as the NHL, Ken Randall was named captain of Toronto’s team that wound up, in the spring of 1918, winning the Stanley Cup.
He won a second Cup with the team in 1922, though he’d relinquished the captaincy by then, and the team had repurposed itself as St. Patricks. Though Randall remains unrecognized by the hockey’s Hall of Fame, he was without a doubt one of the most effective players of his era. He was also what they used to call, mostly in earnest, a hockey bad man, a vehemently violent player who carried his stick high and often swung it, much-suspended, and seemingly as heedless of the injuries he inflicted as he was of the damage he himself suffered on the ice.
In 1917, at the dawning of the NHL, he was living on McGee Street in Toronto, a half-hour’s walk due east along Queen Street from his place of business, Arena Gardens. You’ll find him, if you look, in the city directory, where you’ll see him identified for the job he did when he wasn’t on the ice: plumber.
There was no mention of that in the sport pages. Randall’s Actions This Winter Cause Surprise To His Friends is a headline from a 1916 story in an Ottawa newspaper reporting on an NHA suspension levied on him after he threatened referee Cooper Smeaton. Fiery is an adjective applied to him in 1918. In 1923, another Ottawa paper described him as not as dangerous as Cleghorn, alluding to the vicious Sprague, and not as a compliment.
Skating in 1925 for Hamilton against Canadiens in Montreal he inspired this account:
Randall was the target for abuse from spectators and also for a pipe thrown in his direction. He was also slapped on the head by a woman spectator during a scuffle with Morenz alongside the boards.
During the NHL’s inaugural week in December of 1917, Randall was down for having run amuck on several occasions. He scuffled and scored, too, on into January, during which he was also fined by President Frank Calder for using bad language to a referee. That levy was forgiven, apparently, when Randall apologized, though Calder hit him up again in early February, $5 for abusing referee Lou Marsh. A couple of weeks later, he was up $35 owing for bad behaviours, which is when Calder threatened to suspend if he didn’t pay up forthwith.
“I am sorry for Randall, who is a good fellow off the ice, but too hot-headed,” Calder said. “But our officials must be protected at any cost. I can see no other step to take. It will serve as a warning to other players also.”
There are various versions of how Randall resolved the situation at Arena Gardens on the Saturday night of February 23. Toronto was hosting Ottawa again, with Lou Marsh refereeing. Before the puck dropped, Randall presented the referee with a brown paper bag containing either (the Montreal Gazette’s version) $31 in bills + $4 worth of pennies or (Toronto’s Daily Star) an IOU for $32 and 300 coppers.
Either way, the bag ended up on the ice and either a curious Ottawa player (the Star) or one of the Toronto players (Gazette) batted it with his stick.
“It burst, scattering the pennies over the ice,” the Gazette’s man wrote. “A number of small boys were on the ice in an instant, and there was a scramble for the coins, as exciting as a game in itself.”
“The affair was received good naturedly all around,” the Star reported, “and everybody had a good laugh.” Toronto manager Charlie Querrie held Randall out of the game, it should be noted; Calder had wired to warn that if he did take part without having settled his debt, the game would be forfeited to Ottawa. Randall-free, Toronto skated to a 9-3 victory.
Shayne Randall wrote about that and more in a 2017 biography of his grandfather, The Pepper Kid: The Life and Times of Ken Randall, Hockey’s Bad Hombre. A Peterborough, Ontario, businessman and writer, the younger Randall, who’s in his 70s now, is the son of Fen Randall, the eldest of Ken’s nine children.
In a full and fascinating account of a largely forgotten career, he revealed his grandfather to be a prodigiously hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving player who happens not only to have been Toronto’s very first NHL captain, but also, it turns out, a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24thplayer to wear the franchise’s C. (Gilmour’s great-grandmother was Ken Randall’s sister.)
“He made me a hockey fan,” Shayne told me when I talked to him at the time of the book’s publication. “I was only five years old, but I recall listening to Foster Hewitt on the radio with him on a Saturday night, the winter he died — the winter of 1946-47.”
While he recognizes just how turbulent a player his grandfather was — “He seemed to be a banshee on the ice,” he said — he’s also quick to emphasize that Ken Randall could play. Take that first NHL season: “He played 21 games that year, he had 12 goals — playing defence. But he also had 96 penalty minutes. Which was a lot; only [Montreal’s] Joe Hall had more.”
What surprised him most about his grandfather’s hockey career? “I didn’t realize how versatile he was,” Shayne Randall told me. “He’d start out on defence with, say, Harry Cameron. Then Harry Mummery would come in and Randall would go up on the wing. So he was a 60-minute man — unless he was in the penalty box. And he was in there a lot.”
“I read accounts from Lou Marsh, Elmer Ferguson, old hockey writers, and Charlie Querrie, his general manager, and they all agreed that that he was the key guy for both those Stanley Cups [Toronto won in ’18 and ’22], because he was so versatile. In 1918, he was the rover in two of the games against Vancouver for the Cup. He had played it when he was younger and he was up against Cyclone Taylor. And he held him off. So that proved to me how good a player he was. He could face up against Cyclone Taylor, who’s supposed to be the fastest man ever on skates, and hold him back — and he did — the had to be quite a player.”
Talking about his grandfather’s hockey years, Shayne Randall didn’t shy from considering the cost he paid. “The family never said it, but I think near the end he was he was suffering from what we’d call CTE today. He was really beaten up.”
“There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”
There’s no means, now, of calculating how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his 26-year hockey career, but the sombre conclusion that his grandson reached in his book is that the blows Toronto’s first NHL captain took to his head playing the game he loved “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”
Ken Randall died in 1947. He was 58.