It was the final weekend of the NHL’s 1959-60 season, towards the end of March. On the eve of the playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs had a couple of games to go before they got down to the business of chasing the Stanley Cup. Sunday they played their final regular-season game in Detroit, forging a 3-2 win in which goaltender Johnny Bower was the acknowledged star. Bower hadn’t done badly the night before either, back home at Maple Leaf Gardens, outduelling Chicago’s Glenn Hall in a 1-0 win that saw Frank Mahovlich set up Red Kelly’s winning goal. Writing it up for the hometown Globe and Mail, Rex MacLeod recognized that “Pierre Pilote, most underrated defenceman in the league was a standout for the Hawks in a game that had occasional flurries of high-speed action, excellent goalkeeping, fine defensive work plus solid bodychecking.” A photographer from the Turofsky’s Alexandra Studio’s caught some of that here. Reproduced in 100: A Century of NHL Memories (2017), an anthology of photographs drawn from the vasty vaults of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, this image shows Pilote upending Leafs’ right winger Gerry James while Hall secures the puck in his crease. The other Hawks shown are (back left, wearing number 8) winger Murray Balfour alongside defenceman Moose Vasko. Obscured, mostly, by James and Pilote, that’s Bobby Hull in back. He didn’t make the cut at all when football star and artist Tex Coulter came to translate the scene to canvas. Then again, Glenn Hall didn’t fare a whole lot better in the painted version, here below, that would adorn the cover of the NHL’s 1961 Official Annual, snatching away Hall’s real-save save to pose him looking back, too late, at the goal he couldn’t foil.
(Top image: Imperial Oil/Turofsky Collection, from 100 : A Century of NHL Memories, Natural Treasure Series, 2017)
The fathers of hockey players write books, sometimes, about sons of theirs who’ve made it to the NHL, while mostly the mothers don’t — other than Colleen Howe, who perhaps deserves a bright asterisk for having published in her time books both as a hockey mother and a wife. I wish they’d write more books, hockey’s mothers, share their stories. As it is, in the hockey books, they’re mostly reduced to a few mentions, mostly in the early chapters. If you read all the hockey books, there’s a certain amount you can glean about hockey’s mothers, and a whole lot more you can’t. Herewith, some of the gleanings. Numbers in the text link to the list identifying the various mothers in the endnotes.
Hockey mothers are descended from Sir Isaac Brock , some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England . Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby  and Grace Nelson , Rose Pauli  and Agnes Mather Bell . The former two have been described, respectively, as “charming” and “demurely pretty.” The third wanted to be a nurse, but found that she fainted whenever she got near a surgery. The latter married a cheesemaker.
Other mothers are described, sometimes, in biographies written about their sons’ lustrous careers as “the soft-spoken daughter of German immigrants [who] worked as a domestic before her marriage.”  Sometimes, as the daughters of cattle farmers from Saskatchewan, they’re waitresses who see their future husbands for the first time at a bowling alley.  In other cases, the mothers of hockey players meet their husbands in Pristina, in what’s now Kosovo, before they emigrate to Canada without knowing a word of English.  Or else they arrive in Canada from Ukraine at the age of 16 and end up in Fort William, Ontario, in 1912 where they soon meet their future husbands, who don’t necessarily tell the truth about how wealthy they are, such that after the wedding the young bride finds that her husband rents a tiny house with six boarders for whom she’s expected to cook and do laundry and, plus, also, he’s abusive, beating her for any reason at all, or none, including when she talks to other men, including when she fails to walk behind this husband on the way to church on Sunday, causing the son of such parents to write, years later, “My father was a very cruel person.” 
The mothers of hockey players have an old six-string Spanish guitar they like to play. In 1928, they’re outside chopping wood when they feel the labour pains coming on. Having already given birth five times, they know what to do: drew water from the well, put it on the wood stove to boil, make themselves comfortable in bed. They’ll deliver their boy themselves, cut the umbilical cord, then suffer a serious hemorrhage that’s almost the end of them, but then they get help, just in time. “The strongest woman I have ever known,” is what the son of a mother like that will say, in time. 
You were a mistake, hockey mothers will sometimes tell their sons when the sons are grown and playing defence for the Detroit Red Wings, but you were a wonderful mistake.  Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. 
Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller.  They’ll pass on to their sons an inner strength by way of, when they’re in the country sometimes, they’ll pick up a snake, or play with spiders, while never betraying any fear. 
The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner.  They teach their boys to knit.  They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30.  They wash floors and make gallons of soup, and have their own version, some mothers, of fish and chips that consist of big slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-friend, served with French fries on the side. “We thought we were having fish and chips,” their sons will write in their autobiographies, “but actually they were potatoes with potatoes.” 
In 1922, when their sons are budding 19-year-old hockey stars but haven’t yet made it to the NHL where they’ll blossom into one of the league’s first genuine superstars, the mothers of hockey players will, sometimes, tragically, drown in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” as a Toronto newspaper reports it. 
King Clancy’s father was the original King, and while he was a very good football player, he may have been the only person in Ottawa who couldn’t skate a stroke. Not so Dolly Clancy: no-one, said King Jr., could match her grace on the ice, and he learned his skating from her.
Esther Dye (Essie, they called her) was the one who flooded the backyard rink when her Cecil was a boy, on Boswell Avenue in Toronto, got out the sticks, tied her son’s skates on, taught him the game. This was when skates were tied onto shoes; Cecil, of course, was better known as Babe, ace goalscorer and one-time captain of the Toronto St. Patricks. “My mother could throw a baseball right out of the park,” he said. “Or a hammer, or anything at all. She could run the other women right off their feet, and some of the men as well.”
Jeanne Maki’s boys, Chico and Wayne, were playing for Chicago and Vancouver respectively in 1971 when she was asked about their boyhoods. “Wayne used to imitate Foster Hewitt and got on everybody’s nerves,” she said. “Oh, he used to give me a headache, and even the neighbours threatened to kick his rear end.”
Here’s Edith Plager, mother of St. Louis Blues legends Barclay, Bob, and Bill:
They were never really indoors much, except to be in the basement and play hockey there — or sometimes they shot BB guns. Once Billy went off and broke about 50 jars of my preserves with his BB gun, and then another time, oh my, I was peeling potatoes and I started finding BBs in them. He’d been shooting into the bag, ha ha ha. Anyway, they had an understanding mother.
A birthday yesterday for hockey fan and (by the Grace of God), Queen of Canada and of Her other realms and territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Elizabeth II, who’s 92 today. She never did suit up for the Vancouver Canucks, despite what you may have been led to believe by B.C. painter Timothy Wilson Hoey. She has been attending NHL games since 1951 when, a few months before she succeeded her father on the throne, Princess Elizabeth attended her first professional hockey game in Montreal.
What else was she going to do on an autumn’s tour of Canada? She and her husband Prince Philip did see a game in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens that October before they got to the Forum, but it wasn’t a real one. The royals didn’t have time in their schedule to attend Toronto’s Saturday-night season-opener, so Leafs and the visiting Chicago Black Hawks accommodated them by playing a half-hour exhibition game that afternoon. Fourteen thousand non-royal fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock show. The Leafs had Ted Kennedy, Sid Smith, Max Bentley, and Tod Sloan in the line-up, while Chicago featured Bill Mosienko and Gus Bodnar, but neither team was able to show their majesties what a goal looked like on the afternoon. For those, the commoners would have to return for the evening’s encounter, Chicago beat the Leafs 3-1.
Two weeks later, the regal visitors did see Canadiens’ Floyd Curry score a hattrick in a 6-1 Montreal win over the New York Rangers.
I’m pretty sure that Maple Leaf Gardens still had a portrait hanging of King George VI. Once Princess Elizabeth was proclaimed queen throughout her realms, she would eventually ascend (via painted portraits) the walls of several hockey rinks across Canada. The Queen oversaw the Gardens ice in the 1950s and on through the 1960s, until Harold Ballard had her removed in the early 1970s in favour of more seating. I’d like to know what became of that portrait, but don’t. “If people want to see pictures of the Queen,” Ballard is supposed to have said, “they can go to an art gallery.”
In Winnipeg, where the Jets are thriving unseen by the Queen’s likeness, the old Arena knew Her Majesty in several distinctive versions. The first was in place when the rink opened in the fall of 1955. I’ve only seen that one depicted at a distance, and I can’t say who commissioned it or what the painter’s name was. This original Winnipeg Arena monarch was, let’s be honest, a somewhat distracted one, gazing away up into the stands to see what the ruckus might be rather than watching the action on the ice — as is, of course, her royal right. That’s her, here below, in September of 1972, when she was not really paying attention to the third game of the Summit Series — a good one, by most accounts, wherein Canada and the Soviet Union tied 4-4.
This first Queen departed the Arena in 1976, as far as I can tell, when Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor, Jack McKeag, decided it was time to update the regal look. Twenty-one years had passed, after all, since the portrait of a 29-year-old queen as a preoccupied spectator had taken its place, and she was 50 now. McKeag paid for the new commission, which went to a company called Claude Neon. The painter tasked to do the job was a commercial artist on staff, 49-year-old Gilbert — Gib — Burch. When he died in 2006, a family remembrance mentioned his hometown, St. James, Manitoba, and his gentle spirit. “He started out as a coffee grinder,” it said, “but wanted to be an artist.”
Burch did his best with Her Majesty. Later, after this new 4.2-by-4.2-metre portrait went up on the Arena’s north wall, he confessed that it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. He complained that he hadn’t been given a proper photograph from which to work.
“I argued and argued that it wasn’t a good enough copy,” he told a reporter. “Even the lighting in the photograph was poor.” It was tiny, too: the distance from the Queen’s crown to her neck, he reported, was no more than a few centimetres.
Burch had gone looking at the library for a better image. “The previous portrait,” he said, “was taken from a beautiful photograph. This one was terrible. I left out some wrinkles. I couldn’t see the eyes. And the mouth was a plain mess. I tried the best I could with the photograph I had.”
He got a do-over. In 1978, there was a new lieutenant-governor in office, F.L. (Bud) Jobin, who felt that the Arena’s queen didn’t resemble the one who lived in Buckingham Palace. “If the Queen herself walked in there,” he said, “she wouldn’t know who it was, except for the jewelry and crown.” He wasn’t campaigning for a new portrait, he insisted that January: “It’s just my opinion that it should be changed.” But Jobin did eventually raise (a) enough of a ruckus and (b) money to see the second coming of the Arena’s Queen replaced by a third. His predecessor didn’t object. Burch’s original portrait did make HM look a little “stiff and solemn,” McKeag conceded. He even offered to help pay the cost — $1,600 — of a new edition.
So Burch started again. He worked from an official portrait this time, spending more than 200 hours on this new oil-on-plywood piece. The painting was bigger this time, five-by-seven metres, making it the largest portrait of the Queen in the world (until someone worked up a bigger one in 2012).
By the end of 1979, with the Jets embarking on their first NHL season, his new (new) effort was ready to be unveiled ahead of the team’s December 7 game against the Edmonton Oilers. The Queen looked happier. And more like herself? The Winnipeg Tribune took to the streets of Winnipeg to ask the people what they thought.
Several said the new painting made her look “phony,” even “comical.” They didn’t love the eyebrows. A woman said, “She looks like a squirrel storing away nuts in her cheeks.” Many liked the smile; some thought she looked more “queeny” in the earlier rendering. One man objected to seeing her get older. “She may be aging,” he said, “but we don’t have to look at it all the time, do we?”
Lieutenant-Governor Jobin was pleased. “In my opinion,” he said, “it is excellent, and a very good likeness.”
The original Jets departed Winnipeg in 1996. The Arena lasted for another ten years, until March of 2006, when 200 kilograms of dynamite helped demolish it. Burch’s second queen was long gone by then, having been removed in 1999 by the rink’s management, dismantled, trundled away into storage. The portrait might have been destroyed but for Syd Davey, head of the Canadian Commonwealth Society, who persuaded Winnipeg Enterprises to give the pieces to him in the hope that he could find the portrait a new home.
That hasn’t quite happened, yet. After a long stay in a Whitby, Ontario, warehouse, the portrait did make it back to Winnipeg in 2015, when a pair of CN rail executives bought it. Burch’s work made a brief public appearance in a downtown parking lot in October of 2016 during celebrations surrounding the NHL’s Heritage Classic. There was talk then that the painting would be reappearing in 2017 in a more permanent local setting, but that doesn’t seem to have happened to date.
Winnipeg reporters who asked in 2011 whether the the portrait might find a place in the Jets’ current home at the MTS Centre were told by True North Sports and Entertainment that Gilbert Burch’s Queen wasn’t in their plans. She was “outdated,” they said, and would block the view of too many spectators wanting to watch their hockey.
Montreal’s dismal season ends on Saturday, when they play in Toronto, just before the playoffs get going, Canadiens-free. As a gloomy season wraps up, the stories in the city’s sports pages are structured around phrases like “a boring — and losing — brand of hockey” and “empty seats at the Bell Centre.” Asked at practice in Brossard what he’d like to tell fans, coach Claude Julien said he’d have to go with “thank you.” The Gazette’s Stu Cowan was on hand for this, and if it sounds like Julien was in fact trying to say “sorry,” no, apparently not — he was just grateful fans didn’t jeer more than they did this season. “There’s no doubt,” he said, “we got booed a couple of times because we weren’t a good hockey club. But I think they’ve actually been pretty patient to come to the games and cheer us on. I think they’ve recognized a solid effort as far as guys working hard and competing hard and realizing that right now we’re not good enough and that’s why we’re not in the playoffs.”
On the brighter side, Carey Price is back in the net, and seems to be healthy. On Tuesday night, he was celebrated for his Montreal longevity: the Canadiens’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets saw him play in his 557th NHL regular-season game. With that, he surpassed Jacques Plante as the man who’s minded Montreal’s nets most since the league got going in 1917.
It’s no small achievement, even if Plante does (as should be noted) remain atop the statistical heap if you factor in playoff games: he played 90 of those for Canadiens, for a total of 646 games played, while Price’s 60 playoff games get him to 617.
Canadiens have looked to 83 men to guard their nets, all told, though a few — like Charlie Sands, Battleship Leduc, and Sprague Cleghorn — were skaters subbing in on a strictly emergency basis.
In terms of successes, Plante and Ken Dryden would have to top the pantheon, having each helped the team to six Stanley Cups. Plante is the winningest of Montreal goaltenders, (314 regular season + 59 in the playoffs = 373), followed by Patrick Roy (289 + 70 = 359) and Dryden (258 + 80 = 338), then Price (286 + 25 = 311). Among bona fide goalies, Price also rates fourth in scoring — his 12 all-time assists have him trailing Roy (32 points, season and playoffs), Dryden (23), and Michel Larocque (17).
Straying from statistics, I might just mention that I happened to be talking to Dryden in Toronto earlier this season. Two of his young grandsons are hockey players, goaltenders both. I asked their Hall-of-Fame, Calder-and-Conn-Smythe-winning, many-Vézina’d grandfather what numbers they wear, assuming there could be just one answer, 29.
I was wrong: for Ken Dryden’s grandsons, Carey Price is the incumbent in their imaginations, and it’s his 31 that both boys show on their sweaters.
(Image by Toronto illustrator Dave Murray. For more of his work, hockey and otherwise, visit www.davemurrayillustration.com)
Auston Matthews makes a return to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ line-up tonight for their game against the Predators in Nashville. An injury to one of the shoulders pictured here laid the Leafs’ centreman low for ten games, during which span the Leafs went 5-3-2. This portrait, from the 2017 playoffs, is by Toronto illustrator Dave Murray. For more of his work, hockey and otherwise, visit www.davemurrayillustration.com.