(Artist: Wesley Irwin)
Don Harper’s boss at the grocery store in the northern Ontario mining town of Highgrade isn’t much of a fan. “Hockey!” Double-O Watkins sputters as his clerk heads to the rink again. “Hockey is only a game. Waste of time.” What’s the point? “The sort of jobs you get for playing hockey don’t lead anywhere.”
Don doesn’t care. The hero of Leslie McFarlane’s lively pulp yarn “Trouble On Skates” lives for hockey, but he only plays it for fun. He’s not looking for a hockey job — even if a job is looking for him.
Published as a serial in four installments in Street & Smith’s Sport Story Magazine in January and February of 1939, “Trouble On Skates” is a gem of the genre. That’s no surprise, of course. The father of broadcaster and hockey author Brian, Leslie grew up in and around the rinks of Haileybury, Ontario, and worked as a sports reporter at the Sudbury Star before going on to a career writing for TV, radio, and film, and penning (prolifically) popular fiction (including 21 Hardy Boys mystery novels).
McFarlane Sr. wrote a lot of hockey stories in his time. Some of them have been collected in a pair of handsome hardcover editions published in 2005 and ’06 as Leslie McFarlane’s Hockey Stories, volumes one and two. Many others (with titles like “Dunkel From Dunkelburg” and “But Mr. Referee, You Lug —”) are buried away in back issues of Maclean’s or (like “Trouble On Skates”) in Street & Smith’s. The ones I’ve read are fast-moving and funny, heavy (but not too heavy) on the high jinks, even if they do tend to creak a little in their old age and attitudes. The hockey McFarlane depicts is vivid and mostly plausible, which is saying something when it comes to hockey fiction.
As for Don Harper, honest-to-goodness groceryman and superlative right winger, here’s how Bingo McAllister, veteran radio play-by-play man, rates him:
Does everything he’s told, never squawks at a referee, never picks a fight, stays out of trouble, makes those goals look so blamed easy you think the goalie must have been asleep.
What he lacks, in Bingo’s book, is colour: Don needs to learn some showmanship, maybe develop a capacity for controversy to keep the fans interested. Don might not agree, but then (as mentioned) he has no ambitions in hockey beyond the horizon of the fun he’s having playing for the Highgrade Locals.
I have to confess that I don’t know how it all turns out for Don: I’m only caught up as far as the end of the first Street & Street installment from ’39. I know that there’s a scouting mix-up and that our hero finds himself on a train headed south for the big city and whatever awaits him there. Hockey stardom? Riches? Romance? The art, above, from the cover doesn’t exactly seem to bode well for Don, so I’m guessing that what’s in line for him is some shocking sort of come-uppance to prove his boss at the grocery store right. I wish I could say, I’m still trying to track down the subsequent chapters of “Trouble On Ice.” You’ll know what happens when I do.
By early afternoon, the signs at Montreal’s Forum were already up: Standing Room Only. “And long before the referees called the teams together at centre ice to start the game, all this space had been grabbed up,” the Gazette’s Marc McNeil would recount. “It was a complete sell-out Saturday night. And those 13,000 fortunates witnessed a mighty spectacle that crammed action and thrills into every minute of play.”
Playing a leading role that night in January of 1931: Nels Stewart, star centreman for Montreal Maroons and the reigning Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP. In a battle between two of the NHL’s best teams, Stewart, who was born in Montreal on a Monday of yesterday’s date in 1902, powered his team to a win over the visiting Boston Bruins with a third-period outburst, setting a record for speedy scoring that stands to this day.
That being the case, today’s another day that I’ll be pleased to gripe that Stewart doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. His absence from the NHL’s 2017 list of the 100 Greatest Players in league history tells you everything you need to know about that marred memorial. Stewart won a Stanley Cup with the Maroons in 1926 and was the first man to win the Hart Trophy twice. Along with his seven seasons in Montreal, Stewart played another five for the New York Americans along with four for Boston where, though the Bruins themselves have forgotten it, he captained the team. In 1937, the man they called Old Poison overtook Howie Morenz as the NHL’s all-time leading goalscorer, a height he held until Maurice Richard overtook him in 1952. Stewart was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.
Toronto Telegram columnist Ted Reeve grew up with Stewart in the Beaches, in Toronto’s eastern end. “The best natural all-round athlete I have ever seen in Canada,” Reeve called him.
“Extremely deceptive,” was Frank J. Selke’s verdict, “the brainiest player I have ever known.”
Selke also testified that Stewart “couldn’t backcheck a lick.”
“He is worthless as a defensive player, always has been,” Herb Manning wrote in the Winnipeg Tribune in 1939. “There is nothing streamlined about him. He lumbers along like a truck on a steep grade. He always seems to be ten feet behind the play, whether they are going backward or forward.”
“But a split second is all the time he requires to complete a chore in the enemy zone.”
He got his chores done, scoring 324 goals in 650 regular-season NHL games, nine more in 50 playoff games.
In Montreal, he centred the famous S line, flanked by Hooley Smith and Babe Siebert. “Babe and Hooley did most of the work,” Stewart later said, “because I was a shambling six-footer who took relays from the corners.”
In 1938, the Ottawa Journal wrote about his “careless, almost lazy style,” noting also that “no goalie ever feels at ease while he is lurching and wandering around the vicinity of the net.”
Ottawa Senators goaltender Clint Benedict: “Nels liked to park and take a puck and fire it quick.”
“Nels was one helluva hockey player,” New York Rangers centreman Frank Boucher said. “He was almost impossible to move once he got in front of the net.”
Harold Burr of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle consulted former Senators star defenceman Eddie Gerard on Stewart’s virtues in 1932, when Gerard was coaching the New York Americans.
“Big and wide of beam,” was Burr’s description of Stewart, whose playing-days metrics came in at 6’1’’, 200 pounds.
No other player in the National Hockey League practices his loafing around the nets of the enemy. He doesn’t look dangerous. He isn’t a fast skater or a hard shot. But he does all his playing from the other fellow’s blue line.
“Watch him lift his shoulder to draw the goalie out,” warns Gerard, his old Montreal boss. “That’s why he scores so frequently — he makes the goalminder make the first move. But watch further. Nels never shoots from the shoulder. He just flips his wrist.”
Boston bought him in 1932. “He is a two-fisted fighting player,” coach Art Ross said at the time, “and the greatest inside player in the game.”
Which brings us back to that night at the Montreal Forum in 1931, Saturday, January 3. Nearly halfway through the season’s schedule, the visiting Bruins were heading up the league’s American section, while the Maroons were atop on the Canadian side, neck-and-neck with the Canadiens, defending Cup champions.
Maroons prevailed, 5-3, despite going into the third period trailing 3-1. D.A.L. MacDonald wrote up the game for the Montreal Gazette, and he speculated that if the frenzied Montreal fans had any regrets, they might have centred on the hurry with which the home team turned the game around.
First winger Jimmy Ward scored. Six minutes later, Stewart stepped up after Hooley Smith slammed a shot into Tiny Thompson’s pads. “The rebound dropped barely a foot in front of the Boston goalie and big Nelson Stewart was in like a flash to flip the puck over his prostrate form,” was how MacDonald saw it. “If Nels had scooped it up with a dessert spoon he couldn’t have done it more neatly.”
That tied the game. Four seconds later, Stewart scored the winner. It went like this:
From the face-off once again, Stewart slipped a pass over to Smith that left the Boston front rank behind and at the defence back came the disc to Nelson. The big fellow rode right in on Thompson and the goalie never had a chance. Another flip of those steel wrists and Maroons were in front to stay.
Two goals in four seconds. “Shades of Frank McGee!” MacDonald enthused. “For quick scoring feats and high-powered excitement, Nelson the Great has few equals.” It would, indeed, take 64 years for another NHLer to match Stewart’s record. No, not Gretzky or Lemieux: in1995, Winnipeg Jets defenceman Deron Quint scored a pair of goals in four seconds versus the Edmonton Oilers to slip into the record book alongside Stewart.
Is there any indication that in scoring his brisk brace, Stewart might have distracted or disabled Tiny Thompson by spitting tobacco juice into his unsuspecting eye?
No, none. Though that is a stratagem that is persistently attributed to Stewart in latter-day accounts of his career. Mostly it’s offered up as passing proof of his cunning and/or outright nastiness, often with a hint of admiration — if not any specificity.
The general tobacco-spitting charge shows up in Stewart’s Wikipedia profile, for instance. Floyd Conner slots it into Hockey’s Most Wanted (2002), with his own twist: the eye-spitting was motivated by Stewart’s “contempt” for goaltenders. In his 2012 book, Next Goal Wins, Liam Maguire goes out on a limb of his own to venture that the nickname Old Poison derived directly from “his habit of spitting chewing tobacco into the eyes of opposing goaltenders.”
Stan Fischler has been one of the more enthusiastic purveyors of the expectorating story over the years; it repeats throughout his broad oeuvre. Here it is in his The All-New Hockey’s 100 (1998):
It was not uncommon for Stewart to chew a wad of tobacco, produce juice, and then spit it unerringly in the eyes of a goalie as he shot the puck.
None of the above mentions is sourced; not one identifies a particular instance which any first-hand accounting to back up the chewing/juicing/spitting combo that Stewart is reputed to have employed to such (purported) devilish effect. None of the authors cited above seems to have done any digging of their own. If they had, they’d have found that no-one seems to have been taking note of Stewart’s spitful habit when he was actually playing: my scourings of contemporary newspaper accounts from Stewart’s active years in the 1920s and ’30s haven’t turned up even a fleeting mention of any tobacco-chewing let alone spitting.
The legend does (fittingly?) crop up in the five-part hockey-history TV series that Vancouver’s Opus Pictures produced in 1996, Legends of Hockey, and my guess (it’s mostly a guess) is that it’s from this (also unsourced) documentary that the subsequent literary mentions originated and proliferated. (Wikipedia’s mention of Stewart’s adventures in chaw footnotes it.) The second episode includes short biographies of several colourful hockeyists, including Eddie Shore, Red Horner, and Ol’ Poison himself. You can click in to review it here, starting at the 27:26-minute mark, where you’ll soon hear narrator Alan Maitland intone:
As well as being poison around the net, the Montreal Maroons’ Nels Stewart had the nasty habit of spitting his chewing tobacco in the goalie’s eyes. Never a great skater, never a great checker, he was still a lethal goalscorer.
As Garth Woolsey of the Toronto Star wrote back in 1996, Legends of Hockey is, as a whole, a delightful confection. Specifically citing Stewart and his alleged spitting, Woolsey also notes that “in the off-hand fashion of such productions, this pungent detail is presented without elaboration. Legends delivers with more similar tidbits of history, whetting the appetite. What it might not explain meatily, the series suggests delectably.”
Is it possible that there’s truth at the root of the legend, wherever that might lie? Of course. But without any first-hand account of where Stewart might have been chewing his tobacco and loosing it on contemptible goaltenders, or when, or who the goaltenders might have been, I’ll be wary of treating the tale as fact. I don’t mind James Marsh’s formulation in his biography of Stewart in The Canadian Encyclopedia:
The story that he spat tobacco juice in the eyes of opposing goalies may be apocryphal but apparently is in keeping with his temperament on the ice.
If Newsy Lalonde merits a mention here (and he does), it’s because he’s a, well, key witness in the larger case — as well as a prime suspect.
Lalonde, of course, was one of hockey’s greatest talents, as well as another fairly glaring absentee from that centenary list from 2017. His pro career on ice started as early as 1906, and he went on to play seven NHL seasons, mostly with the Montreal Canadiens, before it was over in the late 1920s. He was famously uncompromising — which is one generous way of saying that he played the game violently and often with what still looks like, over the distance of years, breathtaking spite.
Not that he was (apparently) alone in his willingness to twist rules or (as the case may be) soak them in tobacco juice in those early decades. Long after he’d hung up his skates he was still recalling the transgressions of opponents like Paddy Moran, Stanley-Cup-winning goaltender for the Quebec Bulldogs and a fellow Hall-of-Famer. Here’s Lalonde reminiscing in 1951, as reported in the Montreal Gazette:
“Paddy chewed tobacco,” Newsy said, “and he could hit a keyhole at 40 paces. You had to duck when you skated behind his cage or he’d get you right between the eyes.”
Lalonde elaborated on this theme a decade later. This time he was talking to Andy O’Brien for a feature on hockey malice for Weekend Magazine.
“Paddy [Lalonde said] was in a class by himself by himself when it came to chopping toes of opposing forwards who came within range, and in those days the skate toes weren’t so well padded. But his pet skill was squirting tobacco in your eye.”
What would it have cost Any O’Brien to press for just a few more details? As it is, I guess Lalonde’s long-range memories do get us closer to a confirmed case of tobacco-juice-in-the-eye without pinpointing anything precisely. The best we might be able to hope for on that count focusses again on Newsy Lalonde, though he’s not (and probably shouldn’t be expected to be) implicating himself this time. It’s another goaltender of old giving evidence here, Jakie Forbes, who was playing for the Toronto St. Patricks in the early 1920s when Lalonde was skating for — and captaining and coaching — the Canadiens.
Forbes’ news wasn’t exactly fresh when he got around to reporting it: one version I’m looking at dates to 1969, 50 years after the fact, when Forbes was 72, and the other is from Trent Frayne’s 1974 book The Mad Men of Hockey.
Both accounts are, it has to be said, fairly vivid, even if they don’t perfectly match up.
The first, from a genial Globe and Mail retrospective, has Forbes telling his tale this way to writer James Young:
The game is much faster now, but not nearly as rough as it was. In one game at the old Mount Royal rink in Montreal, Newsy Lalonde came around the net and caught me in the eye with his stick. I went skating out to protest to the referee and skated right into him, knocking both of us down. He said he had not seen the incident and sent me back to the net.
The next time Lalonde came down to my end of the ice I went out to stop him, using a high stick if possible. He skated to the side of me, spit his tobacco juice in my face and when I fell skated around me to score in the open net.
Trent Frayne’s framing of this same tale five years later isn’t quite the same; it does up the colour balance.
“He was,” Forbes says this time, by way of introducing Lalonde, “the dirtiest son of a bitch I ever played against.”
In Frayne’s version, Forbes stopped Lalonde and the puck was headed back the other way. As Lalonde rounded the net to follow it, he paused to punch Forbes squarely — and hard — in the face.
“Blood spurted from the goaler’s nose,” Frayne writes, “and he took off after Lalonde, brandishing his stick like a lariat.”
The referee is named as Cooper Smeaton, and he does get knocked down. Jumping up, he’s quoted threatening Forbes:
“Get back in the goal, you crazy little bugger,” he shouted at the five-foot-five goaltender, “or you’re out of the game.”
Frayne adds some fine points to the final act of the piece, too. Near the end of the game, with Canadiens leading 4-1, Lalonde broke in with the puck. Forbes was ready for him, “readying an axe-swing at Lalonde’s head.”
But at the last instant the flying Lalonde spat a long stream of tobacco juice into Jakie’s face, circled the net laughing, and pushed the puck into the goal past the sputtering Forbes.
Triangulating with a few of the details provided by Frayne, it’s possible to key in a couple of games from the two seasons Forbes spent with Toronto. The first time he played Canadiens in Montreal was on Wednesday, March 10, 1920, a night on which the local Gazette found plenty in his performance to praise: “Forbes the Youngest Goaler in NHL Made Many Brilliant Stops at Mount Royal Arena,” reads a subhead from the next morning’s dispatch.
Too bad for Forbes, Montreal won, 7-2, with Lalonde scoring a hat trick. But contemporary accounts mention no high sticks, punches, or other hijinks. Also, the referee that night was Harry Hyland. So that’s probably not the night in question.
A better bet altogether is a game from almost a year later, a Monday-nighter played on February 28, 1921. It was noteworthy affair on several counts. A former U.S. president was one of the 5,000 spectators on hand, for one thing: what’s more, William Howard Taft was “in position to have a good view” of a first-period fight between Toronto’s Ken Randall and Didier Pitre of Montreal.
It was a thoroughly bad-tempered occasion even before the teams hit the ice. Toronto was lending winger Cully Wilson to Canadiens that season, but just before the game, with centreman Corb Denneny ill and unable to play, the St. Pats tried to claim Wilson back for their own line-up.
NHL President Frank Calder was in the building and presided over a summit in the referee’s room. The Montreal Star mapped the terrain:
If he played with Canadiens, Toronto would protest him. If he played with Torontos, Canadiens would no doubt protest him, and if he refused to play with Torontos, whose property he was, he would be suspended. The president, however, refused to counsel him what to do, and told him to suit himself, bearing in mind that he was Toronto’s property.
Wilson sat out and, indeed, never suited up for either Montreal or Toronto again: the following season he turned out for the Hamilton Tigers.
In Montreal in 1921, the game went sourly on without him. “There were many unparliamentary clashes,” the Star reported. The Mount Royal Arena’s natural ice deteriorated as the game continued, too. In the second interval, the Star’s reporter watched as “the men who were supposed to scoop the snow off the ice only got water for their pains, and when the third period began, the ice was like mud. When a man fell he got up sopping wet.”
It was in the second period that Forbes and Lalonde first sparred, though whether it was a high stick or a punch that the latter perpetrated isn’t clear. Press reports make no mention, either, of a collision between Forbes and Smeaton. “Lalonde was given a minor for charging Forbes,” is as much as we get from the Gazette, though with an interesting coda: “Lalonde was booed for his attack on the net custodian.” (Le Droit: “Lalonde was hissed when he jostled Forbes.”)
In Trent Frayne’s telling, the game ended 5-1 for Montreal, which wasn’t the case on this night. Lalonde did score Canadiens’ final goal, towards the end of the third, to complete a 4-0 Montreal win (and Georges Vézina shutout). As the Star had it, “Lalonde’s brilliant lone-handed shot finished the scoring.”
But if reporters present saw Lalonde score, none of them would seem to have noticed him spit his tobacco or laugh, and nor did they catch Forbes’ sputtering as he failed to foil him. That doesn’t mean that a spit-assisted goal isn’t part of hockey history which remains, after all, mostly a matter of the many moments, savoury or not, that go unrecorded.
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.”
A new mural got some finishing touches this morning on the north face of Montreal’s Bell Centre ahead of tonight’s meeting between the hometown Canadiens and Pittsburgh’s Penguins. The painting is part of a project the Canadiens will officially unveil tomorrow, November 19, in partnership with Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce and the Quebec government.
(Images: Stephen Smith)
Let the record show (as it duly does) that it was on Monday, April 19 earlier this year that Patrick Marleau played in the 1,768th regular-season game of his 23-year NHL career and that while his San Jose Sharks lost on the night in a 3-2 shootout to the Vegas Golden Knights, Marleau did surpass fellow Saskatchewaner Gordie Howe’s record for games played on the ice in Nevada. Now 42, Marleau isn’t skating this season, but nor has he officially retired, so there’s a chance he could add to the total of 1,779 games he finished out last season with.
To honour Marleau’s achievement, the Sharks commissioned Ottawa artist Tony Harris to paint this portrait, which was presented to the Swift-Current-born centreman this past summer. Harris, of course, is an accomplished portrayer of hockey heroes and heroics: in 2017, he undertook to paint the NHL’s 100 greatest players for the league’s centenary. I wrote about that, and about Harris, for a New York Times profile you can find here (and also here); for more of his mastery, visit his website. Working up the Marleau portrait, Harris was noting earlier this month, he aimed to pay tribute to Marleau’s family in the details. So Marleau’s wife’s name, Christina, is inscribed in the cuff of a glove, and his sons’ initials appear on the stock of his stick. Marleau’s (and Howe’s) Saskatchewan roots are hidden in plain sight, too: Howe’s stick features a sheaf of prairie wheat, while the stars that fill the nighttime background depict the exact constellation that was arranged over Swift Current that April night earlier this year when Marleau skated out in Vegas for his record-breaking game.
(Top image courtesy of Tony Harris)
Is Rocket restless?
Vern DeGeer of the Montreal Gazette was someone who was wondering that in 1965; Maurice Richard himself seems to have been another.
He was 43 that year; he’d been retired from the glare and the glory of NHL ice for five years by then. He’d been a force to behold as a right winger for the Canadiens, a phenomenon unto himself, and he was working for the team still … as an assistant to president J. Davidson Molson, out and about as a team ambassador and sports-supper speechmaker, in the business now of gladhanding fans rather than goalscoring.
“When I retired five years ago,” Richard told DeGeer, “I was all wound up inside. I wanted to get away from it all. I seemed to be all worn out mentally and physically. The pressure had been great. I’d been going at top speed for 18 seasons. That’s a long time.”
Had the pressure let off since he’d stowed his skates? Not so much.
“Now I seem to be building new tensions,” Richard said. “I’ve found the calls for public appearances, travelling all across the country, even tougher than playing. The same old questions have to be answered, the same routines.
Would he coach? Maybe. “I haven’t given it much thought until now, but I think I might consider trying my hand as a coach,” said Richard. “I’m not sure. I’ve never had any offers. If they did come, I’d feel more like considering them than I did when I quit in 1960.”
I don’t know if the offers were extended in ’65, or in the years that followed; the Rocket never did, we know, end up coaching in the NHL. He took a brief turn behind the bench when the Quebec Nordiques launched with the WHA in 1972 — only to resign after just two games due to what the newspapers called “severe nervous strain.”
It wasn’t long after that exchange with Vern DeGeer that Richard quit his job with the Canadiens. This time, he announced his departure in the column he wrote for Dimanche-Matin, “Maurice Richard Vous Parle.”
It wasn’t, let’s say, a fond farewell.
“The title of vice-president or assistant to the president — take your choice — was never more than honorary,” he wrote. “I never had time to do it justice, though I would so much have liked to contribute constructively to the cause of the Canadiens. But I was never more than a good-will ambassador.”
As vice-president, he said, “I was never invited to a meeting behind closed doors, never asked for an opinion on anything whatsoever. I kept pace with the news the same way you did, by reading the sports pages.”
The image above comes undated. Could be … late ’60s, early ’70s, maybe? It was taken in the basement of the Richard family home, on Péloquin Avenue in north-end Montreal. The spectators in the background are (I’m pretty sure) Richard’s sons Jean and Paul.
I’ve been visiting the house by way of a couple of old magazine features and so can offer some more basement views. First up is June Callwood, writing for Maclean’s in May of 1959, when Richard was still in the NHL. His wife Lucille figures prominently in this piece, as does the couple’s domestic set-up in their “thirteen-room stone house.”
There were six Richard children at this point: Jean was still to come. “Their living-room windows overlook a strip of park,” Callwood wrote, “beyond which is the river where in summer the Richard boat is in constant use. towing the older children or their father on water skis.”
Indoors, Callwood found the house to be “warm, sparkling clean and bright with sunlight” — and teeming with the spoils of superstardom:
Lucille has stored literally dozens of cups, statues and plaques in a glass-doored case in the recreation room, along with boxes of pucks — all identical in appearance — labeled to indicate that this one won a Stanley Cup playoff game and that one broke a scoring record. The scrapbook situation is almost out of hand and so is the number of paintings of Maurice that fans have made from photographs and sent to him. Several are hung in the living room, others in the recreation room. One, a real trial, is over six feet high and leans against a basement wall.
Many gifts have been of great value, among them a colour television set, a freezer, a stove, a marble-statue floor lamp and four refrigerators. Lucille dispersed the abundance of refrigerators by putting the biggest one in the kitchen, another in the bar in the recreation room and two others in the back entrance vestibule. One of these is packed to the doors with beer, a reflection of an affiliation Maurice has with Dow Breweries, rather than of his drinking habits, which are only a notch above teetotaling.
Callwood found Mrs. Richard gracious and charming. Her first impression of the Rocket: “A thickbodied, not tall, man, Richard normally has an expression of remote sadness and his black eyes are fathomless.”
One of her questions, about dealing with fame, made him uncomfortable. “Sometimes I get fed up, but I can’t let it show,” he admitted. “It’s not nice for kids to hear about me being sore at people.”
Twelve years later, it was Alan Walker from The Canadian Magazine who dropped by to size up Richard and his household. He wrote it up in a feature published in May of 1971.
Richard was 49. “His hair is grey now,” Walker wrote, “and slicked down with Vitalis. His face is scarred by the crunch of sticks and pucks. His false top teeth are expensive, and so look real. His eyes, which used to be piercing enough to terrorize opposition goaltenders into helpless rigidity, now look smaller because his face has fattened.”
Richard was a vice-president again, but of S. Albert & Co. Ltd., a fuel company rather than a famous hockey team. He’d started as a salesman; now he oversaw a sales team of 20. He was still making public appearances and giving speeches, on behalf of breweries, Dow, O’Keefe, and Labatts, though there’s no mention in the piece of how refrigerators remained in the house.
Richard was working from home, too, running General Fishing Lines, a business he’d bought four years earlier.
Here’s Walker describing the Rocket’s set-up:
Richard’s cellar is so crowded that it is difficult for a big man to manoeuvre between the crates of fishing line and the billiard table that dominates the room.
In the adjoining laundry room, sharing scant space with Mrs. Richard’s automatic washer and dryer, Richard has a typewriter, a green filing cabinet, and a red telephone on a neat desk. Unpainted plywood cupboards around the walls hold miles of fishing line ready for labelling.
Back in ’59, talking to June Callwood, Richard did briefly talk about his extra-hockey interests.
“Every year I think I ought to get interested in another business,” he said then, “start a restaurant or something. But when the hockey starts, I forget about everything else. Maybe if I had other interests, I wouldn’t have lasted so long in hockey.”
“Are you afraid of anything?” Callwood wondered.
Richard was quiet a long time. “Yes, I am afraid of the future. I am afraid to grow older. I never used to think of it, now it’s on my mind every day. I will be so lonely when hockey is over for me.”
“Can you coach, maybe?”
“No, I can’t change the way a man plays hockey. Either he can play it or he can’t. I can’t help him.”
It was in May of 2000 that Richard died, at the age of 78. As far as I know, he lived in the house on Péloquin Avenue until the end. That October, Richard’s children put the house on the market, asking $649,000. I’m not sure what it sold for, finally, but by the time the deal went through the following May, the asking price had dropped to $399,000.
That same month, on the anniversary of Richard’s death, the strip of riverside greensward across the street from the Rocket’s house was officially renamed Parc Maurice Richard.