behind the lines

Off Duty: The game goes on in “Military Moscow,” by Soviet painter Aleksandr Deyneka, which he completed in the span of wartime years 1941-46. The question is … which game is it? As I wrote in a book of mine, the story of how Russians came to the hockey we know involves a bit of a tangled provenance, a layer of mist, and a Chekhovian touch of men quarrelling offstage. Before 1946, Russians tended to play soccer in the summer and bandy — russki hokkei — when winter came. They’d been doing it, in one form or another, going back to Peter The Great’s time. Canatsky hokkei (ours) wasn’t unknown, especially in the Baltics, but mostly they bandyed, chasing a ball, with 11-man teams skating on a rink the size of a soccer field. Sticks were short and curled and wrapped in cord. Lawrence Martin says that there was a Canadian-sized hockey rink in a central Moscow soccer stadium going back to 1938, and that puck-hockey was introduced to phys-ed curricula starting in 1939. It was in ’46 that the first hockey league got going in a serious way. And so, here, under the barrage balloon? The sticks look fairly hockey-shaped, to me. There seems just to be the one goal, so it could be that they’re just taking shots. Either way, there’s no mistaking, or oppressing, the pure shinny spirit of the moment.

a.k.a. stosh

Hawkish: Born in 1940 on a Monday of this date in Sokolče, in what’s now the Slovak Republic, Stanislav Gvoth moved to Canada and made a famous hockey name for himself as Stan Mikita, a.k.a. Stosh and (towards the end of his 22-year NHL career) Ol’ Stosh. Trophies? The former Black Hawk captain won two Harts, four Art Rosses, a pair of Lady Byngs, and a Stanley Cup. He died in 2018 at the age of 78.  Here he is at home in Chicago in 1976, where the décor includes (top right) a print of Ken Danby’s 1972 painting “The Skates.” (Photo: Ron Bailey)

neo conn

Conn Man: Jean Béliveau with the silverware he accumulated on a Saturday of this date in 1965, when his Canadiens won their 13th Stanley Cup and the Montreal captain was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. (Archives of Ontario)

“General opinion in these parts is that NHL governors should be herded to the saliva box if they fail to name Montreal’s master craftsman Jean Béliveau for the new Conn Smythe Trophy and the loot that goes with it.” Easy (if not entirely sanitary) for columnist Vern DeGeer to write, as he did in the Montreal Gazette on a Saturday of this same date in 1965 ahead of the game that would decide the winner of that year’s Stanley Cup. By the time it was over, the hometown Canadiens had dismissed the Chicago Black Hawks by a score of 4-0 to win the seven-game series and claim the 13thCup in franchise history. Sure enough, when NHL president Clarence Campbell stepped up to announce the winner of the inaugural Conn Smythe, recognizing the playoff MVP, it was the Montreal captain’s name he spoke. Fifty-five years ago tonight, Béliveau, who was 33, won the handsome new trophy and its accompanying loot of $2,000 (about $16,000 in 2020 dollars), half of which was awarded by the NHL, half by the Canadiens.

It’s true that Chicago’s Bobby Hull had been in the Conn conversation, earlier in the series, when there were also fleeting mentions that Montreal defenceman J.C. Tremblay deserved a chance. Hull did end up as the playoff scoring leader, gathering ten goals and 17 points in 14 games to Béliveau’s eight and 16 in 13 games. The Montreal captain’s showing in the latter days of April sealed the deal: he recorded two goals, including the winner, as well as a pair of assists in Montreal’s 6-0 game-five win. May 1 he again scored the game-winner, and later added an exclamatory assist.

If nobody really disputed Béliveau’s worthiness, there was a brief hue and cry in the days leading up to the decision. The new trophy, which cost $2,300, had been donated by the Toronto Maple Leafs in honour of their influential president, coach, and manager, who was also an honorary NHL governor. While NHL’s other individual awards were decided by a poll of sportswriters, by Smythe’s own request it was decreed that the winner of the new award would be annually voted by the league’s governors.

There were six of them, at the time, august names all, adorned with initials to prove it. From Toronto there was C. Stafford Smythe, Conn’s son; Bruce A. Norris stood for Detroit while his half-brother, James D. Norris, represented Chicago. The New York Rangers had William M. Jennings. Weston W. Adams was Boston’s man, and from Montreal it was J. David Molson.

The arrangement was this: at the conclusion of the final game of the finals, the jurors would file their ballots with Clarence Campbell and he would duly announce the winner. I’ve seen a single reference suggesting that the governors would decide on a shortlist of three names before they did their voting, with points awarded on a 5-3-1 basis, but I don’t know whether that’s how they actually proceeded, in ’65 or the years that followed — there’s no public record that I can find of finalists or voting tallies.

The hue that was cried was, mostly, Jim Vipond’s. Another leading columnist of the day, he was sports editor at the Globe and Mail, wherein he lit a small rocket on Thursday, April 29, 1965, under the headline “Smythe Trophy Vote a Farce.”

His issue? Three of the NHL governors — Boston’s Adams, New York’s Jennings, and Norris of Detroit — hadn’t attended a single game of the final round. Chicago’s Norris and Montreal’s Molson had been at all five games to that point; Toronto’s Smythe had seen four.

“Each absentee delegated authority to an executive member of his organization who is probably more qualified than his boss,” Vipond allowed. “But this was not the intent nor the meaning of the terms of reference.”

“The missing governors are at fault on at least two counts. First, they should have been in attendance out of respect for the man after whom the trophy was named. Second, this is the world series of what they loudly refer to as major league sport. By their absence they depreciate the league they represent.”

He continued:

“Considerable thought was given to the method of selecting the winner. Managers, coaches, and newspapers all were rejected.

“Obviously the system in use is a poor one and if the governors are really interested in advancement of hockey they should consider a better scheme before next year.”

Vipond liked an idea floated by Ron Andrews, the NHL’s publicity man and chief statistician. “It is his proposal that the league invite six former players, one from each team and stars in their own day, to attend the playoff as guests of the NHL. There would be three at each game of the semi-finals, will all six at all games of the finals. They would cast a ballot after each game with the league president counting the votes at the end of the series.”

“That would produce a worthy winner and would be far better than a remote control system operating out of Florida or some other place far removed from playoff action.”

I don’t know how the governors reacted to Vipond’s reproach — or if the three absentees were sufficiently stung to fly in to see the final game of the series. There was no official response, and no change to the system.

That didn’t come for another six years. Since 1971, the winner of the Conn Smythe has been voted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. They picked Montreal’s goaltender, Ken Dryden, that spring, after his Canadiens won their 17th Cup. By then, the league loot accompanying the Conn Smythe seems to have grown to $1,500 (about $10,000 in today’s money). And while I’m not clear whether Canadiens were matching that figure, it is the case that Sportmagazine stepped up to give him a car for his efforts.

For Béliveau, the 1971 Cup was the tenth and final one he won as a player: he announced his retirement later that summer.

A Stitch In Time: Toronto artist and editorial designer Nadine Arseneault’s embroidered rendering of Béliveau and his ’65 Conn Smythe. You can find her on Instagram @nadine.design.

still life for a stalled season

Put Me In, Coach: Seven weeks into its COVID-19 hiatus, the NHL seems to have traded talk of reviving the hockey season with a flurry of neutral-site games in North Dakota and (maybe?) Saskatchewan for a tentative plan for a June(ish) re-start that would see the remainder of the regular season played out in four NHL cities ahead of a … late-summery? … Stanley Cup playoffs. Meanwhile, on Toronto’s downtown Hazelton Avenue, outside the Loch Gallery, artist Patrick Amiot’s patient Leaf has in recent days acquired a mask as he waits for his chance to get back into the game.

floral’s glory

It was on a Saturday of this date in 1928 that the peerless Gordie Howe was born in Floral, Saskatchewan. Of that source, Don O’Reilly (unkindly) wrote this in his 1975 biography, Mr. Hockey: The World of Gordie Howe: “Floral, Gordie’s birthplace, was once described by the New York Times as a granary on the grim high plains of Saskatchewan, settled by homesteaders somewhere out between Saskatoon and futility.” Advising up-and-comers in a 1963 instructional book, Mr. H himself offered this counsel to youngsters eager to follow him to the NHL.   “A priest once told me something I’ve never forgotten,” Howe wrote in called Hockey … Here’s Howe. “He said that you can have two of the following three things — hockey, social life, and education. You must have an education — so that leaves a choice between a social life or hockey.” The portrait here, painted by Jacques Tremblay, dates to 1965. Gordie Howe died at the age of 88 in June of 2016.

 

 

fab four

Born in Parry Sound, Ontario, on a Saturday of this same date in 1948, Bobby Orr turns 72 today. He was already a phenom at 16 when Trent Frayne went to watch him play for the OHL Junior A Oshawa Generals for a 1965 feature for Maclean’s. “A crew-cut, blue-eyed, well-adjusted, polite, medium-sized boy,” is what Frayne encountered, one with the potential to “become the finest offensive defenceman since Doug Harvey.” Talking to  Lynn Patrick, Frayne heard the Boston GM say this about his eagerly awaited top prospect: “He amazes me every time I see him. The way he can anticipate what’s going to happen is sometimes uncanny. You know, sensing where the puck is going to be and moving there even before the puck does. I never saw a promising player.”

Orr was 18 when he played his NHL game for the Bruins in October of 1966 against the Detroit Red Wings. “I think it’s wonderful, but I can’t help being a little anxious,” his mother, Arva, told the Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald from Parry Sound on the eve of her boy’s debut. “I guess it’ll be the same as always. I’ll be biting my nails until it’s over and we hear how it comes out on the late news.”

The tidings that reached north were good: the Bruins won, 6-2, with Orr assisting on Wayne Connelly’s second-period marker. “Although he did not score a goal,” Fitzgerald reported, “the boy with the blond whiffle did everything else expected of the best at his position. Bobby demonstrated that the critics who doubted his defensive savvy were dead wrong. He played the position like a veteran; was very tough in dislodging opponents around the net; blocked shots; and made adept moves in moving the puck from his own end.”

Interviewed in the Detroit dressing room after the game, a Red Wing elder was asked for his assessment of the rookie. “The kid’s all right,” said a 38-year-old Gordie Howe. “He’ll do, for sure.”

(Image by Gypsy Oak. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)

 

henri richard: a reader’s companion

16 + 9: John Taylor’s 1960 still life with skates and sweaters, left behind by brothers (and Canadiens legends) Henri and Maurice Richard.

“Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, doesn’t want to be a little gale in the wake of a rumbling hurricane. He wants to swirl through the National Hockey League under his own power, creating his own storms, if any, and reaping the respect of his rivals strictly on his own merits.”

That was the opening to a Vince Lunny cover story for Hockey Pictorial in March of 1956, towards the end of the younger Richard’s rookie season in the NHL. It didn’t take long, of course, for Henri, who died on Friday at the age of 84, to skate up a storm of his very own alongside Maurice, 14 years his elder. It was only two years later that Milt Dunnell took to Hockey Pictorial’s columns with Maurice’s take on how Henri was faring in the league. “The Rocket gives the opinion faster than he breaks over a blueline,” Dunnell wrote in April of 1958: ‘Henri is a better skater than I ever was. He’s a better stickhandler, he’s a better puck-carrier. Henri is a better hockey player.”

Rocket’s view wasn’t, perhaps, universal at the time — Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake, for one, wasn’t yet willing to declare Henri supreme among Richards. All these years later, the question of which brother was the more valuable player might well still start a debate that wouldn’t necessarily finish. What we do know is that Henri played 20 seasons with Montreal, amassing 1,175 points in 1,436 games, regular season and playoffs, winning an unmatched 11 Stanley Cups along the way. He captained the Canadiens from 1971 through to his retirement in 1975. The team retired his number, 16, that year; he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

It’s true that Henri’s literary legacy doesn’t measure up to Maurice’s. A quick check of the bookshelf tells the tale: the elder Richard’s life and riotous times have been the focus of at least 12 books over the years, from Gerry Gosselin’s Monsieur Hockey (1950) to Jean-Marie Pellerin’s Maurice Richard: L’Idole d’un Peuple (1998) to The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard (2009) by Benoît Melançon. No-one (to date) has published Henri’s biography or devoted a volume to his place in hockey or Quebec history.

That’s not to say the younger Richard doesn’t figure in more general histories of the game. Stan Fischler’s 1971 Hab history The Flying Frenchmen, for instance, delves into the brothers’ relationship during Henri’s early days in the NHL and offers up this telling anecdote:

The Canadiens were in the midst of a workout when Henri rounded the net at full speed from one side and Maurice approached on the same track from the other direction. They collided violently and both fell to the ice unconscious. When they were finally revived, both were escorted to the first-aid room where Maurice needed 12 stitches to close his wound and his kid brother, six stitches.

Then, in a masterful understatement, Maurice intoned: “You’d better watch yourself. Henri. You might get hurt.”

Henri rates a chapter in Michael Ulmer’s Canadiens Captains (1996). And he’s a voice throughout Dick Irvin the Younger’s 1991 oral history, The Habs. That’s where you’ll find Henri doing his best to explain his infamous 1971 outburst wherein he called Al MacNeil the worst coach he’d ever played for:

“I didn’t really mean it, but it came out because I was mad. Al was a good guy. But I was just mad, and they made a lot of things about that in all the papers. Even Guy Lafleur, in his book. He said I said to MacNeil that he shouldn’t coach the Canadiens because he didn’t speak French, and all that shit. I never said that in my life.”

Trent Frayne’s Henri essay in his 1968 anthology of hockey profiles, It’s Easy, All You Have To Do is Win is worth seeking out. While you’re arranging that, maybe settle in with the inimitable Frayne’s 1958 Maclean’s Henri profile, which is archived here.

So far as odes and obituaries published in the days since Henri’s death, recommended readings would start with this piece by Dave Stubbs at NHL.com, which includes reflections from Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer.

Tom Hawthorn’s Globe and Mail obituary is deftly done and deserves a read, along with Roy MacGregor’s reminiscence, also in the Globe, which is here.

If you read French, take a look at Gaétan Lauzon’s coverage in La Presse, ici. Richard Goldstein wrote a New York Times obituary, published Saturday — that’s here.

If you missed Friday’s broadcast of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, you can download the March 6 podcast here (and should) to listen to Carol Off’s conversation with Henri’s Canadiens teammate Ken Dryden. It gets going at the 37.40 mark.

On Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada opened with Ron MacLean’s conversation with Dick Irvin, which includes his thoughts on the origins of the nickname Pocket Rocket. There’s tape of that here, and worth your attention, if you didn’t catch it on the night.

One more? That would be Michael Farber’s Richard tribute at TSN, which you can find over this way.

(Top image: John Taylor, about 1960, silver salts on film, gelatin silver process, MP-1999.5.5032.4, © McCord Museum)

power play: from abraham’s plains to the ice at the montreal forum

Born at Chateau de Candiac, near Nîmes, in France, on a Wednesday of this date in 1712, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Grozon, Marquis de Montcalm de Saint-Veran was a distinguished lieutenant-general in the French Army whose hockey career never really got off the ground. He (and his famous death, in 1759) figure prominently nonetheless in Rick Salutin’s brilliant 1977 play Les Canadiens, which scopes Quebec’s history and identity through the lens of its iconic hockey team. It first found a stage at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, with Guy Sprung directing; the magnificent poster here, above, was designed by Theo Dimson for the play’s Toronto run in the fall of ’77, at Toronto Workshop Productions, where George Luscombe directed. Salutin worked closely with Ken Dryden on the script, and he also checked in with a distinguished assortment of other Habs illuminati credited in Salutin’s introduction to the published version of the play, including:

Jean Béliveau, in his office at the Montreal Forum.

Jacques Beauchamp, editor and sports columnist of Journal de Montreal, who absentmindedly flicked cigar ashes into a puck on his desk.

Toe Blake, as he opened his tavern one morning.

Dickie Moore, at his equipment rental agency, practically on the runway of Dorval Airport.

Jacques Plante, at Olympic Stadium, where he was running the food concession during an international bicycle competition.

Wayne Thomas, former Canadiens’ goalie, in the snack bar at Maple Leaf Gardens.

 

(Top image, Theo Dimson; cover painting, above, Bill Featherston)

embrace the lace

Backliner: “One of the greatest thrills in hockey,” Bruins defenceman Doug Mohns told Bill Shechman in the profile that accompanied this cover portrait of Tex Coulter’s, “is to stop a player from scoring a goal. It feels just as good stopping a player as it does scoring a goal.” Mohns, who died at the age of 80 on a Friday of this date in 2014, was 23 in 1957, playing in his fourth NHL season, his first on the blueline. It was Bruins’ GM Lynn Patrick’s idea, to drop him back from left wing. “I never thought I’d like it,” Mohns said, “but I’ve changed my mind.” After 11 seasons with Boston, he would go on to play for Chicago, the Minnesota North Stars, Atlanta Flames, and Washington, retiring in 1975.