prêt-à-entraîner

Going into the NHL’s 1959-60 season, Phil Watson stitched his confidence to his sleeve. “I predict that we will finish in the play-offs for the fourth time in the five years that I have been coach of the club,” he said. At 45, he had charge of the New York Rangers, the team for whom he’d made his mark through the 1930s and ’40s as a feisty forward. But Watson’s September optimism didn’t translate into October wins in ’59. “I’m worried,” Watson was saying a month later,” but I can’t put my finger on the reason for four losses. This is one of the best clubs I’ve ever had.”

By November, with the Rangers having won just two of 14 games, Watson headed to New York’s Polyclinic Hospital for treatment of a peptic duodenal ulcer. The surgery was a success, but he was out of a job: Rangers GM Muzz Patrick stood in for a game before appointing one of Watson’s old Ranger teammates to succeed him on a full-time basis, Alf Pike.

At 34, Doug Harvey, meanwhile, was doing what he’d done for years: anchoring the Montreal Canadiens’ blueline, winning Norris trophies as the league’s primo defenceman. He won his fifth the following spring, and another one the year after that, in 1961. But that was it for Harvey in Montreal: at the end of May, Muzz Patrick lured him to New York to play for and coach the Rangers. Alf Pike had lasted just a single (losing) season.

Harvey wasn’t sure, initially, that he wanted to move — until he was. He’d been making $20,000 or so a year in Montreal; his Rangers’ contract was reported to be worth $27,000. Patrick was convinced he’d lead New York out of the wilderness. “Each time I have talked to Harvey,” he said, “I’ve become more and more impressed with the fact that he is an ideal choice to become coach of the Rangers. He knows hockey, commands attention, is intelligent, and doesn’t jump to rash decisions.”

Phil Watson had been coaching Providence in the American Hockey League, but in June he got a new job, too, coaching the Boston Bruins. Under Milt Schmidt, the Bruins were worse than the Rangers in ’60-61, and both teams missed the playoffs. Watson got a three-year contract that would pay him (so it was said) $15,000, $17,500, and $20,000 in successive years. This time around, Watson tempered his optimism. “We may not win too many games at first,” he said. “I’m no miracle man.”

And so to this encounter, above, which dates to July of 1961, when the new coaches met and dressed up in Montreal during the NHL’s annual meetings.

Come October, it so happened that Boston and New York would open the new campaign with a home-and-home series. On a Wednesday night in Massachusetts, the Rangers won 6-2. They did it again the next night, too, in New York. This time the score was 6-3.

“I’ve been around too long in hockey to know you can’t win ’em all,” a wary Harvey said after that second win. “I just hope the New York fans treat us well when we have a bad night.”

Though he played on, Harvey would coach just a single season in New York before Muzz Patrick replaced him behind the bench. Harvey did get the Rangers to the playoffs, to his credit, where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions from Toronto. Phil Watson? His Bruins couldn’t climb out of the basement. Watson started the ’62-63 season as coach again, but he didn’t finish it: after a 1-8-5 start, he was out, and Boston got a new coach, which is to say an old one, in Milt Schmidt.

(Image: Weekend Magazine/Library and Archives Canada)

 

 

 

hockey players in hospital beds: maurice richard, trop fragile pour la nhl

This was the second ankle-break of Maurice Richard’s fledgling career: in 1940, as a 19-year-old, he lower-body-injured himself playing in a game for Montreal’s Quebec Senior league farm team. He returned from that in 1941 … only to suffer a wrist fracture. He was sufficiently mended in 1942 to make the big-league Canadiens before he broke himself again. Richard himself got the timing of this 1942 incident slightly wrong: it happened during Montreal’s late-December game home to the Boston Bruins rather than in an away game earlier in the month, as he told it in the 1971 autobiography he wrote with Stan Fischler’s help.

At the time, a Boston reporter described the scene this way:

Maurice Richard was knocked from the game when elbowed by Johnny Crawford and had to be carried from the ice. There was no penalty …

Here’s Richard’s Fischlerized memory, picking up as headed in Boston territory with the puck on his stick:

The next thing I knew, big Johnny Crawford, the Bruins’ defenceman who always wore a helmet, was looming directly in front of me. He smashed me with a terrific but fair body check and fell on top of me on the ice. As I fell, my leg twisted under my body and my ankle turned in the process.

Once again I heard the deathly crack and I felt immediately that my ankle must be broken. As they carried me off the ice, I said to myself, “Maurice, when will these injuries ever end?”

The awful pattern was virtually the same as it had been the year before, and the year before that! I was out of action for the entire season and missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, too.

Roch Carrier’s version of events is, by no surprise, much the more vivid. From Our Life With The Rocket (2001):

The puck is swept into Canadiens territory. Maurice grabs it. He’s out of breath. For a moment, he takes shelter behind the net. With his black gaze he analyzes the positions of his opponents and teammates, then lowers his head like a bull about to charge. With the first thrust of his skates the crowd is on its feet. It follows him, watches him move around obstacles, smash them. The fans begin to applaud the inevitable goal.

He still has to outsmart Jack Crawford, a defenceman with shoulders “as wide as that.” He’s wearing his famous leather helmet. Here comes Maurice. The defenceman is getting closer, massive as a tank. The crowd holds its breath. Collision! The thud as two bodies collide. Maurice falls to the ice. And the heavy Crawford comes crashing down on him. Maurice lands on his own bent leg. When Crawford collapses on him he hears the familiar sound of breaking bone: his ankle. He grimaces. This young French Canadian will never be another Howie Morenz.

Carrier goes on to describe the dismay with which Montreal management considered this latest setback. Coach Dick Irvin and GM Tommy Gorman offered their fragile winger to both Detroit and the New York Rangers. “The future is uncertain,” Carrier writes. “He wants to play hockey, but it seems that hockey is rejecting him just as the sea in the Gaspé rejects flotsam, as his mother used to say. Maybe his body wasn’t built for this sport.”

(Ilustration: Henri Boivin, 1948)

that near-perfect human hockey machine: memories of morenz, 80 years on

Local Hero: A mural celebrating the life and lacy of Howie Morenz adorns the wall of the Valu-Mart on Mitchell, Ontario’s main street. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

(A version of this post appeared on page SP3 of The New York Times on June 18, 2017.)

Howie Morenz wept when he finally agreed to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1923, abandoning a budding career as a railway machinist and departing his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to become the world’s greatest hockey player.

That’s the story: he didn’t want to go, refused to believe he was good enough to play in the NHL. He’d be fine, of course: within the year, he’d be winning his first Stanley Cup. By then, the fame of his name was already spreading across North America. As it turned out, he was what an admiring rival called “that near-perfect human hockey machine.”

For 14 years his legend grew. Then, shockingly, 80 years ago this month, he died at 34. His friends said Morenz’s heart shattered when he realized his career was over.

His hockey résumé by then would include two more Stanley Cups. Three times he was recognized as NHL MVP, and twice he led the league in scoring. He was one of the original nine players honored when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1945. In 1950, a national poll of Canadian sportswriters named Morenz the greatest hockey player of the half-century.

Not so easily quantified is how much Morenz’s blazing talents helped solidify the NHL’s early success, especially in brand-new U.S. markets. Beloved in Montreal, he was the league’s biggest box-office draw. The sight of Morenz in motion is said to have convinced the boxing promoter Tex Rickard to start up the New York Rangers.

As part of the effort to spread the hockey gospel in the U.S., several Canadian players including Boston’s obstreperous defenceman Eddie Shore) were dubbed “the Babe Ruth of hockey,”

Morenz was the one the Bambino himself venerated. He said that Morenz had the biggest heart of any athlete he’d ever known.

•••

Visitors to Stratford today tend to come for this handsome city of 33,000 for its renowned Shakespearean festival; some others, perhaps, are pilgrims seeking Justin Bieber sites — like Morenz, the singer grew up here.

While you can book “Twelfth Night” tickets online, maybe download Stratford Tourism’s 25-point map of sacred Bieberly locations, a century after the hockey player’s family arrived in town, you’re on your own when it comes to Morenz monuments.

Portraits hang in the city’s arenas, and there’s a street in his name. After you’ve gazed at the family house on Wellington Street where Morenz signed his first fateful contract, you might make your next stop 20 minutes to the west, in the smaller town of Mitchell, where Morenz was born in 1902 — ice zero for one of hockey’s most dynamic personalities, even when waning winter has freed the flow of the river where he played his earliest hockey.

A plaque recalls Morenz in the downtown Mitchell park that bears his name.

Mitchell wears its Morenz association with pride. The wider world may have known him as the Stratford Streak, but hereabouts he’ll always remain Mitchell’s Meteor. The arena where he played in his youth is gone now, but if you stand in the park named for him and peer north, you start to get your bearings on the story. It helps if you have Dean Robinson at hand.

Mitchell-born, he’s a retired journalist and local historian who last fall published Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, an updated edition of his 1982 biography.

“He was good when he played here, but he wasn’t yet a stand-out,” Robinson says. “There were a couple of other guys who were better.” He can tell you how boy Howie skipped piano lessons to play hockey, and show you the spot, above the new dam, just north from where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River. “He just loved to play the game,” Robinson says.

Morenz has a street here, too, to his name, along with a mural adorning the main-street wall of the supermarket. Minor hockey teams here are nicknamed Meteors in his honour.

From a storytelling perspective, Mitchell moves you from Shakespeare towards Alice Munro: continue west on Highway 8 and you’ll soon find yourself in Huron County, home to the influential 2013 literary Nobel laureate and her fiction. And here on the edge of Munro territory, it’s tempting to borrow some of her atmospheres, maybe a suggestion of secret sorrows to cast a shadow into the narrative.

It is true that one of Morenz’s elder brothers died young. And in 1922, the budding 19-year-old star returned home from hockey to learn that his mother, Rose, had drowned in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” a Toronto newspaper reported.

Toronto tried to sign Morenz in 1923 before Montreal secured his signature. Robinson wonders whether Rose would have nixed his plan to turn professional if she had been alive. As it was, Morenz doubted his decision from the moment he made it, and was trying to escape his commitment almost to the moment he left for Canadiens training camp. Stratford did its best to keep him, too: local businessmen offered him $1,000 to stay.

•••

The Morenz era was hatched on an alternative fact: unsure of how a hockey player of German descent would be greeted in Montreal in the wake of the First World War, the Canadiens amended Morenz’s background to neutral Swiss. Morenz laughed, later, recalling the lie, joking that his legendary agility on the ice was learned leaping alp to alp.

He thrived in Montreal. If the Canadiens were already known as the Flying Frenchmen when he arrived, Morenz, a centre, and his two speedy wingers, Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, accelerated their attack and their popularity. The NHL had four teams when he started in 1923; by the end of the decade it had expanded to ten. Morenz was the league’s biggest box-office draw. Another team offered to buy him for $50,000 — nearly four times the franchise fee the Boston Bruins paid to come aboard in 1924.

Rink Relic: A Morenz portrait hangs in the lobby of the William Allman Memorial Arena in Stratford, Ontario. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

When it comes to filmed footage of Morenz in flight, a few grey skittering sequences survive. Mostly, his legacy is preserved in prose. He was small, fragile-looking, but he played the game fast and with an enthusiasm that often looked like recklessness. He took the word dash, verb and noun, and made it his own; he was a “comet of centre ice,” “cyclonic,” riding skates that were “mercury-dipped.”

“Jesus Christ, could he go!” said Joliat. New York Americans’ goaltender Roy Worters claimed never to have seen Morenz’s number 7 sweater at a standstill. “He was number 777 — just a blur.”

Referee Bobby Hewitson described the signature of his style: “He moved down center ice giving a little hop every once in a while as he would literally skip over the opposition’s sticks.”

He was said to pack the NHL’s hardest shot, and its most accurate. His bodychecks, fair and fearsome, prompted Toronto executive Frank Selke, Sr. to the highest praise he could muster: “I’ve seen many fellas throw up their dinner after he hit them.”

The novelist Hugh MacLennan watched him play. “The little smile on his lips,” he said, “showed that he was having a wonderful time.”

Off the ice, he was said to be modest, friendly and funny, a bon vivant who loved the racetrack, and to sing while he strummed his ukulele.

Hockey players expect their sport to damage them: all those brash sticks and colliding bad tempers. Morenz was in the league five seasons before he lost a tooth, but in the meantime hockey tore his ligaments and dislocated his collarbone, gashed his head. He seems to have been almost constantly piling into goalposts. His thumbs broke, his kidney bruised.

He was in danger off the ice, too. In 1932 he chased off a burglar from his mother-in-law’s house in Montreal, though not before the intruder bashed him over the head with his revolver. Another time, on the golf course, lightning struck as Morenz raised his (wooden) club to swing. A crackle, a flash: Morenz said he felt a jolt, no more.

In 1934, after Chicago knocked Montreal from the playoffs, he told the newspapermen that he had another four, five seasons left in him. “I am not old,” he declared, “only 31, and I will be back there as long as the Canadiens want me.”

But he’d started to slip. He wasn’t scoring so much. Did the fans in the Forum actually dare to boo him? Dean Robinson says they did, and that Morenz cried.

When Montreal manager Leo Dandurand traded his star to the Chicago Black Hawks that fall, he said it was to spare him further indignity. Morenz said he’d rather retire than leave, though eventually he boarded the train south, in more tears.

Chicago was a bust. The goals didn’t return, and then he wasn’t playing. It was a mercy when he was traded again, this time to New York to play for the Rangers.

The Canadiens bought him back in the summer of 1936. Re-united with his family, back with his old wingers, he was revived, and so too were the Canadiens. Dead last in the NHL the previous season, they were, by the start of 1937, atop the league’s International Section.

Chicago stopped in at the Forum late in January. Morenz had a bad knee, which might have something to do with the fall he took early into the game.

As teammate Toe Blake saw it, Morenz lost his balance, slid into the boards, was in turn crashed into by a big Chicago defenceman, Earl Seibert. Unless Seibert knocked him down. Either way, the tip of Morenz’s left skate dug into the boards, stuck, and in the tumult the leg snapped. The Montreal paper La Patrie reported the awful noise of it: “un sinistre craquement.”

A rink attendant would later mark the boards where Morenz’s skate held fast — as a warning to navigation or for commemorative reasons, it’s not quite clear.

“I’m all through,” Morenz is supposed to have said in the dressing-room. His tears were hot, according to one reporter, but he wasn’t blaming Seibert. He tossed up a brave wave to worried fans and teammates as he was stretchered to the ambulance.

Radiographs of Morenz’s fractured left leg appeared in Montreal’s morning papers after he was felled in January.

He was front-page La Patrie news next morning, peering up from bed in the photograph from his room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Inside, on page 24, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. Were there two, four, five? It wasn’t not entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.

“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.” His room was filled with well-wishers in the following weeks, and (so it seemed) as much optimism as healthy good cheer. He was said to be mending well. There were tales of parties, beer under the bed.

Then — something happened. Columnists mentioned “une violente dépression nerveuse.” Dr. Forgues said the patient was suffering from nervous breakdown but was improving. Vague at the time, the story hasn’t really clarified. There was talk that his weight wasted away. When he told Joliat that he’d be watching the Canadiens’ playoff games from “up there,” did he mean, maybe, a heavenly press box? Uncertain. That first week of March, visitors were banned, a guard put on the door, a nurse on constant duty.

He died late on a Monday night, March 8. Did he try to leave his bed only to collapse? Die in his doctor’s arms, with an unnamed friend nearby? Other versions of the scene had him sighing and/or smiling at a nurse. Officially, the cause was deemed “accidental” — a heart attack — and the papers, at least, left at that.

At the Forum two days later, boards covered the ice. An estimated 14,000 filled the arena. Attendees remembered flowers and silence. “He made straight for the goal,” the clergyman intoned, “in life as he did in the game of hockey — there were needless curves or loops in his course.” A further crowd of 25,000 lined the streets of Montreal as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.

pall

Guard Duty: Morenz’s Canadiens teammates served as pallbearers at his funeral. Left, front to back are Armand Mondou, George Brown, and Babe Siebert. Right: Georges Mantha, Paul Haynes, and Pit Lepine.

The Canadiens said no-one would ever Morenz’s number 7 again — not until his eldest son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team.

An NHL benefit game in the fall of 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for widowed Mary Morenz and her three young children, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.

Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Seven-year-old Donald died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.

Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. He was talented and worked hard. He was a heavily scrutinized junior in Montreal first, then went on to play professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.

Howie Jr. died in 2015 at the age of 88. I asked his son recently whether the pressures of name and expectation had ever made him bitter.

“I don’t think so,” he told me. “He was, I think, disappointed.”

The third Howard Morenz is in his 50s, lives in Ottawa, where he’s semi-retired from a career in information technology. He played some hockey in his time, but decided early it wasn’t something he’d pursue.

He’s been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way his grandfather’s death is depicted is an ongoing project, as it was for his father. Back in 1937, friends (including Aurèle Joliat) trying to make sense of sudden death spoke of Morenz’s heartbreak. It didn’t take much for that notion to pass into the culture, an easy shorthand explanation that seemed to make sense in a country where the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man is anything but remarkable.

The family takes a different view.

“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” the third Howie says. “We don’t believe that at all.”

There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report says that Morenz died “violently,” and it mentions cardiac deficiency and the fractured leg along with “acute maniacal excitement.”

“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery.

His father spoke sometimes of a chance encounter with a nurse in Montreal in the 1950s. She’d been on duty the night the original Morenz died. It was negligence, she said. “I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary in that hospital,” Howie III says.

His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Dean Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz III acknowledges that a definitive account of just what happened is unlikely at this point.

He does find comfort in the respect Morenz still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens continue to command an almost religious devotion, his grandfather remains a senior saint. His dash is represented in a statue outside the team’s home at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And he was recognized earlier this year when the NHL named its top 100 players of all-time.

The third Howie Morenz takes pride, too, in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend. “I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he says. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.” His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”

 

hockey players in hospital beds: no more will I put my face in front of the puck

Plante Show: Jacques Plante indicates where a puck hit his mask in May of 1970. Visiting is Mrs. Ruth Frohlichstein, a St. Louis neighbour of the goaltender’s who was also described by some contemporary newspaper captioneers as Plante’s “favourite bridge partner.”

“Did you ever see how they kill cattle?” Jacques Plante said. “They use a sledgehammer and the cattle just drop dead. That’s how the shot felt when it hit me. Without the mask I wouldn’t be here today.”

He was in the Jewish Hospital in St. Louis by then, early May of 1970. Eleven years had passed since he’d first donned his famous mask and started a hockey revolution. At 41, with seven Stanley Cup championships to his name, he was nearing the end of his playing days, but he wasn’t there yet. In his second year with St. Louis, he was a favourite of fans, and had helped the Blues reach their third consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.

Coach and GM Scotty Bowman had used three goaltenders through the early rounds of the playoffs. As the Blues prepared to face Boston in the finals, Bruins’ coach Harry Sinden said, “We recognize Plante as their number one goalie, and I never want to see him in the nets against us.” Bowman didn’t oblige: Plante was the starter on Sunday, May 3, as the Blues opened the series at home at The Arena.

Boston’s Johnny Bucyk scored in the first period, Jim Roberts tied the score for St. Louis early in the second. Then, as recalled next day in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The 41-year-old Blues goalie was struck on the fiberglass mask above the left eye on a deflection of a shot by the Boston Bruins’ Fred Stanfield.” Another correspondent from the same paper had him “felled by a puck.”

UPI: “nearly had his head torn off Fred Stanfield’s screamer.”

Stanfield’s “brow-bender,” was Harold Kaese’s contribution, in The Boston Globe.

“The Boston player’s drive, which started out low, glanced off Phil Esposito’s stick and smashed into the veteran goalie’s mask, cracking it.” (Post-Dispatch)

He fell facedown. For two minutes he lay unconscious on the ice. Blues’ doctor J.G. Probstein and trainer Tommy Woodcock “worked on” him, the AP said. After about five minutes, they got him to his feet. He wobbled. They brought out a stretcher, but he wanted to skate off.

Ernie Wakely, 28, was the Blues’ back-up. He came in and did his best, but the Bruins kept coming, and won by a score of 6-1 with the aid of Bucyk’s hattrick.

Later, Dr. Probstein said it was a concussion and that while Plante’s condition was “satisfactory,” he’d be hospitalized “for an indefinite period of time.”

Plante’s first words (“after his head cleared”) were said to be: “The mask saved my life.”

He phoned his wife Jacqueline in Montreal. “She was relieved to hear from me,” he said later. She made a habit of not watching her husband on TV, but his children had the game on that night. It was almost when she passed through the room and noticed that Plante was absent from the net. Only then did the youngest son calmly mention what had happened.

Monday, a reporter among many visiting Room 223 at Jewish Hospital described the patient: “He had a whelp over his left eye and a slight cut and he smiled very little for his audience.”

Plante: “My head hurts every time I move it.”

Joe Falls was there, sports editor of The Detroit Free Press.

“Hockey writers,” he’d write, “happen to like old Jacques.”

He’s a good guy and always good for a story and so before we went up to see him I chipped in two bucks with a couple of Montreal writers and we bought him some flowers.

Jacques, he like that very much. He is a very sensitive man and was moved by the sentiment.

“Merci beaucoup, merci beaucoup,” he kept repeating.

Of course we’d signed the card: “From Fred Stanfield, with love.” He pretended not to notice.

Did Plante change rooms? Also Monday, Boston Globe columnist Fran Rosa found him asleep in 219. Barclay Plager had spent the night at the hospital, too, and he was the one to wake Plante up. The Blues defenceman was admitted after passing out on the Blues’ bench during the third period of Sunday’s game; now he was being released.

Plante talked about his future. “I don’t think I’ll be here next season.” With Buffalo and Vancouver coming into the league, summer would see an expansion draft. Plante didn’t think he’d be protected.

“Look,” he said, “Hall is three years younger than me and Wakely is the goalie of the future so what do they want with me?”

Plager had injured himself trying to hipcheck Boston’s Johnny McKenzie, damaging ribs when he bounced off and hit the boards. “The doctor didn’t exactly call it a fracture,” he confided. “He seems to think it was a separation. He said he hadn’t seen anything like it before and he’s going to write a paper on it.”

Monday, the Bruins held a light practice. Towards the end, coach Harry Sinden called the players together and led them in an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Fred Stanfield was turning 26.

Plante said he’d never been hit so hard. From his Montreal days, he recalled a tough night against Toronto: “Red Kelly shot and hit me in the face and the rebound went to Mahovlich. When I dove for the puck, it hit me where the mask protects my eyes. All I had that time was a nosebleed. No cuts.”

Dan Stoneking of The Minneapolis Star phoned Plante on Monday, said he sounded “groggy.” He also noted his “unmistakable French-Canadian accent.”

Another report from Plante’s bedside noted his “slight French accent.”

Joe Falls from Detroit’s Free Press opened his column with this:

Monsieur Jacques Plante, he leaned back on ze pillow in ze hospital room and he say: “Le masque m’a sauve la vie …”

“It only hurts when I laugh,” Plante told Dan Stoneking.

“I’ve got the world’s biggest hangover,” was another quote in another paper.

“Nothing ever felt like this,” Joe Falls heard. “My head, it is still spinning. I feel like I am floating. I feel like I want to throw up all the time.”

“I can still feel it in my head,” was another thing Plante said on the Monday. “The way I feel right now, I don’t feel like playing any more. That’s today. I don’t feel like eating or anything. Then I know as I get better I’m sure I’ll play again. But I do not know I will play in this series. I just don’t know.”

Also on Monday, Mrs. Ruth Frohlichstein dropped by. That’s her, above. The newspapers who ran photographs of her visit described her variously: as “a neighbourhood friend” and “Plante neighbour and favourite bridge partner.”

St. Louis coach and general manager Scotty Bowman had yet another goaltender waiting in the wings, 37-year-old Glenn Hall. Originally, Bowman had said he’d wanted to see how Plante played in the first game before he made any decisions on later starters. “He doesn’t play well in Boston,” Bowman said, “Glenn Hall plays well there.” With Plante out, the coach didn’t waver from that: Wakely would keep the net for Game Two in St. Louis before giving way to Hall when the series moved to Boston.

plante down

Bodycheck: St. Louis defenceman Al Arbour arrives on the scene in the moments after Fred Stanfield’s shot laid Plante low.

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hp[in]hb: ching johnson, again

ching j 1

Bedspread: It was said in 1937 that Ching Johnson had spent 29 weeks of his 19-year hockey career in hospital beds; this stay, above, dates to January, 1940, so best to add a few days to his career calendar of convalescence. Johnson was 41 by then, and out of the NHL. Back in Minnesota, where he’d played in the 1920s before Conn Smythe signed him to the New York Rangers, Johnson was player-coach now of the AHA Millers. His injury? Undisclosed: upper and/or lower body, we’ll say, to be safe, front and possibly back, inner and probably — why not? — outer.

can still be closed for business: a literary companion to joey kocur’s hands

Joey Kocur's hand

Offhanded: Joey Kocur at rest post-surgery in 1985. Called up from minor-league Adirondack by the Red Wings, he had to take a detour to Detroit’s Harper-Grace Hospital, after punching Jim Playfair’s teeth. (Photo: Schroeder, Free Press)

Let’s remember this, first: when Joey Kocur played in the NHL, he was a crossword king.

Teammate Darren McCarty said Kocur was the best he ever saw when it came to wordy puzzles. USA Today, New York Times, didn’t matter, he’d zip through them all. “He was amazing,” McCarty writes in My Last Fight, a 2014 memoir.

McCarty does acknowledge that as a hockey player, it wasn’t for wordplay that Kocur was so widely feared. One of McCarty’s first fights as a rookie for Detroit was with Kocur, then a Ranger, before they became teammates. “One of his punches cracked my helmet,” McCarty writes. “The momentum of his fist connecting with my head sent us both crashing to the ice. We were both tangled up, and we went down head first and we landed face-to-face.” Kocur asked if McCarty was okay. “Thanks for not killing me, Mr. Kocur,” McCarty said.

The late Bob Probert was another of Kocur’s belligerent teammates with Detroit. Look him up at the Hockey Hall of Fame’s online register of NHL players and the potted biography they have on file takes a fairly straightforward run at his legacy: one of the most feared enforcers in the NHL, it alleges, says he could have been another Mark Messier but for having been groomed to lean more toward fisticuffs than toward the development of his playing skills and so is most remembered for punching a wide swath across the NHL.

Kocur’s profile is, on the other hand, strangely muted. He was a hard-nosed right-winger who was a good checker and intimidating presence on the ice. Also: better at handling the puck than most people realized with a deceptively hard shot.

Nothing about the fighting. No testimonials of the kind that St. Louis Blues center Adam Oates once volunteered: “No one in our league punches harder. In that regard, Joe’s the absolute best at what he does.”

Kocur played 15 seasons in the NHL, retiring in 1999. He won three Stanley Cups as a player, another one as an assistant coach in Detroit. He was mostly a Red Wing, though he also skated for the New York Rangers and, briefly, the Vancouver Canucks. He scored some goals — 80 in 821 regular-season games, another 10 in his 118 playoff games — but that’s not, again, where he got his renown. Dropping the gloves was a thing he did well, freeing up his bare fists in order throw them at those heads, helmeted or otherwise, that needed punching. From the ruthless efficient and generally dispiriting tables at Hockeyfights.com, I know that he did that — punching heads — in at least 218 altercations over the course of his career.

I’d assumed that the internet’s hockey-punching headquarters would be able to help with some other numbers I was interested in: how many concussions did Kocur sustain along his painful way, and how many did he administer to others? But for some reason, Hockeyfights.com (powered by Violent Gentlemen) doesn’t track head trauma. When I typed “CTE” into the Keyword Search window, there was no delay in the answer I got: Not Found.

Newspaper archives don’t have a lot to report on what all those fights did to Kocur’s head, either. Maybe he was lucky, and was never concussed. I hope so.

But if there’s nothing much to read about Joey Kocur’s head, his hands — the right one in particular — are another story. Like Bobby Orr’s knees, Kocur’s hands have an extensive literature to commemorate — well, I was going to say their achievements, when really it’s the damage they’ve suffered. Over the years, Kocur’s much-mangled hands have fascinated writers, and Don Cherry, too. The power in them, yes, that’s proved of interest as a literary subject, but more than that it’s how all their punching has disfigured them. “You wouldn’t believe the hands on Joey Kocur,” he writes in Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories, Part 2 (2011). “It looks like he’s had a Ping Pong ball implanted under each knuckle.”

As for the writers, Johnette Howard took a long look in 1990 for The National Sports Daily at what was happening beyond Kocur’s cuffs. That’s a piece in which she quotes then-Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano as saying he’d like to secure Kocur a job with the team after he retires because “he’s given his hand for the organization.”

She describes the one with he punched in fairly plain terms:

Along the back side of Kocur’s always bloated right hand, a three-inch red scar carves a crooked path from the middle knuckle toward the wrist.

George Vecsey of The New York Times consults his atlas for his 1992 survey of the same hand:

Joey Kocur’s right hand resembles a map of his native Saskatchewan. That bump is his boyhood town of Kelvington. That knob is nearby Nut Mountain. That long gash could very well be the Qu’Appelle River meandering its way into Mountain Lake. Those scars might be the Quill Lakes, and those over there could be Old Wives Lake. And that large bruise could certainly be the urban sprawl of Saskatoon.

Next up, Alec Wilkinson from The New Yorker. His “Examining Joey Kocur’s Hand” appeared in the magazine’s Talk of the Town pages on April 24, 1995. Wilkinson attends to some biographical preliminaries first —

He is six feet tall and weighs two hundred and ten pounds. His face is small, he has high cheekbones, a strong jaw, a gap between his front teeth, and a boyish and malevolent expression. Kocur grew up in Saskatchewan, on the Western Canadian prairie. He is of a physical type occasionally described in hockey circles as a hay baler; that is, he has the broad-back, slope-shouldered build of a farmer. On the Rangers, he occupies the position of enforcer, which obliges him to deliver the team’s response when one of its stars has been handled rudely by the opposition.

— before getting down to business:

Eleven seasons of hockey fights have built up sufficient scar tissue between the wrist and the knuckles that the skin there is taut and shiny and smooth. It feels like linoleum. Because of how tightly the skin is stretched, it can no longer be gathered and stitched. Here and there on his fingers and around his knuckles are dozens of small white scars, like the marbling in a piece of meat. Between the first and second knuckles is a long, thin surgical scar that was left after a tendon that had split down the middle was repaired. A crude, winding trenchlike scar begins between the two other knuckles and runs nearly to the wrist, the result of emergency surgery to control a staph infection. Kocur had cut his hand on another’s player’s teeth, and the doctor had stitched the wound without cleansing it thoroughly. ‘A day later, I woke up with my arm swelled to nearly the size of my leg,’ Kocur says.

George Vecsey talked to Tie Domi. Like McCarty, he’d played against and fought Kocur and skated with him as a teammate. “Joey’s still got the big bomb,” he confided. “I don’t come from the South Pole, like Joey does.”

One punch, Wilkinson wrote, was all that Kocur hoped to land:

He grabs an opponent with his left hand and tries to pull him nearer at the same time that he launches his right from somewhere down by his hip or behind his back. It is unusual for a player to be injured in a hockey fight, but it is not unusual for a player to be injured fighting Kocur. It is sometimes said of him, “When Joey hits people, they stay hit.”

“The hand has never been broken,” Kocur told Vecsey; “just a couple of scrapes here and there.”

Johnette Howard was reporting back in 1990 that doctors were already telling Kocur to expect arthritis and calcium deposits in his punching fist. “Put it this way,” he said, “I’ll never play piano.”Howard also told the fuller tale of the damage done in 1985, when Kocur ended up in the hospital bed pictured above:

He split the hand open during a 1985 minor league game in Halifax, when he knocked out a six-three, two-hundred-pound Nova Scotia defenseman named Jim Playfair.

In the dressing room later, a doctor needed forty stitches to close the gash. But when the rest of the team came off the ice, Kocur got some good news, too: The Red Wings had called him up to the NHL.

The next morning, Kocur took the first plane out and flew all day. He checked into a hotel in Detroit, then spent an excruciating, sleepless night watching his right arm balloon to three times its normal size. When sunrise finally came, he got to the rink early for the Wings’ morning skate. But a trainer noticed the new kid was wearing only one glove. The team doctor was summoned, then a hand surgeon, too.

“This was about 2 p.m.,” Kocur says, “and the next thing I knew, they got me a hospital room, got me an IV. I was in major surgery by five P.M.”

Because doctors in Halifax didn’t realize Kocur had cut his hand on Playfair’s teeth, they sewed the wound shut, preventing it from draining and allowing infection to take hold. Just a day and a half later, the poisoned tendons and tissue between Kocur’s third and fourth knuckles had already begun to rot.

When he emerged from a morphine-induced cloud two weeks after surgery, doctors explained what had happened. “If I’d waited even one more day, they might have had to amputate my whole right arm,” Kocur says.

And how did that make him feel?

“Well,” Kocur says, “it made me realize how bad I want to play hockey.”

Following, a chronological survey of some of the rest of the literature of Joey Kocur’s piteous hands: Continue reading

the man in the nhl’s first mask: not clint benedict?

hainsworth hopital

Head Case: George Hainsworth, battered Canadiens goaltender, rests in his hospital bed after his friendly fire incident in January of 1929.

It’s settled in, now, rooted deep enough that feels like permanent truth: whereas Jacques Plante in 1959 is the acknowledged trailblazer when it comes to goaltenders wearing a mask in the NHL — the man who changed everything in that department — Clint Benedict did, of course, get there before him, donning a mask of his own in February of 1930.

That’s how it’s rendered in the hockey literature — in the new edition, for example, of Saving Face (2015), a handsome history of hockey masks Jim Hynes and Gary Smith, or in the goalie-focussed edition that The Hockey News put out in December.

But maybe was Benedict not the first goaltender to mask himself in an NHL game? Could a damaged Montreal rival of his have beaten him to it by almost a year, viz. George Hainsworth of the Canadiens? If so, this would be news. But is it true?

The evidence that I’ve come across is tantalizing, if not exactly conclusive. Here’s how it goes:

In 1959, it was a vindictive backhander by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that changed everything for Montreal’s Jacques Plante. Once he’d stopped the puck with his face and had his cuts stitched, he returned to the ice with his famous mask in place — what the next day’s Montreal Gazette called “a flesh-colored helmet, with slits for his eyes and mouth.”

In 1930, Clint Benedict suffered head wounds in successive games — followed by a 15-game absence — before returning to the ice with mask in place to patrol the net for the Montreal Maroons.

First up, on January 4, Boston’s Dit Clapper broke in on a third period rush and his shot knocked Benedict out cold. Revived, he went to the dressing room to collect himself. Ten minutes later, he was back to finish the game.

Three nights later, Maroons and Canadiens, it was Howie Morenz who brought the puck towards Benedict’s net. His first-period shot flew high and hit the goaltender, as Horace Lavigne of La Patrie wrote it, with incredible violence. Lavigne thought the goaltender jumped to stop the puck — just before he dropped “like a lead weight.” There was plenty of blood and this time when Benedict departed the ice, he went to the hospital to be tended for a broken nose and a cut that needed seven stitches to close.

The Maroons did have a second goaltender, Flat Walsh, but he was himself indisposed that night — at home, suffering under a fever of 102. Still, when the call from the Forum came, he got himself up, into a taxi, and over to the rink — where he arrived wearing a coat over his pyjamas. After a half-hour’s hiatus, the game resumed with Walsh in the Montreal net.

Benedict, for his part, left the hospital as soon as he was able, heading back to the Forum to catch the end of the Maroons’ 2-1 win.

Protecting Device: Clint Benedict in his mask, 1930.

Protecting Device: Clint Benedict in his mask, 1930.

Walsh kept the net (with a little help from Abbie Cox) for a month after that. The infirmary report on Benedict spoke of a rest of three weeks or more: “His face is now swollen to such an extent that it is barely possible for him to open either eye.” February 20 was the date he got back: the Maroons were in New York for a game at Madison Square Garden against the Americans. This was the night he first wore his famous mask — a.k.a. “a large protector” (The Gazette). “Clint looked as if he had stepped out of the Dumas novel, ‘The Iron Mask,’ or in the modern manner, was appearing as a visitor from Mars.”

Benedict wore his mask for four more games after that — or three and a third. It’s often written that he discarded the mask after a game or two, but as Eric Zweig has written, that’s not so — what happened was that, five games after he returned, Benedict discarded hockey. Injured again in a game against Ottawa — someone fell on him, or cracked him on the mask, or both — he gave way again to Flat Walsh, who played the Maroons’ final four regular-season games as well as the team’s first-round playoff series, which was lost in four games to Boston.

Benedict didn’t, right away, say he was finished — with this “hoodoo season” behind him, he vowed, he’d be back. But come the fall, the Maroons decided that at the age of 38, he didn’t figure in their plans. There was regret in Montreal but maybe not overwhelming surprise. “Benny’s downfall,” explained The Canadian Press in November, “came towards the end of last season when he was hit in the face by a puck during a game here. His nose was badly smashed keeping him out of the game for several weeks. When he returned still with a protecting device on his face he found that he had lost some of his old ability to stop the tricky ones.”

 •••

George Hainsworth was the Canadiens goaltender on the night, January 7, 1930, when Morenz’s shot sent Benedict to the hospital.

He might have winced, or shuddered: possibly a stab of phantom pain in his nose made his eyes water. Hainsworth was 36, just a year younger than his rival down at the other end. But while the battered Maroons goaltender was nearing the end of his distinguished NHL career, Hainsworth was just getting going.

Leo Dandurand had signed him in the summer of 1926 from the WHL Saskatoon Sheiks and, after a brief tussle with the Toronto St. Pats, who believed they owned his rights, Hainsworth took to the Montreal net to succeed the late lamented Georges Vézina.

He proved a worthy successor, playing in every Canadiens game for the next three seasons, most of which were victories. In 132 regular-season games in those first three years, he had 49 shutouts. After Vézina’s death at the end of March of 1926, the NHL inaugurated a trophy in his name, for the league’s best goaltender, and Hainsworth won it for the first three years that it was awarded.

“Spry as a two-year-old” was a description applied to Hainsworth later in his NHL career; “cool and collected” was another. “A paragon of nonchalance,” advised The Chicago Tribune. “His utter sang froid in stopping the puck affords a rare thrill in hockey,” Montreal’s Gazette trilled. “His severest critic is his wife, who reads the newspapers reports of the games, and writes George in no uncertain terms what she thinks.”

But, for all his successes, were Canadiens loyalists slow to embrace him? Did they possibly not love him as much as they had loved Vézina? That’s what Ron McAllister suggests in the Hainsworth chapter he wrote in his popular compendium of profiles, Hockey Heroes (1949); it wasn’t until early in 1929 that the Montreal faithful finally learned to love Hainsworth. Which brings us, at last, to the (possible) case of Hainsworth’s pre-Benedict mask.

The night Montreal faithful learned to embrace their new(ish) goaltender was a Thursday, January 24, 1929, when the Canadiens hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Forum. The game ended in a 1-1, with Montreal winger Aurèle Joliat scoring the home team’s goal.

But before he fired that shot, Joliat unloosed another: in the warm-up he hit Hainsworth full in the face — an accident, of course, as much as it might have seemed like a rehearsal, or demonstration for his linemate Morenz showing how to go about it in a year’s time.

Hainsworth bled and, as Le Canada reported, bled. While Canadiens’ physician Dr. John Corrigan did his best to stanch the flow, he found that the nose was broken. While the doctor dressed the wound, the team’s management saw to it that an announcement went out over Forum loudspeakers: would Hughie McCormick please present himself, if he happened to be in the house?

McCormick was a practice goalie for the Canadiens, a former minor-league guardian of nets, whose story is worth a telling on another day. He didn’t answer the Forum call, though. If Hainsworth was thinking of taking the night off to recover from Joliat’s friendly fire, he now changed his mind. “Courageous,” Le Canada wrote, “Hainsworth insisted on resuming his place. Dr. Corrigan gave him a preliminary dressing and he played the entire game.

If not for him, said the Gazette, who knows how Montreal would have withstood Toronto’s onslaught. “His sterling work in the middle session probably saved the Flying Frenchmen from defeat, for in the middle session the Leafs swarmed all over the local team.” One eye was swollen nearly shut; after the game, he went by ambulance to Notre Dame Hospital. Still, Dr. Corrigan told reporters that he was confident that the goaltender would be ready to play two nights hence, when the Canadiens went to play in Ottawa.

Can we pause here for a moment to consider the season that Hainsworth was having at this point? This was the year he recorded 22 shutouts in 44 regular-season games. Before Joliat broke his face for him, Hainsworth had slammed the proverbial door in 11 of 25 games, including four of the five leading up to the Toronto game.

In case Hainsworth couldn’t play in Ottawa, the Canadiens got permission from the NHL to use Hughie McCormick. There was also talk of calling in a young goaltender who’d practiced with the team in the pre-season, Alex Bolduc. At the hospital, X-ray confirmed Dr. Corrigan’s diagnosis: Hainsworth’s nose was fractured. Canadiens coach Cecil Hart was, all the same, holding out hope that his goaltender would be on the ice in Ottawa.

Hainsworth himself didn’t have any doubt. On Friday, a reporter from La Patrie dropped in on him at the hospital, room 512. “It was with exquisite urbanity that Hainsworth received your representative,” the visitor wrote. It wasn’t the first time, Hainsworth said, that he’d taken a smack to the head. Back when he’d played for the Saskatoon Sheiks, a shot had smashed seven teeth: “But I stayed in my position anyway.” Another time, he’d taken a ball to the temple, playing baseball: “I had a cerebral concussion.” His face still hurt from Joliat’s shot, he told the reporter. Still, he didn’t mind posing for a photograph in his sick-bed, even as he insisted that he would be leaving it soon. “I want to go to Ottawa, and I am able to play tomorrow night,” he said. “I am able to play and I do not want to hear that the Canadiens have departed tomorrow afternoon without me.”

hainsAt some point on Friday he did check himself out. He felt well enough, it seems, to head for a rink — an artist for La Patrie caught him at the Mont-Royal Arena watching from the penalty bench as a local senior team, Montreal St. Francois Xavier, went through its practice paces.

Saturday Hainsworth travelled to Ottawa with his teammates and he played, as promised, as the Canadiens beat the Senators 2-1. It was the second game in a row in which he’d allowed a goal — Frank Finnigan beat him — but Hainsworth earned only praise and sympathy in the press. “Alert,” The Globe called him; “Hainsworth was just fine,” La Patrie noted. His view must have been impaired the bandage he wore over his nose (“a heavy plaster,” The Globe called it), but he was his usual stalwart self. The Ottawa Journal: “Hainsworth in the nets didn’t show any effects from his broken nose if his stopping was any criterion.”

The Canadiens trained down to New York next for a pair of games at Madison Square Garden to start the new week. The first of these, Monday night, was a make-up game against the Rangers, defending Stanley Cup champions. The two teams had originally been scheduled to meet on January 8, but promoter and Rangers’ founder Tex Rickard had died, and the game was postponed to honour him.

The crowd was small, about 5,000. Many of the spectators spent much of the second and third periods jeering the home team. On the ice, the game was “bitterly fought,” The New York Times said. Referees Jerry Laflamme and Eddie O’Leary called many penalties, including a charging major against Bill Cook, his third of the season. When Armand Mondou scored the game’s only goal, the Canadiens had a four-on-three man advantage. The Rangers thought they’d scored a tying goal, through Leo Bourgeault, who (The Times):

… crashed the disk past Hainsworth, only to have the shot disallowed as the crowd booed. Bourgault was all alone at the rival net, and though the spectators thought the goal had been made the ruling was that it had hit the top bar and did not fall into the net.

At the finish it remained Canadiens 1, Rangers 0.

This January 28 game is the one in which Hainsworth may have worn some kind of protective mask to guard his wounded nose — which, again, would ante-date Clint Benedict’s famous face-guard by more than a year.

Unless there was no Hainsworth mask: the evidence I’ve come across comes down to a single reference in a single newspaper account.

In the ten reports of the game I’ve looked at, there are several mentions of Hainsworth injured nose, most of which refer to a save he made with it. Montreal Gazette was one of these, running an Associated Press dispatch that mentions a combined attack by the brothers Cook: “Hainsworth saved at the expense of a blow on his nose, broken less than a week ago.” La Patrie mentions this, too, while commending Hainsworth’s all-around play (“merveilleux,” “superbe,” “solide”). When Rangers’ coach Lester Patrick sent out five forwards in the third period in an attempt to tie the score, “Hainsworth had to make miracles.”

Two New York papers go into more detail — it’s just that the details don’t agree.

Grover Theis wrote up the game for the Times. “When the two teams skated out on the ice,” he remarked, “the most striking thing was that Hainsworth had a piece of plaster from one side of his face to the other.” He went on:

He was hurt in practice, but the goalie was undaunted by the handicap, because he stood up in the face of the first Ranger assaults with real courage and stopped several hard shots that the Ranger forward line carried against him.

On the beat for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was Harold C. Burr, an enthusiastic hockey correspondent with a vivid style. Here’s his overview of the game:

Not a spectator dared leave until the final whistle. One goal really decided it, but there was much ado before and after it. Once the playing surface was swept practically clean of Rangers. Frank Boucher tied the score, yet didn’t, in one man’s opinion. Excitable Frenchmen hugged and kissed on the ice. The crowd did everything but mob the referees. And Bill Cook drew his third damaging major penalty.

Quite a game, by and large, once everybody got their mad up.

“Les Canadiens sent some cripples into the melting pot,” he continued:

Howie Morenz reported with an ailing ankle and Goalie George Hainsworth wore from ear to ear a rubber protector across the bridge of a nose broken in practice at Montreal last week. But Morenz ran into a blue pocket with a tightening draw-string every time he attempted to advance and Hainsworth’s nose was in danger only once.

It was when rubber met rubber. The goalie was hit in the face by a high shot from Bill Cook’s weapon of wood. He put up both hands as if blinded. Both Cook brothers put their arms around him. But his mask had literally saved his face.

So there it is. A rubber protector. His mask. More than merely a passing reference, Burr’s is a very specific description And yet he remains all alone in his specificity. Assuming he wasn’t the only one to spy this mask of Hainsworth’s, could he really have been the only man on the reporting job to deem it worth a mention? Continue reading