Hockey cards or chocolate bars? Growing up in Nova Scotia, Ken Reid always knew the answer to the question.
“I remember as a kid my grandfather giving me 25 cents and I’d walk down Union Street in Pictou,” Reid told Curtis Rush of The Toronto Star in 2014. “I’d go to Mr. Fraser’s corner store and the decision was always easy. I could look at candy or I’d look at a pack of cards. To me, it was always a pack of cards.”
Reid lives in Toronto now, where he co-anchors the weeknight prime-time edition of Sportsnet Central with Evanka Osmak. If his hockey-card collection has grown over the years — it’s an accumulation, now, of more than 40,000 — his love of sports is what it always has been: intense. In a career in media spanning 20 years, he’s covered Grey Cups and Super Bowls, Olympics, and Stanley Cup finals. His books are all hockey-minded: he followed Hockey Card Stories: True Tales from Your Favourite Players (2014) with One Night Only: Conversations with the NHL’s One-Game Wonders (2016). For his latest, published this fall, he collaborated with an eponymous prolific former Washington Capital on Dennis Maruk: The Unforgettable Story of Hockey’s Forgotten 60-Goal Man.
Today, as part of Puckstruck’s ongoing series, Ken Reid recalls his first brush with NHL hockey.
The thought of seeing real life NHLers live and in colour was always a childhood dream for me — and when I say dream I mean dream. I grew up in Pictou, Nova Scotia. Basic geography tells you that’s a long way from any NHL rink, especially for a hockey-obsessed 10-year-old.
In fact, my grade 5 teacher Mrs. MacLean, even wrote a message in my yearbook: “You’ll get to see the Canadiens at the Forum one day.”
It turns out that one day was a very long two years later. Two years is a snap of the fingers for an adult, but an eternity for a kid. After years of prodding, we finally broke my Dad down. He was going to take my brother Peter and me to the Forum to see our first NHL game. (I went to an exhibition game in Nova Scotia a year earlier, but it was in a local rink, so I considered this to be the real deal.)
Peter and I hopped on a plane for the first time. We flew to Montreal with Dad and checked in to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
That night, Saturday, March 14, 1987, we saw the Montreal Canadiens play the Philadelphia Flyers.
The ice was so white. And so far away. We were at the top of the Forum, way up behind one of the nets. I remember having to bend down to see the play at the other end of the ice.
But I was there. The NHL was right in front of me. I couldn’t get over how clean the Forum was. And the building had escalators. Escalators in a rink! I can’t recall who won off the top of my head — although a quick check on the web tells me the game ended in a 3-3 tie. More than just the game sticks out — things like strolling Saint Catherine’s Street with my brother and Dad quickly come to mind. My brother and I were terrified of the big city on day one. By day two, we couldn’t get enough of it. And Dad took us to eat at the famous Bar-B-Barn.
On the Sunday night we saw Team Canada ’72 and the USSR play in a 15th anniversary game at the Forum. Then Monday, we were in the expensive seats for the Habs and the New York Islanders. We didn’t have to bend down in our seats to see the action that night: it was all mere feet away.
I was 11 years old and in heaven at the Forum. Thanks, Dad.
Saturday night’s Flyers game saw goaltender Ron Hextall play his best game in weeks, according to the Philadelphia papers. The Flyers were riding high atop the NHL’s Patrick Division; Canadiens were second in the Adams. Canadiens got goals from Mats Naslund, Guy Carbonneau, and Claude Lemieux. Dave Poulin, Mark Howe, and Scott Mellanby scored for Philadelphia to take the game into a fruitless overtime.
The ’72 game that Ken Reid saw on the Sunday night was the middle game in a three-game series pitting an assemblage of oldtimers most of whom had played in the epic Summit Series against a similarly staffed touring team of Russians. The latter, featuring Vladislav Tretiak, Valery Vasiliev, and Aleksandr Yakushev, had trained for three months ahead of the rematch; the Canadians, coached by Winnipeg Jets’ GM John Ferguson, were described in several newspaper reports as “mostly overweight and over 40.” Paul Henderson was there from the original squad, along with Mavoliches Pete and Frank, Dennis Hull, Serge Savard, Ron Ellis, Bobby Clarke, Brad Park, Rod Gilbert, Bill White, Red Berenson, and Yvan Cournoyer. (Ken Dryden had offered to play defence, but management had turned him down.)
The Canadians won the opening game in Hamilton by a score of 6-5, with Clarke, the 37-year-old Flyers GM, leading away with a pair of Flyer ringers as his wingers, Reggie Leach and Bill Barber. With Ken Reid watching in Montreal, a 41-year-old Jacques Lemaire took a break from his day job as Canadiens’ assistant GM to register a goal and two assists in a 6-2 Canadian win. The final game, in Ottawa, finished in a tie, 8-8. Yvan Cournoyer, 43, scored a hattrick for Canada. “After 15 years,” he said, “we realized that they are nice people, and maybe they realized that we are nice people.”
The New York Islanders were running second to the Flyers in the Patrick Division. Monday night saw Canadiens blank them 3-0 on the strength of Brian Hayward’s first shutout in four years. Gaston Gingras, Ryan Walter, and Claude Lemieux scored for Montreal.
I always thought I was. Even now, today, put me in front of a tabletop hockey game and I’ll be working those rods with same desperation as I did as a seven-year-old. Shunting those damned rods forward to shift those tin wingers down their little rink-grooves as though I could force them to finesse as the puck that wasn’t even a puck skittered away to that dead spot behind the net that was out of range for every player on the not-ice.
And still, as it was back in the rec room, I’m always only ever a flicker of the wrist away from alchemizing all that shoving and ricocheting into actual stickhandling and deking.
This is going back to the early 1970s when I first took up at table-hockey in the basement in Peterborough, Ontario. I was — six? seven? My older brother wouldn’t play, wasn’t interested. I probably volunteered my sister to duty, but she would have been too young to appreciate the responsibility involved in pushing around her Don Levers and Bobby Schmautzes with serious enough intent to make the game worth my while.
So it would have been up to my parents. They were patient if not always entirely willing. I was — obviously; always — Montreal.
Donald Munro started it all, table-hockeywise. That’s the story. In Toronto, 1932, in the dimlit Depression, he built the first mechanical hockey game as a Christmas present for his children. Coathangers and butcher’s twine figure into the telling, lumber cadged from coalbins. Then Munro built more, sold them at Eaton’s. It was more of a pinball affair in those years, with a flipper standing in for Charlie Conacher on the wooden wing, a ball-bearing pretending to be a puck.
By the time I got my Munro in the early 1970s, the game had developed without really having evolved. For all the molded plastic and bright NHL colours, the aesthetic was still fairly coathanger. I did love the flat simplicity of the players, even though, disappointingly, none of their grinning faces resembled any of the Canadiens I knew from TV. I was fond of the tiny nets, too, which I’d unmoor and carry with me, sometimes, just in case.
My Munro was a basic model, I think. The old ads I’m looking at show the Bobby Orr edition (regularly priced in 1972 at $29.95) and the Bobby Hull ($16.95). I don’t know that mine was Bobby-branded, though. The “working scoretower with puck-dropper” on the basic Coleco ($11.97) sounds familiar. “Pass, shoot, block and check — complete hockey fun,” the Munro ads promise; “over 1,000 square inches of exciting, action hockey.”
It wasn’t, though, was it? Yes, okay, I’ll accept there, from the physics point of view, that there was plenty of action. I’ll allow that there was much blocking and even, why not, the many inches — but there was never any hockey to the thing. No ice, no skates, nothing approximating a deke or shot, no rules, no penalties, no saves by the goalies. It was slow, rhythmless, much interrupted. It was only like hockey insofar as you could bring your imagination to bear to conjure Cournoyer and Lemaire and Dryden doing what they did and you couldn’t. There was risk in that, too, though: watching the actual Habs on Hockey Night in Canada, I’d find myself muttering at flesh-and-blood #29 for the 16 soft goals he’d allowed down in the rec room. Some of them, he’d hardly even moved.
I’m not saying it wasn’t fun. Frustratingly, and for hours and hours, it was fun.
Michael Winter played in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. He grew up there, and goes back. A couple of years ago when he was home he quarried out his old Munro, packed it up, flew it to Toronto. Now he and his son now sometimes carry on in the cause of trying to emancipate those poor old wingers.
I e-mailed Winter when I saw this painting of his. Pretty sure this is the same model I had in Peterborough, I wrote, the one where the puck slotted so pleasingly into the top of the gondola before, after a moment, dropping in for the opening face-off.
He wrote back:
I’m astonished at how my old instincts and training have kicked in, defeating the youngster with passes using finger-twirl muscles I haven’t activated in forty years.
I believe it’s a Munro 1974 model, though I could be off a year or two.
It comes with four teams: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Buffalo.
Yes, it has that very satisfying drop of the puck from gondola.
I found it under the stairs in the basement last time I went to Corner Brook.
Air Canada managed to break a corner of it during transport to Toronto, but I’ve patched it. Serge Savard, when he’s digging out the puck, says he doesn’t mind.
Read Winter’s book Into The Blizzard: Walking The Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, I suggest. For scores and updates, find him on Twitter @michaelwinternet34 , or (and) on Instagram, @michaelwinternet.
They called it the plague and the creeping crud, but mostly it was known, and feared, as the gunk: a virulent and strange oozing rash that afflicted players across professional hockey in the late 1970s and into the ’80s, forcing several of them out of the game altogether. With today’s news that Chicago Black Hawks’ winger Marian Hossa will be forced to sit out the 2017-18 NHL season due to “a progressive skin disorder,” a look back at a pestilence past.
“It’s a mystery,” was the diagnosis of Montreal Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman. Doctors called it contact dermatitis, but even they were largely baffled by what exactly it was they were dealing with. “We don’t know what’s going on completely,” a lead investigator, dermatologist Dr. William Schorr, confessed in 1976. By then, an estimated 70 NHL players were suffering, along with uncounted others in junior and minor leagues.
The NHL decided it wasn’t concerned enough by the outbreak to mount its own investigation. “It’s the type of thing the individual clubs themselves would have to be involved in,” executive director Brian O’Neill told The New York Times while Dr. Schorr puzzled over symptoms. By 1979, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta was getting ready to start a study of the rash.
No word on where that went. Back in the rinks, most cases of the rash resembled psoriasis, sometimes in its later stages oozing a yellow pus. Often it started on the hands before spreading (or “erupting,” as The Times put it) wherever the player’s body came in contact with his equipment. Was dirty old gear to blame, dyes, detergents, tanning agents from leather? Theories abounded. Was it a nervous condition related to the anxiety of scoring droughts and playoff pressures? A reaction to Zamboni fumes? Fibreglas from sticks? As dermatologists treating players agreed that the rash wasn’t communicable, team trainers struggled to curb it while doing their best to minister to gunk victims with cortisone-based ointments.
Guy Lapointe, Lou Nanne, Bill Clement, Rick Vaive, and Dennis Polonich. Players from across the league were afflicted, using all different brands of equipment.
Canadiens centreman Jacques Lemaire ended up spending a week in hospital in the early ’70s. “They had me bathing in lotion,” he told the Times. “They had to put me on sleeping pills every night, the itching was so bad.”
A dermatologist was able to help Clark Gillies of the New York Islanders clear up his rash. “He said it was something to do with bleach and detergent and the nylon in the equipment,” he said. Meditation helped another Islander, defenceman Jean Potvin, when nothing else would. “I know I was a lot more relaxed and I never had any of I again. I have to think it’s a nerve symptom.”
None had it worse than Tom Reid. A defenceman who started his career with the Chicago Black Hawks, he went on to ply the blueline for ten years as a Minnesota North Star before finding himself gunked out of the game in 1978.
“It was a gradual thing,” he told me a year or so ago when I stopped in at the bar he owns in St. Paul, Minnesota, not far from the Minnesota Wild’s home rink. “It started about the size of a dime on my arm. Then it got bigger. It went down my side and it just started to spread. As soon as I was off the ice, in two weeks it was gone. If I came back to the ice, play a few games, it would come right back again.”
“We changed equipment. They covered me in creams, they covered the equipment. I changed underwear, t-shirt, after the warm-up, at the end of every period — it just got worse.”
He was getting pills, injections of steroids. He spent 11 days in hospital to start off the 1975-76 season. At one point, he said at the time, he was getting 30 shots a day to help in the relief effort.
“It was pretty painful. It was at the point where my whole side was just pus. They couldn’t figure out what it was. I’d be wrapping towels around my body, which helped — the problem was when I had to take the towels off. I couldn’t sleep — for a while I was sleeping sitting upright in a wooden chair. A few other guys on the North Stars had it. Doug Rombough had a little bit of it, Lou Nanne had some, so a few guys — not like I had it. It forced me out of the game. It got to the point by the end where they couldn’t give me any more cortisone. I had to retire.”
It was ten years later before doctors came up with anything resembling an answer to the gunk mystery — too late for Reid’s career. In 1988, a member of the Edmonton Oilers’ medical staff was one of those who discovered that one of the causes had to do with the use of formaldehyde in the manufacture of equipment as a way of preventing mildew and maintaining colour.
“Once we figured out that was the problem, we had a good, quick solution to it,” Dr. Don Groot told The National Post in 2000. This one: the addition of a cup of powdered milk to the second rinse cycle of a wash, he said, seemed to do away with both the formaldehyde and the gunk it bred.
(A version of this post appeared previously at http://www.lockerroomdoctor.com.)
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
“It’s a good squad over there, from the back all the way up,” Vancouver’s Brandon Prust was saying yesterday, ahead of his team’s meeting with Montreal tonight. “They’re off to a good start and we’re going to try and ruin it for them.”
Prust, a rebarbative winger, used to play for the Canadiens, until he was traded west in the summertime, so I guess that under the law of sports narratives, he has something to prove. If he scores the goal that beats Montreal, will that have proved whatever that something might be? What about if he gets into a fight?
The start to which Prust was referring involves the numbers 9 and 0 and 0. It has the writers of news headlines warming to words like sizzling (The Windsor Star) and red-hot (Sportsnet.ca) and, today, (The Gazette) making history and winning juggernaut.
If the Canadiens do prevail tonight, they will match a feat achieved only twice before in NHL history. The Buffalo Sabres went 10-0-0 in the first weeks of the 2006-07 season, as did the Toronto Maple Leafs to get the 1993-94 season underway.
I probably don’t have to mention that neither of those teams won a Stanley Cup to end off those bright-dawning seasons. This year, the Canadiens are doing their best not to get ahead of themselves. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Brendan Gallagher, a winger with nettlesome qualities of his own, was telling Postmedia columnist Cam Cole yesterday. “Hopefully by the end of the year we’re where we want to be. But that’s too far down the road to think about right now.”
“I know people will talk about records and all that stuff,” said P.K. Subban in Cole’s Vancouver Sun preview, “but we’re not focused on going 10-for-10. We’re not going to be the ones leading that parade. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: all we’ve accomplished is to have a good start to the season.”
In 1993, when the Leafs beat Chicago to record their tenth straight victory, winger Glenn Anderson was a little more unguarded. “Ten in a row,” he said, “wow. That’s going to be a tough one to beat. I’m just speaking for myself, but there’s no way I thought this team could get off to a start like this. It’s all heart, desire and dedication that’s getting us through, because the talent we have is nowhere near what some other teams have.”
The Canadiens were the ones to end the Leafs’ streak that year, with a 5-2 victory at the Forum. A few days earlier, Montreal had put an end to the New Jersey Devils’ eight-game winning streak, too, beating them 2-0. According to New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire, the decisive factor was Montreal goaltender Patrick Roy. “He’s the best goaltender in the NHL,” the former Habs’ centreman said, “and he proved it again tonight.”
Apropos nothing other than the program cover depicted above, the 1970-71 Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in a season they started with a mere four successive wins. They then lost three, tied, won another, before meeting Vancouver in the tenth game of the season. That October night, the Canadiens beat the visiting Canucks, 6-3.