Phil Watson’s credentials as an NHL coach were forged out of a 13-year NHL career as a rumbustious right winger, all but one season of which he spent with the New York Rangers. Born in Montreal on a Friday of this same date in 1914, Watson took up behind the bench the year after he hung up stick and skates in 1948, at first with the New York Rovers, then of the QSHL, and later with the QJHL’s Quebec Citadelles.
In 1955, a 42-year-old Watson succeeded Muzz Patrick as coach of the Rangers. Pictured here is the end of his first campaign, which came on a March night in 1956. On their way to another Stanley Cup that season, the Canadiens dispensed with Watson’s Rangers in five first-round games, completing the job with a 7-0 demolition at the Forum.
Doug Harvey, Henri Richard, and Dickie Moore each scored a pair of goals; the shutout was Jacques Plante’s. The Gazette described the moment we’re seeing here: “When the siren sounded to end the game the Ranger players shook hands with their conquerors. Then Phil Watson and Toe Blake, the rival coaches, met at centre ice. Toe took off his hat when he received Watson’s congratulations. The crowd liked it and roared approval.”
Watson steered the Rangers through five not-specially-glorious seasons before he was fired midway through the 1959-60 season. He would go on to coach the Boston Bruins for another two seasons in the early 1960s. His coaching finale came a decade after that when he took charge of the WHA’s Philadelphia/Vancouver Blazers for two seasons in the ’70s.
Back when Gay Talese was writing hockey dispatches for The New York Times, he caught up to Watson after a game against the Boston Bruins. This was October of 1958; Watson explained the situation this way:
“My club is like a new car that has little things wrong with it. We got trouble with the windshield wipers, squeaks in the rear, and brakes need adjusting. It’ll take 10,000 miles to break this club in. In Boston I had piston trouble and we’re tied, 4-4. They also had the referee on their side.”
The second day of September was a Saturday in 1972, and in Montreal the forecast called for the morning’s sun to give way to clouds and afternoon showers with no chance whatever, come the evening hours, for a Soviet win over our invincible homegrown hockey heroes.
It’s 48 years ago today that the momentous Summit Series first hit the ice, at Montreal’s famous Forum. For Canadians, nothing went as it was supposed to that night, of course, with the good guys ending up on the wrong end of a 7-3 rout. For a sense of just how much that result dazed and confused the nation, I’ll refer you to the prophecies that hockey’s non-Russian cognoscenti were making on the morning of that shocking day, weighing in with predictions for the eight-game series.
“Canada will win handily,” ventured Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell; “they might lose one in Moscow. Say seven to one.”
Mark Mulvoy, from Sports Illustrated, was just as generous: “Canada, seven to one.”
“Here’s a flatly positive that Canada will win at least seven of the eight games,” wrote Southam columnist Jim Coleman. “This prediction isn’t based on flag-waving chauvinism. This is a cold-blooded prognostication.”
Foster Hewitt, who’d be up in the gondola on play-by-play when he puck dropped: “Canada’s two goals a game better. It looks like eight to nothing Canada.”
“The NHL team will slaughter them in eight straight,” advised Gerald Eskenazi from The New York Times.
Toronto Maple Leafs’ goaltender Jacques Plante agreed: “Eight straight for Canada.”
Fran Rosa, from Boston’s Globe? “Eight to nothing Canada — and that’s the score of the first game.”
Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes had placed his bet a few days earlier. “Make it Canada eight games to zero. If the Russians win one game, I will eat this column shredded at high noon in a bowl of borscht on the front steps of the Russian embassy.”
To his credit, if not his digestive delight, Beddoes was true to his word, and took his soup a few days later.
Fling a waffle to the ice in Toronto in the early decades of this parlous young century of ours and chances are you’ll end up kicked to the Bay Street curb and banned for ever more from the premises. Lobbing a catfish you happen to have been carrying around in your underwear in Pittsburgh may well get you arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, possessing instruments of crime, and disrupting meetings and processions.
Maybe, in Pittsburgh, the charges won’t go forward. The outrage associated with the waffle and what it represents will, in time, fade away, even if the ban persists. The overall message, though, is clear: today’s NHL (or, I guess, yesterday’s) has decided that the time has come to break hockey’s vivid tradition, long and lustily favoured by fans, of expressing themselves by hurling whatever they might have at hand at the ice.
Fans were throwing stuff well before 1917, but it was in the NHL that the practice truly evolved into (a messy, disruptive, and often dangerous) art form. In Montreal, fans used to toss toe rubbers by the dozens to express their approval of the all-conquering Canadiens; in Chicago, live rabbits, dead squirrels, whisky bottles, and a life-sized dummy of Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich used to rain from the upper balconies of the old Chicago Stadium. Cataloguing hockey’s debris is an ongoing effort — evidence of my attempt to keep is in my 2014 book, Puckstruck, and peppered across this site, here and here and over here. And if, at some point, it becomes clear that the stuff that’s thrown sometimes goes the other way, from the ice to the stands? I think we have to look into that, too. Why not now?
Today is, after all, Bernie Parent’s 75th birthday. Born in Montreal on a Tuesday of this date in 1945, Parent had just 26 back in 1971 as his Toronto Maple Leafs headed into an opening-round playoff quarter-final against the New York Rangers.
Parent had already been a Philadelphia Flyer at this stage of his career. A trade had brought him to Toronto in February of ’71. He stay another season in Toronto before decamping to the WHA’s Philadelphia Blazers and, thereafter, back to the Flyers. It was in this second stint in Philadelphia that Parent was instrumental in the Flyers’ Stanley Cup triumphs of 1974 and ’75, as he won (let’s not forget) Vézina and Conn Smythe trophies in both those years.
But back to the Leafs in ’71: Parent was sharing the net that year with a 42-year-old Jacques Plante. It was Plante who started the first game of the playoffs early that April at Madison Square Garden, a 5-4 loss. Parent got the call for the second game the following night, and in that one, the Torontonians roared back to even the series with a 4-1 win.
Both teams were feeling sourly on the night. In the second period, New York left winger Vic Hadfield roughed up Toronto defenceman Bob Baun, and vice-versa. Hadfield and Leafs forward Jim Harrison were penalized for punching each other, too. In the third, when those two clashed again, they started a brawl in the Toronto zone, at the Seventh Avenue end of the rink. In the foolery that followed, Parent made his way into the melee, where he got a hold of Hadfield, if only briefly — Rangers’ goaltender Ed Giacomin was quick to attend and haul Parent away.
At some point during these proceedings, Hadfield got hold of Parent’s mask and donated it to the Garden crowd.
“Hadfield ripped off my mask,” Parent said in the immediate aftermath, “and threw it into the crowd.”
That’s now how Hadfield recalled it.
“He jumped me from behind,” he said. “Then I saw the mask sitting there, so I just threw it. But I lost a glove, too. Somebody threw a glove of mine into the stands.”
Initially, Parent stuck to his story. “Hadfield took the mask off my head and threw it in the seats,” he insisted. Somewhere, somehow, the goaltender relented. “When things settled down,” Parent writes in Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!, his exclamatory 1975 autobiography, “Hadfield picked up my mask and threw it in the stands.”
On the night, MSG police did their best to recover the mask, but the fans weren’t interested: it was, as The New York Times noted, “passed along, bucket-brigade style, around half the Garden. Appeals for its return rang from the arena PA. “But,” as Dick Beddoes reported in the Globe and Mail, “exuberants among the demonstrative 17,250 fanatics chanted ‘Don’t give it back! Don’t give it back!’”
The Leafs’ 68-year-old vice-president, King Clancy, thought he might be able to help with the search, though he soon found himself in hostile territory, and ended up retreating to his seat near the Toronto bench.
“Hadfield throwing the mask away was the most childish thing I ever saw,” Clancy said. “Those things cost $150 and the Rangers have to pay for it.”
Parent did have a back-up mask, but it was at home, in Toronto.
“I wouldn’t continue in the game without the mask,” Parent wrote in his autobiography.
His coach, Johnny McClellan, didn’t blame him, even if others did. “Parent has played with a mask since he was a 12 years old,” he said after the game. “He has never been in the net without a mask in 13 years, so you’re not going to send a guy into the net without a mask. He could get a shot in the face and that’s it.”
So in went Plante, who knew what that was like — though, of course, in 1959, the Andy Bathgate shot he took in the face just before he donned his mask for the first wasn’tit. This time out, he was only called on to play the final 4:42 of the game, stopping two shots and preserving Toronto’s win.
Another brawl ensued 30 seconds after he’d stepped in, when the Leafs’ Jim Dorey engaged with New York’s Ted Irvine. Going to teammate Ron Ellis’ aid, Plante (by the account of the New York Daily News’ Dick Young) “skated over and began banging on [Glen] Sather’s head.” That brought Giacomin back: “skating the length of the rink and taking a flying leap onto Plante.”
Giacomin, for what it’s worth, wondered at the time that Parent didn’t continue bare-faced. “That’s what I would have done,” he said. “Hell, for four minutes, why let Plante credit?” Though, of course, Plante didn’t get the win; that went into the books as Parent’s.
“Some writers actually suggested I was a coward for not playing without the mask,” Parent recalled in his book, take up Johnny McClellan’s line. “This one New York writer even said I’d never be the same goalie again. In other words, this writer thought I was chicken. Bull. If I got hit not wearing a mask, I might really never be the same again. A goalie is putting his life on the line out there.”
With the series set to shift to Toronto, Leafs’ GM Jim Gregory put out an appeal. “If a guy who’s got a mask returns it, I’ll get him two tickets for Saturday’s game and pay his way to Toronto.”
In Toronto, meanwhile, NHL president Clarence Campbell visited a CBC studio to catch up on what had gone down in New York. The fact that the footage didn’t show Hadfield with the mask didn’t concern him too much: he said there was a standard $50 fine for throwing equipment overboards. “I wanted to get a general impression of what this affair looked like to the people who saw it there and on television,” Campbell said.
Upon further reflection, Campbell fined each team $5,000 — to that point, the largest bad-behaviour tax ever to be levied in the NHL. Further individual fines to players from New York added up to $3,300, including $400 to Giacomin for twice departing his crease. Toronto’s players were punished to the tune of $3,250, including $200 each to Plante and Parent for straying from their creases.
The missing mask was the one Parent had started using when he arrived in Toronto from Philadelphia. It was very comfortable — and happened to have been made by Fibrosport, Jacques Plante’s company, based in Magog, Quebec. The back-up Parent didn’t have in New York when he needed it was his old Flyers’ mask, which he’d used for about two years previously.
He didn’t have to revert to that one, as it turned out: with his connections, he relied on Plante getting on the telephone the morning after the night to call his Fibrosport partner, Marc Andre Beaudin, in Montreal. He in turn called in a couple of employees from their Good Friday holiday and got going on crafting a new model in time for Saturday’s game.
“The three of them would have to work all day to make the mask,” Plante said. “They would have the mold already, but there is a lot of work to making a hand-crafted mask.”
Saturday morning it was handed to an Air Canada pilot for the flight from Montreal to Toronto — the pilot, no less. Howard Starkman from the Leafs was there to retrieve it when it landed — he later went on to serve as PR director for the baseball Blue Jays — and he delivered it to Maple Leaf Gardens. Parent put it to use that night in helping defeat the Rangers by a score of 3-1.
The Leafs’ momentum didn’t last, though: with Parent and Plante and their respective masks sharing the net, the Rangers won the next three games to take the series and advance to play the Chicago Black Hawks.
That’s not quite the end of the story. There’s the part, too, about Vic Hadfield scoring a hat trick against Chicago at MSG towards the end of April, his first in the playoffs. Picking up one of the hats that landed on the ice in his honour, Hadfield put it on before skating to the boards and flinging it to the fans.
“I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,” he said. “I felt so good about scoring all those goals, I wanted to show my emotion. It was a tremendous feeling, one of the highlights of my career.”
As for Parent’s mask, Leafs’ VP Harold Ballard said he was invoicing the Rangers. “We should send the bill to Bill Jennings,” Ballard said, “but I guess we’ll send it to [New York coach and GM] Emile Francis — it’s his department.”
I can’t confirm whether any such paperwork was submitted. But Jennings, who was the president of the Rangers, did send a bill of his own to the Leafs in the amount of $175 — for Vic Hadfield’s bespoke glove, said to have been manufactured and specially sewn in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis’ hometown.
Ballard took it for a spoof. “At least,” he said, “I hope Jennings isn’t serious.”
The story might end there, which is to say right here, except for, no, sorry, there’s more.
Towards the end of that same April, the Chicago Tribune made fleeting mention of the mask’s having been returned to Parent by a 7-year-old boy. “It was mailed back to Bernie in a shoe box,” was how that story went, but no further.
That seems to be fanciful. In 2006, the mask did show up in a sports memorabilia auction, and then again in 2012, when a buyer, unnamed, decided the time had come to get the goaltender and his mask back together. Greg Wyshynski reported on this at the time for Yahoo! Sports — you can read about that here.
The old goaltender knew the mask he’d once worn the moment he set eyes on it, 41 years after Hadfield absconded with it. “Life is full of surprises,” Parent said. He only got to visit with the mask briefly, apparently: the owner’s plan was to keep it for himself, then donate it, posthumously, to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
What to make of the events of the last week? I can’t tell you that; I don’t know. We’re in trying times, and they’re frightening. Hold fast to the ones you love. That I can recommend. And: wash your hands. As for hockey, I’ll carry on telling its stories. Today’s recalls the week 24 years ago that the Montreal Canadiens took leave of the rink on Cabot Square that they’d called home for 72 years. It was on Monday dated March 11 that the Canadiens played their final game at the Forum, beating the visiting Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1. The late great Roger Doucet returned (via tape) to sing O Canada that night. Fifty-six former Canadiens were on hand, including 20 Hall-of-Famers, and the stirring pre-game ceremonies included a ten-minute ovation for Rocket Richard. I watched all this from high up in the rafters, where I was seated in the overflow press section, next to the man from The Jerusalem Post. He was working the game whereas I was just watching, and marvelling: the assignment for which I’d journeyed from Toronto was the next night, Tuesday. I’d convinced the features editor I worked with at The Financial Post that what he really needed, whether he knew it or not, were 1,800 words reporting on the public auction whereby the Canadiens sold off 145 Forum artifacts, some more historic than others. And so, having witnessed Monday’s game, I was back at the rink the following night to get my story. Four days later, as the Canadiens prepared to host the New York Rangers for the first game in their brand-new rink (then named for Molson’s, now known as the Bell Centre), my feature ran on page 22 of the weekend Post, up at the front of the FP Review section, under the headline “Bidding Farewell To The Forum.” It went like this:
MONTREAL — Bidder No. 99 was a man, fortyish, with a widened middle, glasses, and a diminished preserve of dark hair, strategically combed. For four hours on Tuesday night, while the Montreal Canadiens said so long to their beloved Forum by selling it off piece by selected piece at public auction, No. 99 sat in the front row, spending his money in amounts divisible by a thousand.
No. 99 turned out to be a computer consultant by the name of Marc Cooper, who’d come for his piece of the Forum from Manalapan, New Jersey. “I’m proud to be a Canadiens fan,” he said, like a politician speaking to voters whose backing he already had. “There’s only one team in sports like this.”
On the auction floor, Cooper sat within subtle-nodding distance of the auctioneer, Serge Belec, who ran the show at a frantic pace in two languages. Cooper didn’t look like a particularly happy man, but he seemed determined, and not uneasy with expenditure. A little later, it became clear just much how in earnest he was. If Guy Lafleur had wandered into, it’s entirely possible that Cooper would have stepped up with an offer to buy the legendary right winger to ornament his rec room. As it was, absent Lafleur, Tuesday’s was a C$75,000 night for Cooper. His wife, he said, was behind him all the way on this.
In all, about 1,000 people paid $35 to secure their bidding number and with it the chance to shell out for a souvenir of the most famous hockey there is. (Another 1,500 or so paid $5 each to watch these proceedings.) Mostly they were men; mostly they stayed out of the bidding once they learned what kind of money it was going to take to wrest a piece of history from the corner of Atwater and Ste. Catherine West.
The night before, a crowd of 17,959 had watched the Canadiens play the final game of their 72-year tenancy at the Forum, beating the visiting Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1 in the company of some of the greatest Canadiens ever to have worn the bleu, the blanc, the rouge. Fifty-six former Canadiens were on hand on Monday night, 20 Hall-of-Famers among them, including Maurice and Henri Richard, Butch Bouchard, Jean Béliveau, Elmer Lach, Frank Mahovlich, Lafleur, Bob Gainey, and Ken Dryden.
Tuesday night, No. 99 moved his buying power to the forefront early and kept on reiterating it. For $31,000 he bought Lot 22, the banner that had previously hung high in the Forum rafters to commemorate the first Stanley Cup the team won in the NHL era in 1923-24. Another $20,000 got him the net the Canadiens had defended during the first period the night before. For a further $5,000, Cooper scored a sturdy post festooned with four goal-lights that had reached the end of their Forum career. He spent $3,400 on a pair of tall grey metal dressing-room lockers wherein Canadiens Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse had until very recently parked their shoes and hang their trousers while they were out pursuing pucks.
Alongside Cooper, there were a couple of other big spenders. A bar owner from Laval, Quebec, snapped up the most recent Stanley Cup banner, from 1992-93, for $32,000. Somebody else spent $900 on one of the Forum’s newly decommissioned hotdog grills. For $4.70 a go, most everybody else bought a Molson Export and drank it slowly.
What was wrong with the venerable old Forum, which hosted 29 Stanley Cup finals over the years, 12 of which saw the Canadiens triumph, along with countless lesser glories, that the its end came nigh? After seven decades, it was still in good working order. Fatally, the Forum is an old rink in a new age that’s shaped largely along hard, profit-minded bottom lines. That’s why the Canadiens are moving not quite two kilometres to the east where a glimmering new rink, named Centre Molson for the owners of the team, awaits. Roomier than the Forum by 5,000 seats, it’s also more lucrative by a factor of several dozen additional corporate suites.
There’s no word yet on what’s become of the Forum now that the Canadiens are moving on. Optimists favour talk of a park that would preserve the ice-surface out-of-doors. Whatever happens, the building isn’t likely to survive. In recent weeks, some fans have made clear their willingness to help with the demolition: one handy devotee wrestled one of the Forum’s back-stiffening seats from its Section 111 moorings and carried it off — i.e. stole it — during a February 12 game.
The legal way to secure of the Forum’s 16,000-odd seats was to order one: starting in January, for prices ranging from $125 to $290 per seat (plus shipping), most of them went on sale, with delivery to follow in May. The rest of the Forum’s furniture — including oddments like the hot-dog grill and premium items like the seat from which then-NHL president Clarence Campbell watched the Richard Riot start to stir and explode in March of 1955 — was reserved for this week’s event.
Meanwhile, the official unmaking of the Forum by auction was sanctioned by Canadiens’ president Ronald Corey, with all proceeds to be divided between the United Way in Montreal and the association representing former Canadiens players.
In Montreal, some of the faithful bewailed the auction as soon as it was announced: wasn’t it bad enough crass commercialization had doomed the building itself without the sale of sacramental artifacts as the Stanley Cup banners that announced from the Forum’s rafters 24 Canadiens’ triumphs? Didn’t the tangibles of tradition mean anything? “We’d like to think those banners are more or less public property,” grumbled Montreal Gazette columnist Jack Todd, “given the amount of money and emotion Montrealers have invested in every one.”
“Now, thanks to Molson, any Westmount Trust Fund Baby can bid on the original 1944 Stanley Cup pennant.”
Sacred the banners may be, but Todd didn’t quite have it right: the ones lowered from on high to be auctioned date only to 1992, so whatever their sentimental value, there was nothing antique to them. In fact, the two-metre long pennants, none of which would sell fore less than $8,000 (the one from ’44 went for $10K), were the stuff of shower curtains: they were made, every one, from serviceable, ordinary plastic.
It’s customary before auctions for the public to be offered estimates on what an object will sell for. In anticipation of the estate of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in April in New York, for instance, Sotheby’s has issued a helpful shopping list advising prospective shoppers of the least they can expect to pay on a particular item: US$800 for a quiver of JFK’s golf clubs, a watercolour by John Singer Sargent for somewhere within shouting distance of $US125,000.
The catalogue for what the Canadiens called “The Forum’s Super Auction” offered no such guidelines, either because organizers wanted the market to establish its own boundaries on the night or because they had no standards against which to value most of what was on offer. There are experts to gauge the relative worth of a painting; there are even, apparently, some who can fix a price tag on a presidential putter. But how do you account for the value that true-heart fans will attach to otherwise everyday objects from a holy temple? What isa door to a players’ bench actually worth to the faithful? What price the puck that last Monday Canadiens’ winger Andrei Kovalenko scored the last-ever goal at the Forum?
Pre-auction intelligence had it that prices were going to run high. That’s what Marc Cooper was hearing, anyway. He came prepared to spend $100,000, most of which, he suspected, would go towards a single plastic Stanley-Cup banner. Word had it, too, that he’d be in competition with several prominent former Canadiens. Ex-coach Pat Burns was said to be interested in the players’ bench behind which he used to patrol. Meanwhile, the bench from and door to a penalty box were reported to be coveted by former Habs’ hard-heads Chris Nilan and John Ferguson. Colorado Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy left Montreal left Montreal in a hurry and a snit this past December, but he was said to be in the market for a piece of his Montreal past: the banner from the Canadiens’ — and his own — last Stanley Cup championship in 1992-93. He was said to be dispatching a representative to the auction to do his bidding.
As it turned out, the only former Hab to successfully pay it backwards was Hall-of-Fame winger Dickie Moore, who spent $650 on a small rink clock. On each of the 144 lots available on the night, auctioneer Serge Belec kept the pace of Doug Harvey on a powerplay rush, leaving no room for the hesitant of heart or wallet. “Give me four thousand,” he proclaimed at one point via his headset microphone, “or get outta town.”
In quick succession as the selling got going as the hour struck seven, Belec peddled a vintage ice with a wide red blade ($800), a turnstile ($1,800), a stick and a sweater, both autographed by Canadiens’ goaltender Jocelyn Thibault ($5,100), a Hab-branded lectern from the Forum press room ($8,000).
Pat Burns didn’t get his bench: after a short back-and-forth among dogged bidders, Montreal lawyer Louise Houle’s $6,000 won out. “I’ve got a little sports room in my basement,” she said afterwards. “It’s going straight in there. So far I’ve got Expos stuff. If I’m going to start in with hockey, I might as well start right.” She would be sitting on it, she said, along with “anyone who asks very politely.”
The door from the Canadiens’ dressing room fetched $11,500, Clarence Campbell’s red seat, $12,000.
Robert Vachon, a pharmacist from Valleyfield, Quebec, paid out a total of $25,000 for a clock and a banner he planned to raise in a bowling alley he was opening. Larry Harnish, a fisherman who’d made the journey from Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, came away having shelled out $2,000 for defenceman Lyle Odelein’s stick and sweater. He was going to display them, he said, on his living-room wall.
By night’s end, when Canadiens president Ronald Corey was proudly declaring a total take of $726,500, Marc Cooper figured that about ten percent of that was him. His Stanley Cup banner would be hanging — well, he wasn’t quite yet sure where it was going, he’d have to consult with his wife. The net with the glossy red goalposts? That would probably be headed for the basement back in New Jersey. His two sons, aged four and eight, were getting the lockers: they’d been asking for lockers.
Spending his $75,000 had left Cooper elated. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I just dreamed of coming to the Forum. Now to have so much of this history in my house is just great.”
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)
In Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, Quebec, not far from Shawinigan, Jacques Plante was born on a Thursday of this date in 1929. He remains, of course, an icon of hockey headgear, renowned for tuques and masks that his coaches (Dick Irvin and Toe Blake, respectively) didn’t want him wearing on the ice. In The Jacques Plante Story, a 1972 memoir he collaborated on with Andy O’Brien, the goaltender is quoted telling an interviewer, “My business is getting shot at.” By the end of the 1970-71 NHL season, O’Brien suggests, the 42-year-old Plante had faced 28,545 big-league shots in 865 games. “That does not include the ‘friendly shots’ — possibly 100,000 of them — fired at him in practice,” O’Brien writes, “but they can’t be ignored be ignored because they twice put him in hospital.” Add a few thousand more to the final tally: beyond the book’s telling, Plante played a further two seasons in the NHL, along with a final year with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers. He died in 1986, at the age of 57.
Last Friday was November 1 and therefore an auspicious anniversary in the history of hockey preventatives: it was 60 years to the day that Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Jacques Plante decided that he’d played enough barefaced hockey in the NHL. Cut by a puck shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that night in 1959 at Madison Square Garden, Plante left the game bleeding badly. When he returned to the ice, he was wearing a mask over his stitches and bandages. Clint Benedict had experimented with a mask (or masks) back in 1930, of course, but it was with Plante that the practice of goaltenders protecting their faces became commonplace in the NHL.
That’s not to say that throughout the rest of hockey history goaltenders weren’t constantly thinking about mitigating the damage being done to their faces. Baseball’s catcher’s mask originated at Harvard University in the 1870s, and it makes sense that hockey players might reach for a handy one of those come wintertime.
Eric Zweig has written about Eddie Giroux experimenting in 1903 with just such a mask. Giroux would go on, in 1907, to win a Stanley Cup with Kenora, but this was four years earlier when he was playing for Toronto’s OHA Marlboros. A shot by teammate Tommy Phillips cut him in practice, and so he tried the mask, though it’s not clear that he wore it in an actual game.
Same for Kingston’s Edgar Hiscock, who had his nose broken playing for the Frontenacs in 1899. He was reported to be ready to don a “baseball mask” in the game that followed, though I haven’t seen a corroborating account from the actual game in question. Mentioning Hiscock’s innovation beforehand, a local correspondent weighed in:
This is a new idea, and one which, perhaps, will create some amusement among the spectators at first, but yet there is not the least doubt of it being carried into effect, as something should be worn by goalkeepers to protect the head from the swift shots of some hockey players.
Is Hiscock’s the earliest recorded instance of a goaltender sporting a mask? That I’ve come across, yes — but only so far, and not by much. A goaltender in Calgary donned a baseball mask in an intermediate game a couple of months later.
Hockey players and pundits were constantly discussing the pros and cons of masks throughout the early years of the new century. There was talk in 1912 around the NHA (forerunner to the NHL) that it might be time for goaltenders to protect their faces, though nothing ever came of it. In 1922, the OHA added a provision to its rulebook allowing goaltenders to wear baseball masks.
We know that Corinne Hardman of Montreal’s Western Ladies Hockey Club was wearing a mask a few years before that. And in 1927, while Elizabeth Graham was styling a fencing-mask while tending the nets for Queen’s University, Lawrence Jones was wearing a mask of his own to do his goaling for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League.
“Keeping both eyes on the elusive rubber disk is a decidedly more difficult matter than watching a pitched or thrown ball in baseball,” the Globe explained in 1922 in noting that catcher’s masks weren’t generally up to job that hockey goaltending demanded from them. On that count, nothing had really changed since Eddie Giroux considered a baseball mask 20 years earlier. “He wore it at a couple of practices,” the Globe noted then, “but found it unsatisfactory owing to the difficulty in locating shots from the side.”
If you’ve dug into hockey-mask history, you’ll recognize that as a refrain. Goaltenders who, liked most of us, would rather not have exposed their heads to hurtling puck and errant sticks and skates chose to do so because nobody had invented a mask that would allow them to see well enough continue their puckstopping at the level they were used to.
I don’t know whether we can properly understand the bravery and hardiness of the men who tended the nets in the early NHL, much less the suffering. Hard as it may be to quantify, I’m ready to declare that the 1920s and ’30s were the most damaging era ever for NHL goaltenders. Lester Patrick’s unlikely turn in the New York Rangers’ net during the 1928 Stanley Cup finals came about because his goalie, Lorne Chabot, nearly lost an eye when Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons caught him with a backhand. Chabot was back in net, mask-free, to start the next season.
It’s just possible (if not entirely probable) that in 1929, a year before Clint Benedict debuted his mask, George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens tried one of his own after a teammate’s warm-up shot to the face put him in hospital. The history of goaltenders contused, cut, and concussed in those first decades of the NHL is as grim as it voluminous — and that’s before you get to the part about the frontline goalies, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers and Canadiens’ Wilf Cude, whose NHL careers seem to have been cut short by what might today be diagnosed as PTSD.
All of which is to say that goalies needed all the help the protection they could get in 1933, which is when this photograph dates to. At 33, John Ross Roach was a cornerstone of Jack Adams’ Detroit Red Wings, and while he was the oldest player in the NHL that year, he wasn’t showing any signs of flagging, having started every one of Detroit’s 48 regular-season games in 1932-33. He was still in his prime when a photographer posed in a mask borrowed from a baseball catcher. The feature that it illustrated does suggest that Roach did experiment with a similar set-up in practice, though he’d never tested it in a game.
Roach’s problem with the catcher’s mask was the same one that Eddie Giroux had encountered 30 years earlier: it obscured a goalie’s sightlines. Playing under the lights in modern rinks only compounded the problem. “The mask creates shadows under artificial lighting that do not exist in sun-lit ball parks,” Jack Carveth’s Detroit Free Press report expounded, “and Roach wants no shadows impairing his vision when fellows like Charlie Conacher, Billy Cook, Howie Morenz or dozens of others are winding up for a drive 10 feet in front of him. Perhaps some day in the not too distant future a mask will be made that will eliminate the shadows. Until such a product arrives, Roach and his fellow workmen between the posts will keep their averages up at the expense of their faces, having the lacerations sewn up and head bumps reduced by the skilled hands of the club physician.”
Detroit took to the ice at the Olympia on the Sunday that Carveth’s article ran. Montreal’s Maroons were in town for an early-season visit (which they ended up losing, 3-1). Other than a second-period brawl involving players and fans and police, the news of the night was what happened just before the fists started flying. Falling to stop a shot from Montreal’s Baldy Northcott, Roach, maskless, was cut in the face by teammate Ebbie Goodfellow’s skate, and probably concussed, too. “His head hit the ice,” Carveth reported, “and he was still dazed after the game was over.” Relieved for the remainder of the game by Abbie Cox, Roach went for stitches: three were needed to close the wound on his upper lip.
The Tuesday that followed this, December 12, is one that lives on in NHL history for the events that unfolded in Boston Garden when Bruins’ defenceman Eddie Shore knocked the Leafs’ Ace Bailey to the ice. The brain injury Bailey suffered that night ended his career and nearly his life.
Roach was back in the nets that very night for Detroit’s 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks. Any ill effects he was suffering weren’t mentioned in the papers. But two days later, on the Thursday, Roach was injured again when the Red Wings played in Chicago. This time, he fell early in the third period when a shot of Black Hawks’ winger Mush March struck him in his (unprotected) face. Once more, Roach was replaced, this time by defenceman Doug Young. Roach took on further stitches, seven to the lips, five more inside his mouth. “All his teeth were loosened,” the Chicago Tribune noted. He was checked into Garfield Park Hospital and kept there while his teammates caught their train home.
Roach ceded the net to Abbie Cox for Detroit’s next game, the following Sunday, but he was back in the Tuesday after that, shutting out the Americans in New York by a score of 1-0. But while he did finish out the calendar year as the Red Wings starter, playing three more games (losses all), that would be all for Roach that season. Just before the New Year, Detroit GM Jack Adams borrowed the aforementioned, yet unbroken Wilf Cude from Montreal, announcing that Roach was being given two to four weeks to “rest” and recover from his injuries.
No-one was talking about post-concussion syndrome in those years, of course. “He has given his best efforts to the club,” Adams said, “but he has been under strain and his recent injury in Chicago, when seven stitches had to be taken in his face, combined to affect his play.”
By the time Roach was ready to return, Cude was playing so well that Adams didn’t want him, and so the former Red Wing number one ended up the year playing for the IHL Syracuse Stars. Roach did make it back to the NHL for one more turn when, still unmasked, he shared the Red Wings’ net with Normie Smith. Adams would have kept Cude, if he’d been able, but he’d played so well on loan to Detroit that Montreal manager Leo Dandurand called him home to serve as Canadiens’ starting goaltender for the 1934-35 season.
“We thought it was a joke,” Andy Bathgate said, later, recalling the mask that Jacques Plante donned for the first time in an NHL game 60 years ago today. It was Bathgate’s spiteful backhand, of course, that did the damage to Plante’s face on that Sunday in New York in 1959. There’s a fuller accounting of the hows and wherefores here; if nothing else, it confirms that the puck did not, in fact, decapitate Plante, despite what this graphic 1997 depiction, above, seems to suggest. It’s from The Man Behind the Mask, a 24-page comical retelling of the story of Plante and his mask written and inked by Michael Dixon. Publisher McClelland & Stewart was behind the True North Comics series that spawned it, teaming up with the CRB Foundation in support of the original run of Heritage Minutes, one of which — watch it here — famously dramatized Plante’s bloody night. The True North comics were handed out by the tens-of-thousands at McDonald’s restaurants across Canada. There were four volumes in all, with the others respectively recounting tales of Halifax’s 1917 explosion; Chinese migrant labour and the construction of the CPR; and Joseph Tyrrell’s 1884 discovery of dinosaur fossils in Alberta’s Badlands.
The St. Louis Blues aren’t there yet, but they did beat the San Jose Sharks 5-0 Sunday in the fifth game of the NHL’s Western Conference, which means that one more win would put the Blues into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1970. That could happen tonight: the two teams meet again in St. Louis.
Coached by Scotty Bowman (and by, a little bit, Lynn Patrick), the Blues reached the finals in each of their first three NHL seasons, falling twice in succession to the Montreal Canadiens and then, 49 years this month, to Bobby Orr’s mighty Boston Bruins. The core of the Blues’ line-up in the latter series was steeled by a remarkable collection of veterans that included goaltender Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall (aged 41 and 38 respectively), centre Camille Henry and defenders Jean-Guy Talbot and Al Arbour (all 37.) That’s Arbour pictured here, alongside another distinguished NHL elder, Doug Harvey, who manned the St. Louis line at the age of 44 in his final season, 1968-69. Arbour captained the team in all three of their early Stanley Cup appearances. Arbour handed the C to Barclay Plager at the 1970-71 season when he took over as coach of the Blues while Bowman turned his attention to GM’ing.
The arrangement didn’t last: by February of 1971, Arbour was back on the St. Louis blueline and Bowman was back to the bench. “I think I can help more in a playing capacity,” Arbour said at the time. As for Bowman, he insisted the arrangement was only temporary. “I had, nor have, no aspiration to return to coach on a permanent basis,” he said. “Coaching is not for me. But I decided to come back because it is good for the good of the team. We’re building for the future and one man can’t spoil it all.”
The future burned brilliantly bright for both men, of course, though not in St. Louis. While Bowman went on to coach the Montreal Canadiens, Arbour ended up behind the bench of the New York Islanders. In the 11 seasons that followed the year Bowman and Arbour shared coaching duties in St. Louis, their (non-Missouri) teams would lay claim to nine Stanley Cups.
The first time Gerry McNeil defended the Montreal Canadiens’ net was in 1947, when he relieved an injured Bill Durnan at the Forum midway through a meeting with the New York Rangers. Montreal lost a 1-0 lead that night; the Rangers won 5-3. McNeil “wasn’t given the best of protection,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll wrote, “but the fact remains that Durnan’s absence was felt.” McNeil started the next night, too, against Boston, holding the Bruins to a 2-2 tie. “Steady but unspectacular” was the verdict on that performance.
Born in Quebec City on a Saturday of this date in 1926, McNeil remains largely unsung in the annals of Montreal goaltending greatness. To demonstrate why that’s not fair you might cite the fact that in all four seasons in which he was Montreal’s first-choice puckstop, from 1950 through ’54, Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup finals. “The plucky goaler,” Dink Carroll called him in 1953 when McNeil led his team to a championship with a fifth-game shutout of the Boston Bruins. Often remembered as the man Toronto’s Bill Barilko scored on to win the 1951 Cup for the Maple Leafs, McNeil ended up playing parts of seven seasons with Montreal. His last stint as a Canadien came during the 1956-57 regular season when he returned from retirement to sub in for an asthmatic Jacques Plante. Canadiens won a Cup that year, too.
Gerry McNeil died in 2004 at the age of 78. For more on his life and times, his son David McNeil very good book is the one you want. In The Pressure of the Moment: Remembering Gerry McNeil (2016) also happens to be a fascinating cultural study of the game as well an incisive guide to the arts and anguishes of goaltending.