Sunday night, March 13 of 1955, after Boston beat Montreal 4-2, Canadiens caught a night train north.
“The big rhubarb in Boston Garden,” The Gazette’s Dink Carroll called what had gone on, specifically in the third period.
“Richard came off his hinges,” was one view, from a French-language paper.
Neither Maurice Richard nor Canadiens coach Dick Irvin slept on the journey home
NHL president Clarence Campbell was in New York meeting league governors to discuss play-off dates. With Monday morning came the news that he would be convening a hearing at the league’s Montreal headquarters at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning. Richard and Laycoe were to appear before Campbell and referee-in-chief Carl Voss, along with representatives from the respective clubs, and the three officials involved, referee Frank Udvari, linesmen Cliff Thompson and Sam Babcock.
Boston GM Lynn Patrick believed that Richard had to be suspended for the playoffs. “I don’t see how Campbell can stickhandle around that.”
“This is only the most recent episode in a string of violent incidents that have marked the 13-year career of Richard, the scoring genius who currently leads the league’s individual point standing.” That was Tom Fitzgerald in The Boston Daily Globe.
The Gazette sketched out the defendant’s record to date. Three times now he’d gone after officials. Earlier in the season, end of December, 1954, in Toronto, he’d slapped another linesman, George Hayes, in the face. He paid a $200 fine for that. And in New York in 1951, in a hotel lobby, he’d grabbed referee Hugh McLean by the neck. That cost him $500.
“The most heavily fined player in hockey history,” the United Press called Richard. All told, he’d paid some $2,500 in “automatic and special fines” for his various offences.
I’m not sure whether that tally includes the cheque he’d deposited with the NHL in January of 1954 as vow of good behaviour after he used his weekly column in Montreal’s Samedi-Dimanche to call Campbell “a dictator.”
“Should I fail to keep my promised this $1,000 is to be lost to me,” Richard’s letter of apology said. “If you find me worthy of your indulgence I trust it will be returned when I finish as a player.”
With three games left in the regular season, Montreal sat atop the NHL standings, leading the Detroit Red Wings by two points. The two teams would meet twice in the last week of the schedule. Monday morning also found Richard leading the NHL scoring race, with 74 points, ahead of teammates Bernie Geoffrion (72) and Jean Béliveau (71).
If he were to be suspended and thereby lose the scoring title, Richard would miss out on a pair of $1,000 bonuses, one each from the NHL and Canadiens.
If the team were to finish second to the Red Wings, Bert Souliere of Le Devoir wrote, Dick Irvin’s players would share in a sum $9,000 instead of $18,000. Should they fail to win the Stanley Cup, they would further miss out on the $20,000 bonus that went to the winners. All in all, he concluded, losing Richard could cost Canadiens close to $30,000.
Boston Record columnist Dave Egan advocated mercy. Let Richard be fined, maybe suspended for the first 20 games of the season following, but let him play in the playoffs.
Not that I am advocating the fracturing of skulls and defending the swinging of sticks and applauding attacks on officials, for no man in his right mind would do so. What I am saying is that Hal Laycoe’s first name is not spelled Halo, nor is there anything angelic about him. He plays needling hockey behind his eye-glasses. He hands out plenty of bumps, sometimes skating out of his way to do so. He has been in the league long enough to know that Richard erupts like Vesuvius. He knew what he was playing with, and it wasn’t a marshmallow. So the inevitable inevitably happened, and Hal Laycoe, I suppose, should be considered an accessory before the fact.
No man should be sent to Elba for offering his heart, his soul, his gizzards, and the very fibre of his being to a sport. That is what Laycoe does, and it is what Rocket does far more brilliantly. … Much must be forgiven a man like Rocket Richard, not because he is an immortal hockey star but because he is one of those few men whose value never can be measured by the amount of salary he receives. He is one of the remarkable ones who spends more in genius than he ever can get in money.
In The Toronto Daily Star, Milt Dunnell called Richard “the atom bomb that walks like a man.” His guess? Clarence Campbell (“who carries law books around inside of his head”) would suspend him for the remainder of the regular season.
Following Sunday’s game, Tom Fitzgerald went to ask Richard what happened.
Richard’s answer: “Ask Laycoe.”
Laycoe said that he’d had a brush with the Rocket in the first period. The Rocket was upended and Laycoe was given a penalty for charging. There was nothing further until
Dick Irvin pulled his goalkeeper off with six minutes of the final period left to play. …
Laycoe said he was skating alongside of the Rocket after a faceoff, following the puck, when all of a sudden the Rocket brought up his stick like a pitchfork. He said it was just as if Rocket was pitching hay. The stick hit him on the bridge of the nose. He says it stung him and he reacted by swinging his stick at the Rocket. He says he didn’t think about it and that it was an automatic reaction.
Laycoe dropped his stick, gloves and eye-glasses, and that’s when Cliff Thompson, the linesman grabbed the Rocket. The Rocket threw an uppercut that landed on Thompson’s face. Then he picked up his stick and went after Laycoe with it, though Laycoe hadn’t retrieved his and was making motions to the rocket to fight with his fists. The Rocket lost caste with Boston fans by refusing Laycoe’s challenge to fight with his fists. There was blood all over the Rocket and all over Laycoe and all over the joint. It was an awful mess and a lot of people were disgusted.
Tuesday morning when Richard showed at the Forum for practice, Dick Irvin called in the doctor.
“I noticed that the Rocket was pale and he looked tired,” Irvin said. “He confessed that he had a headache and that he hadn’t slept. He was suffering from headaches on his return from Boston on Monday morning, but he didn’t say a word to anyone.”
Irvin told reporters that Richard had lost at least a pint of blood during Sunday’s fracas.
Along with headache, and he was suffering stomach pains now. Canadiens club physician Dr. Gordon Young took him to Montreal’s Western Hospital for an x-ray and further tests. Reporters who followed him there weren’t allowed to see him. By evening he’d been moved to another room where they couldn’t disturb him.
There was talk that Wednesday’s hearing would be postponed. A Canadiens official: “Chances are Richard won’t be able to attend tomorrow’s hearing.”
Clarence Campbell said proceedings would definitely not be moved to Richard’s hospital room. Richard was not suspended, he said, too, which was why it was important that the hearing take place before Montreal’s Thursday game.
Dr. Young finally gave the okay: Richard would be there Wednesday.
Dick Irvin: “We don’t know the results of the examinations so far, but since Richard is able to be at the hearing we might as well get it over with. We want to know what the decision will be. We have a big game here Thursday night.”
A reporter asked Dr. Young if the cut on Richard’s head had been caused by Laycoe’s stick. He smiled. “The Rocket was certainly not injured in a railway accident,” he said.
Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.
These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.
There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.
It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.
Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.
This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).
In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.
To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.
Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.
The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.
And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.
Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.
The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:
Goal Scoring Ability
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”
At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”
All of the nine wrote back.
“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.
“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”
King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.
Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.
I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.
I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.
Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:
Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.
Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”
If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:
Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.
Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:
My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.
Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?
Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:
I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.
Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”
I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.
I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.
Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).
When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:
- Howie Morenz
- Maurice Richard
- Bobby Orr
- Gordie Howe
- Bobby Hull
- Jean Béliveau.
You can guess, maybe, the species of shot that truly distressed Jacques Plante. “Oh brother, that damned slap shot!” he wrote, to the point, in 1971. “You have no idea what an effect the slap shot has had on goalies.” Heading into a game against Chicago, he said, knowing he was gong to facing Bobby Hull, his nerves would start their rattling two days before the teams hit the ice.
Plante was 41 by then, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs — with another three seasons to go before he’d wrap up his 21-year professional career. He was wearing a mask by then, of course — had been for 11 years, ever since the night in 1959 when Andy Bathgate of the Rangers moved in on him in early minutes of a game in New York.
You know the story. It was this week, 57 years ago, November 1. It wasn’t a slapped shot that did the damage and launched a Heritage Minute. No, Bathgate’s effort was a malign backhand. He told Plante biographer Todd Denault that he’d done it on purpose, vengefully — Plante had tripped him into the boards, he was bleeding, and mad. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” he said.
The puck struck Plante to the left of his nose. Dave Anderson: “He toppled face down on the milk-white ice at the right side of the net.” Red Fisher, covering the game for The Montreal Star, would describe Bathgate rushing in and lifting Plante’s head.
Plante stayed down for 15 seconds. He got up with a towel fixed his face, skated off under escort by Maurice Richard and Dickie Moore. A pair of Garden policemen helped him to the medical room. Rangers’ doctor Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa sewed in seven stitches. After 20 minutes, Plante was ready to return. There are varying versions of the conversation that took place between coach and goaltender before Plante rejoined the game. In his biography Behind The Mask, Raymond Plante (no relation) has Plante lying on the medical table, seeing Blake, saying I want to play with my mask on. Blake: We’ll see, we’ll see.
Dave Anderson wrote a Plante feature for The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. As he tells it, Blake is the one to mention the mask, tell Plante he can put it on. Good, Plante told him, because I wouldn’t go back without it.
Todd Denault’s biography is Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (2010). He has a stricken Plante departing the medical room, heading back out to the ice (where — a superior detail — the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), then on the Canadiens’ dressing room where he had it out with his coach. Continue reading