rivalrousers: when habs and bruins meet

Boston’s surging Bruins play in Montreal tonight, where (in case you hadn’t heard) their old rivals the Canadiens continue their season of struggles. The two teams meet again next Wednesday before returning to Montreal to complete their mini-series a week from tonight.

The two teams have played 34 playoff series against one another since 1929, with Montreal having prevailed in 25 of those. Tonight’s game is the 739th regular-season meeting. Canadiens are ahead by (almost) a century on that count, with a won-lost-lost in overtime record 360-267-8 and 103 ties.

The first time the teams clashed was December 8, 1924, a Monday night, in Boston. That was the first year there were Bruins, of course, and in just the third game of their history, Canadiens spoiled the evening by beating them 4-3. The ice was a little soft at the Boston Arena; the crowd numbered 5,000. Aurèle Joliat notched a hattrick for the defending Stanley Cup champions from Montreal, with Howie Morenz adding a goal of his own. Scoring for Boston was Bobby Rowe and Carson Cooper, with a pair.

Is it fair to say that Tex Coulter caught the spirit of the rivalry in his 1959 painting of a couple of belligerents ignoring the referee? That’s one question. Another: who were his models? Fern Flaman and Leo Boivin were up atop the pile of leading Bruin penalty-takers that season, but Coulter’s Bostonian doesn’t look like either of them, to me. The haircut kind of suggests Jack Bionda. The Hab in question is numbered 2, which would make him Doug Harvey. I don’t see that, though, either. Could be 20, I guess, which was Phil Goyette. Ian Cushenan was 21 and Don Marshall 22 and … I don’t know. Safe to say it’s not Jean Béliveau. Let’s just leave it there. Game’s on.

 

bob gainey: what you get if you turn guy lafleur inside out

On Bob Gainey’s birthday — Peterborough, Ontario’s own five-time-Stanley-Cup-winning former-Habs-captaining Hall-of-Famer turns 64 today — a few fond fêteful notes.

A cornerstone, Stu Hackel dubbed him when, earlier this year, Gainey was named to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. Hackel’s citation quoted a Montreal teammate from those dominant Canadiens teams of the 1970s, Serge Savard: “I can’t think of anyone on our team,” Savard said, “who means more to us than Gainey.”

The NHL didn’t, of course, get into ranking its superlatives, but if you’re looking for something in that line, I refer you to a book published earlier this fall by the hockey cognoscenti at Le Journal de Montreal. Not so surprisingly, Les 100 meilleurs joueurs du Canadien goes with a top three of Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, and Guy Lafleur. Gainey gets in at number 22 — three slots back of Carey Price, but just ahead of Andrei Markov, Toe Blake, and Georges Vézina. If that fails to satisfy, you may be better to settle down with Red Fisher’s 2005 Canadiens top ten, whereon Gainey is lodged at number eight. (Béliveau, just for the record, comes ahead of Richard in Fisher’s thinking, with Lafleur holding at third.)

“That No. 23 for the Montreal team, Mr. Gainey, is the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” That was Soviet maestro Viktor Tikhonov rating Gainey during the 1979 Stanley Cup finals, which Gainey dominated. You’ll see it sliced up, this opinion, edited down to leave out the final phrase and make it absolute. Not necessary — it’s high enough praise in the original translation. Still, you can understand how, especially in Montreal in those glory days, the temptation to upgrade. “May be one of the most technically perfect hockey players who ever lived,” Gazette columnist Tim Burke was writing the morning after Canadiens beat the Rangers to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Gainey won the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring as playoff MVP. To go with the NHL silverware, Sport magazine gave him a 1980 Silver Anniversary Jeep CJ5, too. That’s maybe worth a mention.

Would we consider here, too, just how much of the literature detailing Gainey’s hockey brilliance finds a way, even if only gently, to scuff at his reputation? That sounds a little defensive, probably, but then what could be more appropriate while we’re talking about the man who won the first four Frank J. Selke trophies?

“A down-to-earth product” of Peterborough, a New York columnist by the name of Elliot Denman called him after those ’79 finals in a column that actually quoted Gainey as saying “Aw, shucks.” On behalf of those of us who, like Gainey, are born-and-bred Peterbruvians, I’m going to turn the other cheek for all of us on Denman’s drive-by dis of our little city, which happens to have been (not making this up) the first municipality in Canada to install streetlights. Gainey, Denman supposed, “much prefers the 75-watt lighting of his hometown to the bright neons of Montreal and New York.”

Then again, Gainey did say himself that if he were a GM (as he later would be, once his playing days were ended), he’d get rid of himself. “I’d trade myself for a Larry Robinson or a Ken Dryden. Defencemen and goalies are crucial.”

Still, it’s not as if the archives lack for Gainey acclaim. Back to that.

Ken Dryden goes on Gaineying for pages in The Game (1983). To his “basic, unalterable qualities — dependability, discipline, hard work, courage,” Gainey added an “insistent passion, an enormous will to win, and a powerful, punishing playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo.”

“If I could be a forward,” wrote Dryden, “I would want to be Bob Gainey.”

Heading out of the tempestuous ’70s into a whole new hockey decade, Gazette sports editor Al Strachan saw him as a symbol and standard-bearer for entire continents and generations to come.

“Nobody in the world,” Strachan wrote, “better exemplifies the true North American style of hockey than Gainey.”

He is a superb skater and an excellent defensive player. But unlike the European players, he also plays a rugged, bone-crunching game. He pounds the opponents into the boards, blasts them off the puck, and makes them pay the price for dipsy-doodling in their own zone.

Yet no one plays a cleaner game than Gainey. … Nothing could be better for hockey than to have the junior ranks start emulating the Bob Gaineys of this world than the Dave Hutchisons.

Rick Salutin writing about Gainey is worth your while, finally. “Gainey works,” he wrote in a 1980 magazine profile of our hero. “Hard.”

He tears up the ice, his legs pumping and thrusting, his face contorted with effort and determination. He is the very opposite of his teammate Guy Lafleur. Lafleur skates lightly, with a Gallic flair that appears effortless: he whirls and corners like one of those toy tightrope walkers you can’t knock off balance. Gainey is what you would expect to get if you turned Lafleur inside out. In fact, Ken Dryden calls Gainey “the Guy Lafleur of defensive forwards.” Lafleur fulfils our every stereotype of French-Canadian finesse, while Gainey does the same for our notions of the earnest, achieving English-Canadian.

It gets better. “What is the Gainey style?” Salutin goes on to wonder.

In a stage play I wrote several years ago called Les Canadiens, a defensive forward steps onto the ice/stage to try to contain a rampaging goal scorer in the Morenz-Richard-Lafleur tradition. The character says, to his teammates or the audience:

It’s okay. I got ’im. Good thing I backcheck. It’s not the glamour job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Maybe it’s because Mom always said the other kids were pretty or smart but I was so “responsible.” I’m there when there’s hard slugging to do

This speech was inspired by Gainey’s play, but it is really too stodgy for Gainey. For, despite his defensive role, he is an exciting player.”

Later in the profile, Salutin adds a perfect parenthetic coda:

(Gainey saw Les Canadiens, by the way, and pronounced it “luke,” as in lukewarm; two nights later, at a performance of his own at the Forum, he had one of his two-goal nights in a kind of rebuttal to the onstage caricature.)

(Painting by Timothy Wilson Hoey, whose work you’re advised to investigate further, at  www.facebook.com/ocanadaart and ocanadaart.com)

my first hockey game: keith olbermann

Fort Eddie: New York Rangers’ goaltender (and Olbermann favourite) Ed Giacomin, photographed in the fall of 1967. (Image: Franck Prazak/Library and Archives Canada, 2000815187)

Long before Keith Olbermann took up as a full-time Donald Trump excoriator, he was a hockey fan and reporter, an analyst and student of the game — a hockey maven, even, as he’s said himself. Like Ken Dryden (and Gary Bettman), he’s a Cornell graduate. Olbermann, who’s 58, was at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics where he saw Herb Brooks’ young, implausible United States team overthrow Viktor Tikhonov’s heavily favoured squad from the Soviet Union. If you haven’t seen Olbermann in full hockey flight, paying tribute to Jean Béliveau, or decrying the foolishness and bad history perpetrated by those who celebrate the NHL’s Original Six, then go and see that now — we’ll wait.

Olbermann’s broadcast career includes, of course, his years with ESPN’s SportsCenter in the 1990s. Since then, he’s talked baseball and football and everything else on CNN and Fox Sports Net. From 2003 through 2011, he hosted Countdown on MSNBC. In 2016, he launched a new political show, The Closer with Keith Olbermann, on GQ.com. It got a new name (and vehemence) after Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. election: The Resistance. Olbermann’s books include The Worst Person in the World (2006) and Pitchforks and Torches (2010). His latest, published earlier this fall, is Trump is F*cking Crazy (This is Not a Joke).

Today, as part of Puckstruck’s original ongoing series, Olbermann recalls the first hockey game he saw in the flesh as a 10-year-old fan growing up in New York. It was early in the season, and the Toronto Maple Leafs were in town …

My first game — memory, and Hockey Reference tell me — was October 19, 1969. Vic Hadfield had a phantom goal waved off in the first and then seconds later scored on a power play and despite 43 other Ranger shots, that was it. Eddie Giacomin became my eternal hero, and neither he nor Bruce Gamble wore a mask. It was only the second home game of only the second full season of the Rangers in what us old-timers still call “the new Garden,” and the subway trip there cost 20 cents.

This was part two of quite a dad/kid week for me. Four days earlier my father had gotten two tickets to Game Four of the 1969 World Series and in addition to the thrill each game represented, it occurs to me only now that these may have been the first two sporting events I ever attended in which the buildings were full. There was something just as awe inspiring about the 17,000 packing the Garden as the 57,000 at Shea.

I had been a Rangers’ fan for about a year to this point, but only on TV and radio. It amazes me that my main conduit was Marv Albert and he was in his radio gondola that night, and I visited with him at MSG the last game I saw during the playoffs last spring! I would soon get the whole back story of my mother and her Uncle Willie going to one of the games of the Cup Finals of 1940, and before that, New York Americans games. And I would shortly understand the disappointment built into being a Ranger fan.

My second game was early the next month against the Blues and I couldn’t wait to get there because I knew I was going to be able to say I saw either Glenn Hall or Jacques Plante play for St. Louis. And who did they start in goal? Ernie Wakely.

 

tijuana brash

Jean Béliveau, thoroughbreding through centre!

Frank Mahovlich, moosing down the wing past the Montreal blueline!

I don’t what it is about Blades and Brass, but it makes sense. If you’ve screened William Canning’s short film from back in bygone 1967, maybe you know this already. The old technicoloured hockey is fascinating in its own, though without the soundtrack, it just wouldn’t be the classic it is. Don Douglas wrote that, and Ken Campbell orchestrated it. Just what kind of sense the pairing of the hockey and the music makes, the how, and the why of it — that’s a whole other parcel of questions that might be better off left to itself, over there, in the shade, where maybe is it best if we just leave it unopened? The National Film Board’s catalogue copy has an understated charm that  surprises even as it fails to convey the near-perfect oddity of what you’re about to watch. “This short documentary showcases the best of the 1967 National Hockey League season, set to music in the Tijuana Brass style.”

Well, why not?

Jacques Laperriere!

Bobby Hull!

John Ferguson!

Forgive all the exclaiming, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to translate the footage to the page.

Terry Sawchuk! Eddie Giacomin! Gump Worsley in full flop!

Toronto’s Bob Pulford looking downcast! Béliveau wailing on Reggie Fleming of the New York Rangers! Phil Goyette, not seeing the shot that hits him amidships and drops him to the ice in painful anguish that causes you to shift in your seat, especially if you happen to be male! J.C. Tremblay carried off on a stretcher! One lonesome overshoe on the ice! The rink crew scraping up bloody slush! Toe Blake in a porkpie hat, chewing his chaw! Béliveau pressing a towel to a cut! Great goal, Claude Provost!

Blades And Brass is a masterpiece. Is there any doubting this? Watch it, the whole thing. It’s not long. Me, now — watching these 50-year-old scenes, I’m just not sure how I’m going to be able to endure the plain old modern non-mariachi NHL.

 

hab fan bids kid hello: when jean béliveau met ted williams

On Wednesday, fans marked the birthday of the late baseball bravo Ted Williams. The Kid, who died in 2002 at the age of 83, made his debut in San Diego, California, on August 30, 1918. Today’s the day Jean Béliveau was born, in 1931, in Trois-Rivières; Le Gros Bill, as they’d come to call him, later, was also 83 when he died in 2014. No better time, in other words, to commemorate the coming together, above, of these two greats of their respective games (and Terry Sawchuk, too).

The question of when and where this might have taken place is a good one. As a boy, Béliveau was as keen on summertime bats and balls as he was in the winter with skates and sticks. He was, by no special surprise, good, too. In his 1994 autobiography, he recalls his mentor on the diamond, a Victoriaville electrician by the name of John Nault who was known as Mr. Baseball for his coaching enthusiasm. When Béliveau was 15, a scout thought highly enough of his fastball and homerun potential to offer him a minor-league contract with a team “somewhere in Alabama.” As willing as Béliveau may have been, “maman responded with an unequivocal non.”

A year earlier, Nault led a trip south. As Béliveau recalls it,

he packed four or five of us into his car for a Sunday excursion to Boston’s Fenway Park. We couldn’t understand a word of what was going on around us, but we needed o translation when Ted Williams hammered the ball more than four hundred feet, deep over the right centerfield fence.

It was a gruelling twenty-hour round trip, but I’ve never forgotten it. All the way back to Victoriaville, through Massachusetts and Vermont, a carload of wide-eyed young French Canadiens dreamed of playing for the Boston Red Sox, digging in against Allie Reynolds and other New York Yankee aces.

This must have been in the summer of 1946, when Williams was 27, back in Boston after a three-year stint as a U.S. Navy aviator. The Red Sox played in the World Series that year, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. The homerun Béliveau saw was one of 38 Williams soared that season.

It was 1953 before Béliveau joined the Montreal Canadiens full-time. Three years later, he led the NHL in goalscoring and won the Art Ross Trophy for accumulating the most points, along with a Hart Trophy, as MVP, as well as the first of ten Stanley Cups.

“For some reason,” he writes in My Life in Hockey, “the Canadiens always had an affinity for Boston’s teams.” Given a chance, Béliveau and his teammates would catch a Celtics basketball games on a Sunday afternoon at the Boston Garden before they took on the hometown Bruins. If they happened to find themselves in Boston during the baseball season, off they’d head to Fenway Park to watch the bats swing. He recalls (what must be) the moment we’re seeing here:

Once, Ted Williams invited me into the clubhouse, and we spoke privately for twenty minutes or so. When I came out, the local reporters clustered round, wanting to know what we’d discussed. Apparently I’d been more favoured than I knew; Ted never gave them anything more than a couple of sentences. In fact, he and I started off talking about baseball and hockey, then graduated to the Splendid Splinter’s great passion, fishing. Williams often travelled into the wilds of Quebec on fly-fishing expeditions. My friend Jacques Côté had a wonderful trout stream, and I knew it was his dream to have Williams join one of our fishing parties.

Doesn’t seem like that ever happened. Looking back, the mutual admiration isn’t hard to understand. These were two men, after all, whose talents lifted them to the very top of their respective sports; each in his own way has a claim on having been among the greatest ever to have played his own particular game. Is it worth pausing, for just a beat, on how different these two men were in public persona? Time has yet to diminish the legend of Béliveau’s quiet grace and regal good nature. “He treated everyone with such respect,” Ken Dryden wrote in 2014. “He said the right things, and in the right way — in French and in English — because that is what he believed, and that’s how he was. He made every occasion better. He made everyone who attended feel that their town, their organization, their province, their country, their event mattered. That they mattered. Appealing to their best selves, he reminded them of the best that was in them.”

And Williams? For the full (and brilliant) bible on his bellicosity, see Richard Ben Cramer’s 1986 Esquire profile. For our purposes here, John Updike will have to do. “Boston wanted to love the Kid,” he wrote in Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, “but he was prickly in its embrace. He was hot-tempered and rabbit-eared and became contemptuous of sportswriters and too proud to tip his hat after hitting a home run.” In ’46, the year a young Béliveau first set eyes on him, “he sulked, spat, threw bats, and threatened retirement.” And yet: “No sports hero — not Bobby Orr or Larry Bird or Rocky Marciano — had a greater hold over the fans of New England than Ted Williams.”

As for the timing of this clubhouse conclave, I was initially going to guess at 1957. Mostly this was pegged to Terry Sawchuk’s having spent just a pair of seasons with the Bruins, 1955 through to ’57. In ’56, Canadiens didn’t visit Boston during baseball season. A year later, turns out, is a case of closer but not quite: while Canadiens and the Bruins played two games of the Stanley Cup finals the Garden in early April, it was still several days before the Red Sox started into their season’s home schedule, by which time Canadiens were back in Montreal winning another championship. Also: ’57 is the year Sawchuk walked out on the Bruins in mid-January. He departed Boston for his home in Milford, Michigan — left hockey behind, too, he was saying at the time. Which means he probably wouldn’t have been on hand in the spring to visit with Williams and Béliveau on a spring day at Fenway.

Maybe it isn’t Sawchuk at all? Who’s to say a Sawchuk doppelgänger wasn’t in the house? Because while the actual Sawchuk had returned to the game for the 1957-58 season, he’d taken his talents back to Detroit by then. I guess it’s possible that he took a trip to Boston in April of ’58 to catch a bit of ball after Canadiens eliminated the Red Wings to reach the finals again. Again Montreal met the Bruins there, and again they beat them. The series went to six games this time, which means that the decisive tilt was at the Garden, on April 20. Before that the teams played there April 13 and 15 — coinciding (as it happens) with an early-season Red Sox series against the New York Yankees.

 

 

 

 

the quondam kid

Sidney Crosby was home in Nova Scotia today, his 30th birthday. He spent the day showing the Stanley Cup around, joining a parade through Halifax first before travelling up to Rimouski, in Quebec, where he played his junior hockey, for a quick how-do. Asked this week about the ageing he’s undergoing, Crosby dutifully answered that 30 is “just a number.” Facing the inevitable follow-up — does he have any grey hairs? — the erstwhile Kid is said to have smiled.

Playing the numbers game isn’t hard with Crosby. After 12 exceptional NHL seasons, the man has plenty to recommend him, even if you agree to a birthday exemption on playing up the troubling tally of four confirmed concussions. Totted up his first 1,000 points in 757 games! Won three Stanley Cups! Two Conn Smythes! Collected manifold Art Rosses, Rocket Richards, Lionel Conachers, Lester B. Pearsons, Baz Bastiens! Not to mention Olympics and World Cups! The full list of notable statistics, trophies, and accolades runs much longer, of course. And for those who’d rather advance into the thickets of hockey analytics, help yourself.

If Crosby’s dominance of the moment isn’t in doubt, this latest Stanley Cup has fuelled an increase in discussions of the longer-term and more subjective question of where Crosby fits into the pantheon of all-time greats.

Can Crosby be considered one of the top five players of all time? I think we can all agree that if you posed the question to Crosby himself, he’d let it expire in small talk if not outright silence. And why not? Debates about the best of the best across the eras are all in good fun, causing no harm, I guess, but that doesn’t mean they’re not more or less ridiculous, given how short our memories are. Where once there were those who could (at least in theory) be counted on to judge the whole spectrum of NHL hockey talent because they’d personally witnessed the league’s entire history, there’s no-one, today, who has the personal experience to argue the merits of Howie Morenz over Mario Lemieux’s. It’s nobody’s fault, but it does help explain why, earlier this year, when the NHL paraded its list of 100 Greatest, the absence of players like Frank Nighbor, Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Boucher, and Aurèle Joliat (among many antique others) was barely noted let alone pilloried.

That doesn’t mean the top-five debate won’t go on, of course. In June, Rick Carpiniello got in on it at MSG Networks by declaring his leading men (in order): Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe.

And number 87? Whereas (Carpiniello wrote) “Crosby is the best player of his generation, without a doubt, a slam-dunk future Hall-of-Famer, and he will be among the short list of all-timers when he’s done playing, if not sooner,” he wasn’t ready yet to add his name to the uppermost echelon. Crosby is going to have to work for it, he says, over a number of years if he wants to supplant Mark Messier, the subject of a 1999 biography of Carpiniello’s called Steel On Ice.

Over at Sports Illustrated, Colin Fleming declared that Crosby has now “stormed the citadel of the top ten.”

We all know the top four: Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux. Put them in what order you wish, but have Gretzky first. After that, in no particular order, I’d stick in Bourque, Sawchuk, Béliveau, Harvey, Roy, and now Crosby. What’s more, I’m not sure that Crosby isn’t fifth. He’s the best player since Lemieux, truly generational. He’s not merely the best player since Super Mario: it’s not even close.

“I’d put Sidney Crosby right there at number five,” Brian Boucher was saying in June as the Penguins wrapped up their second straight Cup. “We’re watching greatness,” said the former NHL goaltender, now an NBC analyst. “For people to hate on it, I get it, because maybe you’re not a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But if you’re a fan of watching true greatness, to me, that’s it.”

Back in January, during the festivities leading up to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the NHL put together a press conference where Gretzky, Orr, and Lemieux shared a stage where they were lightly questioned by a parcel of reporters. As The Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger reported part of that went like this:

“Is the greatest hockey player of all time at this podium?” we wanted to know.

“No,” said Gretzky.

Then who?

The consensus of all three: Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

You can debate their answer. They weren’t about to.

Heck, if these three weren’t qualified to answer this, who then?

“Listen, we talk about this all the time,” Gretzky said. “That’s what makes sports great, and that’s what makes hockey wonderful. I think we’re all in pretty much agreement that Gordie was pretty special. These two guys here were pretty special, also. We all had so much respect for what Gordie did and what he accomplished that it’s not a bad thing to be named in the Top 100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe. I think we all feel the same way.”

“Absolutely,” added Orr. “Gordie is in my mind the best that ever played the game. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one. I sometimes sit and look at his numbers. As I sit sometimes and look at the numbers that these two guys put up, I think, how in the world did they do it.

“But no, Gordie was a special player and a special man in my mind, and I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever.”

Over to you, Mario.

“Absolutely,” Lemieux said. “I agree with these guys that he was a special player. He could play any way that you wanted out there and a great goal scorer; tough, as we all know, and always taking care of business. But he was truly a great ambassador for the game. He loved the game. He played until he was 51 years old, and that’s pretty rare these days except for Jagr, my buddy.”

Asked for an opinion on the best player still on skates, all three men agreed that it’s Crosby.

“I think his work ethic, first of all,” said Lemieux, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Crosby’s one-time landlord. “He’s the hardest — just like Wayne was when he played, he’s the hardest working guy out there, whether it’s at practice or a three-on-three game at practice, he wants to win, he wants to be the best.”

Added Gretzky: “I agree with Mario, everything he said. He’s the best player in the game. He’s earned that mantle, and his work ethic is as good or better than anybody in hockey.

“We encourage, and I know Bobby is very close to Connor (McDavid), that that’s the guy that he’s chasing, and Connor sees him in his vision, and that’s what makes the game wonderful is that you want to be as good as the best player.

“Right now Crosby is the best player, and you have to earn your stripes.”

(Image courtesy of Gypsy Oak, whose luminous work you can find here. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)