eddie shore and that old-time … agriculture

Reap Rep: Eddie Shore on his binder at the farm near Duagh, Alberta, at point in (probably) the early 1930s. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-4293)

Glenn Hall’s barn took its place in hockey history in the fall of 1966, the year he bought his farm in Stony Plain, Alberta, a half-hour’s drive west of Edmonton. That was the year Hall, then in his mid-30s, told the Chicago Black Hawks he was retiring. “When someone called one day,” Hall recalled a few years later, “my wife was home and answered the phone and said I was out on the farm painting the barn.” While the man they called Mr. Goalie returned to Chicago that same fall, and went on to play five further seasons with the St. Louis Blues, the barn took on its own life as a tale that was told perennially — still is — to explain why Hall was delayed for training camp: he had to paint his barn.

“I only tried to retire twice,” Hall, a native of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, tried to clarify in the 1970s. “The other times I had permission to be late for camp so I could get the crop in.”

Hall, now 89, still lives on the property in Stony Plain, where that barn, which is red, looks over the land. Its story is still favoured in hockey folklore.

Not so well remembered is the farmland 45 minutes away to the northwest that became a regular focus of the hockey world 30 years earlier, when another Saskatchewan-born hockey superstar, one of the most famous figures of the NHL’s early years, was in the habit of announcing he’d just as soon farm his fields than play defence for the Boston Bruins.

Today, on (probably but possibly not) Eddie-Shore’s birthday, a visit to his Alberta acreage.

First, regarding the birth: mostly you’ll see it dated to November 25, 1902, which a Tuesday 118 years ago. And that does seem to be all in order, given that it’s a date that Shore himself cited on such serious documents as his 1942 U.S. military draft registration. The 1985 record of his death in Massachusetts also names November 25.

And yet, as conclusive as that seems, the Province of Saskatchewan’s record of Shore’s debut in 1902 lists … November 23, a Sunday. Hard to say whose the error might be, especially since we do have evidence of a certain odd coyness on Shore’s own part — that’s to come, a little further on.

In the meantime, happy birthday, belated or not, to the Edmonton Express.

That nickname took some geographical liberties, of course: whatever the date, Eddie Shore was born 850 kilometres and a province to the east of the Alberta capital, in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, northeast of Regina. The former Kate Spanier was his mother, Thomas John — T.J. — his father.

When Shore was eight, the family moved about 50 kilometres north and to the west where, as Michael Hiam tells it in Eddie Shore and That Old Time Hockey, his 2010 biography, T.J. would eventually be farming a property of some 70,000 acres, with 400 head of horses and 600 of cattle on it, while annually producing 100,000 bushels of wheat.

So Eddie was farm-tested from an early age, which is also to say farm-forged. He was taming ponies at the age of nine, Hiam writes. At 12, he was driving four-horse teams to the grain elevator in Cupar. Shore was an expert roper at 15; by the time he was 16, he was riding herd on thousands of cattle.

Boy Cowboy: Eddie Shore at the age of 13 (and steed). The signature came later. (Image: Classic Auctions)

He later told a Boston sportswriter about nearly freezing to death in that era, riding herd one winter when temperatures had plunged to minus 61 F. In his own words:

I say 61 because our thermometers register to 60 below and they all broke. I had to drive 23 head of cattle 32 miles for my father.

There was sort of a trail about three feet wide and with the snow three feet deep on both sides the cattle stayed in file all right. We jog trotted them so that they wouldn’t freeze and got off the horses every once in a while so that we wouldn’t.

On the way back I started to freeze and just a little way from home my horse fell down. I didn’t realize it until then but I was partly frozen. My legs were frozen in the shape of the horse.

You could freeze to death in a very short time there and freezing would be a pleasure. Just a pleasant numbness but I wasn’t that far gone, and it was pretty painful, coming to and getting on the horse again.

Shore’s survival on the trial eventually allowed for his burgeoning hockey career to get him to Melville, Saskatchewan, in the early 1920s. From there he continued on to Regina, then to Edmonton, where he skated for the WHL Eskimos in 1925-26, before taking his talents to Boston in 1926.

Dealmakers: NHL President Frank Calder and Eddie Shore meet on the ice at Boston Garden in the late 1930s. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

It didn’t take Shore long to establish himself as one of the NHL’s biggest (and unruliest) stars. He’d help the Bruins win a Stanley Cup in 1929 and another in ’39, and in the decade between those championships he won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player four times.

In the Edmonton news, May of 1928

In 1928, he got back to the land. The Bruins had bowed out of the playoffs in early April, dismissed by the New York Rangers, eventual Cup champions. May brought news that Shore had bought himself an Alberta spread, paying $16,400 for Albert Elliott’s farm, just beyond Edmonton’s northern city limits. Though in Shore’s day the name of the locality was often misrendered in press reports as Daugh, it was in Duagh that Shore set himself up as a farmer. (The slip is not only historical: Michael Hiam’s biography gets it wrong, too.)

Sizewise, Hiam reports that the property was 640 acres, and some contemporary accounts agree with that, too, though in fact it was a half section, 320 acres.

I don’t know what salary Shore was getting from the Bruins at this point. The $9,000-a-year that the Montreal Maroons were paying defenceman Dunc Munro was reported to be the NHL’s highest salary in ’28 — though there was also some talk that year that these same Maroons had signed Canadian Olympic star Dave Trottier for $12,000.

If Shore was taking in something less than that, he had been doing well enough the previous summer to have decided to give up his summer job back in Melville, where he’d been shovelling coal for the Canadian National Railway going back to when he was playing senior hockey there. (The end of the 1926-27 NHL season had, it’s true, enriched Shore by $2,000 in bonuses.)

For a view of the set-up at Duagh, we’ll trust to a plucky reporter from the Edmonton Journal who paid a visit in the summer of 1929.

The Bruins had won the Cup that spring, but Shore wasn’t resting much at all, let alone on any laurels. He was toiling hard, “enjoying 10 to 12 hours work every day on his farm.” He had 170 acres sown to wheat that year, and his barnyard roster included 14 horses and 400 chickens. He was just getting started, though:

Eddie is planning to have one of the finest farms in the entire district. He will have a beautiful bungalow, a big ribbed roof barn, an ideal machine shop, and there will be everything on the land that any successful farmer should have.

“It will take time,” said Eddie when he was talking to the Journal representative. “But in two years time I should have all the buildings up that I am planning.”

“Then I will have sufficient cattle, Holsteins, most likely; not very many horses, because machinery is better; plenty of chickens, pigs, and everything else.”

Shore got married that year, to Kate Macrae, a former basketball star with Edmonton’s mighty Grads. Their son, Edward Jr., arrived a year later.

By 1933, Michael Hiam reports, Shore had cultivated a “model farm,” featuring a modest house, a small barn in the Pennsylvania Dutch style, and “a picturesque windmill.” He had a hired man to help with the work and to run the place while he was away playing hockey. His line-up now included hogs, cattle, turkeys, ducks, chickens, workhorses (Percherons and Belgians), and “a prized Guernsey bull named Taywater Warrior.”

Playing his own particular brand of surly and, occasionally, near-fatal hockey, Shore continued to cut a swath through the NHL from his winter base in Boston. Summers in Duagh, he found time amid the call of crops and livestock for golfing (he shot in the 70s); baseball (he played outfield for the Professional Pucksters, a team that included NHLers Leroy Goldsworthy and brothers Neil and Mac Colville); and saving lives (in 1938, he dove into the Sturgeon River near the farm to rescue three swimmers in danger of drowning).

Glimpses of life on the farm reached the hockey world now and then. In 1937, for instance, Shore confided that he’d given up sowing wheat in favour of barley. “Can’t miss with that crop,” is what he told Andy Lytle of Toronto’s Daily Star, “with beer guzzled all over the country.”

Often, though, when the farm at Duagh made its way into the hockey pages of newspapers it was because Shore wasn’t happy with what Boston manager Art Ross was offering to pay him. Glenn Hall may have joked about painting his barn as a negotiating tactic; Eddie Shore’s Albertan hold-outs in the 1930s don’t seem to have amused anyone involved.

In October of 1933, when Shore was a no-show at the Boston training camp in Quebec City, it was initially reported that he was “delayed by harvesting.” Art Ross had already advised Bruin beat reporters a couple of times that the team’s star defenceman was “expected next week” before the Edmonton Journal dispatched a reporter to Duagh in early November, just six days before the Bruins were set to open their season in Toronto.

Shore was busy butchering a 300-pound hog when Ken McConnell arrived. “Sure, I’m a holdout,” Shore told him. Boston had initially offered him a satisfactory contract, he said, only to turn around and reduce their offer by $2,500 when he was a little late getting to Quebec. “I am not going to take it.”

Idle Idol: A reporter who visited the Shore spread in the fall of 1933 found Boston’s superstar defenceman butchering a hog. Also on hand: Shore’s wife, the former Kate Maccae; his son, Ed Jr.; the family house; the big old barn.

Would he quit hockey?

“If they don’t want to meet my terms,” Shore said, “why, I’ll stay here. I have everything I need right here. I don’t have to play hockey any more.”

In light of the inconsistency mentioned earlier regarding Shore’s birthdate, the next quote McConnell got is interesting. As it appeared, with McConnell’s parentheses:

“I am only 30 — have a birthday some time in this month [he would not name the date] and I figure I should be able to play NHL hockey for another seven years at least — Bill Cook of the New York Rangers is 39. But it’s entirely up to the bosses of the Bruins. I am standing pat.”

The next news of the negotiation came on November 9, the following Thursday. The Bruins were in Toronto that night, preparing to open their season Shoreless against the Maple Leafs. And Shore? As Boston’s Globereported that the team’s other prominent dissenter, Cooney Weiland, had signed his contract, word from Alberta was that Shore was practicing with the WCHL Edmonton Eskimos, for whom Duke Keats presided as the playing coach. The word from the ice? “He looks good.”

Also: Shore was headed to the foothills of the Rockies for “a big game hunting expedition.”

Friday’s update: with a defensive corps consisting of Lionel Hitchman and a trio of rookies and journeymen, the Bruins had succumbed to the Leafs by a score of 6-1. That was front-page news in Edmonton insofar as in the same breath the Journal also declared that Shore and the Bruins had settled their differences.

The family headed east, and on the Monday, Shore was in Montreal to meet with NHL President Frank Calder. As often happened in those years, the team had handed its holdout problem over to the league, and so it was with Calder that Shore did his final dealing. In exchange for his signature, he was reported to have successfully secured the $2,500 that the Bruins had initially offered.

Shore made his debut in Boston the following night, though he couldn’t help his team find a win, as the Bruins fell to their third successive loss to start the new season. They never really turned it around that season, finishing the ’33-34 schedule in last place in the four-team American Division, out of the playoffs.

International Harvester: Eddie Shore works the land. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-5202)

In 1934, Shore seems to have been delayed by an actual late harvest. He made it to camp by the end of October, signing a contract (the Edmonton Journal reported) for the NHL maximum salary of $7,000.

In subsequent years, Shore showed up more or less on time in the fall, when the time came to trade in threshers for hockey sticks.

“Word drifts through from the Maritimes,” Ken McConnell advised in 1936, by which time the Bruins had shifted their training camp from Quebec to New Brunswick, “that Eddie Shore has definitely signed a brand new contract with the Bruins and so that trifling matter is settled for this year at least.” (As it turned out, Shore would miss more than half of the season’s schedule, suffering from sciatica.)

The cut in pay Shore seems to have taken in ’37 reflected that shortened season, from what I can tell. When he stopped in to see Frank Calder in Montreal that fall, trouble seemed to be brewing, according to Calgary’s Herald. “The league prexy, when he heard that Shore wanted to make an appointment with him, naturally thought that Eddie was having contract trouble again. Imagine his surprise when Eddie appeared and said nothing about contract but simply asked Calder for permission to play with the All-Star team in the Howie Morenz benefit game.”

The Bruins convened their camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in ’38, and Shore, who was coming off another Hart-Trophy-winning season, hit the ice there in “prime condition.”

“I have never felt better,” said the 36-year-old veteran. “Every day for the past two months I have been working from dawn to dusk harvesting wheat, and then, to prove to myself I was in shape, I drove the family over the road from Edmonton to Boston, making the trip in a bit more than five days, and that’s no rest cure.”

With a full camp and a slate of exhibition games behind him, Shore finally saw the contract the Bruins were offering in early November, and when the Bruins boarded a train for Toronto and the opening game of the season, Shore stayed home.

All he wanted was to be paid like he was back in 1936-37, he said, before he’d agreed to a cut. “I was offered a slight raise and promised a share of the gate receipts,” he said, “but I was not satisfied with those terms.”

And so the stalemate was on. As Art Ross handed his problem once again over to Frank Calder, the Bruins revived their tradition of starting their season in Toronto. This time, with rookie Jack Crawford tabbed to fill Shore’s skates, the Bruins beat the Leafs 3-2.

Shore missed four games before he struck a deal with Calder. “Old Man Shore has signed,” he told reporters in Boston with a smile. The deal was said to be for $7,000: $6,000 in salary plus $1,000 if the Bruins made the playoffs (they did, winning the Stanley Cup, to boot). This was $500 more than the Bruins had originally offered. “The only extra promise we’ve made Shore,” Art Ross advised, “is that he’ll be paid for the four games he’s missed.”

The following year, 1939-40, was the one in which Shore might be said to have worn out his welcome in Boston. He’d bought the AHL Springfield Indians by then, furthering souring his relationship with the Bruins, who ended up trading him in early 1940 to the New York Americans, for whom he played the last ten games of his tempestuous NHL career.

And the farm at Duagh? “Mr. Eddie Shore, whose business interests are all in the east, has instructed us to sell his Half-Section of Land, northeast of the city,” read the ad that Edmonton realtors placed in the Journal in the fall of 1943. “His own words: ‘Sell, lock, stock, and barrel.”

The price was $20,000 — at first. Over the course of the year that followed, more ads appeared, with lower prices. I don’t know what the farm at Duagh sold for, in the end, but this is the last of the pitches that I’ve seen, from the fall of 1944:

 

 

quick march

All through the winter of 1934 and into the spring, Harold March laboured on ice, skating the right wing for Chicago’s Black Hawks. Mush, they called him, so you can, too: sturdyand small (skateless, he stood 5’5″) and demon are some of the adjectives he picked up in his day as a hockey player. Born in Silton, Saskatchewan on another Sunday dated October 18, this one in 1908, he was christened Harold; the nickname, borrowed from a cartoon character, he got growing up in Regina. It was a Saskatchewan connection to Dick Irvin, the Black Hawks’original captain, that saw March sign in Chicago, the only NHL team he played for in his 17-year career. He’s remembered for having scored the first-ever goal at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931: he beat Toronto’s Lorne Chabot. March still had the puck when he died in 2002: he kept it on his bedroom dresser.

When, in April of 1934, Chicago won its first Stanley Cup by beating the Detroit Red Wings, March was the one to clinch it. In the last of the series’ four games, after four and a half scoreless periods, March took a pass from Doc Romnes. Scuttledis the verb the Montreal Gazette uses to describe how he got around Detroit’s Walter Buswell; that done, he slasheda shot that flashed waist high past goalie Wilf Cude.

A month later he was (above) working the pumps. In years to come he’d spend his summers as a golf pro, but in ’34 as a Stanley Cup hero he put on shirt and tie, brogues and a suit of coveralls and leased this service station from Standard Oil. It was at the corner of Kostner and Montrose on Chicago’s North Side, where a Jiffy Lube does its own oily business today.

how I spent my summer vacation: ching johnson

Oil Change: In the summer of 1930, Ching Johnson (right) repaired to California to work in the oilfields he owned in Inglewood, near Los Angeles. That’s his father looking on; Johnson is busy (and I quote) “hoisting out a stop block on a drilling table.”

Ching Johnson began the 1929-30 NHL season, his fourth as a defenceman with the New York Rangers, refusing to man the blueline. It was the old story, and the newer one, too: the man who was gaining more and more reputation as one of the game’s best and hardest-hitting defencemen wanted more money. High praise for hockey players was often expressed in the United States in ballpark terms: along with Boston’s Eddie Shore, Johnson was in those years often touted as a hockey Babe Ruth.

When the Rangers’ president, Colonel John Hammond, mailed Johnson a contract to sign in the summer of 1929, it took a while to find him. With the season set to open early in November, late October came on without any word back from Johnson, and that launched a rumour that he was giving up hockey at the age of 31. Rangers’ manager Lester Patrick had the rest of his team training in Springfield, Massachusetts, and he said he’d make do without Johnson on defence — he was thinking about dropping Bill Cook back to help on defence.

Johnson’s mail finally found him in Minneapolis. He wrote Colonel Hammond to say that he wasn’t ignoring him, but he was negotiating. I don’t know how much Johnson was making before, but word that fall was that he wanted $8,500 a season. Hammond was offering $7,500. Either way, he’d be getting less that half what Shore, the NHL’s best-paid player, was taking in. When Johnson got to New York early in November, he and Hammond met and dickered and parted ways on the understanding they’d meet again.

A rumour had the Rangers trading him, possibly to the Montreal Maroons. Then, next, the retirement story was back, substantiated this time by the principals themselves.

“Ching demands a salary beyond anything we can pay,” Colonel Hammond lamented. “We have removed him from our plans for this season.”

For his part, Johnson said he was just as happy devoting himself to the oilfields he’d recently bought out in California.

Within a few days, though, the two men had hammered out a deal. Johnson’s new contract was three years. One “authentic” report said he’d settled for $10,000 a year; big, if true.

Johnson didn’t skate in New York’s opening game in Montreal against the Maroons. For his debut a few days later, he did play 68 of 70 minutes in a 5-5 overtime tie with the Detroit Cougars, resting only to serve a minor penalty.

The following February, a crash involving Boston’s Dit Clapper broke Johnson’s jaw in three places. He was out of action for a month; when he returned it was with a custom-rigged leather jaw protector that one wag said gave him a certain Abraham Lincoln air.

After Montreal’s Canadiens ousted New York from the playoffs in 1930, Johnson headed for his California oil patch, in Inglewood, where he also seems to have owned fruit farm. It was October again when he motored north for another season of hockey with New York. Lester Patrick convened his training camp in Toronto this time, centred on the west-end rink at Ravina Gardens. By the time it broke in early November, Patrick was thinking Johnson and Leo Bourgeault would serve as the Rangers’ frontline defensive tandem.

A little while later, Harold Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle caught up with Johnson as the Rangers arrived at New York’s Penn Station en route to Philadelphia to open the season against the newly minted Quakers. Johnson looked “very fit and cool in a blue suit, gray soft hat and no overcoat.”

Johnson took off some 37 pounds during the summer and is down to 200 pounds, just a nifty weight for a defense man.

“I didn’t eat,” said Johnson, explaining the phenomenon.

Ching, once a cook in a lumber camp as a vacation lark, is said to like his chow reasonably well. He didn’t go on a diet because his broken jaw hurt when he started the mastication of a beefsteak, but to get into hockey trim. The jaw, broken in the service of Colonel Hammond last winter, hasn’t given him any trouble. Perhaps the California sunshine did it.

how I spent my summer vacation: toronto’s 1963 maple leafs

Smokestick: Red Kelly was still a Red Wing in 1956, and not yet a politician, when he had Detroit teammate Marty Pavelich (middle) and his wife, Anna Jean, down to his Simcoe, Ontario, tobacco farm for a visit. Here he shows, as you might, a stick of dried tobacco leaves.

The Toronto Maple Leafs won a second successive Stanley Cup in April of 1963 when they rolled over Detroit in five games. They finished it off at home, beating the Red Wings 3-1 in the final game on two goals by centre Dave Keon and another (the winner) from left wing Eddie Shack. Afterwards, the Leafs poured champagne on one another, except for Carl Brewer, who was in Wellesley Hospital getting a broken arm tended to. Next day, the Leafs paraded through a crowd of 40,000 on their way up Bay Street to City Hall, where Mayor Don Summerville presented them with golden tie clips.

Then, next — it was the off-season, then, and the Maple Leafs dispersed to do what hockey players do when they’re not playing hockey. Some went to school, some on vacation. Many had jobs; a lot of them, then as now, played a lot of golf. They did not, in 1963, get an opportunity to invite the Stanley Cup to visit their various hometowns — several more decades would pass before that turned into a tradition.

How did the Leafs spend the summer of ’63?

Centre Red Kelly, one of the team’s elders, was the Member of Parliament representing the ruling Liberals for the Toronto riding of York West. Originally elected in 1962, he’d been re-upped the night before the Stanley Cup finals opened in early April, healthily defeating his Progressive Conservative rival, 30-year-old Alan Eagleson.

Kelly was a busy man. On top of the pucking and the politicking, he owned both a tobacco farm and a bowling alley back home in Simcoe, Ontario.

At the end of May, he gave his maiden speech in the House of Commons. Secretary of State Jack Pickersgill said it was one of the best performances he’d everseen in Ottawa; a Toronto Star editorial that didn’t go that far deemed it “sensible,” “well-considered,” and likely to put paid to the Conservative canard that the election of a hockey player had somehow lowered the dignity of the House of Commons.”

“Mr. Speaker,” Kelly began, “I am not sure whether or not it is because I do not have on my skates, but it feels much more slippery here than it does on the ice.”

It was a wide-ranging debut, lasting ten minutes, and delivered without notes. Kelly made light of his having waited a year to speak, and he likened the Speaker to a referee. He talked about his riding and gave some views on flags and anthems. Hearing “O Canada,” he said, before a game in place of “God Save The Queen” made him very proud. “My chest stood out a little more.” People wondered why he’d decided to run for Parliament and he said he told them it was because of how excited he was about where Canada was headed. He wanted to be a part of that, and to help the country grow.

Also, the Liberal leader and prime minister Lester Pearson? Such a great guy. The more Kelly got to know him, the more he thought he might just be “the tonic Canada needs.”

“I felt he could do a whale of a job for the future of Canada,” Kelly said.

Other Leafs who were working on the country’s future included left winger Frank Mahovlich and his wife, non-winger Marie, who had their first child in the summer ’63, a son, Michael Francis. Sylvia Harris and her husband, centreman Billy, welcomed twins.

Left winger Dick Duff, the team’s last bachelor, golfed in Florida for a while before flying north to enroll at the University of Toronto for courses that would lead him towards an undergraduate degree. When he wasn’t hitting the books, he had a job selling cars at Gorrie’s on Gerrard Street at Yonge. It’s possible that while on campus he ran into teammates: both Brewer and centre Billy Harris were both pursuing B.A.s that summer too. Brewer, his arm in a cast, was taking French courses while also working part-time as a car salesman.

Leafs’ defenceman Bob Baun was in the car business, too, as was trainer Bobby Haggert. The latter took a vacation at the Calgary Stampede in July before returning home to work the lot at Ron Casey Motors in Newmarket. The Leafs’ rented a house in Florida that players used, and Baun spent time there before getting back to work; he also had a gig as host at George’s Spaghetti House on Sherbourne at Dundas.

Eddie Shack and his wife had their own Florida getaway before Shack returned to join with the NHL All-Star team that toured Ontario through July and August playing softball. Centre Bob Pulford spent part of his summer working in the ticket office at Maple Leafs Gardens. Right winger John MacMillan already had an engineering degree to his name; he spent the summer working on an education degree at the University of Denver in Colorado.

In March, when Richard, Dave Keon’s 18-month-old son died, died of pneumonia, the Toronto papers took a respectful step back. I think that’s what it was; it did mean that their muted mentions in the local papers explaining why the Leafs’ centreman missed the final two games of the regular-season was filed in as awkwardly as possible alongside tidings of Frank Mahovlich and his flu, and John MacMillan’s injured elbow.

Keon returned for the first game of the playoffs, wherein the Leafs beat Montreal 3-1, and he contributed two assists to that. Leaf fans were outraged, in April, when Keon wasn’t named to the NHL’s 1st or 2ndAll-Star teams — Stan Mikita and Henri Richard were elevated above him — but he did win the J.P. Bickell Cup, which used to be awarded to the Leafs’ team MVP. Keon and his wife flew to Hamilton, Bermuda soon after the Stanley Cup paraded, so he didn’t learn until later that he’d also won the Lady Byng as the league’s most gentlemanly player.

“The Hamilton paper,” he explained later, “only carries cricket and soccer results.”

The rest of Keon’s summer involved golf (he caddied for an American pro at the Canadian Open in Scarborough, Ontario) and chocolate bars (he worked for a candy company, promoting their product). He also travelled to his hometown with another native son, Leafs’ defenceman Kent Douglas, to be fêted by friends and old neighbours in Noranda-Rouyn, Quebec.

Goaltender Johnny Bower passed most of his summer on the ice in British Columbia, working with 119 eager youngsters at George Vogan’s Nelson hockey school alongside Detroit centre Norm Ullman and the former Red Wing Metro Prystai. The Leafs’ second goalkeep, Don Simmons, was back home near Boston running the real estate and insurance business he owned there. Defenceman Allan Stanley went prospecting in north Ontario, near Blind River.

In August, the list of 62 players that Leafs’ coach and GM Punch Imlach was inviting to training camp in Peterborough, Ontario, in early September included the names of defencemen Don Cherry and Terry Clancy, King’s son.

Most of the late-summer Leaftalk in the papers had to do with the team’s seniormost citizens, Kelly and Stanley and Bower, whether they’d be retiring, what that would mean for the team’s prospects. Stanley was 36 and Bower was — well, hesaid he was 39, though the newspapermen in Toronto thought it was more like 42.

Kelly, who was 35, was thinking that hockey might have to give way to politics, though he hadn’t quite made up his mind. The commute, he said, was killing him.

(All three, in the end, kept playing, helping the Leafs to defend their title in the spring of 1964. And they were all still on the job, of course, when the Leafs won the Cup again in 1967.)

Imlach’s letter in August of ’63 was like others he sent in those years. Winter is coming, was the gist of it, be ready. He asked players to report to camp weighing no more than seven pounds over the weight they usually played at. He said that they should be prepared to show him 25 sit-ups, 25 push-ups, and 30 knee bends, “on command.” Young and old, Stanley Cup champions or not, the Leafs should expect to be awoken at 6.15 in the morning; lights-out was 11.15.

There would be golf, but no golf carts. And as far as getting from their downtown digs at the Empress Hotel to the ice at the Memorial Centre, two kilometres — they’d be walking that, too.

the five leaf retirements of george armstrong

Born this day in 1930, George Armstrong turns 87 today. He remains, of course, the most recent captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs to have hoisted the Stanley Cup in victory.

That was in May of 1967. Armstrong was 36, with four Cups to show for his 16 NHL seasons. In June, he announced a decision he’d made. “I’m retiring,” he said. “That’s it. It’s taken all my guts to quit. I wasn’t too happy with my year. Sure I played well at the end, but does one month make up for seven bad months?”

There was some question whether would be protecting in the summer’s expansion draft: that was another factor. Still, Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach was said to be shaken by the news. “I don’t accept his resignation,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I don’t even know about it.”

Four days later, after Los Angeles and California, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh had plucked Terry Sawchuck, Bob Baun, Kent Douglas, Brit Selby, Al Arbour, and others from the champions’ roster, Imlach did end up shielding Armstrong, and by September, when the Leafs headed to Peterborough, Ontario, for training camp, the captain was back in the fold.

He admitted to being a little embarrassed. “To say you’re going to quit is easy,” he told Louis Cauz. “It’s harder to do it, especially when hockey has been your whole life.”

He’d been thinking on it all summer. “I can’t pin it down to one day when I suddenly made up my mind. About a month ago, I started watching my weight. Maybe I made up my mind then and I didn’t know it. Subconsciously my mind was made up, though. You’d have to be a psychiatrist to figure it out.”

He played the season and, points-wise, improved on his 1966-67 numbers. He was back at camp in September of ’68, preparing for the new season when he called it quits again. He just didn’t think he could help the team.

The Leafs told him to take some time. “I guess they hope I’ll change my mind,” Armstrong said. “I could. The easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. But right now my mind is more or less made up — I’m through.”

He wasn’t. He ended up rejoining the Leafs in early December.

“When I said I was retiring, I meant it,” he insisted after he’d made his comeback. “I said I was going into the hotel business, but I didn’t try that hard to get into it. I missed hockey and Punch kept asking me to come back.”

Summer of ’69, he decided again that he was finished — no, really.

It didn’t take, though. “I got bored,” he said, back in Peterborough again, come September. “When you’re a hockey player, you don’t lose interest until you die.”

“My mind was more made up to stay retired last year,” he said, “than it was this year.”

He didn’t mind that the Leafs’ named a new captain that fall, Dave Keon. “The C is on the guy who should be wearing it,” he said. After all, Armstrong was only going to play that one last year.

The Globe had lost count of Armstrong’s unsuccessful retirements by the time the 1970 rolled around, announcing that he was ending his third retirement to rejoin the Leafs that fall when in fact it was his fourth.

Never mind. He signed a one-year contract in November, played out the year.

Do I even need to say that he was back getting ready for a new campaign in the fall of ’71? “I feel good,” he said, “and am enjoying camp.”

Coach John McLellan wasn’t making any promises, though. “The Chief is a tremendous guy to have around,” he said, “great with the younger players.”

“But he has to beat out a young guy and right now that looks like a rough job.”

He was still in the picture as the new season approached. “He is skating every day in Toronto,” the coach said, “and would be ready if we called him.”

It didn’t work out, in the end. It was mid-October when the Leafs announced that George Armstrong would be packing his skates away for a fifth and final time, and joining Leafs’ management as a scout.

(Image, from 1963: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505690)

want to fight or fool around? then bob plager is your man

1972-73 O-Pee-Chee #161 Bob Plager

He was the first St. Louis Blue ever to sit out a penalty, which seems about right. Called for hooking just a minute into the Blues’ NHL debut in a 2-2 tie with the mint-new Minnesota North Stars in 1967, Bob Plager did get back on the ice in time to assist on the team’s first goal, scored by Larry Keenan.

That’s worth recalling, too, after Plager’s place in Blues’ history was formally recognized in a ceremony on Thursday at the Scottrade Centre by way of retiring his number 5 and raising it forevermore to the rafters.

Plager, who’s 73 now, hails from Kirkland Lake, Ont., and is (of course) one of three defence-playing brothers to have worn St. Louis blue in the team’s early years. Elder brother Barclay died in 1988 while Bill, two years younger than Bob, died last year. Barclay’s number 8 sweater was already hanging in the rink rafter, which means that with Bob’s joining it, the Plagers are just the second pair of NHL brothers to have their numbers retired, after Maurice and Henri Richard.

I’m recommending you consult Dan O’Neill’s appreciation of the former (and all-time) number 5 in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this week. First, though, maybe spare a moment for these several illuminations of the NHLer Plager was:

1

Someone poaching from and minimally re-arranging Bob Plager’s entry in the 1972 edition of Zander Hollander’s Complete Hockey Handbook to fashion a poem might do it this way:

Want to fight or fool around? Then Bob Plager is your man
Burly Bob loves a brawl, with anybody
Once fought brother Barclay, now a Blues teammate, when both were minor leaguers
A first class practical joker too
Once went on a tie-snipping rampage in the Blues’ dressing room

2

Stan Hochman of The Philadelphia Daily News wrote about Plager’s prankmanship in 1969. “When he isn’t setting fire to newspapers or nailing shoes to the clubhouse floor,” Hochman wrote, “Plager likes to befuddle newspapermen.”

For example: asked by a reporter how he spent his summers, Plager said he was a deliveryman for a brewery. “I told him,” Plager recounted, “that whenever I made a delivery I had to sample the beer to make sure it wasn’t stale. I said I’d have four bottles with each delivery. … The story went all over Canada. They had seven applications with the Liquor Control Board, people who wanted a job just like that.”

3

“I’m altogether different on the ice,” Plager told Stan Hochman. “I’m out to win and I’ll do anything to win. But I’ve never spread a guy and you don’t see me getting penalties for slashing. I hit hard but not dirty. What did I have all year, maybe 40 minutes in penalties.” (43, in fact.)

4

According to Martin O’Malley, chronicler of the talented, tempestuous, ill-fated Leaf Brian Spencer, Plager was respectable among NHL roughians of the early 1970s. From O’Malley’s Globe and Mail profile of Spencer, “A Capacity For Anger,” circa 1971:

Anyone in the NHL is tough or they would not be there, he said, but some players are tougher than others, and not all tough players are good fighters. It takes a special attitude, a capacity for anger. John Ferguson is a good fighter but Spencer does not respect him because at times he suspects fighting is all Ferguson can do well. He respects Ted Green of Boston, Vic Hadfield of New York, Barry Gibbs and Ted Harris of Minnesota, Bob Kelly of Philadelphia, Marc Tardif of Montreal, Bob Plager of St. Louis, and Rosaire Paiement of Vancouver. He respects them, but he will fight them anytime, anywhere.

5

In a contentious game at Philadelphia’s Spectrum in January of 1972, Blues’ coach Al Arbour crossed the ice at the end of the second period to lodge a protest with referee John Ashley who, in turn, assessed Arbour a two-minute penalty whereupon Arbour followed Ashley into the tunnel as he departed the ice and then the St. Louis, led by Bob Plager, were climbing into the stands, swinging their sticks.

The Philadelphia Daily News later got Arbour’s version of events:

Someone poured beer on me and someone else hit me. Everyone was shoving and pushing and I fell on a policeman. Then I got hit on the head by a billy club. I never hit a policeman — I’d never do that.

Arbour and three of his players, none of them named Plager, were charged with disorderly conduct and assault and battery on a policeman.

The charges were eventually dropped, I might add. “I realize at a hockey game the players sometimes lose their tempers,” said Municipal Court Judge Max Ominsky, “and things get out of hand. It is unfortunate. It’s a rough game. I hope this doesn’t happen again.”

6

In a pre-season game in 1973 in Brantford, Ontario, Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins, a bench-clearer of a brawl ensued, after which Plager was suspended by NHL president Clarence Campbell after he (CP) “physically interfered with game officials and threatened physical violence to referee Andy van Hellemond.” The ban lasted for two regular-season games.

While he sat out, he made news in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, under the headline “From Enraged To Engaged:”

Plager, who came to the Blues seven years ago as the club’s most eligible bachelor, announced his engagement to Robyn Sher, a secretary he met at Jewish Hospital two years ago.

He gave her the engagement ring as the Blues skated off the ice before Wednesday night’s game at the Arena. “Originally I planned to give her the ring cut inside a puck as I skated off.”

7

The Toronto Star’s Milt Dunnell, writing in 1976:

Robert Plager is a member of the Punching Plagers — his brothers are Barclay and Billy — who have fought most of the leading pugilists on ice — including each other.

He shared this story, about his pre-Blue debut, when he was with the New York Rangers:

Look, the first time I come up to the NHL, it’s for a game in Madison Square Garden, against Chicago.

We’re losing 6-1 and it’s in the third period. I still haven’t been off the bench. The fans are starting to yell: “Bring on Plager.” There had been some advance publicity on me.

Suddenly, I’m out therefor a faceoff in their end. I’m scared stiff the puck will get past me and they’ll have a breakaway. They’ve goy Stan Mikita doing the face-off.

Just like I feared, the puck hops past me and here comes Mikita. As he goes to pass, I stick out my hand clothesline him. I been on the ice seven seconds and I got a penalty.

On the next shift, I knock Bobby Hull into the boards. I flatten him. Hull and I always had a funning feud after that. Anyway, the point I want to make is that, for the next game, the fans have Bob Plager banners hanging from the balcony.

Let me tell you something. In St. Louis, I’ve been voted most popular player, most colourful player and I did more commercials than the big shooters. You think that was because of the two goals I scored?

8

Back, finally, to 1972. In October of the year, Bob and Barclay were arrested by St. Louis police after an incident in a barroom. UPI had the story. I think it speaks for itself:

Police said that the two Blues defencemen were drinking at a restaurant when somebody apparently spilled soup on Bob Plager. He then got into an argument with bartender Alfredo Castillo.

Police are uncertain as to what happened next. Most of the witnesses fled before police arrived. But there was apparently no exchange of blows.

Bob was cut by glass and treated at St. Louis County Hospital. Castillo was not injured.

The manager of the bar-restaurant said the Plager brothers chased the bartender with pots of coffee and hot water and that Castillo held them off with a small knife. The manager also claimed at least a case of liquor was broken in the melee. No charges have been filed.

The Blues issued a statement saying: “Bob Plager was defending himself, and Barclay came to his assistance.”

“Nothing really happened,” said Barclay. “It’s been blown out of proportion. I’ve seen worse happen on a drive-in restaurant parking lot. There wasn’t a punch thrown.”

philadelphia_daily_news_fri__jan_7__1972_

(Image of 1972-73 O-Pee-Chee card courtesy of HockeyMedia + The Want List)

feeling fine, he said; forgot to duck

stewart and henry son pkstrk

Gaye Stewart was the last Toronto Maple Leaf to lead the NHL in goalscoring: in 1945-46 he finished the season with 37 goals. Maybe that’s how you know the name. He was also the first NHLer to win a Stanley Cup before he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie, long before Danny Grant, Tony Esposito, or Ken Dryden got around to doing it. The Cup came in the spring of 1942, when he was 18; the Calder came the following year. He won a second Cup with the Leafs in 1947, then later the same year found himself on his way to Chicago in the big trade that brought Max Bentley to Toronto.

Stewart did fine for himself in Chicago, even as the team struggled. He was named captain of the Black Hawks for the 1948-49 season. It was in January of ’49 that he was photographed, above, with his goaltender’s son: Tom Henry was Sugar Jim’s two-and-a-half-year-old.

Stewart, 25, was only just back in Chicago following a hospital stay in Toronto. Struck by another puck, not the one depicted here, he’d left the Hawks’ January 8 game, a 3-3 tie with the Leafs, a few days earlier. Jim Vipond of The Globe and Mail was on hand to watch. In the second period, as he told it,

The ex-Leaf left winger was struck over the right eye by a puck lifted by Garth Boesch as the Toronto defenseman attempted to clear down the ice.

Stewart returned to action after a brief rest but collapsed in the shower after the game. After being removed to the Gardens hospital, his condition became so serious that a rush call was put in for an ambulance and arrangements made for an emergency operation.

Fortunately the player rallied soon after reaching Toronto General Hospital and surgery was not necessary. His condition was much improved last night [January 9], with the injury diagnosed as a bruise on the brain.

forgot to duck“I forgot to duck,” he was joshing by the time he was back in Chicago, as hockey players did, and do. Brain bruises, The Globe was reporting now. “I’m feeling fine,” Stewart said. “The accident was just one of those things. I expect I’ll start skating next week.” The Associated Press called it a concussion, and had the player’s side of the story to offer:

Stewart said that he when he returned to action in the game he felt tired. He remembered his mates coming into the dressing after the game, but then blacked out until he woke up in hospital.

There wasn’t much news, after that, of Stewart’s head or his recovery — not that made it into the newspapers, anyway. It was three weeks or so before he returned to play, back in Toronto again at the end of January, having missed six games. The two teams tied this time, too, 4-4. They met again in Chicago the following day. The Black Hawks won that one, 4-2, with Stewart scoring the winning goal.

All in all, it was ended up another fruitless year for Chicago. When the playoffs rolled around in March, they were on the outside looking in for the third consecutive season. When Tribune reporter Charles Bartlett buttonholed coach Charlie Conacher before he departed for Toronto, he asked him how he felt about his players.

“I’m not satisfied with any of them,” he answered. “It never pays to be satisfied with any team in sports. Creates a weak attitude. What I am pleased with, however, is the morale of the Hawks. I think their fifth place finish, and the fact that they won only won game less than Toronto will mean a lot when we start training at North Bay in September.”

He thought the team had played pretty well through December. But then Doug Bentley got sick and Stewart concussed, and Bill Mosienko and Metro Prystai had played that stretch of games with their wonky shoulders …

Conacher was headed home to his summer job — his oil business, Bartlett reported. A couple of Hawks were staying in Chicago for the duration, Ralph Nattrass to work in real estate and Jim Conacher at an auto agency. The rundown on their teammates as went their separate ways looked like this:

Goalie Jim Henry will join with his Ranger rival, Chuck Rayner, in operating their summer camp in Kenora, Ont. Red Hamill will go a talent scouting tour of northern Ontario. Doug Bentley and brother Max of the Leafs will play baseball and run their ice locker plant in De Lisle, Sask. Mosienko will return to Winnipeg, where he owns a bowling center with Joe Cooper, former Hawk defenseman.

Roy Conacher, who received a substantial bonus from the Hawks for winning the league’s scoring title, is headed for Midland, Ont., where he plans to open a sporting goods store. Gaye Stewart will run a soft drink agency in Port Arthur, Ont. A fish business will occupy Ernie Dickens in Bowmanville. Doug McCaig is enrolled in a Detroit accounting school. Adam Brown will assist his dad in their Hamilton filling station.