terry sawchuk: he groped for his stick and gloves and, defiant, went to work

Like The Gangster in the Howard Hawks Film: Terry Sawchuk’s last NHL duty was with the New York Rangers in 1969-70. He also padded up for Detroit, Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles during his 21-year career.

Born in Winnipeg on a Saturday of this same date in 1929, Terry Sawchuk was a four-time Stanley Cup champion and a four-time Vézina Trophy winner; he was elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1971, the year after his death at the age of 40. Did any goaltender in NHL history wear his puck-stopping pre-eminence so painfully? Here’s Dick Beddoes writing in 1990, recalling a night in ’67, when a 37-year-old Sawchuk helped the Toronto Maple Leafs to a Cup.

His single most commanding performance occurred that spring, on April 15, in the fifth game of an engrossing Cup semi-final between the Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks. He replace a shaky Johnny Bower in the second period of the fifth game with the best-of-seven series tied 2-2 in games, and this pivotal game tied 2-2 in goals.

The Hawks, in the noisy three-tiered cavern of Chicago Stadium, pressed in the first two minutes of the second period, clamorous action boiling around Sawchuk. Bobby Hull pivoted 15 feet to Sawchuk’s left, almost parallel to the goal, an impossible angle from which to score. Hull shot, hard and high. The puck struck Sawchuk’s left shoulder like a crowbar and knocked him down. Other players skated around the Toronto net, circling, looking, needling.

Pierre Pilote, the Chicago captain, crafty, canny, aimed his barbs. “How’d you feel, Terry? Should’ve let it go, Terry. Might’ve been a goal.”

The scene was caught, pinned forever in a reporter’s memory. Bob Haggert, the Toronto trainer, skidded across the ice from the Toronto bench to Sawchuk. “Where’d you get it, Ukey?”

Sawchuk, on his knees, “On my bad shoulder.”

Haggert, leaning down, “Think you’re okay? Can you stay in the game?”

“I stopped the fucking shot, didn’t I?” Sawchuk struggled to regain his feet. “Help me up and I’ll stone those sons of bitches.” He groped for his stick and gloves and, defiant, went to work.

It is a 23-year-old story, a footnote in clutch exhibitions, how he went home again to glory, how he stopped 36 shots in Toronto’s 4-2 conquest, frustrated the most insatiable shooters in the game, shut them out with the remnants of the young Sawchuk: down the glove, out the arm, over the stick, up the glove, shutting off daylight the shooters thought they saw — all in a kind of desperate epileptic action. You were left wondering who choreographed the most stylish goaler in the galaxy.

legends woe

Bench Strength: The Leafs laid flowers this afternoon in honour of their departed captain. The legendary Leafs represented here are, from the left, Darryl Sittler, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps, Wendel Clark, Dave Keon, Armstrong, Johnny Bower, and Turk Broda.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are paying tribute today to former captain George Armstrong, following the announcement of his death early on Sunday at the age of 90. With the modern-day edition of the team in action in Calgary, Armstrong’s likeness is fronting Scotiabank Arena in Toronto this afternoon, and the team laid flowers in front of his likeness on Legends Row. Nobody has played more games for the Leafs than Armstrong, who captained the team for 12 years and led them to four Stanley Cups.

over the hill and far away

Embed from Getty Images

Jim Pappin scored the decisive goal in a 3-1 win, and Terry Sawchuk was the Toronto goaltender on a Tuesday of this date in 1967 when the Maple Leafs clinched their last (most recent?) Stanley Cup by overthrowing the Montreal Canadiens in six games. Punch Imlach’s underdog gaggle of Leafs included a couple of 40-year-olds in Johnny Bower and Allan Stanley, as well as 39-year-old Red Kelly; Sawchuk and captain George Armstrong were 36. The soggy scene here dates to what happened, back in the dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens, after the Leafs won on this night 53 years ago. That’s Bower bared with 21-year-old Toronto winger Ron Ellis and assistant manager King Clancy, who was 64. Clancy had been seeing Stanley Cups for a while at this point: he won his first, as a defenceman for the original Ottawa Senators, at the end of March of 1923. He helped the Senators win another in 1927 and was part of a third championship team when he played for the Leafs in 1932.

from obscurity to the glare of the calcium: getting to know moe, the emergency goaltender whose last nhl appearance came 26 years after his first

Hats Off To Moe: Morrie (or Maury?) Roberts looks for the puck in one of his 1933 NHL starts, when he guarded the New York Americans’ goal in a 7-3 loss to Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. That’s Red Dutton on the left in New York stars and stripes, with an unidentified teammate on the ice nearby; number 4 is Allan Murray. For the Leafs, that’s Charlie Conacher (9) facing Busher Jackson with Buzz Boll (17) waiting by the net.

A glorious episode for the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night — unless, possibly, was it was the most embarrassing loss in the entire history of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Either way, Carolina’s 6-3 win over the faltering Leafs at Scotiabank Arena was a memorable night for 42-year-old emergency goaltender (and sometime Zamboni-driver) David Ayres, who stepped in to make eight saves and earn the win after the Hurricanes lost netminders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to injury.

Ayres’ achievement was roundly celebrated, and rightly so. In the giddy aftermath, some of the history surrounding emergency goaltenders in the NHL was trundled out, in TV studios and on social media. The league’s PR account was quick to proclaim Ayres’ debut as the most elderly in all the (regular-season) annals … before posting an update a few minutes later, recognizing Lester Patrick aged playoff appearance … before deleting the Patrick amendment.

On the embarrassment side of the ledger, there was mention, too, that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the first team in NHL history to lose to an EBUG — an emergency back-up goaltender.

Not so. Neither is Ayres the first emergency goaltender to win an NHL game, as has been reported.

While the acronym didn’t exist nine decades ago, the tendency for goaltenders to fall to injury goes back (of course) to the earliest days of the NHL. In those early years, of course, teams carried but a single goaltender. So when your mainstay took a puck to the face, say, as Lorne Chabot did in the New York Rangers’ net in April of 1928, while facing the Montreal Maroons the Stanley Cup Finals, quick decisions were called for.

In that case, when Chabot couldn’t continue, it was the aforementioned Lester Patrick, the Rangers’ 44-year-old coach and GM, who stepped into the breach. He’d previously subbed in on the Rangers’ defence, but this was his goaling debut in the NHL. He won it, 2-1, which meant that the Maroons lost.

But before that, Montreal lamented Maroons had already lost, previously, in the regular season, to an emergency goaltender.

And as compelling as David Ayres’ story may be, Moe Roberts’ may be more remarkable still.

Actually, I don’t know about that — just seeing now that in addition to being a Zamboni driver whose last competitive service was (per The Hockey News) “an eight-game stint with Norwood Vipers of the Allan Cup Hockey League where he allowed 58 goals with a .777 save percentage and a 0-8 record.” And, also, he’s a kidney transplant survivor.

Roberts’ is a pretty good chronicle all the same, starting with his 1925 journey (as rendered in the Boston Post) “from obscurity to the glare of the calcium in the short space of 28 minutes.”

Identified, generally, at the time we’re talking here as Maurice, he seems actually to have been born Morris— so maybe we’ll just go with Moe, the diminutive he’d go by later in life. One of the first Jewish players to skate in the NHL, he was about to turn 20 in December of 1925, a son of Waterbury, Connecticut, who’d attended high school in the Boston suburb of Somerville, played goal for the hockey team, the Highlanders. He’d worn the pads, too, during the 1924-25 season for the Boston Athletic Association, backing up Frenchy Lacroix, who’d later find himself stepping into the Montreal Canadiens net vacated by Georges Vézina.

NHL teams mostly carried just a single goaltender in those years, of course, though spares and back-ups did start to become more common toward the end of the decade. Wilf Cude would eventually be designated league back-up, available to any team that needed an emergency replacement, but that was still several years in the future, and wouldn’t really have helped in the Boston Arena this night in any case. Whether Roberts was on hand at the rink on Tuesday, December 8, or had to be summoned in a hurry — I don’t know. He seems to have been unaffiliated at this point — one contemporary account styles him as the Boston A.A.’s former “substitute and inactive goalie.”

Either way, the NHL’s two newest teams were playing that night, early on in their second campaign. With the score tied 2-2 in the second period, Maroons’ winger Babe Siebert collided with the Bruins’ goaltender, Charlie Stewart, who was also a dentist and so, inevitably, nicknamed Doc. Here’s the Boston Globe’s view of the matter:

Dr. Stewart in stopping a shot by Seibert [sic], was bumped by the latter as he raced in for the rebound. The two players went down in a pile. Dr. Stewart was unable to get up. After a long delay it was discovered that he had been so badly injured he would be out for the rest of the game and possibly for some time. Young Roberts was found and did yeoman work.

Montreal’s Gazette diagnosed Stewart’s trouble: “Doc Stewart was led off the ice with his left leg hanging limp. Later it became known that he had a bad cut, requiring several stitches ….”

Roberts got “a big hand” as he warmed up, the Gazette reported, “with all the Bruins firing testing shots at him.” The first hostile shot he faced was a long one from the stick of Maroons’ centre Reg Noble, and the stop “met with loud acclaim.”

There’s no record of how many shots Roberts faced in his period-and-a-bit of relief work — the Gazette has him “under bombardment” in the third — just that he deterred them all. Winger Jimmy Herberts scored for the Bruins, making Roberts a winner in his emergency debut.

His luck didn’t last. With Stewart unable to play, Roberts started Boston’s next game, three days later, in Pittsburgh, when the local Pirates overwhelmed him by a score of 5-3.

With Doc Stewart declaring himself ready to go for Boston’s next game, Roberts’ NHL career might have ended there and then. On the contrary, it still had a distance to go — across three more decades.

Moe Roberts eventually caught on with teams in the minor Can-Am Hockey League, guarding goals for Eagles in New Haven and Arrows in Philadelphia through the rest of the 1920s and into the ’30s. Towards the end of the 1931-32 NHL season, when the New York Americans were visiting Montreal, when regular goaltender Roy Worters fell ill, the Amerks borrowed the Maroons’ spare netminder, Dave Kerr, for their meeting with (and 6-1 loss to) the Canadiens.

Worters still wasn’t available two days later when the Amerks met their New York rivals, the Rangers, at Madison Square Garden, so they called up 26-year-old Roberts from New Haven. Maury and also Morrie the papers were calling him by now, and he was brilliant, stepping into Worters’ skates. From the Brooklyn Times Union:

He filled them capably at all times, sensationally at some, bringing down volleys of applause from the assemblage during the play and receiving ovations when he came on the ice for the second and third periods.

The Americans won the game 5-1.

While Roberts didn’t see any more NHL action that season, he did return to the Americans’ net the following year, starting five games in relief after Roy Worters broke his hand, and recording his third career win.

That still wasn’t quite the end of Roberts’ NHL story. Flip forward to 1951. Five years had passed since Roberts had played in a competitive game, in the EAHL, and he was working, now, as an assistant trainer and sometime practice goalie for the Chicago Black Hawks.

When the Detroit Red Wings came to town that November, Harry Lumley took the Chicago net to face Terry Sawchuk down at the far end. Neither man had been born when Roberts played in that first NHL game of his in 1925. Now, 26 years later, he was about to take shots in his ninth (and finally final) big-league game.

Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe had put pucks past Lumley by the end of the second period; the score was 5-2 for the Red Wings. Suffering from a bruised left knee, the Black Hawks’ goaltender stayed put in the third, ceding his net to Moe Roberts. Chicago continued to lose right up until the end — but Roberts stopped every shot he faced.

More Moe: A fanciful ’52-53 Parkie for Moe Roberts in Chicago gear, created by (and courtesy of) collector Kingsley Walsh.

At 45, Roberts was making history, then and there, as the oldest player ever to have suited up for an NHL game, exceeding Lester Patrick’s record of having played for the New York Rangers in a famous 1928 playoff game in 1928. Roberts, who died in 1975 at the age of 69, remains the oldest man to have played goal in NHL history, ahead of Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley, though a couple of skaters have surpassed him since 1951: Chris Chelios played at 48 and Gordie Howe at 52.

best bower

Backstop: Born in 1924 on a Saturday of this date in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Johnny Kiszkan got a new surname in 1946, which is why we talk about Johnny Bower breaking into the NHL in 1953. He started out a New York Ranger, but it’s as a beloved and highly effective Toronto Maple Leaf that he’s remembered, not least because he helped the team win four Stanley Cups in the 1960s. Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976, Johnny Bower died in 2017 at the age of 93.

leafs in boston, 1959: we’re just too good a hockey team for them

It’s been 60 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs overthrew the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup playoffs — in April of 1959, the teams took their semi-final to a seventh game, which the Leafs won at Boston Garden by a score of 3-2.

Going into the series that year the Bruins were favourites. They had finished the regular season that year eight points ahead of the Leafs (this year’s gap, you’ll remember, was seven). Familiar ice proved advantageous: starting at the home, the Bruins won the first two games before the Leafs tied the series once it switched over to Maple Leaf Gardens. Back home, the Bruins took the lead once again before the Leafs prevailed in the sixth game.

Going into game seven, the Bruins were hurting. With three key defencemen on the limp, they seemed to be (as Rex MacLeod put it in the pages of The Globe and Mail) “in a grim state of decrepitude.”

Boston coach Milt Schmidt wasn’t arguing. “If this was February 7 instead of April 7,” he said, ahead of the decisive game, “three of our players wouldn’t even be dressing for tonight’s game — [Bob] Armstrong, [Fern] Flaman, and [Doug] Mohns.”

The keys to victory for his battered team? “We’re going to have to forecheck the Leafs like fury,” Schmidt said, “and stay on top of them every minute. Keep the puck out of our end as much as possible.”

“I said it would be a long series. Leafs hit their stride late in the season and I figured it would be difficult for any team to contain that momentum. I’m not going to predict how the seventh game will go, but I think home ice is in our favour, and a team with the spirit my gang showed in Toronto is going to be hard to stop.”

Toronto coach Punch Imlach didn’t buy it. He was willing to foresee an outcome, happy to, telling reporters that the Leafs would not only be beating the Bruins, they would go on to dispense with the Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup.

“We’re just too good a hockey team for them,” Imlach announced as his team headed into enemy territory. “Forget your injuries and we can match Boston any way they want to play it. If they want it rough, we can take them man for man and earn a decision. I have proved that fact to my men on the blackboard. If they want to throw it wide open, we have the legs to leave them in that type of game.”

“All things being equal, we should win,” Imlach said. “We could lose on a fluke goal or a bad call, but I’m convinced it won’t happen.”

Bold talk. As it turned out, the game was “boisterous” and “rabble-rousing,” the “best of the series,” according to MacLeod of the Globe. The score was tied 2-2 in the third period when, with fewer than three minutes remaining, Leafs winger Gerry Ehman beat Boston goaltender Harry Lumley to win the game. With Johnny Bower standing tall in Toronto’s goal, the Leafs (MacLeod wrote) put in some dedicated checking and “somehow held off a raging, infuriated Boston team for the final two minutes.”

Punch Imlach wasn’t entirely a man of his word. In the Finals, the Leafs fell in five games to the mighty Canadiens, who won their fourth consecutive championship.

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.

upended

It was the final weekend of the NHL’s 1959-60 season, towards the end of March. On the eve of the playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs had a couple of games to go before they got down to the business of chasing the Stanley Cup. Sunday they played their final regular-season game in Detroit, forging a 3-2 win in which goaltender Johnny Bower was the acknowledged star. Bower hadn’t done badly the night before either, back home at Maple Leaf Gardens, outduelling Chicago’s Glenn Hall in a 1-0 win that saw Frank Mahovlich set up Red Kelly’s winning goal. Writing it up for the hometown Globe and Mail, Rex MacLeod recognized that “Pierre Pilote, most underrated defenceman in the league was a standout for the Hawks in a game that had occasional flurries of high-speed action, excellent goalkeeping, fine defensive work plus solid bodychecking.” A photographer from the Turofsky’s Alexandra Studio’s caught some of that here. Reproduced in 100: A Century of NHL Memories (2017), an anthology of photographs drawn from the vasty vaults of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, this image shows Pilote upending Leafs’ right winger Gerry James while Hall secures the puck in his crease. The other Hawks shown are (back left, wearing number 8) winger Murray Balfour alongside defenceman Moose Vasko. Obscured, mostly, by James and Pilote, that’s Bobby Hull in back. He didn’t make the cut at all when football star and artist Tex Coulter came to translate the scene to canvas. Then again, Glenn Hall didn’t fare a whole lot better in the painted version, here below, that would adorn the cover of the NHL’s 1961 Official Annual, snatching away Hall’s real-save save to pose him looking back, too late, at the goal he couldn’t foil.

(Top image: Imperial Oil/Turofsky Collection, from 100 : A Century of NHL Memories, Natural Treasure Series, 2017)

 

 

 

 

 

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

johnny bower: when his team lost, his grin was the same as when his team won

I don’t know of anybody playing with Johnny who ever had a bad word to say about him. He’s just one of those wonderful fellows who comes along that’s tolerant of everything. If trouble is there, he’ll enjoy it and try to find a way to get out of it. I’ve never seen him without a smile on his face. When his team lost, his grin was the same as when his team won. If you try a hundred per cent, then you should have no bad feelings about the outcome. That was relayed to me once and I think somebody must have told Johnny the same thing. There’s a good picture of us together when the Leafs won the Cup in 1963 and I’ve got my arm around him at centre ice, congratulating him. I felt it was the right thing to do. He was an old friend and I had to go congratulate him.

• Gordie Howe in his foreword to The China Wall, Bob Duff’s 2006 Johnny Bower biography.

 

(Image: Stephen Smith)

johnny bower, 1967: by a whisker

Say whatever you want about the late, great, exceedingly affable Toronto Maple Leaf goaltender Johnny Bower, who died a week ago at the age of 93, but say this, too: he was an extremely speedy shaver.

This is going back ages, to those ancient times when the Leafs still reigned as Stanley Cup champions. They’d triumphed in the spring of 1967, as you maybe don’t really remember, an unlikely crew of conquerors as ever there was in NHL history, anchored in goal by the elderly tandem of Bower (42 at the time) and Terry Sawchuk (37).

At some point after that springtime surprise, Bower took up as spokesman for the Sunbeam Shavemaster Shaver Model 777. Maybe you’ve heard tell of this fabulous machine; possibly you had one, once, to tend your own face. Did you prize above all things getting the trimming done with maximum dispatch? Bower seems to have been so eager to prove how hasty his Shavemaster could do the job, he challenged four of his NHL compadres to a race.

Sawchuk was there, with an electric shaver with rotary heads. Ed Giacomin of the New York Rangers brought an old analogue “band” razor. Then there were Canadiens: Charlie Hodge with (and I quote) a flat-headed electric shaver with reciprocating cutters, Gump Worsley wielding a stainless-steel blade in a safety razor.

In case you thought this was an unofficial stunt, sorry, wrong, no: this was official. So much so that three NHL trainers were on hand to time the proceedings: Montreal’s Bob Harney, Bob Haggert from the Leafs, and Frank Paice of the Rangers.

The goaltenders hadn’t shaved for a day, I guess. That’s what I’m told. Of course they got dressed up in full gosling gear (no masks, obviously). Given the go … well, who’s kidding who? You knew how this was going to go. Bower won. It took him and his six-bladed 777 — believe it or don’t — a mere minute to mow his mien. Six “husky” blades did the job, the admen from ’67 tell me, with “over two million cutting actions.”

Bower was sold, it seems — enough to make the sell. His testimony is on the record: “I don’t think any shaver,” he advised, “can beat Sunbeam for speed and comfort.”