An exercise in “humanitarian concern,” writer Jack Batten called it. “It will do no less than head off the threat of brain fatigue, emotional delirium, heart murmur, incipient alcoholism, and all the other dread symptoms annually associated with following the spectacular ups and downs of a National Hockey League season.”
I don’t know whether Canadian hockey fans truly appreciated the mission of mercy that Batten and his editors undertook on their behalf at Maclean’s magazine nearly 50 years ago, or whether they only indulged it as an entertaining lark. To spare the faithful the time-consuming and oh-so-stressful trouble inherent in following a season’s worth of NHL hockey, Maclean’s decided they’d get in ahead of the season and ask a computer to figure out how it was all going to play out — a “$500,000 computer,” no less.
If this seems all very Stanley Kubrick, well, it was 1970, a mere two years after 2001: A Space Odyssey made its debut in movie theatres.
Looking back, the magazine’s “bloodless and coolly scientific” effort to determine just how the 1970-71 NHL season would end might be best remembered as the novelty act it was. But it also offers a fascinating glimpse into the state of NHL stats at the time, and just how fancy they were getting.
Leaving the pundits to muddle in their guesswork, Maclean’s arranged early in 1970 to gather up a pile of NHL statistics from the ’69-70 season and drive them out to Scarborough, Ontario, for a visit to the offices of Honeywell Controls Limited, then billing themselves as “The Other Computer Company — or, as Batten puts it, Avis to IBM’s Hertz.
How big a pile? “A staggering load” is Batten’s measurement. For these raw numbers, Maclean’s looked to NHL statistician Ron Andrews, not a household name, to be sure, but an important one in hockey history. A former Canadian Press reporter with (as Batten puts it) a “special numerical curiosity,” Andrews was digging deeply into the numbers the game generates and thinking about how they might be used to analyze how it’s played long before NHL President Clarence Campbell hired him in 1963 to collect and organize the league’s statistics. Calling him Andrews a pioneer of plus-minus may not be the compliment it once was, but no-one did more to build the foundation of hockey analytics than he did. With his 1970 Maclean’s cameo, Andrews, who died in 2003 at the age of 67, offers a view into the sophistication of his operation — including a list of 22 offensive categories, “not all but many” of those he and his hunter-gatherers around the league made it their business to track for each NHL player.
While Andrews provided the league’s ’69-70 stats to Maclean’s, he wasn’t in on the computing. He takes his bow early, with a bit of a growl. “The only trouble with all our statistics,” he says, “is that most fans and writers don’t know how to interpret them properly.”
Uh-huh, says Batten. Who doesknow how to read them?
“Coaches do. They understand the best way to judge a player is to watch him perform on the ice. But they use the figures as a backup, as a confirmation of their own ideas. They use them to work out problems, like which players to put together on the same line. That makes sense.”
“The computer,” Andrews says. “A computer knows what numbers mean.”
Honeywell’s was a Series 200 Model 1250 — “called Foster by its friends,” Batten writes. The company had a crew of three assigned to the Maclean’s job, including a forecasting expert and a programmer responsible for loading the NHL’s hockey data onto punch-cards to feed to Foster.
This, the project’s lead told Batten, was by no means a blind operation. “We attached different weights to the different factors, so that some pieces of data, goals scored, say, were given more significance than others — minutes in penalties, for instance. We helped the computer along by making judgments from our own intuitive understanding of hockey. After all, the computer’s never seen a game.”
The programming took weeks — “several” of them, Batten says. “We don’t accept the computer’s programming forecasts right off, the Honeywell man tells him. “We look at the trends it’s showing, and we compare them with what we know is actually going on in the real world. Then we adjust our programming accordingly, and feed everything back into the computer again. It’s a continuous process. For example, if the computer started to show a trend favorable to the Buffalo Sabres, we’d know we’d have to make adjustments, right?”
When all was said and done — once Foster had “memorized, digested, juggled, and computed the data” — by then, it was “a bright afternoon early in September,” and the computer “presented on its spinning tape a scientific view” of how the season ahead would unfold.
Foster’s regular-season forecast had Boston finishing first in the East, followed by Montreal, while in the West Chicago would prevail ahead of Minnesota.
Eastern teams had swept past their western rivals three years in a row to win Stanley Cups in the late 1960s. In a bid to make the upcoming ’70-71 finals more competitive, the NHL rejigged the playoff format to bring eastern and western teams together in the semi-finals. With that in mind, Foster saw Boston ousting the Minnesota North Stars at that point, and Chicago bettering Montreal.
This latter scenario, one of the programmers told Maclean’s, was all about Foster’s thinking on the Black Hawks’ youth and vigor. “The computer knows that Montreal, with its older guys, is not going to finish the season as fresh and healthy as Chicago. That’s how the Black Hawks get the winning edge.”
It wouldn’t last against Boston, come the finals. The Bruins, of course, had won the Cup in 1970, with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk leading the way. They’d do it again in 1971, Foster felt.
“It couldn’t be any other way,” one of his Honeywell handlers explained. According to the computer, the outcome wouldn’t even be close. “I’d have to call it a slaughter.”
It’s worth noting that Maclean’s saw fit to bolster Foster’s findings with an accompanying column by Harry Sinden. He wasn’t what you’d call an entirely disinterested party, having taken his (temporary) retirement after coaching the Bruins to the 1969-70 championship. For him, Honeywell’s Series 200 needed no correcting. “The Bruins,” Sinden computed, “will ultimately whip everybody for the Stanley Cup.”
History, of course, gets the final say. It shows that while Boston did in fact finish top of the 1970-71 NHL regular-season standings, the Bruins foundered early in April when they ran up against a young goaltender named Ken Dryden in the first round of the playoffs. Having adjusted Boston’s and Foster’s programming accordingly, Dryden’s Montreal Canadiens went on to defeat Minnesota and Chicago to win the Stanley Cup they couldn’t convince Honeywell to hand over.
Sixty years ago today, Montreal was minus-nine and snowed under, cloudy overhead, with light flurries expected and a risk of freezing drizzle. Normal, then, for a Saturday in January. Marlon Brando’s new movie, Sayonara, was playing at Loew’s downtown. In Ottawa, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was feeling better. Having spent the week confined to his bed with a strained back, he was up and out for a short walk. All was well in the local hockey cosmos: the Montreal Canadiens, Stanley Cup champions for two years running, were once again a top the NHL standings. Coming off a 5-2 Thursday-night win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs were preparing to host the Boston Bruins and their newly promoted winger, 22-year-old Fredericton, New Brunswick-born Willie O’Ree.
This week, the NHL is remembering that 1958 night, the first to see a black player play in the league. O’Ree, who’s 82 now, was honoured last night and roundly cheered at Boston’s TD Garden when the modern-day Canadiens played (and lost to) the Bruins. Earlier in the day, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had proclaimed today Willie O’Ree Day across the city. That was at a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in O’Ree’s honour.
Called up in a manpower emergency, O’Ree played only a pair of games during his first NHL stay. It would be three more years before he returned to score his first goal.
Back in ’58, the Bruins and Canadiens were spending all weekend together. Following Saturday’s game, they’d meet again Sunday in Boston. The then-dominant Canadiens were, as mentioned, cruising atop the six-team NHL, 18 points ahead of second-place Detroit, 24 clear of the languishing fifth-place Bruins.
With Leo Labine out with the flu, Boston GM Lynn Patrick summoned 22-year-old O’Ree from the Quebec Aces of the minor-league QHL. In 32 games there, he’d scored 7 goals and 18 points.
“It is believed that O’Ree is the first Negro to ever perform in the National Hockey League,” Montreal’s Gazette ventured, with nods to other black hockey talents, including Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre, star Aces of the early 1950s, as well as to O’Ree’s teammate in Quebec, centre Stan Maxwell.
Elsewhere, across North America, the headlines were bolder. “Young Negro Star Makes NHL History,” a California paper headlined a United Press story in its pages, noting “the lowering of the last color line among major sports” while also deferring to “most hockey observers” who were said to agree that the only reason there had been such a line was “the fact that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make” the NHL.
O’Ree wore number 25 playing the left wing on Boston’s third line alongside Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini.
“His debut was undistinguished as Boston coach Milt Schmidt played him only half a turn at a time,” The Boston Globe recounted, “alternating him with veteran Johnny Pierson.” The thinking there? GM Patrick explained that Schmidt wanted to “ease the pressure” on O’Ree and “reduce the margin of errors for the youngster.”
Dink Carroll of Montreal’s Gazette paid most of his attention on the night to Boston’s new signing, the veteran Harry Lumley, “chubby goalkeeper who looks like a chipmunk with a nut in each cheek.” O’Ree he recognized as “a fleet skater” who had one good scoring chance in the third period in combination with Toppazzini. “He lost it when he was hooked from behind by Tom Johnson.”
Lumley’s revenge was registered in a 3-0 Bruins’ win. “I was really nervous in the first period,” O’Ree said, “but it was much better as the game went on.”
“It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. It’s the greatest thrill of my life.”
Also making an NHL debut at the Forum that night: Prince Souvanna Phouma, the prime minister of Laos, was on hand to see the hockey sights at the end of a North American visit.
Sunday night at the Garden, O’Ree got one opening, early on, when Don McKenney fed him a leading pass. This time, O’Ree shot into Jacques Plante’s pads. With Canadiens re-asserting themselves as league-leaders with a 6-2 win, O’Ree didn’t play much in the game’s latter stages.
So that was that. Afterwards, O’Ree was reported to be grinning, sitting amid a stack of telegrams from well-wishers back home. He described himself as a “little shaky.” “I’m just happy to get a chance up here, that’s about all I can say.” Leo Labine was back at practice next day, along with another forward who’d been injured, Real Chevrefils, so after another practice or two, O’Ree returned to Quebec.
It was three years before he got back the NHL and scored his first goal. Canadiens figured prominently again, starting in the summer of 1960, when the Bruins agreed to loan the winger to Montreal. O’Ree was duly assigned to the Hull-Ottawa edition of the Canadiens, in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, where Glen Skov was the coach. The team had a good autumn, but as happens with farm teams, they paid the price in having their best talents stripped away. In November, Canadiens called up Bobby Rousseau and Gilles Tremblay while Boston beckoned O’Ree, now 25, back to the fold. The Bruins were still down at the wrong end of the standings, just a point out of last place, while also suffering adjectivally in the papers where, if they weren’t “listless” they were “punchless.”
Starting off his second stint as a Bruin, he was numbered 22, assigned to a line with Charlie Burns and Gerry Ouellette. As in 1958, newspapers (like Pittsburgh’s Courier) took due note that the “fast, aggressive forward” was “the first of his race to play in the National Hockey League.”
“The Speedy O’Ree” The New York Times annotated him when he made his Garden debut; in Chicago, the Tribune’s Ted Damata was particularly attentive. “The first Negro” was “on the ice four times, three times as a left winger and once as a right winger. He touched the puck twice, losing it each time, once on a hefty body check by Jack Evans of the Hawks.” Continue reading
Montreal was sitting high atop the NHL standings in February of 1959, looking back down at Chicago in second. The Bruins were a point behind the Black Hawks the night Boston stopped in at the Stadium for a visit mid-month — a win would vault them ahead of Chicago.
That’s the background here. Many of the 15,046 fans who showed up to watch the game were in favour of the Bruins not achieving this — most, even. Included in that number were members of the Black Hawks’ loyal upperdeck association of fans known as the Standby Club. Whatever they could do to help in the effort to turn back the Bruins, well, they were willing to do that thing. For instance: rigging up a big bedsheet message to exhort Chicago goaltender Glenn Hall not to let in more goals than his teammates could score down at the other end. Marilyn Kluk and Fred Stoneberg were in charge of the operation: that’s them on either end of the banner.
And the game? Chicago started off fine, building a 3-0 first-period lead on goals that Ted Lindsay, Bobby Hull, and Dollard St. Laurent put past Boston’s Don Simmons.
But. Then. Chicago had been giving up leads that winter and here again (as the Chicago Tribune’s Charles Bartlett put it) they “went wastrel.” They kept the Bruins at bay for most of the second period. Until they didn’t. Bartlett:
The Hawk defense was its obstinate best in protecting Hall thru every minute of the second period except the 20th. Guy Gendron lofted the puck toward the Chicago net, and Hall raised his club for the save. The puck barely skinned over the goalie’s blade after running up his arm, then dribbled down his back and into the cage.
The Bruins needed just 17 seconds of the 20 minutes allotted for the third period to tie it up. Bronco Horvath scored first at 8:53 followed rapidly by Johnny Bucyk.
Bartlett called the Black Hawks “smug” and “profligate” in his write-up, but when the game ended in a 3-3 tie, they were still in second place. Hall held on.
“Did you ever see how they kill cattle?” Jacques Plante said. “They use a sledgehammer and the cattle just drop dead. That’s how the shot felt when it hit me. Without the mask I wouldn’t be here today.”
He was in the Jewish Hospital in St. Louis by then, early May of 1970. Eleven years had passed since he’d first donned his famous mask and started a hockey revolution. At 41, with seven Stanley Cup championships to his name, he was nearing the end of his playing days, but he wasn’t there yet. In his second year with St. Louis, he was a favourite of fans, and had helped the Blues reach their third consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.
Coach and GM Scotty Bowman had used three goaltenders through the early rounds of the playoffs. As the Blues prepared to face Boston in the finals, Bruins’ coach Harry Sinden said, “We recognize Plante as their number one goalie, and I never want to see him in the nets against us.” Bowman didn’t oblige: Plante was the starter on Sunday, May 3, as the Blues opened the series at home at The Arena.
Boston’s Johnny Bucyk scored in the first period, Jim Roberts tied the score for St. Louis early in the second. Then, as recalled next day in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The 41-year-old Blues goalie was struck on the fiberglass mask above the left eye on a deflection of a shot by the Boston Bruins’ Fred Stanfield.” Another correspondent from the same paper had him “felled by a puck.”
UPI: “nearly had his head torn off Fred Stanfield’s screamer.”
Stanfield’s “brow-bender,” was Harold Kaese’s contribution, in The Boston Globe.
“The Boston player’s drive, which started out low, glanced off Phil Esposito’s stick and smashed into the veteran goalie’s mask, cracking it.” (Post-Dispatch)
He fell facedown. For two minutes he lay unconscious on the ice. Blues’ doctor J.G. Probstein and trainer Tommy Woodcock “worked on” him, the AP said. After about five minutes, they got him to his feet. He wobbled. They brought out a stretcher, but he wanted to skate off.
Ernie Wakely, 28, was the Blues’ back-up. He came in and did his best, but the Bruins kept coming, and won by a score of 6-1 with the aid of Bucyk’s hattrick.
Later, Dr. Probstein said it was a concussion and that while Plante’s condition was “satisfactory,” he’d be hospitalized “for an indefinite period of time.”
Plante’s first words (“after his head cleared”) were said to be: “The mask saved my life.”
He phoned his wife Jacqueline in Montreal. “She was relieved to hear from me,” he said later. She made a habit of not watching her husband on TV, but his children had the game on that night. It was almost when she passed through the room and noticed that Plante was absent from the net. Only then did the youngest son calmly mention what had happened.
Monday, a reporter among many visiting Room 223 at Jewish Hospital described the patient: “He had a whelp over his left eye and a slight cut and he smiled very little for his audience.”
Plante: “My head hurts every time I move it.”
Joe Falls was there, sports editor of The Detroit Free Press.
“Hockey writers,” he’d write, “happen to like old Jacques.”
He’s a good guy and always good for a story and so before we went up to see him I chipped in two bucks with a couple of Montreal writers and we bought him some flowers.
Jacques, he like that very much. He is a very sensitive man and was moved by the sentiment.
“Merci beaucoup, merci beaucoup,” he kept repeating.
Of course we’d signed the card: “From Fred Stanfield, with love.” He pretended not to notice.
Did Plante change rooms? Also Monday, Boston Globe columnist Fran Rosa found him asleep in 219. Barclay Plager had spent the night at the hospital, too, and he was the one to wake Plante up. The Blues defenceman was admitted after passing out on the Blues’ bench during the third period of Sunday’s game; now he was being released.
Plante talked about his future. “I don’t think I’ll be here next season.” With Buffalo and Vancouver coming into the league, summer would see an expansion draft. Plante didn’t think he’d be protected.
“Look,” he said, “Hall is three years younger than me and Wakely is the goalie of the future so what do they want with me?”
Plager had injured himself trying to hipcheck Boston’s Johnny McKenzie, damaging ribs when he bounced off and hit the boards. “The doctor didn’t exactly call it a fracture,” he confided. “He seems to think it was a separation. He said he hadn’t seen anything like it before and he’s going to write a paper on it.”
Monday, the Bruins held a light practice. Towards the end, coach Harry Sinden called the players together and led them in an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Fred Stanfield was turning 26.
Plante said he’d never been hit so hard. From his Montreal days, he recalled a tough night against Toronto: “Red Kelly shot and hit me in the face and the rebound went to Mahovlich. When I dove for the puck, it hit me where the mask protects my eyes. All I had that time was a nosebleed. No cuts.”
Dan Stoneking of The Minneapolis Star phoned Plante on Monday, said he sounded “groggy.” He also noted his “unmistakable French-Canadian accent.”
Another report from Plante’s bedside noted his “slight French accent.”
Joe Falls from Detroit’s Free Press opened his column with this:
Monsieur Jacques Plante, he leaned back on ze pillow in ze hospital room and he say: “Le masque m’a sauve la vie …”
“It only hurts when I laugh,” Plante told Dan Stoneking.
“I’ve got the world’s biggest hangover,” was another quote in another paper.
“Nothing ever felt like this,” Joe Falls heard. “My head, it is still spinning. I feel like I am floating. I feel like I want to throw up all the time.”
“I can still feel it in my head,” was another thing Plante said on the Monday. “The way I feel right now, I don’t feel like playing any more. That’s today. I don’t feel like eating or anything. Then I know as I get better I’m sure I’ll play again. But I do not know I will play in this series. I just don’t know.”
Also on Monday, Mrs. Ruth Frohlichstein dropped by. That’s her, above. The newspapers who ran photographs of her visit described her variously: as “a neighbourhood friend” and “Plante neighbour and favourite bridge partner.”
St. Louis coach and general manager Scotty Bowman had yet another goaltender waiting in the wings, 37-year-old Glenn Hall. Originally, Bowman had said he’d wanted to see how Plante played in the first game before he made any decisions on later starters. “He doesn’t play well in Boston,” Bowman said, “Glenn Hall plays well there.” With Plante out, the coach didn’t waver from that: Wakely would keep the net for Game Two in St. Louis before giving way to Hall when the series moved to Boston.