going nowhere: twelve blockbusting nhl deals that almost were (but not quite)

Here’s Your Hat:  With 23-year-old rookie Frank Brimsek having made the Boston net his own in October of 1938, the Bruins were looking to move their 35-year-old veteran Tiny Thompson. The buzz was that Toronto might swap him for defenceman Red Horner, though both teams denied it. In November, Thompson did pack his suitcase and bid Boston bye-bye, headed for Detroit in a deal that brought back from the Red Wings goaltender Normie Smith and US$15,000 cash.

Was Bobby Hull almost a Leaf? What about Rocket Richard? What would he have looked like in blue-and-white? As the rumours wax and wane on this day of the latest NHL trade deadline, what if we ticked off some time ahead of the 3 p.m. EST finish line exploring some potentially epic NHL deals that might have been (though, in the end, weren’t). Some of these unrealized trades and transactions, to be sure, were wishful wisps in the minds of newspapermen; some others, no doubt, were actually entertained by managers with the desire (if not, maybe, the wherewithal) to get a deal done. Either way, they involve some of the biggest names and talents in NHL history.  

October, 1983

It was the Montreal Gazette’s well-connected Red Fisher who heard the word, and shared it, that Montreal was in talks to acquire Paul Coffey from the Edmonton Oilers. The All-Star defenceman was coming off a stellar season in which he’d scored 29 goals and 96 points, but Fisher had it on good, anonymous authority that Oilers’ GM Glen Sather might be interest in taking defenceman Gilbert Delorme and centre Doug Wickenheiser in a swap. Sather was determined, Fisher said, to cut back on his team’s goals against. “His long-time view has been that Coffey is too concerned with offence and not sufficiently with defence.”

Coffey stayed in Edmonton, of course, celebrating by finishing the regular season with 40 goals and 126 points, good enough to stand him second in NHL scoring, behind teammate Wayne Gretzky. Also, that spring: Coffey and the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. He won two more with Edmonton before he was finally traded, in 1987, to Pittsburgh, where he won a fourth, in 1991.

August, 1980

The fact that no-one had scored more points as a Toronto Maple Leafs than Darryl Sittler didn’t matter much to the team’s owner, Harold Ballard, in 1979, as he did his best to make his star centre miserable. Trading away Sittler’s winger and good friend Lanny McDonald was part of the program. By the end of a season that saw Sittler tear his captain’s C from his sweater, Ballard was vowing that Sittler would never again wear the blue-and-white.

In August of 1980, Ballard told reporters that he’d phoned Calgary Flames’ owner Nelson Skalbania to tell him that he could have Sittler in exchange for a pair of centres, Bob MacMillan and Kent Nilsson. “So far Skalbania has not replied,” Canadian Press noted, “and Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Flames, says he knows nothing about it.”

Sittler and Ballard did subsequently broker a peace that saw the former return to the captaincy and play on in Toronto, until … the next breakdown. Early in January of 1982 he walked out on the Leafs hoping to prompt a trade, which duly came mid-month. Sittler went to Philadelphia in exchange for centre Rich Costello, a draft pick (that eventually hooked Peter Ihnacak), and future considerations (that, in time, resolved into left winger Ken Strong).

May, 1973

Defenceman Denis Potvin of the Ottawa 67s was the consensus first pick ahead of the 1973 NHL Draft in Montreal, and nobody doubted the GM Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders would select him when he got the chance.

Well, nobody but Montreal GM Sam Pollock, who held the second pick in the draft. Rumour had it that Pollock was offering the Islanders two prospects, wingers Dave Gardner and Steve Shutt, if they bypassed Potvin, leaving him for Canadiens. “I’ve spoken to every general manager in the National Hockey League here this week,” Torrey said, “trying to improve my hockey team in any way I can and what a lot of people forget is that I could conceivably draft Denis Tuesday and then trade him to Rangers or Boston, and yes, even Montreal, on Wednesday, if I wanted to.”

Draft Denis is what Torrey did, while Montreal had to settle for dropping down to select Bob Gainey, eighth overall. Pollock pushed hard for that Wednesday trade, reportedly upping his pre-draft offer for Potvin to five prospects, including Shutt and Gardner. Torrey’s answer was the same: no go.

April, 1970

Chicago’s playoffs came to a skidding halt that year: the Black Hawks lost in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, falling in four straight to the eventual champions from Boston. The Black Hawks had barely packed up their sticks for the year when Bill Gleason of Chicago’s Sun-Times broke the story that the team’s management was intent on shipping out one of the team’s — well, Gleason’s word was superplayers, which is to say left winger Bobby Hull or centre Stan Mikita.

This had been decided before the playoffs, Gleason said. Hull was the likelier to go, he maintained: he was not only the more marketable, but “had given management more trouble.” Gleason and his Chicago hockeywriting brethren agreed: Hull was headed to Toronto. “That’s a natural trade,” Gleason felt. “Bobby is an Ontarioan and he would restore the glamour that has been missing from Maple Leaf Gardens.

Speculative or not, this news caused something of a stir thereabout. At 31, Hull had been a Black Hawk for 13 seasons. In four of those, he’d scored 50 goals or more. He’d won a Stanley Cup, three Art Ross Trophies, two Harts, and a Lady Byng. Nine times he’d been voted to the NHL’s 1st Team All-Star.

Toronto Daily Star columnist Milt Dunnell couldn’t confirm or deny the rumour, but he thought a trade for Hull made sense. Hull was a superstar, and popular in Toronto, and the Leafs were interested in shaking up their roster. Centre Mike Walton was available. The Leafs might even be willing to deal their star, Davey Keon, who was in line for a big pay raise, and didn’t get along with coach John McLellan.

And Chicago GM Tommy Ivan wasn’t exactly denying … well, anything. “I can’t make any comment now on trades,” he said. “Is the report about Bobby far-fetched? Well, nothing is far-fetched these days.”

A reporter who tracked Hull down heard this: “I’ll play hockey as long as I can and it doesn’t much matter where. After 13 years, if they want to jack me around like this, it’s their prerogative.”

Subsequent dispatches from Chicago described a conversation between the GM and his star. “Should I pack my bags,” Hull asked Ivan. Answer: “Don’t be silly.”

And so Hull remained a Hawk: he played two more seasons in Chicago before making his million-dollar leap to the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets. As a writer wrote in 1970: “His hatchet with the Chicago management was buried, perhaps in a shallow, well-marked grave.”

May, 1963

It was a near run thing in 1963 when Kent Douglas of the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Calder Trophy to become the first ever defenceman to win the award for the NHL’s best rookie. When the balloting showed that Douglas had pipped Detroit blueliner Doug Barkley by 100 points to 99, the Red Wings asked for a recount. The verdict the second time around? The NHL found that though Douglas’ victory was slimmer than originally thought — 99.4 points to 99.2 — he’d still won.

That same off-season May, Douglas found his way back into the news when, talking to a reporter about rumours that Montreal’s 32-year-old star left winger Boom-Boom Geoffrion was on the trading block, he spilled what seemed like surprising beans. “It looks like he’ll be joining us,” Douglas said. Montreal was interested in several Leafs, Douglas added, though he wouldn’t which of his teammates he thought might soon be Canadiens.

For his part, Geoffrion was on what was being touted as a “goodwill tour” of Canada. He’d already addressed the trade rumours in Saskatoon, before Douglas spoke up, saying that, yes, he was aware that he was supposed to be upping stakes for Boston or Toronto but, no, he hadn’t heard anything from Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke. Geoffrion seemed to think that it might be Montreal’s management spreading the gossip.

“Maybe they are trying to needle me to try to get back into form,” Geoffrion told Eric Wesselby from the local Star-Phoenix. “I fell off in production after the 50-goal season of 1960-61, but 23 goals a season isn’t a bad record. I think that scoring 20 goals in an NHL season is equivalent to batting .300 in the majors. And how many players hit .300 for a season?”

Geoffrion had reached British Columbia by the time he heard what Kent Douglas was saying back on the east coast. “I’ll believe it when I hear it,” he said in Vancouver, “— from the Montreal officials.” Of Douglas, he had this to say, in Victoria: “He’s only been in the league one year and he knows more than I do.”

At the NHL’s summer meetings in June, Canadiens’ personnel director Sam Pollock didn’t deny that Geoffrion might be on the move. Maybe he would have been, too, if the right deal had come along. As it was, Geoffrion played one more season with Montreal, scoring 21 goals, before retiring in 1964. When he unretired, in 1966, it was with the New York Rangers, for whom he played a further two seasons.

February, 1952

Toronto won the 1950-51 Stanley Cup with Al Rollins and Turk Broda sharing the net, but by early 1952 Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe, unhappy with that pair, was pursuing Harry Lumley of the Chicago Black Hawks. His first offer to Hawks’ GM Bill Tobin: Rollins, centre Cal Gardner, and defenceman Bill Juzda. When that didn’t take, he proffered a couple of defencemen, Gus Mortson and Hugh Bolton, along with minor-league goaltender Gil Mayer.

That didn’t work, either. Smythe did eventually get his man, in September of ’52, with Lumley heading to Toronto in trade for Rollins, Mortson, Gardner, and right winger Ray Hannigan. Lumley couldn’t help the Leafs win a Stanley Cup, but he did earn a Vézina Trophy in 1954, along with a pair of selections to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team, in 1953-54 and 1954-55.

January, 1950

Toronto coach (and assistant GM) Hap Day was categorical in quashing a rumoured deal by which the Stanley Cup champions would have sent wingers Howie Meeker and Bill Ezinicki to Chicago for left winger Doug Bentley: no. Two years earlier, in 1948, Montreal coach Dick Irvin went out of this way to deny that his team was trying to send defenceman Kenny Reardon to Chicago for Bentley.

February, 1949

Conn Smythe was in Florida for a winter’s respite when the rumour reached him — just how it travelled, or with whom it originated, I can’t say. At the time, reporters on the Leafs beat didn’t seem to know, either. What mattered was that the chief Leaf believed that Montreal might just be willing to sell the great Maurice Richard and that if so, Toronto needed to be at the front of the line. With Toronto headed to Montreal for an early February meeting with the Canadiens, Smythe told his coach, Hap Day, to take his cheque-book and wave it at Frank Selke.

Sounds incredible, not to mention implausible, but the Leafs were all in. “Maple Leaf Gardens has never been close with a buck,” Day told The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond, “and I have explicit instructions to meet any price mentioned for Richard’s hockey services. We consider Richard the greatest right winger in the major league, if not the greatest player.”

Dream On: While it lasted, Toronto newspapers enjoyed the idea that Richard might be lured to the blue-and-white.

He’d called Selke to set up a meeting. His last word before he climbed the train for Montreal: “I hear that Selke told Montreal newsmen he would not consider any kind of deal for Richard, yet he has not barred the door to further discussions with me.”

Toronto’s interest in Richard met with nothing but derision in Montreal. “Toronto’s retarded bid,” Gazette columnist Dink Carroll called it in the not-so-sensitive parlance of the day. “All the money in Toronto wouldn’t buy him,” Selke scoffed, in unwitting echo of other scorn, in another time — you’ll get to it, if you keep going to the end. “In other words, no matter what Leafs offered, he’s not for sale.” If, on the other hand, Toronto was interested in selling, Selke announced a spoofing interest in buying Max Bentley, Bill Ezinicki, Harry Watson, and Garth Boesch.

“Propaganda,” Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin proclaimed. “All this is merely an attempt to upset my boys on the eve of a game.”

The Leafs ended up winning that one, 4-1 — so maybe it worked. Montreal management continued to ridicule the Leafs’ presumption. The following week, after the teams tied 2-2 in Toronto, the Gazette was only too pleased to report a phone conversation between Irvin and Selke. Richard had played an outstanding game, the coach reported. “The Rocket got two goals last night. Ask Conn Smythe how much he’ll pay for him now.”

Selke’s reply: “Don Metz got two goals, too. Ask Smythe how much he wants for Metz.”

November, 1947

The deal that sent centre Max Bentley and winger Cy Thomas to Toronto was the biggest in NHL history at the time, with Chicago getting back a full forward line in Gus Bodnar, Bud Poile, and Gaye Stewart along with defencemen Ernie Dickens and Bob Goldham. Later, Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe confided that just before getting Bentley, he’d been trying to pry defenceman Doug Harvey away from Montreal, offering Stewart straight up in a one-for-one deal.

October, 1933

The Boston Globe reported that there was nothing to the rumour that GM Art Ross was angling to trade swap right wingers and send captain Dit Clapper to Toronto for Charlie Conacher. Victor Jones was on the case: “Charlie, a great athlete, has a stomach ailment which doesn’t make him an A-1 risk.”

April, 1929

Reports had Montreal’s superstar centre Howie Morenz heading to Boston, with defenceman Lionel Hitchman and US$50,000 coming north; Canadiens’ GM Cecil Hart sharply denied it. “It looks like a deliberate effort to create discord in the team,” Hart said. “Put this down: Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.”

He was right, though Morenz did go on a bit of an odyssey in the mid-1930s, returning to Montreal for one last season before his career came to its sudden end in 1937.

A rumour in 1933 had Morenz going to Chicago for goaltender Charlie Gardiner, whom Canadiens’ GM Leo Dandurand admitted to coveting in a bad way. Like Hart before him, Dandurand vowed that Morenz (and teammate Aurèle Joliat, too) would never play for any team but Montreal. The following year, Montreal’s Gazettelearned from “a reliable source” that Morenz was Chicago-bound in exchange for right wingers Mush March and Lolo Couture. The actual deal took a few more months to consummate saw Morenz go to Chicago with goaltender Lorne Chabot and defenceman Marty Burke for right wing Leroy Goldsworthy, and defencemen Lionel Conacher and Roger Jenkins.

January, 1929

Howie Morenz had a bad knee, and Eddie Shore an ailing ankle, so when Canadiens visited Boston early in 1929, both teams had to do without their marquee players. The game ended in an underwhelming 0-0 tie with press reports noting that Montreal appeared “weakened” while the Bruins lacked “their usual dash.” The crowd of 15,000 did get some good news on the night, which they seem to have received, extraordinarily, via the Garden PA announcer. We’ll leave to John Hallahan of the Globe to pass it on:

It was announced that a rumour had been spread about that Eddie Shore had been sold to the New York Rangers. The management declared such a report ridiculous, adding there was not enough money in New York to buy him.

A great cheer went up at this statement.

It was also announced if the fans in the upper balcony did not stop throwing paper on the ice that means would be taken to screen the sections.

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)

gordie howe hat tricks, wally boyer edition

Seal Lion: Wally Boyer in Californian colours, c. 1967.

Seal Lion: Wally Boyer in Californian colours, c. 1967.

Artemi Sergeyevich Panarin, who’s 25, was born in Korkino in Russia. He plays on the left wing for the Chicago Blackhawks. He won the Calder Trophy last season, of course, as the NHL’s foremost rookie. He’s gained a nickname since arriving in on the Lake Michigan shore: Bread Man[i]. I’ve read that he has a wicked one-timer that he practices without tiring and, also, that one of the best things about him is that he’s just getting started. Not long ago, he became the 27th player in league history to score 100 or more points in his first 110 games, joining Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Paul Stastny and Patrick Kane as the only active NHLers to have done so.

What else could I share to convince you of the Bakery Boy[ii]’s quality? Some Corsi numbers, maybe some 5v5close, Offensive Zone Starts, High Danger Scoring Chances, Expected Primary Points?

I’m going to go, instead, with another proof that presented itself back in November. Chicago was in St. Louis when Panarin shed his gloves to punch Blues winger Scottie Upshall who, as it so happened, was more than willing to punch him back. Having finished the third period in the penalty box, Panarin skated out in overtime to score the goal that won Chicago the game.

Add in the assist that Panarin had notched earlier in the game on a goal of Marian Hossa’s and, well — over to Panarin’s coach, Joel Quenneville. Mark Lazerus of Chicago’s Sun-Times was on hand to record how delighted he was.

“You’ve got to love the way he competes,” Quenneville said. “Give him credit — got the Gordie Howe tonight.”

•••

Collecting a goal, an assist, and a fight in a game gets you a Gordie Howe Hat Trick. If the GHHT isn’t widely recognized by self-respecting fanciers of advanced stats-keeping, it is nonetheless beloved across a wide constituency of hockey enthusiasts. No use declaring the GHHT a spurious statistic; its very popularity makes any such declaration irrelevant. The NHL knows this, and so while the league doesn’t record GHHTs or exactly endorse them, it doesn’t exactly ignore them, either. So maybe can we call it — how about a folk stat?

It speaks to character, I guess, marks you as a team player. That’s why Coach Quenneville was proud of Panarin: he’d scored, created, stood up. If you’re a player as skilled as he is, a GHHT is notice that you have the grit to go with your gifts. It phrases you as an all-round sort of a player, a contributor, a difference-maker, help yourself to any cliché you like. It puts you in the conversation with a player like Brendan Shanahan, who’s apparently tops among GHHTists, as best we know. Or with Gordie Howe himself, even.

Although, as you might know, Howe himself had just a few. Marty Howe thought there might be better ways to represent his father’s style. “The Gordie Howe hat trick should really be a goal, an assist, and a cross-check to the face,” he told Luke Fox of Sportsnet. “That might be more accurate.”

It is true that Gordie Howe did himself achieve — record — notch — just two GHHTs. For all his legendary tenacity (and even his well-documented nastiness), throughout the course of his remarkable longevity, he didn’t fight very much.

Historian Paul Patskou has scoured Howe’s 2,450 games through 32 seasons in the NHL and WHA. His tally of 22 Howe fighting majors is the one that’s widely accepted. The two occasions on which he fought and collected a goal and at least one assist both came in the same season, 1953-54, and both were in games against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Flaman, c. 1952-53

Flaman, c. 1952-53

The first was early in the schedule, on October 11, 1953, when Detroit hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs. Howe assisted on Red Kelly’s opening goal before Kelly reciprocated a little later in the first period. Howe, under guard of Leaf Jim Thomson, took managed to take a pass and score on Harry Lumley. The fight that night was also in the first, when Howe dropped the gloves with Fern Flaman[iii]. “Their brief scrap,” The Detroit Free Press called it; The Globe and Mail’s Al Nickleson elaborated, a little: the two “tangled with high sticks in a corner then went into fistic action. Each got in a couple of blows and it ended in a draw.” In the third period, Howe assisted on Ted Lindsay’s fourth Wing goal.

Five months later, in the Leafs were back in Detroit for the final game of the season. This time the Red Wings prevailed by a score of 6-1. Howe scored the game’s first goal and in the third assisted on two Ted Lindsay goals. The fight was in the final period, too. The Leafs’ Ted Kennedy was just back on the ice after serving time for a fight with Glen Skov when he “lit into Howe.[iv]” Al Nickleson was again on the scene:

In the dressing-room later, Kennedy said he started the fight because Howe’s high stick has sliced his ear. Eight stitches were required close a nasty gash just above the lobe.

Kennedy, c. 1952-53

Kennedy, c. 1952-53

Kennedy earned a 10-minute misconduct for his efforts. Marshall Dann of The Detroit Free Press had a slightly different view of the incident, calling Kennedy’s fight with Howe “a smart move in a roundabout way” insofar as “he picked on Howe, who also got a five-minute penalty late in the game, and this took Detroit’s big gun out of play.”

So that’s fairly straightforward. There has been talk, however, of a third instance of a game wherein Howe scored, assisted, and fought. Ottawa radio host and hockey enthusiast Liam Maguire is someone who’s suggested as much. Kevin Gibson is another. He even has specifics to offer. From his book Of Myths & Sticks: Hockey Facts, Fictions & Coincidences (2015):

Howe’s final GHHT occurred in the game where he also had his final career fight — October 26, 1967 against the Oakland Seals. Howe had two goals, two assists and he fought Wally Boyer, which makes sense, since he used to play for Toronto. Interesting to note that October 26 is also the date of the shootout at the O.K. Corral (in 1881). Wyatt Earp and Gordie Howe — both legendary enforcers, or were they? That’s a story for another time.

A review of contemporary newspaper accounts from 1967 turns up — well, no depth of detail. The expansion Seals, just seven games into their NHL existence and about to change their name, were on their first road trip when they stopped into Detroit’s Olympia. They’d started the season with a pair of wins and a tie, but this would be their fourth straight loss, an 8-2 dismantling.

Actually, one Associated Press report graded it a romp while another had it as a lacing. They both agreed that the Seals showed almost no offense. A Canadian Press account that called Howe, who was 39, venerable also puckishly alluded to the monotonous regularity of his scoring over the years. On this night, he collected two goals and two assists. The same CP dispatch (which ran, for example, in the pages of the Toronto Daily Star) finished with this:

Howe also picked up a five-minute fighting penalty.

Which would seem to make the case for a GHHT.

Although, when you look at the accompanying game summary, while Howe’s second-period sanction is noted as a major, nobody from the Seals is shown to have been penalized. If there was a fight, how did Seals’ centreman Wally Boyer escape without going to the box?

Accounts from newspapers closer to the scene would seem to clear the matter up. Here’s The Detroit Free Press:

Referee Art Skov penalized Howe five minutes — and an automatic $25 fine — for clipping Wally Boyer on the head at 7:56 of the second period. Boyer needed seven stitches.

The Windsor Star, meanwhile, noted that both Wings goaltender George Gardner and Boyer collected stitches that night,

Gardner being caressed for 19 when a shot by [Dean] Prentice hit him on top of the head during the warm-up. Boyer was cut for seven stitches by Howe when [Bob] Baun, holding Howe’s stick under his arm, decided to let it go just as Boyer skated by and Howe made a lunge for him. The major will cost Howe $25.

So there was a tussle, probably, and maybe even a kerfuffle. But the bottom line would seem to show that Howe didn’t fight Boyer so much as high-stick him.

I thought I’d try to get a look at the official game sheet, just to wrap it up, and sent off to the NHL to see if they could help. Before their answer came back, I also called up Wally Boyer.

He was at home in Midland, Ontario. He’s 79 now, a retired hotelier. Born in Manitoba, he grew up in Toronto’s east end, in the neighbourhood around Greenwood and Gerrard.

As a Toronto Marlboro, he won a Memorial Cup in 1956. Turk Broda was the coach, and teammates included Harry Neale, Carl Brewer, and Bobs Baun, Nevin, and Pulford. After that, Boyer’s early career was mostly an AHL one, where he was a consistent scorer as well as an adept penalty-killer. He was on the small side, 5’8” and 160 pounds. That may have had something to do with why he was 28 before he got his chance in the NHL.

The Leafs called him up from the Rochester Americans in December of 1965. Paul Rimstead reported it in The Globe and Mail:

Among other players, Boyer is one of the most popular players in hockey — small, talented, and extremely tough.

“Also one of the most underrated players in the game,” added Rochester general manager Joe Crozier yesterday.

Rimstead broke the news of Boyer’s promotion to Leaf winger Eddie Shack, who “almost did a cartwheel.”

“Yippee!” yelped Eddie. “Good for him, good for old Wally.”

Shack scored the first Leaf goal in Boyer’s debut, at home to the Boston Bruins. With the score 4-3 for Toronto in the second period, with Boston pressing on the powerplay, Boyer beat two Bruins defenders and goaltender Gerry Cheevers to score shorthanded. He also assisted on Orland Kurtenbach’s shorthanded goal in the third, wrapping up an 8-3 Leaf win.

He played the rest of the season for the Leafs. The following year he went to Chicago before getting to California and the Seals. After playing parts of four seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he finished his career in the WHA with the Winnipeg Jets.

He sounded surprised when he answered the phone, but he was happy to talk. I explained the business of the alleged Gordie Howe Hat Trick. Did you, I wondered, ever fight Gordie Howe?

He chuckled. “Not that I can recall. I can’t recall ever fighting Gordie. We bumped into each other an awful lot … if we did, it can’t have been very much. I can’t recall anything drastic. Where was it? In Detroit or Oakland?”

I told him what I understood, and about Howe’s high-stick, and his own seven stitches.

Howe, c. 1970-71

Howe, c. 1970-71

“That’s a possibility,” he said. He had a hard time imagining a fight. “Why would I fight against Gordie? … He was good with his hockey stick, that’s for sure. You’d bump in him the corner. Very few guys would ever drop their gloves against him.”

We got to talking about some of the other greats of the game he’d played with and against. “Oh, gosh,” Boyer said. “Béliveau was one of the better ones. Henry Richard. Davey Keon. I could name quite a few. But there was only six teams in the league then, so everybody was pretty good in those days. You could rhyme off half a team.”

Regarding stitches, Howe-related or otherwise, he said, “Yeah, I got my nose cut a few times, stitches around the forehead and the back of the head. There were no helmets then.” Continue reading

gump agonistes

image1-version-2

They’re just a few of them, Canadians we feel we know so well (and maybe even revere) that just the one name will do. Most of them are singers, Drake and Shania, Joni, Neil, Leonard, though we also have a prime minister now, Justin, with whom we’re first-name familiar. Hockey has Gordie, Wayne, Mario, Sid — and now I guess Connor, too.

Also? Gump.

That one is an older vintage, and maybe doesn’t have the currency it once did. Still, it does retain a certain power, as a byword for the audacity and sheer foolery of old-time NHL goaltenders, one that conveys not only the awkward dignity of the man himself but also the fall-down, scrambling valor of a whole nervy puckstopping generation of maskless men, long before Tom Hanks was cast in the role of a slow-wit hero from Alabama.

Not that the surname isn’t just as good as the first: Worsley is Dickensian in its perfection, up there with Gradgrind, Cheeryble, Pickwick, Pecksniff. Paired, Gump Worsley not only sounds like a character from a story, one from whom you could figure out the gist of the plot just by looking at the man: oh, yes, right, so this is the one about the kind-hearted London orphan, bit of a sad case, all alone in the world, at the behest of his anonymous benefactor, without any training or apparent aptitude, has to take up goaltending in the six-team National Hockey League in order to prove himself and find his destiny.

John K. Samson once told me he carried a glorious old Gump-faced hockey card with him wherever he went. We were talking at the time about Reggie Leach, Riverton’s own Rifle, but then the talk turned as the Winnipeg singer explained that a lot of his admiration for Gump was based, like mine, on just how unlikely a goaltender he seemed, accidental, almost, and how amiably he seemed to bearing up in the situation into which he’d been thrust.

That’s in the song Samson wrote, of course, “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” that he sang with his erstwhile band, The Weakerthans. The words go like this:

He looked more like our fathers, not a goalie, player, athlete period. Smoke, half ash, stuck in that permanent smirk, tugging jersey around the beergut, “I’m strictly a whiskey man” was one of the sticks he taped up and gave to a nation of pudgy boys in beverage rooms. Favourites from Plimpton’s list of objects thrown by Rangers fans: soup cans, a persimmon, eggs, a folding chair and a dead rabbit. The nervous breakdown of ’68-’69 after pant-crap flights from LA, the expansion, “the shrink told me to change occupations. I had to forget it.” He swore he was never afraid of the puck. We believe him. If anyone asks, the inscription should read, “My face was my mask.”

He played 21 years in the NHL, mostly for the New York Rangers, most successfully for Montreal, finally for the Minnesota North Stars. He died at the age of 77 in 2007.

It’s possible that I saw him play, later on in his career, staying up late to watch Hockey Night In Canada in the early ’70s. If so, I don’t remember. I loved his memoir, They Call Me Gump (1975), which he wrote with Tim Moriarty’s aid, and not just because he devotes Chapter 21 to his recipe for pineapple squares. Okay, well, yes, that’s where a lot of the love is centred. Also with his affable way of looking at the world, and that if there’s a joke in his playing NHL goal, then it’s a joke he’s very much in on, and enjoying as much as the rest of us.

If Gump looked helpless, if he seemed hapless, well, of course, he was anything but. You don’t need to go and stand in front of his plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame (elected in 1980) to know that he was one of the best of his era. Traded to Montreal for Jacques Plante, he went on to play his part in four Stanley Cup championships. He was a First All-Star Team and twice had a share (with Charlie Hodge and Rogie Vachon, respectively) in a Vézina Trophy. Of all the goaltenders to have defended NHL nets, he stands 22nd when it comes to regular-season wins (335). He had 40 more in the playoffs, which is more than Johnny Bower and Bernie Parent and lots of other Brahmins of the crease.

I don’t know where he slots in when it comes to the all-time index of pain and suffering. In his book, he mostly makes light of the wear and tear of being worn and torn. “The main occupational hazard is trying to stay alive while facing up to 40 and 50 shots a game,” he writes. “We’re not well, you know,” he says elsewhere, “or we wouldn’t be playing the position.” And: “It helps to be nuts.” If he were in the business of hiring goaltenders, his prerequisites would include “a hard skull to deflect flying pucks, plus a thick skin to absorb the abuse of coaches and fans.”

Like a lot of hockey memoirs, They Call Me Gump reads like a medical file. It’s longtime Ranger physician Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa attending, mostly, dropping in every few pages to consult on the tendons in Gump’s hand that Bobby Hull’s skate severed, or to remove cartilage from his knee. Gump pulls hamstrings, tears thigh muscles, sprains knees. He devotes another entire chapter (without going too deep) to the stress and fear of flying that fuelled the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1968.

The injuries would have contributed to that, too, though Gump doesn’t really make much of the connection. For all the damage he chronicles, there’s relatively little mention of concussions. One that features is famous in its way — a “mild” one that knocked him out of a 1967 game at Madison Square Garden when he was back in playing for Montreal. Others he leaves out entirely or tosses in with what passes for trouperly bravado:

[Boom-Boom] Geoffrion hit me right between the eyes with a slapshot in the Forum one night, and the puck ricocheted 40 rows into the stands.

Gump finally put on a mask in 1974, but only for the last six games of his career. “Hated it,” he said in 1984, looking back. “Sure I got knocked out a lot. I got knocked out oftener than Joe Palooka. But there was only one goalie to a team at that time, so they’d revive you and sew you up and you went back on.”

That’s all in keeping, I guess, with hockey’s historical nonchalance when it comes to head injuries. Getting your bell proverbially rung was just part of the game; you shook it off, headed back out on the ice. Knowing what we know now about head trauma and the long-time devastation of CTE casts a grim shade on those old attitudes, even as the modern-day NHL refuses to acknowledge the connections.

gump-ko-pkstrk

Worsley Out: Montreal teammates Ted Harris and Bob Rousseau aid training staff in getting Gump off the ice in Chicago in April of 1968 after he hit his head on a goalpost.

Continue reading