paul meger, 1929—2019

News yesterday that Paul Meger has died at the age of 90. Born in Watrous, Saskatchewan, he grew up in Selkirk, Manitoba, where he played, early on, for the local Fisherman. He arrived in the NHL in 1950, playing in parts of six seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, mostly wearing the number 20 on his back, aiding in the effort to win a Stanley Cup in 1953. He scored 24 goals in 1951-52; that’s him above trying to harry Lumley’s Toronto net in ’53 or so, as Leafs Jim Morrison and Tod Sloan do their best to badger him. Floyd Curry and Paul Masnick were Meger’s linemates on the Habs’ fourth line in 1954. He was 25 when, in the fall of that year, his playing career came to an end after he suffered a fractured skull in a collision with Boston’s Leo Labine.

 

(Image: HockeyMedia and The Want List)

behind the boston blueline: safety first

In the catalogue of hockey-player poses, the First Pass falls somewhere between the static standard we’ve already seen on display in the Tripod and the showy effort of the Maximum Slapper. It’s your all-business, man-at-work option: what we’re looking at here, above, is a single-minded man on a mission to clear that puck from the defensive zone. Head up, eyes on the breaking winger, he won’t be waylaid, not even for a photo shoot.  Can there be any doubt that when Mr. Armstrong makes contact here, stick to puck, his pass will be crisp as Melba toast on its way to where it’s going?

Sorry: Bob. Bob Armstrong. He was a regular on the Bruins’ blueline through the 1950s and into the early ’60s, long before I knew him, in high school, in the 1980s. Lakefield, Ontario is where he settled after his hockey career ended, and it’s where he spent some 25 years as a beloved teacher and housemaster, and as a coach of hockey and football players. His First Hockey teams were very good in those years, which meant that I never quite cracked any of his line-ups — I was only ever a Second. In the classroom, where he taught history and economics, he did his best to guide my Grade 12 studies of Schlieffen plans and Keynesian multipliers. Big Bob we called him, too, though not, if we could help it, within his hearing. He was much mourned when he died at the age of 59 in 1990, much too soon.

Back in Boston, he’d worn number 4 for five years before Bobby Orr arrived on the scene. A dozen seasons he skated in the NHL, 542 games, a big, solid, no-nonsense, front-porch defender, which is to say (as I wrote in a book called Puckstruck) stay-at-home. On the Boston blueline his partners over the years included Hal Laycoe, Ray Gariepy, Fernie Flaman, and Leo Boivin, though mostly he paired with peaceable Bill Quackenbush. In 1952, Boston coach Lynn Patrick sometimes deployed a powerplay featuring forwards Real Chrevefils, Leo Lebine, and Jerry Toppazzini with winger Woody Dumart manning the point with Mr. Armstrong. He scored but rarely: in his twelve NHL seasons, he collected just 14 goals.

Bruising is the word that’s often attached to Mr. Armstrong’s name as it appears in old dispatches from the NHL front, which sounds like it could be a reference to his own sensitive skin, though mostly it refers to the welts he raised on that belonging to opponents. He didn’t only batter members of the Montreal Canadiens, but they do figure often in the archive of Mr. Armstrong’s antagonism, cf. his tussle with Goose McCormack (1952); that time he and Tom Johnson were thumbed off for roughing soon after the game started (1954); the other one where he and Bert Olmstead were observed roughing up each other (1955); and/or the night he and Andre Pronovost were sentenced to penalties for fighting but subsequently left the penalty bench to join in a disagreement Labine was having with Maurice Richard (1958), leaving Mr. Armstrong when it was all over with a large purple swollen area around his left eye.

Players who rarely found themselves fighting — Jean Béliveau, Max Bentley — somehow ended up throwing punches at Mr. Armstrong.

“A big fellow, he liked to dish it out,” the Boston Globe’s Herb Ralby wrote in 1953, looking back on Mr. Armstrong’s rookie season. If there was a fault to find in his game then, it might have been his hurry to rid himself of the puck — he was, Ralby wrote, “afraid of making moves that might prove costly.”

Playing alongside Hal Laycoe cured him of that: “a patient, painstaking tutor,” the six-year veteran helped turn his rookie partner into such a polished performer that by 1953 Bruins’ coach Lynn Patrick was ready to rate a 21-year-old Mr. Armstrong the third-best defenceman in the NHL, after Detroit’s Red Kelly and Bill Gadsby of Chicago.

He played in a single All-Star Game, in 1960, when the best-of-the-rest took on the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens at the Forum and beat them 2-1. “The best safety-first defenceman in the league,” Leafs’ assistant manager King Clancy called Mr. A that season. “He doesn’t fool around with that puck behind his own blueline. He gets it out of there in a hurry.”

Gadsby and Kelly were part of the All-Stars’ defensive corps, too, that night, along with Marcel Pronovost, Allan Stanley, and Pierre Pilote. Pronovost was roundly cheered by the Montreal crowd on the night, the local Gazette noted; Mr. Armstrong and Bruins’ teammate Bronco Horvath suffered “distinct booing.”

willie o’ree, 1961: scored that one for the whole town of fredericton

Like Bronco Advised: With Montreal defenceman Jean-Guy-Talbot looking on, Willie O’Ree scores his first NHL goal, a game-winner, on Charlie Hodge, January 1, 1961.

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.

As a Hull-Ottawa Canadian, 1960.

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

fellows wrestle to the ice, time after time, in hockey, with no one hurt (though not this time)

Sling Shot: Toronto captain Ted Kennedy on a call at Boston’s Hotel Sheraton Plaza on January 2, 1953, the day after his run-in with with Bruins’ counterpart Milt Schmidt.

Milt Schmidt had his version of what happened, and the gist of it was this: not his fault.

New Year’s Day, 1953, Toronto was in Boston. The Leafs ended up yielding to the Bruins by a score of 5-1. “A sprightly display,” one of the local papers decreed, despite a couple of “accidents.” The view from Toronto wasn’t so bright. “One of the most vicious games at the Garden in years,” The Toronto Daily Star assessed it. Some in Boston concurred: a local columnist declared that the Garden hadn’t seen a brawl so wild since October 15, 1950.

This time, for Boston, the win cost them centreman Dave Creighton, whose fibula broke under duress from Leaf defenceman Fern Flaman.

Toronto captain Teeder Kennedy, 27, was gunning, in the parlance, for his 200th NHL goal. He’d have to wait. In the second period, he met up with his Boston counterpart, Milt Schmidt, at the Toronto blueline, and what the Star called a fracas ensued.

While Schmidt punched Kennedy’s face, Boston’s Leo Labine and Warren Godfrey wrestled Leafs Jimmy Thomson and Ron Stewart, respectively.

Schmidt and Kennedy were separated once but clashed again when Toronto defenceman Tim Horton came to his captain’s aid. The Star:

The powerful Bruins’ leader, with a half-swing, half-flip, threw Kennedy to the ice. Ted’s head hit the ice and he was knocked cold.

Back in Toronto next morning, this all showed up on the paper’s front page. Suffering from a broken collarbone and torn ligaments as well as a “slight” concussion, Kennedy was said to be ruled out for at least five weeks. Creighton was gone, the thinking was, for the rest of the season.

While the Leafs headed back to Toronto on the train, Kennedy rested in hospital. Kennedy, who didn’t drink, downed the brandy they gave him there (“made me woozy,” he said later) before flying home next day to Toronto for surgery in the company of the team’s own Dr. Hugh Smythe, and Mrs. Smythe, too.

“It was one of those things,” Kennedy told reporters. “I don’t remember too much about it, except that Schmidt and I tussled, were separated, and were squaring off again.” Next thing he knew, Leafs’ trainer Bill Smith was waving smelling salts in his face. “And I had a sore shoulder and a sore head.”

Milt Schmidt? Kennedy absolved him. “They tell me Milt began calling for a doctor, and made no attempt to hit me after we landed on the ice. I certainly appreciate that, because I can think of a number of others in the league who would have taken advantage of a situation like that to get in some licks. I certainly don’t bear any grudge or animosity towards Schmidt.”

The Bruins’ captain was relieved to hear it. “It was one of those things,” he told The Toronto Star. “Fellows wrestle to the ice, time after time, in hockey, with no one hurt. This time, unfortunately, Kennedy had tough luck. It could have been me just as easily. I’m sorry it had to be a great competitor like Teeder.”

Schmidt’s account of what happened went like this: “We were throwing some leather, were separated, and the next thing I knew we were at it again.”

“Kennedy had his arm around my neck, which, by the way, was sore before we started. I had to get out from the headlock, twisted, and grabbed him, and we fell to the ice with him on top. His head hit the ice and he went limp. I got an awful scare, because the whites of his eyes were showing. I lifted his head and called for a doctor.”

Doreen Kennedy was on hand to meet her husband’s plane when it landed at Malton Airport. Even with a stopover in Buffalo, the flight beat the Leaf-laden locomotive back to Toronto by half-an-hour. Kennedy sported a cast on his shoulder, and a slight bump on the head, under his fedora.

“It’s the rub of the green,” he reiterated to the reporters who were waiting. “There was nothing dirty about it. Schmidt and I were battling, and they tell me I landed heavily on the ice on my shoulder and side of my head. They also told me Milt took one look and called for aid from the Leaf bench. It could have happened to him, instead of me.”

“This is the first such injury I’ve had in hockey,” Kennedy said, “and also the first liquor I’ve had. I don’t think much of either.”

The captain was the third Leafs’ center to go down, joining Max Bentley (lower back strain or, as one report put it, “twisted spine”) and Rudy Migay (torn knee ligaments) on the sidelines. Kennedy didn’t think his absence would affect the team’s playoff hopes. “We have other players,” he said. He was right about that, but wrong about the playoffs: for the first time in seven years, the Leafs would end the regular season on the outside looking in.

Back in Boston, Milt Schmidt was giving the local Daily Globe a slightly different version of events from the one Toronto readers were seeing.

The truth? It was all Tim Horton’s fault.

“He hit me with his elbow and I went back at him,” was Schmidt’s version of how he and Kennedy had come to blows in the first place. Score settled, they’d separated. But before the peace could take hold, Horton, boisterous Leaf rookie, riled it all up again.

“The fight was all broken up,” Schmidt explained, “when that fresh little mug stuck in his two cents worth. That started it all over again. I’d have punched him in the face except that he wears contact lenses.”

fleming mackell, 1929—2015

Peirson, Mackell, Henry and Labine

Bruinhaha: From left, Johnny Peirson, Fleming Mackell, Jim Henry and Leo Labine pose for the camera amid the trousers and underwear of Boston dressing room circa 1953. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

I’m not old enough to have memories of Fleming Mackell’s career on ice, but I’ve looked him up, so I can tell you that his hockey adjectives include hustling (left winger), husky (kid), stocky (youngster), black-haired (Bruin centre), high-scoring (ditto), aggressive little (ditto), flying (Fleming Mackell), and starry (veteran).

Those all date back to the 1950s, Mackell’s heyday as a player. Born in Montreal in 1929, he skated for the Toronto Maple Leafs before a trade took him to the Bruins. He was in Conn Smythe’s doghouse is what you’re going to see written, if you dig into that. He was 86 when he died last week, on October 19, in Hawkesbury, Ontario. Dave Stubbs has a tribute worth a while at The Gazette, over this way.

Otherwise, what I can tell you is that Mackell was poison to Montreal in the 1957 Stanley Cup Finals (scored a lot of goals on them); that The Flame was a nickname he went by, or at least one that newspapermen used; that Johnny Peirson and Ed Sandford were his linemates in Boston in 1953. Later (1958) he centred Jerry Toppazzini and Real Chevrefils.

Here’s a view of a goal he scored in 1953 on what Tom Fitzgerald from Boston’s Daily Globe deemed a “smart play” in a game in which the Bruins socked the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in the semi-finals:

Taking a relay from Sandford in the Boston end, Fleming set sail down the left Peirson far over on the other side as a decoy. When he weaved into a spot about 40 feet from the goal, the shifty little center made a kind of fake, then whistled a wristy shot that sent the puck knee high past Sawchuk into the far side.

His father was Jack Mackell, who played on the wing for the Ottawa Senators in the 1920s, which makes the Mackells two of a scarce breed, father-and-son combinations to have played in the NHL. Not only that: they both won Stanley Cups: Jack in 1920 and 1921, Fleming as a Leaf in 1949 and 1951. Why aren’t their surnames ever spelled the same, when you look them up? That’s a longstanding error, worth addressing in a separate post; stay tuned.

“I never saw him play,” is something the son said about his father; it’s in Brian McFalone’s Over The Glass & Into The Crowd (1997). “I never knew he played hockey. He had a job and he worked hard, so he didn’t interfere at all.”

Fleming was playing in the Quebec Junior Hockey League by the time he was 15. He took a scholarship to St. Michael’s College in Toronto, and from there graduated to the Leafs in 1948.

About life in the NHL as a man standing 5’8” and weighing in at 175 pounds, Mackell said, “There was a lot of intimidation if you weren’t big.” This is Heroes, Frank Pagnucco’s 1985 compendium of short NHLer biographies. “If you weren’t a rough, tough player, you could never show that you didn’t like the rough stuff or they would run you out of the league. I don’t know. Guys tell me that when I played the game I was chippy, too.”

Eight-and-a-half years he played for the Bruins before they decided he didn’t fit their plans any more. They wanted to trade him, he said he wouldn’t go: that’s how he ended up as a playing coach for the Quebec Aces in the American Hockey League. That didn’t really work out — “a big mistake,” Mackell called it — and after several more seasons in senior hockey, he stashed his skates away for good. Canadian newspapers picked up the American news, as you’d expect they might, when Mackell was shot by a woman in his car in Miami while on vacation, but the story faded away while Mackell was recovering, satisfactorily, in hospital, without explaining the argument or whether or not anybody went to jail.

Brian McFalone tells us that he owned a Texaco gas station in Montreal after he retired, and from there went on to selling Buicks and Pontiacs in Dorval (“I was a Grandmaster Salesman five times!”). He did that for 27 years, before retiring in 1992 to Knowlton, Quebec, in 1992, where he enjoyed “riding long distances on his twelve-speed bike and playing tennis.”

Frank Pagnucco asked him what he would have done differently as a hockey player. Maybe he would have looked after himself better, he said. “I could have been a little more intense, maybe a little more cooperative. … I wasn’t cooperative with management, when you look at it now from a different perspective.”

“Whether we realize it or not, indirectly you took it home with you. Everything was winning or losing. You look back, it wasn’t as important as we thought.”

O-Pee-Chee / Topps 1957-58 Topps #16 Fleming Mackell

(Photo: The Want List, hockeymedia, on flickr)

steampunks

3026.preview

A clowder of Detroit Red Wings takes the heat in … well, 1958 is the year cited, but given the make-up of the group, I think that 1961-62 might be more likely. From the top, left to right, that’s Leo Labine, Gordie Howe, and possibly Pit Martin (unless it’s Allan Johnson or Claude Laforge). Middle: Len Lunde, Warren Godfrey, Bill Gadsby, Vic Stasiuk. Front: Parker MacDonald, Alex Delvecchio, and Larry Jeffrey.

(Photo: Tony Spina Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)

the ice is in at long pond

IMG_1246The ice is in at Long Pond or at least it’s starting, the freeze is on at the Birthplace of Hockey, which is to say the Cradle. You wouldn’t want to be skating yet, you couldn’t be, not yet, it’s just a scrim so far on the brown water at the end of the long winding road that takes you back from the main road past the old farmhouse and the little museum and on through the gate that’s guarded by (probable) Jacques Plante and (possible) Fern Flaman or (maybe) it’s Leo Labine, I don’t know, I couldn’t decide. This was on Friday when I was passing through Windsor in Nova Scotia and the temperature that had fallen down below zero was rising again and while there was snow still salted over Howard Dill’s pumpkin fields, the puddles had thawed out and the winter that had started in back at the pond looked almost as though it was already over and done, just like that, departing before anyone had time to take a skate to it, a stick, a puck.

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