réal deal

Born in Timmins, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1932, left winger Réal Chevrefils was briefly a Detroit Red Wing but he spent most of his eight-year NHL career with the Boston Bruins. Goalgetting, his best year was 1956-57, when he scored 31 for the Bruins. Leo Labine was a sometime linemate of his: he called Chevrefils “a finesse hockey player who had the strength and the ability and didn’t give up on the puck.” Here he is in on Black Hawk goaltender Al Rollins at Chicago’s Stadium, on a Friday night, February 27, in 1953, when Rollins shut out the visitors by a score of 3-0. Chevrefils struggled with alcoholism during his career and afterwards. He died in 1981 at the age of 48.

johnny peirson, 1925—2021

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

He described himself as an “above-average not-great player,” but maybe flag that for excess of modesty, because Johnny Peirson was a very proficient goalscorer in the 11 seasons he played the right wing for the Boston Bruins between 1946 and 1958, scoring 20 goals in four of those campaigns, and finishing among the NHL’s top ten scorers three times. 

Peirson, who was born in Winnipeg in 1925, died on April 16 at the age of 95. The Bruins’ alumni site has an obituary, here. After 98-year-old former Detroit Red Wing Steve Wochy, Peirson was the second-oldest NHLer.

Peirson got much of his hockey upbringing in Montreal, where he chased high-school pucks for Westmount Academy before joining the Montreal Junior Canadiens. After a stint in the Canadian Army, he studied and skated at McGill. In 1946, he signed for Boston’s AHL farm team, the Hershey Bears, for a princely $4,500.  

As a rookie with the Bruins, Peirson found a berth on what teammate Woody Dumart dubbed the “Muscles Line,” for the irony: at 5’11” and 170 pounds, 22-year-old Peirson was the bulk of a unit that also counted centre Paul Ronty (6’, 150) and left winger Kenny Smith (5’7”, 155). 

“I would say I was above average because I was a better balanced player,” he told writer Frank Pagnucco, “a forward that knew how to backcheck. I had some defensive skills as well as being able to find the net sometimes.”

The first time he retired was in 1954, when he was 28. He stashed his skates to go into the furniture business with his father-in-law, across the river from Boston in Cambridge. He unretired after a year, rejoining the Bruins in 1955. His first game back, he played on a line with Cal Gardner and Vic Stasiuk, scoring a goal and setting up another to spark the Bruins to a 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks.

He played three seasons, after his comeback, and could have kept it going beyond that, maybe, but decided not to.  “You reach a point in your career where you realized you’ve lost half a step,” he said, looking back. “In those days, with six teams, there weren’t a lot of places to go. I had a job offer which I had to weigh against the possibility of making the team again or moving to another team … and with four kids, that didn’t make any sense.”

Regrets? Hockey-wise, he had at least a couple. “I’d have given my eyeteeth to play on a Stanley Cup winner,” he once said. He also wished he’d worked harder on developing his upper-body strength — his, well, muscles. “I would have been a better player. I lost a lot of battles and wasn’t able to do what I would like to have done from the point of view of strength.”

While the Bruins Peirson played for never won a Stanley Cup, he was at close hand when the team started winning championships in the late 1960s, serving as a long-time colour analyst on Bruins’ TV and radio broadcasts alongside Fred Cusick. 

Golden Bears: Boston’s Bruins, 1956-57 edition. Back row, from the left: Trainer Win Green, Larry Regan, Cal Gardner, Johnny Peirson, Floyd Smith, Leo Boivin, assistant trainer Hammy Moore. Middle, left to right: Doug Mohns, Jack Caffery, Floyd Hillman, Vic Stasiuk, Bob Armstrong, Don McKenney, Jerry Toppazzini. Front, from left: Allan Stanley, Fleming Mackell, GM Lynn Patrick, Terry Sawchuk, coach Milt Schmidt, president Walter Brown, Leo Labine, captain Fern Flaman.

must be some misunderstanding

Twenty-Two: The Boston Bruins will retire Willie O’Ree’s number 22 on February 18.

“Sure, I was nervous,” said the 23-year-old rookie, “but it was the greatest thrill of my life.”

It was on a Saturday night in Montreal, January 18, 1958, that Fredericton, New Brunswick’s own Willie O’Ree made his NHL debut at the Forum, manning the left wing for the Boston Bruins and becoming, as he did so, the first Black player in the league’s then-40-year-old history.

The NHL observed the anniversary of O’Ree’s historic breakthrough this January past with decals on helmets that players across the league started wearing on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S. “Celebrating Equality,” they read; they’ll be on display through the end of February, which is Black History Month across North America.

O’Ree, who’s now 85, will be further honoured on February 18, when the Bruins plan to raise his number, 22, to the rafters of TD Garden ahead of a game with the New Jersey Devils.

That was the number he eventually wore. For his debut in January of ’58, O’Ree was on call-up duty, summoned from the QHL Quebec Aces to replace a flu-bitten Leo Labine in the Boston line-up for a home-and-home weekend series.

For those games, O’Ree sported number 18.

At the Forum, he skated on a line with Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini. The Bruins won that first of them 3-0, with Johnny Bucyk putting the winner past Jacques Plante. Sunday night in Boston, Bernie Geoffrion collected a pair of goals and a brace of assists as Montreal roared back with a 6-2 win.

O’Ree had a respectable 13 goals and 32 points that year with Quebec, but this initial stint of his in the NHL yielded nothing in the way of statistics. It would be another few years before he got a steady chance to play in the NHL, 1960-61, during which he donned number 22 in 43 games for Boston, notching four goals and 14 points.

Can we talk about this? Not the numbers O’Ree wore on his various sweaters, or the stats he registered, but his debut, how it was received, the idea of a “colour line” in hockey, and the fictions by which the sport’s establishment (including the press) deluded itself? Also, for good measure, maybe we’d continue a little further along, back a few years before 1958, and consider the odd instance of Herb Carnegie’s not-quite chance at playing in the NHL.

When Willie O’Ree first skated for the Bruins 63 years ago, note was taken, though the debut wasn’t universally hailed as a long-due turning point.

Many press reports noted the occasion as they did most matters of movements of NHL personnel, which is to say, in passing. Bill O’Ree, a couple of them called him; a United Press dispatch helpfully noted that he went by both names, Willie and Bill, and that his christened name was William Eldon O’Ree.

Montreal’s La Presse rolled out an eight-column headline across its sports page:

Pour La Première Fois, Un Joueur Noir Évoluera Dans La NHL Ce Soir.

The English-language Gazette wasn’t so certain — they only “believed” that O’Ree was the first Black player in the NHL, reminding readers (in case they hadn’t noticed) that there had been, to date, “comparatively few” Black players in hockey.

Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Star both headlined O’Ree’s achievement in their sports sections.

The Boston Globe’s coverage was initially more muted: a United Press game report that ran on Sunday, January 19 highlighted O’Ree’s historic debut while rating his performance “undistinguished, as Boston coach played him only half a turn a time, alternating him with veteran Johnny Peirson.”

Columnist Tom Fitzgerald followed after Sunday’s game with a friendly, first-hand piece. “Boston fans constantly shouted encouragement to O’Ree on his appearances last night,” he wrote, “although he did not see much action in the later stages.”

“He’s a very fast skater,” Bruins GM Lynn Patrick observed, “but there are some things he naturally has to learn yet.”

Fitzgerald noted that the Bruins were hoping that Stan Maxwell, a centre from Truro, Nova Scotia, who was a teammate of O’Ree’s in Quebec and also Black, would soon be making his NHL debut. (Update: he never did.)

If this was a time, the opportunity ripe, for the NHL and the hockey establishment supporting it to reckon with questions of race, accessibility, systemic racism … well, no, there’s no evidence that any such discussion (let alone introspection) occurred.

It was ever thus. Those subjects just don’t figure in the recorded history of the early NHL. A 1928 comment attributed to Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, qualifies an outright rarity:  unlike major-league baseball, he was indirectly said to have suggested,  his league drew no colour line, nor was it  likely to do so.

True: no such prohibition appeared in the NHL’s Constitution or By-Laws. But: it was also one of Calder’s owners, Conn Smythe of Toronto Maple Leafs, who’s alleged to have watched 19-year-old junior star Herb Carnegie (who was Black) skate at Maple Leafs Gardens in 1938, telling Carnegie’s coach that he, Smythe, would sign Carnegie in a minute for the NHL — if only he were white. (In another version, Smythe is supposed to have said he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could “turn Carnegie white.”)

No-one was talking about that in 1958. Another United Press wire story out of Montreal that January weekend did venture to mention Willie O’Ree debut in the context of “the lowering of the last colour line among major sports in North America” … even as reporter Dick Bacon ramped up to a ready rationale that the problem actually resided with Black players themselves: they just weren’t good enough.

“Most hockey observers point out,” he blithely concluded, “that the only reason a ‘colour line’ existed was that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make the National Hockey League.”

Lest anyone have trouble interpreting that view, The Hockey News made sure to boost the signal a couple of weeks later. In the edition dated February 1, 1958, writer Len Bramson kicked off THN’s coverage of Willie O’Ree’s arrival in the NHL with this astonishing take:

Willie O’Ree became the first Negro to play in the National Hockey League, but his presence on the NHL scene didn’t mean that a barrier had been broken, as was the case of Jackie Robinson, the first Negro ever to break into the major leagues. The fact that there has never been a Negro in the NHL prior to O’Ree must be blamed on the Negro race itself. No Negro, until O’Ree came along had the ability to play in the big time.

NHL owners have never discriminated against race colour or creed. All they have ever asked for was ability on skates.

Just in case he wasn’t clear enough with this, Bramson saw fit, midway through this THNpiece, to fold in Dick Bacon and his previous United Press reporting on O’Ree — including, verbatim, Bacon’s own observation about the mysterious lack of Black players of NHL quality.

Otherwise, following his own mention of ability on skates, Bramson went on to cite Herb Carnegie and his older brother, Ossie, from Toronto, both of whom had retired in the mid-1950s after long minor-league careers.

Of course, neither of them ever did play on NHL ice — while Herb was invited to attend the New York Rangers’ training camp in 1948, he turned down several of the team’s offers for minor-league contracts, opting to return to play for the Sherbrooke Saints of the Quebec Provincial Senior League.

“There was no doubt in my mind, then or now,” Carnegie wrote in his 1997 memoir, “that I was every bit as good as the most talented player on that team. Except that I had once more been stopped by the colour barrier. The Rangers and its [sic] management were unable to look beyond the colour of my skin.”

Which gets us back to the matter, mentioned a little way back, of a slightly earlier time in the younger Carnegie’s career, another chance at breaking through to the NHL that actually seems to have been … an illusion?

It’s a decidedly odd episode that I haven’t seen mentioned before: it’s not in that memoir of Carnegie’s, A Fly In A Pail of Milk (which appeared in a new edition in 2019), nor does it surface in Cecil Harris’ Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey (2007).

March of 1947 this was. As a point of pertinent context, 28-year-old Jackie Robinson made his big-league baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of that year, having spent the previous season with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ International League affiliate.

Herb Carnegie was 27 that spring. He and Ossie, who was 29, were both playing in the QPSHL for the Sherbrooke Saint-François (as they were called that year), playing on a line with Manny McIntyre, from Gagetown, New Brunswick, who was also Black. Herb would lead the team in scoring that season, collecting 33 goals and 83 points, and for the second year in a row he’d be named league MVP.

So it’s not so surprising that the Montreal Canadiens wanted to sign him — if they did.

Did they?

Herb Carnegie and his imminent NHL debut make the news in Muncie, Indiana, in March of 1947.

As March was winding down, so too was the NHL’s regular season. Looking forward to defending the Stanley Cup they’d won in 1946, Montreal was cruising towards the playoffs in first place, ten points up on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But. Injuries were starting to mount. Star centre Elmer Lach had been out three months with a broken cheek-bone. In mid-March, they lost the man who’d taken his place on the first-line, Buddy O’Connor: he broke his cheek in a particularly raucous game against the Rangers in New York. Defenceman Ken Reardon and winger George Allen were also banged up, and while it looked like they would be ready for the post-season, O’Connor’s status remained iffy.

And so, according to Montreal broadcaster Larry O’Brien, Canadiens coach Dick Irvin was looking to call in Herb Carnegie. He’d discussed it with club officials, declaring himself “most impressed” by the Sherbrooke centre’s skills.

O’Brien is an interesting figure. He was a crime reporter for The Montreal Staras well as a broadcaster, calling Canadiens hockey on the radio and Royals ballgames, too. He also stood in as a regular batting-practice pitcher for the Royals, and as such had thrown to Jackie Robinson in ’46. That was one of O’Brien’s proudest memories, he later said. He also ended up helping Robinson and his wife, Rachel, find an apartment. O’Brien would call the first TV broadcast of a sporting event in Canada, a Royals game in 1952, and later worked Grey Cup games and Stanley Cup finals. He went on to run the Canadian Open golf tournament for a decade, and spent years, subsequently, as Jack Nicklaus’ publicist.

In March of ’47, O’Brien seems to have been in New York for the CBC in his role as Canadiens broadcaster. The NHL’s board of governor’s was meeting in Manhattan, too, on Monday, March 17, and that’s where O’Brien said he got his scoop that Carnegie and the Canadiens were about to make history.

The news rippled across North America. Most of the headlines, it’s true, were tentative, touting Carnegie’s promotion to the NHL as a possibility. Someone saw fit to ask Boston Bruins president Weston Adams about the whole situation — I guess because Montreal was due to meet Boston in the playoffs? Anyway, Adams’ strange sign-off, declaration of permission, blessing — whatever it was, it was duly broadcast around the continent as well.

“It makes no difference to us what race or creed a player is,” Adams said. “If he’s a good player and can help the Canadiens that’s all the interest we have in the matter.”

Montreal’s interest, as it turned out, was not so much. Dick Irvin was quickly on record saying that the whole thing was a “misunderstanding.” How so? He made clear that there would be no other comment: it was just a misunderstanding.

O’Brien, for his part, stood fast, insisting that his information was correct.

And Carnegie … stayed where he was. Instead of joining Montreal for their Wednesday loss in Toronto or the following Saturday’s defeat at the hands of Chicago, Carnegie suited up for Sherbrooke as they launched into the provincial-league finals against the Lachine Rapides. On Thursday, March 20, he scored a pair of goals in his team’s 7-2 win. Going on to win the title in six games, Sherbrooke carried on to the Allan Cup playoffs, which they departed in April, losing out to the Montreal (hockey) Royals.

Making do without Carnegie, meanwhile, Canadiens called on utility forwards Hub Macey and Bobby Fillion to fill the holes in their line-up, along with rookie Leo Gravelle. Buddy O’Connor made it back to the ice for the end of Montreal’s successful first-round series against Boston and played in the finals, too, which saw the Canadiens surrender the Cup to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What exactly happened with Carnegie’s call-up-that-never-was? Why wasn’t he the NHL’s first Black player, eleven years before Willie O’Ree, a month ahead of Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough in baseball?

It’s not entirely clear. Since the principals of the piece — Carnegie, Irvin, O’Brien — are all now gone, we only have what’s on paper. Montreal’s French-language dailies were pretty categorical: Irvin was joking, O’Brien took him seriously. As Le Canada put it (translation Google’s):

Dick Irvin didn’t believe Larry O’Brien would take him seriously when he asked him if black player Herb Carnegie would be as strong a draw in hockey as Jackie Robinson in baseball.

What Toronto Daily Star sports editor Andy Lytle put on the page at the tail of one of his columns that week in March of ’47 might be as detailed an explanation as we’re ever going to get on the whole sorry business.

Lafayette, Indiana, gets news of Carnegie and the Canadiens in March of 1947, before Dick Irvin gets  a chance to explain.

Lytle and his departmental copy editors got a few basics wrong — naming Ossiewhen he meant Herb, calling Larry O’Brien Andy — but Canadiens GM Frank Selke was Lytle’s source, so his information is worth weighing.

“It’s the Robinson thing which stirs up Montreal writers,” Selke told Lytle. “Dick [Irvin] happened to say to [Larry] O’Brien if Robinson was only a hockey player, that would solve our troubles. That was enough. O’Brien decided we should use Carnegie and we weren’t even consulted. The idea, of course, is ridiculous.”

If only Lytle had pressed there — ridiculous? what, exactly, was ridiculous? — but Lytle didn’t press. Selke trundled on.

“We’re not too bad,” he said. “We finished on top and we have some hockey players left.”

Getting to the end of that update in the Star, readers might have let their attention drift to the top of the page, which featured a photograph of Jackie Robinson, his wife, and their baby, Jackie Jr.

The baseball pioneer’s future was still not decided. In that baseball pre-season, he remained a Montreal Royal, with Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey telling reporters that he hadn’t yet decided whether or not Robinson had earned a spot with the Dodgers. Rickey had a couple of weeks before the season got underway to make his mind up, the Starstory said, and Rickey suggested he’d make full use of that time.

“Robinson’s record with Montreal Royals last season would have automatically sent him to the Dodgers,” the Star piously opined on the very day that the possibility of Carnegie’s NHL debut tagged as a jest, “except for that unadmitted bar, the old American one of prejudice against colour.”

Note: While press style of the 1940s and ’50s consistently has newspapers Canadian and otherwise going with the American spelling of color, it has been rendered here throughout as colour.

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

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.”

steampunks

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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

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The 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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l’apiculteur (ii)

For The Defence: Canadiens blueliners Roger Léger, Léo Lamoureux, and Hal Laycoe, with Butch Bouchard on his sled, circa 1946-47.

1. Bill Durnan said he was a sweet guy. His jokes were God-awful, the goaltender told Stan Fischler in Those Were The Days (1976). Bouchard’s answer: “It just doesn’t sound as good in English as it does in French.”

2. He was very sociable.

3. He loved to play Monopoly. That’s what his wife said. “He loves to Monopolize. It’s always him who wins.”

4. Gordie Howe said he wasn’t a villain.

5. “He was never a bully,” says Mike Leonetti in Canadiens Legends: Montreal Hockey Heroes (2009). “Bouchard maintained control and had to be seriously provoked to drop his gloves.”

6. This is a bit of a refrain, dating back at least to 1944, when Le Petit Journal observed that he had proved himself so able with his fists that he was no longer obliged to fight.

The Hockey Hall of Fame captions his profile this way:

To his credit, he never abused his powerful attributes and most opponents wisely avoided provoking him. In turn, he rarely fought.

Here’s what it says at ourhistory.canadiens.com:

The strongest man in the league, Bouchard played a robust brand of hockey. While other defensemen around the league resorted to more underhanded tactics, Butch hit with his hip rather than his fists. After a short period of introduction, he was rarely invited to engage in fisticuffs and probably stopped more fights that he took part in, often seizing both combatants and keeping them at arm’s length until they cooled off.

7. All of this filtered its way into the obituaries and tributes that have appeared over the last couple of weeks. Peaceful Pro, Ken Campbell’s column is headlined in the latest Hockey News. Didn’t fight much. Refused to use his physical advantage to be anything more than a peacekeeper.

8. His penalty minutes, it’s true, were relatively few. Or at least spread out: never in a season did he chalk up more than 100. You can’t say that about Wild Bill Ezinicki or Leapin’ Lou Fontinato, to name a boistering couple of names from the era. Among teammates, Ken Reardon and Murph Chamberlain spent more time on the penalty bench.

9. Dick Irvin called Chamberlain a stirrer-upper.

10. Irvin, talking about Maurice Richard: “His looks are deceiving. He’s the strongest man on the club. In dressing room wrestling matches he will beat even Émile Bouchard.”

11. Ivan Irwin was one of the more fearsome of New York Rangers in his time. He told Brian McFarlane that it might have been the fire in Richard’s eyes that deterred fellows from fighting him. “A much tougher guy was Butch Bouchard,” Irwin said.

One night Lou Fontinato was roughing up some of the smaller Montreal forwards when Butch, normally a quiet, easygoing fellow, got mad. He took Fontinato by the scruff of the neck, held him up, gave him about five good ones — pow! Then he pushed him away. Butch never bothered too many of us but we all knew he was the wrong guy to pick on.

12. “He was never an underhanded player,” noted Montreal-Matin in 1956: “he always hit from the front, and with confidence. He never attempted to injure or destroy his opponent.”

13. Why not? He was asked that. “I do realize,” he said, “that if I used my physical power to annihilate my opponents, I might hurt them seriously. I think they too play hockey for a living and they are professional athletes. I never thought of destroying anyone, though sometimes the temptation has been very strong.”

14. And yet. He did fight. Un batailleur de premier ordre, La Patrie reported in 1942. By then, he’d already made a name for himself against Chicago’s Johnny Mariucci and Bryan Hextall of the Rangers. Then, against Detroit one night, in the last seconds of the game, he clashed with defenceman Eddie Wares and

dealt him a direct blow almost crushing his nose and contradicting the illusion that if you keep your stick in your hands nothing can happen to you.

Sid Abel jumped Bouchard after that, causing a larger kerfuffle, which took time to play out, whereupon everybody picked up their sticks and their gloves just in time for Abel and Bouchard to start all over again. The Detroit News reported that referee Bill Chadwick had already decided he was in the wrong sport. “I should have been a boxing referee,” he said. Continue reading