ralph backstrom, 1937—2021

Sad news tonight that Ralph Backstrom has died at the age of 83. A son of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, he played parts of 13 seasons at centre for the Montreal Canadiens starting in the late 1950s and on through the ’60s, winning six Stanley Cups and a Calder Trophy along the way. He skated for the Los Angeles Kings, too, and the Blackhawks in Chicago. In the WHA, he played for Chicago’s Cougars as well as the Denver Spurs/Ottawa Civics, and the New England Whalers. He later coached at the University of Denver and with the IHL Phoenix Roadrunners. He was a founder, too, of the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles.

Dave Stubbs has a good look at Backstrom’s memorable career at NHL.com, here.

(Top Image: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada)

noshing (no more) with 99

Say your so longs to Grandma Gretzky’s Perogies, get your goodbyes in for WGS Plant Based Vegan Caesar Salad: after 27 years, Wayne Gretzky’s own Toronto flagship restaurant is closing today for good. A condo development (of course) will rise in its downtown stead.

I was only ever there once, in — wait, now — 1994? Wayne was on hand himself, I wish I could say he was manning the stoves, but no, it was a book launch, for Jim Taylor’s Wayne Gretzky: The Authorized Pictorial Biography. I talked to Taylor, who was friendly, and to Wayne’s dad, Walter, who was friendlier. There was no getting near the then-Great One: like the appetizers, he was besieged as soon as he appeared.

The restaurant had opened a year earlier, down on what used to be Peter Street, just north of the used-to-be-SkyDome, in the year-of-our-Lord-the-Blue-Jays-won-a-second-straight-World Series. Back then, of course, the local hockey team was still at home uptown, at Maple Leaf Gardens. The restaurant debuted in July of 1993 with the intent (as WG’s website explained right up to the end) of striving “to honour this Canadian Hockey Hall of Famer by creating a dining experience with Gretzky’s greatness in mind.”

The gall. That same spring, Gretzky had taken a break as a fine-dining impresario to join the Los Angeles Kings in their quest for the Stanley Cup. Against Toronto in the Campbell Conference Final, Gretzky escaped justice in the sixth game of the series when he high-sticked Leaf captain Doug Gilmour and failed to surrender himself after referee Kerry Fraser missed the call. Maybe you don’t remember; Toronto will never forget.

The Kings won that game, in overtime, on a goal of Gretzky’s. He had a say in the deciding game, too, scoring a hattrick as the Kings dismissed the Leafs 5-4 to win the series and advance to their first Stanley Cup Final.

How did Toronto forgive #99 his trespass? It’s hard to remember. Somehow. Gretzky’s opened a month after the Kings ceded the Cup to the Montreal Canadiens over the course of five games, so I guess there’s that.

It wasn’t just Gretzky, of course, who made the restaurant happen, he was just a partner, and the brand. The Bitoves were the majority owners; there was talk, too, that they were after an NBA franchise. In August, not long after the restaurant opened, Globe and Mail sportswriter William Houston dropped by.  He came out unimpressed. “The food was mediocre and the service slow,” he griped in the paper. “It took 35 minutes to get a ‘King’s Clubhouse.’ When it arrived the French fries were soggy and cold — not even tepid, but chilly.”

Houston was all over the story of the restaurant that month: he also broke the news that the first question prospective WG’s employees were asked when they came in for an interview was, “What does Wayne Gretzky mean to you?”

Wayne and his wife Janet were on hand for the grand opening in September, and so too was a forgiving Gilmour. His Toronto teammate Wendel Clark showed up, too, as did Gretzky’s old Oilers pal Paul Coffey, a Detroit Red Wing by then, along with future Leaf president Brendan Shanahan, still toiling on the ice in those years as a winger with the St. Louis Blues. Vladislav Tretiak came, and Alanis Morissette, and Toronto’s mayor, June Rowlands.

What else?

It’s worth noting, maybe, that Gilmour opened his own restaurant that same fall, Gardoonies, not far from the rink where he worked his day job.  I’m pretty sure it’s no longer around, though I should probably check on that, just to be sure.

What I can report is that #93’s new digs didn’t make quite the immediate impression that Gretzky’s did — not, at least, if the December, 1993 issue of Toronto Life is your source, as it is mine. Consulting the magazine’s year-end awards issue, I find that while Gardoonies figured not at all,  #99’s place had endeared itself so thoroughly to its host city that it featured twice, winning recognition as the city’s

NOISIEST RESTAURANT

Wayne Gretzky’s on Peter Street; take earplugs.

and for the year’s

MOST AUDACIOUS ATTEMPT AT STICKHANDLING THROUGH CITY COUNCIL

By Wayne Gretzky, who tried to get 41 Peter Street (the location of his jock – stop/restaurant) changed to 99 Blue Jay Way. The Great One’s request is tied up in city council.

Councillor Howard Levine was chairman of the committee considering the application, and he said the city was being seen as “pliant and lacking in principles” for even contemplating allowing the change.

Another councillor, Robert Maxwell, said that letting Gretzky have his Way would give the impression that anybody could have a street name changed.

“You just don’t play with history like that,” said Councillor Michael Walker, though I guess in the end the lesson we all learned is that you do, if you can, and Gretzky did, eventually. But then, like the restaurant at 99 Blue Jays Way itself (as of tonight), that’s also, well, history.

bob nevin, 1938—2020

Shake On It: Bob Nevin, left, lends a hand to Chicago defenceman Dollard St. Laurent in the aftermath of the 1962 Stanley Cup Finals, wherein Toronto overcame the Black Hawks in six games.

Sad to see the news this morning that Bob Nevin has died at the age of 82. Born in 1938 in South Porcupine, Ontario, Nevin made his NHL debut in 1960 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. A right winger, he finished second in voting for the league’s top rookie, trailing teammate Dave Keon when the ballots for the Calder Trophy were tallied. Nevin won a pair of Stanley Cups with Toronto, in 1962 and ’63. In early 1964, a trade took him to New York when the Leafs swapped him (along with Rod Seiling, Arnie Brown, Dick Duff, and Bill Collins) for Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney. He succeeded Camille Henry as captain of the Rangers in 1965, serving six years in the role before another trade sent him to the Minnesota North Stars. Nevin went on to skate for the Los Angeles Kings and spent a final year, 1976-77, with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers.

blueline balladeer

“Look,” Sheldon Kannegiesser was saying in 1972, “some players smoke, some drink, and some run around. All I do is buy clothes. What’s so bad about that?” He was 24 at the time of this outburst, a second-year NHL defenceman, plying the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blueline. The occasion? Tom Alderman was profiling hockey’s best-dressed players for Canadian Magazine, and Kannegiesser was front and sartorially centre of a select line-up that included Dale Tallon, Doug Favell, J.C. Tremblay, and Pit Martin.

Commending Kannegiesser’s unerring eye and $250 custom suits, Alderman named him as “unquestionably the league’s most elegant dresser, even his jeans look made to measure.” Also? Penguins’ management had apparently “suggested that if he paid less attention to his threads and more to his hockey and more to his hockey, he might be a better defenceman.”

Born on this date in North Bay, Ontario, in 1947 (it was a Friday), Kannegiesser turns 72 today. He ended playing eight seasons in the NHL, most of them with Los Angeles Kings, though he also served post-Penguin stints with the New York Rangers, and Vancouver.

In 2009, he published Warriors of Winter: Rhymes of a Blueliner Balladeer, a collection of poems that channel (as he tells it, with due deference, in a preface) Robert Service. “As I was reading through poems and ballads Service had written during his years living in the Canadian Yukon,” Kannegiesser writes, “I thought that possibly I could create a series of poems and ballads about the years I played in the National Hockey League.”

He calls the collection “a mixed bag of some of the most colourful characters and circumstances, along with my personal thoughts about the game that dominated a majority of my life.” Included therein: a whimsy on how hockey might have originated (“The Fearless John Hock and the Mighty Michael McKey”); an ode to a superstar rival (“Standing Orrvation”); a salute to the man who made those spiffy suits he wore in the ’70s (“Styles by Miles”). There are memoirs of Maple Leaf Gardens (“Toronto’s Lonely Lady of the Street”) and what it was like to play against Frank Mahovlich (“Shoulder To Shoulder with the Big M”).

He winds it all up with his own “Shooting of Dan McGrew,” a lusty game-by-game 14-page epic, “The Series of ’72,” that’s narrated, so far as I can tell, by Canada itself. A couple of her stanzas revering Game Six in Moscow go like this:

Let history question our sins — our only job was to win;
We’ll do what’s needed no matter the cost.
Survival’s ugly resolve is for shrinks and philosophers to solve,
So a bounty was placed on the Russian star, Kharlamov.

Debate ethics if you will, ’til you’ve done had your fill;
Such is hockey’s base and brutal and bestial angle;
It’s the nature of the game: the strong survive not the lame.
So Clarke’s Sherwood, like an axe, cracked Kharlamov’s ankle!

you really have to enjoy it, to play goal for long

Inside Edition: Rogie Vachon went maskless in junior and on through his early years with the Montreal Canadiens. He paid a price in stitches (100 or so) and broken noses (two), but never lost a tooth in those years, or had to be evacuated to hospital. It was 1969 when he opted to change his ways. “It was a shot on the head from Stan Mikita that got me thinking,” he said. “These days I am older, I want more protection.” Ernie Higgins designed the fiberglass mask that would become Vachon’s trademark. Blank at first, it would in Los Angeles take on coats of purple paint and crowns at the temples. The one pictured here from within dates to the late 1970s, and bears the paint and the crowns, along with the marks of many pucks. In 2011, it sold at auction for more than $C22,000. (Image: Classic Auctions)

In Peterborough, Ontario, where I grew up in the 1970s and played a lot of road hockey in so doing, we took turns in the nets. David Bodrug had actual goalie pads, trapper and blocker, and the gearing up was the main attraction when the time came for me to be tending goal. That and the chance for nonchalant posing, Ken-Drydenate, with arms resting atop pillared stick while the tennis ball was down at the other end. As the action drew closer, you’d hunker back down at the top of the crease that wasn’t really there, wait for the shot. If it was the right one, you might kick out a leg while snagging the ball in your outstretched glove as ostentatiously as possible. For full effect, you’d hold the pose, as for a beat or three. Flashing the leather, the play-by-play men sometimes call this on hockey broadcasts, though on Roper Drive we had our own term: pulling a Rogie.

Born on this date in 1945 in Palmarolle, Quebec, Rogatien Vachon turns 73 today. He got his start in the NHL under that same name, distinguishing himself in the playoffs when starter Gump Worsley. By the time we were watching him in the ’70s, he was just Rogie, a King now, in Los Angeles. It was there that he spent the best years of his Hall-of-Fame career, wearing the number 30 that the Kings would later retire, and that tiny grin on his plum-purple mask. According to a 1972 profile by David Cobb in The Canadian Magazine, Vachon ended up in goal because, as a boy on the wintertime rink, he was small among bigger brothers and cousins. “A doctoral thesis might be prepared one day,” Cobb writes, “to assess the effect of childhood puniness on the formation of NHL goalies.” He could have strayed, in time, of course, but he chose to stay on. “You really have to enjoy it,” Vachon said, “to play goal for long.”

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remarks by the president (laughter)

Embed from Getty Images

The Los Angeles Kings play the Capitals tonight in Washington, but yesterday they were at the White House, visiting President Barack Obama, as you do when you’ve won the Stanley Cup. Now’s not the time to wonder why the tradition doesn’t extend to Rideau Hall and the Governor-General, too; would it also be impolitic (or at least not cool) to mention that 14 of 23 2014 Kings to have their names etched into the Cup are Canadian-born to just five Americans? Yes, probably.

The Kings took L.A.’s MLS soccer champions, the Galaxy, along with them. From the hockey players the President received (1) an engraved silver stick and (2) a miniature replica of the Stanley Cup with all those 23 (mostly Canadian) names on it. A full transcript of the President’s remarks is available, including soccer quips and praises. From his hockey narration, including original White-House sound effects:

The Kings needed overtime to win their championship — they needed two of them, in fact. And that was the easy part — just to get to the Finals, the Kings had to win three straight Game 7s — all on the road. They dug themselves out of a 3-0 hole against San José in the first round — they’re laughing because they’re thinking, man, let’s try to do it easier next time. (Laughter.) In the Conference Final, they beat my Blackhawks, which is unfortunate. (Laughter.) I mean, first of all, in L.A., there’s not even any ice really. (Laughter.) So you’d think, like, Chicago, where it’s probably 10 degrees below zero today, at least we’d get some hockey. But we’ve won a couple so I can’t complain.

The Kings have done the unthinkable — they have turned a city with no snow and no ice and no winter into a hockey town — (laughter) — complete with an outdoor game in Dodger Stadium. They have done it with a team that L.A. fans have embraced — guys like goalie Jonathan Quick, playoff MVP Justin Williams. The first line of Brown and Kopitar and Gaborik, and Jeff Carter and his “hockey smile.” And of course, Coach Sutter and his one-liners with the press. (Laughter.) I’ve tried the one-liners, by the way, with the press and it never seems to work. (Laughter.)