room service

Sew, Now: Toronto Maple Leafs trainer Tim Daly takes pre-game needle-and-thread to captain Teeder Kennedy’s hockey pants in this 1951 Franklin Arbuckle painting that adorned the cover of Maclean’s magazine in March of that year. A little over a month later, a memorable overtime goal by Bill Barilko dismissed the Montreal Canadiens and won the Leafs the Stanley Cup. Also seen here: right wing Howie Meeker takes a seat while, and next to him (number 20), that’s centre John McCormack. I’d say it’s left winger Sid Smith beside him, watching Daly’s handiwork. (Image: Franklin Arbuckle)

red’s range

Red Horner, who died on this day in 2005 at the age of 95, was only ever a Maple Leaf during his 12-year NHL career, patrolling the Toronto blueline from 1928 through to 1940, making a business of punishing those opponents who dared to cross over. “Hockey’s Bad Man” Maclean’s called him in 1935, noting that in two previous 48-game seasons he’d spent five hours on the penalty bench. This curly-head wolf of the blueline is an epithet that Ted Reeve applied to Horner around that time in describing his raring, tearing, hot-headed, hammer-and-tongs manner of conducting himself on the ice. Horner was a popular Leaf and as such he was found himself in demand as a pitchman for everything from miserable ailments like sour stomach to shiny modern kitchen appliances. Here he is with his wife Isabel in their own Briar Hill Avenue home in North Toronto for a 1938 magazine campaign on behalf of Moffat electric ranges and refrigerators. The Horner’s stove was, I’m assured, beautiful in its soft gleaming finish, staunch and rugged underneath its outward grace. Mrs. Horner said she was proud of it, and that all her friends remarked on its beauty. “And it is so wonderfully quick and accurate,” she was pleased to add, on the record, “so dependable with its special oven control and other advantages, that I have lots more leisure and cooking has become a delight and inspiration.”

 

boston for the win

An exercise in “humanitarian concern,” writer Jack Batten called it. “It will do no less than head off the threat of brain fatigue, emotional delirium, heart murmur, incipient alcoholism, and all the other dread symptoms annually associated with following the spectacular ups and downs of a National Hockey League season.”

I don’t know whether Canadian hockey fans truly appreciated the mission of mercy that Batten and his editors undertook on their behalf at Maclean’s magazine nearly 50 years ago, or whether they only indulged it as an entertaining lark. To spare the faithful the time-consuming and oh-so-stressful trouble inherent in following a season’s worth of NHL hockey, Maclean’s decided they’d get in ahead of the season and ask a computer to figure out how it was all going to play out — a “$500,000 computer,” no less.

If this seems all very Stanley Kubrick, well, it was 1970, a mere two years after 2001: A Space Odyssey made its debut in movie theatres.

Looking back, the magazine’s “bloodless and coolly scientific” effort to determine just how the 1970-71 NHL season would end might be best remembered as the novelty act it was. But it also offers a fascinating glimpse into the state of NHL stats at the time, and just how fancy they were getting.

Leaving the pundits to muddle in their guesswork, Maclean’s arranged early in 1970 to gather up a pile of NHL statistics from the ’69-70 season and drive them out to Scarborough, Ontario, for a visit to the offices of Honeywell Controls Limited, then billing themselves as “The Other Computer Company — or, as Batten puts it, Avis to IBM’s Hertz.

How big a pile? “A staggering load” is Batten’s measurement. For these raw numbers, Maclean’s looked to NHL statistician Ron Andrews, not a household name, to be sure, but an important one in hockey history. A former Canadian Press reporter with (as Batten puts it) a “special numerical curiosity,” Andrews was digging deeply into the numbers the game generates and thinking about how they might be used to analyze how it’s played long before NHL President Clarence Campbell hired him in 1963 to collect and organize the league’s statistics. Calling him Andrews a pioneer of plus-minus may not be the compliment it once was, but no-one did more to build the foundation of hockey analytics than he did. With his 1970 Maclean’s cameo, Andrews, who died in 2003 at the age of 67, offers a view into the sophistication of his operation — including a list of 22 offensive categories, “not all but many” of those he and his hunter-gatherers around the league made it their business to track for each NHL player.

While Andrews provided the league’s ’69-70 stats to Maclean’s, he wasn’t in on the computing. He takes his bow early, with a bit of a growl. “The only trouble with all our statistics,” he says, “is that most fans and writers don’t know how to interpret them properly.”

Uh-huh, says Batten. Who doesknow how to read them?

“Coaches do. They understand the best way to judge a player is to watch him perform on the ice. But they use the figures as a backup, as a confirmation of their own ideas. They use them to work out problems, like which players to put together on the same line. That makes sense.”

Anyone else?

“The computer,” Andrews says. “A computer knows what numbers mean.”

Honeywell’s was a Series 200 Model 1250 — “called Foster by its friends,” Batten writes. The company had a crew of three assigned to the Maclean’s job, including a forecasting expert and a programmer responsible for loading the NHL’s hockey data onto punch-cards to feed to Foster.

This, the project’s lead told Batten, was by no means a blind operation. “We attached different weights to the different factors, so that some pieces of data, goals scored, say, were given more significance than others — minutes in penalties, for instance. We helped the computer along by making judgments from our own intuitive understanding of hockey. After all, the computer’s never seen a game.”

The programming took weeks — “several” of them, Batten says. “We don’t accept the computer’s programming forecasts right off, the Honeywell man tells him. “We look at the trends it’s showing, and we compare them with what we know is actually going on in the real world. Then we adjust our programming accordingly, and feed everything back into the computer again. It’s a continuous process. For example, if the computer started to show a trend favorable to the Buffalo Sabres, we’d know we’d have to make adjustments, right?”

When all was said and done — once Foster had “memorized, digested, juggled, and computed the data” — by then, it was “a bright afternoon early in September,” and the computer “presented on its spinning tape a scientific view” of how the season ahead would unfold.

Foster’s regular-season forecast had Boston finishing first in the East, followed by Montreal, while in the West Chicago would prevail ahead of Minnesota.

Eastern teams had swept past their western rivals three years in a row to win Stanley Cups in the late 1960s. In a bid to make the upcoming ’70-71 finals more competitive, the NHL rejigged the playoff format to bring eastern and western teams together in the semi-finals. With that in mind, Foster saw Boston ousting the Minnesota North Stars at that point, and Chicago bettering Montreal.

This latter scenario, one of the programmers told Maclean’s, was all about Foster’s thinking on the Black Hawks’ youth and vigor. “The computer knows that Montreal, with its older guys, is not going to finish the season as fresh and healthy as Chicago. That’s how the Black Hawks get the winning edge.”

It wouldn’t last against Boston, come the finals. The Bruins, of course, had won the Cup in 1970, with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk leading the way. They’d do it again in 1971, Foster felt.

“It couldn’t be any other way,” one of his Honeywell handlers explained. According to the computer, the outcome wouldn’t even be close. “I’d have to call it a slaughter.”

It’s worth noting that Maclean’s saw fit to bolster Foster’s findings with an accompanying column by Harry Sinden. He wasn’t what you’d call an entirely disinterested party, having taken his (temporary) retirement after coaching the Bruins to the 1969-70 championship. For him, Honeywell’s Series 200 needed no correcting. “The Bruins,” Sinden computed, “will ultimately whip everybody for the Stanley Cup.”

History, of course, gets the final say. It shows that while Boston did in fact finish top of the 1970-71 NHL regular-season standings, the Bruins foundered early in April when they ran up against a young goaltender named Ken Dryden in the first round of the playoffs. Having adjusted Boston’s and Foster’s programming accordingly, Dryden’s Montreal Canadiens went on to defeat Minnesota and Chicago to win the Stanley Cup they couldn’t convince Honeywell to hand over.

 

things that just pop your eyes out

Bobby Orr turns 70 today, even now, as we’re talking, so what’s important, I think, is to hear what Gordie Howe had to say about him in 1971, rendered (sort of) as a poem.

Howe was 43 back then, Orr 23, and what Maclean’s thought might be a good idea was to get each of them to argue how great the other guy was. Howe had just retired from the Detroit Red Wings that spring, 25 after he’d started with them on the wing; he was still a couple of years away from making his return with the WHA’s Houston Aeros. Orr was in his sixth NHL season. He’d won Hart and Norris trophies earlier that year while racking up the best offensive numbers of his wonderful career, finishing second in league scoring to teammate Phil Esposito. Orr’s knees still had, at this point, about six-and-a-half hockey seasons left in them.

“Eulogies For Each Other” Maclean’s called their feature, which offered up side-by-side first-person odes. Orr’s to Howe calls him a fantastic hockey player and an amazing guy. It includes an obligatory anecdote of meeting Number 9 on the ice and receiving a first lesson, i.e. a good shot. “He was a tough son of a moose,” Orr says, not to mention “the finest athlete of them all” — in any sport. “I mean you can’t say anything. The guy has got to be the greatest. He’s still the greatest.”

As for Howe on Orr, here he’s what he had to say in 1971, condensed and (why not) poemized:

He was just a snotty-nosed kid
when I first met him.
Maybe 13 years old.
We were visiting
a summer camp
near Parry Sound
and somebody said,
“Watch this kid,
he’s going to be a great one.”
It couldn’t have been
closer
to the truth.

The thing
that amazes me
is his quickness.
Because of that quickness
any move he makes
has got to be exceptional.

I talk to
Bill Quackenbush
who is in Boston
and who sees Bobby
day after day
and I guess
he does things
that just
pop your eyes out.
Any time you play
against him
you’re aware
of his talent.
It’s not only
his puck control.
With that quickness,
plus the ability
to walk around anybody,
and that heavy shot —
and I think he’s got
one of the
better shots
in hockey —
he’s got everything
going for him.
And he doesn’t
make mistakes —
and how can you
improve on that?

You have to chase him
because if you don’t
he’ll kill you.

Let’s face it, he’s the thinking power.

Bobby is a puck
control artist
and whenever
you get a control artist
you’re going to draw
a lot of hits.
What I like about him is
that he’s man enough
that he can take it,
almost to the point
where he sets himself up
and just as he’s
about to get hit
he’ll get
the pass away
and maybe
set up
a three-on-one
break.

I guess Bobby is
no different
from a lot of athletes
— every now
and then
they like
to take the shirt
and tie off
and get back
in the wilderness
and catch a few fish.

Bobby is a great kid.
The whole Howe family
admires him.
I hope
he
never
changes.