terry sawchuk: he groped for his stick and gloves and, defiant, went to work

Like The Gangster in the Howard Hawks Film: Terry Sawchuk’s last NHL duty was with the New York Rangers in 1969-70. He also padded up for Detroit, Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles during his 21-year career.

Born in Winnipeg on a Saturday of this same date in 1929, Terry Sawchuk was a four-time Stanley Cup champion and a four-time Vézina Trophy winner; he was elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1971, the year after his death at the age of 40. Did any goaltender in NHL history wear his puck-stopping pre-eminence so painfully? Here’s Dick Beddoes writing in 1990, recalling a night in ’67, when a 37-year-old Sawchuk helped the Toronto Maple Leafs to a Cup.

His single most commanding performance occurred that spring, on April 15, in the fifth game of an engrossing Cup semi-final between the Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks. He replace a shaky Johnny Bower in the second period of the fifth game with the best-of-seven series tied 2-2 in games, and this pivotal game tied 2-2 in goals.

The Hawks, in the noisy three-tiered cavern of Chicago Stadium, pressed in the first two minutes of the second period, clamorous action boiling around Sawchuk. Bobby Hull pivoted 15 feet to Sawchuk’s left, almost parallel to the goal, an impossible angle from which to score. Hull shot, hard and high. The puck struck Sawchuk’s left shoulder like a crowbar and knocked him down. Other players skated around the Toronto net, circling, looking, needling.

Pierre Pilote, the Chicago captain, crafty, canny, aimed his barbs. “How’d you feel, Terry? Should’ve let it go, Terry. Might’ve been a goal.”

The scene was caught, pinned forever in a reporter’s memory. Bob Haggert, the Toronto trainer, skidded across the ice from the Toronto bench to Sawchuk. “Where’d you get it, Ukey?”

Sawchuk, on his knees, “On my bad shoulder.”

Haggert, leaning down, “Think you’re okay? Can you stay in the game?”

“I stopped the fucking shot, didn’t I?” Sawchuk struggled to regain his feet. “Help me up and I’ll stone those sons of bitches.” He groped for his stick and gloves and, defiant, went to work.

It is a 23-year-old story, a footnote in clutch exhibitions, how he went home again to glory, how he stopped 36 shots in Toronto’s 4-2 conquest, frustrated the most insatiable shooters in the game, shut them out with the remnants of the young Sawchuk: down the glove, out the arm, over the stick, up the glove, shutting off daylight the shooters thought they saw — all in a kind of desperate epileptic action. You were left wondering who choreographed the most stylish goaler in the galaxy.

gawky gus rivers: singer of songs, poison to rangers

Gus Rivers only played parts of three campaigns with the Montreal Canadiens — a total of 104 games, regular-season and playoffs — but you have to credit his timing: at the end of two of those seasons, 1930 and ’31, he helped the Canadiens to win Stanley Cup championships.

A Winnipegger, Rivers was, we know, born on this date, November 19 — but was it 1909, as many of the standard references record, or a year earlier? I’ll tend towards the latter: birth records from Manitoba and his U.S. military draft registration have Rivers originating in 1908. His hockey lineage isn’t in doubt: before he got to the NHL, Rivers played for the Elmwood Millionaires, the University of Manitoba, and the perfectly named Winnipeg Winnipegs. He was 22 in January of 1930 when the Canadiens signed him.

He’d started as a forward in Manitoba, before shifting back to defence; Canadiens’ coach Cecil Hart put him to work on the wing when he got to Montreal. Upon his arrival, it was noted in the local Gazette that his “real name” was Gustave Desrivieres, though there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond anecdotal evidence that this was the case — it’s possibly that this was purely a fiction perpetrated by the Canadiens for the interest of their French-Canadian fans, in the tradition of declaring Howie Morenz’s background as Swiss. A year later, in the wake of another Stanley Cup triumph, the Gazette included this in their biographical round-up of the victors:

Gus was born in Winnipeg and played amateur hockey from 1924 to 1930 when he was recommended to Canadiens and signed by them. He came here under the name of Gustave Desrivieres and for a time he was thought to be French. Some of the American hockey writes still think so.

Rivers scored his first NHL goal on the last night the 1930 regular-season schedule, when the Canadiens dispatched the New York Americans by a score of 8-3. Teammate Howie Morenz scored five that night, so the fact that Rivers’ landmark tally didn’t get a whole lot of play in the press next day maybe isn’t so surprising. His second goal was more of a headliner: later that same month, Rivers scored the overtime winner that put an end to what to that date the longest game in NHL history, capping 68 minutes and 52 seconds of sudden-death hockey as Montreal beat the New York Rangers 2-1 to open their Stanley Cup semi-final. Here’s the Gazette’s L.S.B. Shapiro describing how it went down:

Signed by Canadiens this season, Gus Rivers watched almost every game from the bench. He’d never got his chance to play. A shy, retiring chap, his favorite occupation on the team’s journeys was to sit in a corner of the car all alone and render the popular ditties to himself with feeling. Between times he received the joshing of all members of the team with a broad, good-natured smile.

It was this youngster that Manager Cecil Hart, of the Canadiens, put on the ice in the overtime session after all of the Flying Frenchmen were tottering on their feet. Rivers dashed out on the ice, ran the Rangers ragged for a while, then when Aurele Joliat and Sylvio Mantha struggled up the ice, he skated in front of the Rangers net. The rubber came his way from Mantha’s stick, and after 128 minutes of battling, the game was finally settled when Rivers slammed that puck past John Ross Roach.

The applause from a nerve-wracked crowd was deafening. But more significant was the fact that the Canadiens, exhausted and tottering, lifted the gawky youngster on their shoulders and carried him into the dressing room, Gus Rivers had achieved recognition at last.

Rivers didn’t have too many more NHL goals in him — he only score four more in his career — but he did sink another overtime winner past the Rangers’ John Ross Roach, this one at Madison Square Garden in January of 1931.

In the wake of Montreal second successive Cup that spring, L.S.B Shapiro projected a big future for Rivers. “Gus possesses a neat poke check. He breaks fast and is dangerous around the goals.”

“From present indication,” the Gazette’s man gushed, “he will stand among the Morenzes and the [Pit] Lepines before many years have passed.”

As it turned out, while Rivers started the following season with Montreal, he finished it with the Providence Reds of the Can-Am League. He never made it back to NHL ice and after five further seasons with the Reds, he stowed his skates as a pro. Gus Rivers stayed on in Rhode lsland after his hockey career ended and, in 1985, that’s where he died. He was 75.

clem loughlin: viking elder, coach in chicago, victoria’s stanley cup captain

Taking Stick Stock: Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert consults with coach Clem Loughlin during the NHL’s 1935-36 season.

As boys growing up in Viking, Alberta, the Sutters knew him well: Brian did odd jobs at Clem Loughlin’s main-street hotel and out on his nearby cattle farm, and Darryl had him as a coach when he played midget in the early 1970s. “We idolized him,” Darryl would say years later, after he ended up taking the same job Loughlin had done 57 years before him. “I remember one bus ride to St. Albert or Stony Plain where I got to sit right beside him. I was amazed by all his stories. We didn’t have anybody in our town who’d done the things he’d done.”

Born in Carroll, Manitoba, on a Tuesday of this date in 1892, Clem Loughlin did a lot of hockey things in his time. A defenceman, he won an Allan Cup in 1915 with the Winnipeg Monarchs before turning pro with the PCHA’s Portland Rosebuds. He played a decade in the west-coast league, with the Victoria Aristocrats, who then turned into the Victoria Cougars, and shifted leagues in the WHL.

It was a powerful Cougars outfit that manager Lester Patrick assembled in 1925, with a 33-year-old Loughlin captaining a line-up that also included  Frank Fredrickson, Jack Walker, Frank Foyston, and Hap Holmes. That March, they beat the Montreal Canadiens to take the Stanley Cup in four games, the last time a team not from the NHL claimed the trophy.

Loughlin had a short NHL career after, joining the Detroit Cougars that same fall. After two seasons in Detroit, he played part of the 1928-29 season with the Chicago Black Hawks. After coaching the IHL London Tecumsehs, Loughlin returned to Chicago in 1935, succeeding Tommy Gorman behind the bench a year after Gorman had steered the Black Hawks to their first Cup.

Whatever the challenges of coaching in the NHL in the 1930s, Loughlin had the added burden of working for Major Frederic McLaughlin, the domineering coffee tycoon and former polo star who owned the Black Hawks and couldn’t leave the running of the hockey team to those with experience in the game. It was Loughlin who had to contend with his boss’s 1936 plan to do away with Canadian players and make do with only Americans. (McLaughlin also planned to re-name the team the Yankees.)

Loughlin dealt with the mandate from on high as best he could — and even defended McLaughlin all-American scheme. “It isn’t as silly as it sounds by any means,” he told the Montreal Gazette in early 1937. “I contend that most hockey players are made, not born. The superstars of the game, like Chuck Conacher, Howie Morenz, and Bill Cook, of course, are great athletes and were born to be headliners in hockey. But take some of these other fellows that aren’t athletes in any line of sport except hockey. It’s the only game some of them play, in fact. Coaching and an eagerness to improve themselves in a big-money game is what has made them capable players.”

“Of course,” he allowed, “the Major’s plan will take some time in developing, for we must practically at scratch in this thing. But, you may laugh at me or not, I do believe that the scheme has possibilities.”

Maybe so; we don’t know. It never really launched, and in May of ’37, Loughlin resigned his post. He back in Alberta by then, where he had his farm and his hotel. Major McLaughlin said he regretted the loss to the Black Hawks. “Our relations have been so extremely pleasant,” he said, “and he is a man of such high ideals and splendid character that he will be missed.”

Next up at the Chicago helm was Bill Stewart, the NHL referee and baseball umpire. The following year he did what Tommy Gorman had done and Loughlin, guiding the Black Hawks to another Stanley Cup.

“He was a real gentleman,” Darryl Sutter said in 2001,” always in a fedora and topcoat. He coached me my last year of midget. I don’t think Clem had coached anybody 40 years, but we needed somebody. He used to come out on the ice in his long black trenchcoat. And he had these skates, back to when he played. He had the date right on them. We loved of all of his stories.”

Clem Loughlin died in January of 1977 at the age of 84. It was 1992 when Darryl Sutter, now in his second stint as coach of the Calgary Flames, followed his mentor’s footsteps to the Blackhawks’ bench. In ’01, when he was coaching the San Jose Sharks, he had a photograph of Loughlin hanging on the wall of office. By then, another Loughlin acolyte, Brian Sutter, had taken over as Chicago’s coach.

Coaching Clinic: Clem Loughlin weighs in with Toronto’s Globe in 1936.

chairman of the boards

A birthday today for Red Dutton, born on another Friday of this date, the one in 1897, in Russell, Manitoba. After starting his NHL service as an enthusiastic and highly effective defenceman for the Montreal Maroons and New York Americans, Dutton went on to coach the Americans bench, as he’s doing here in 1940. He ran the team eventually, and took a turn in the mid-40s as NHL president. Dutton was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. He turned his back, later in life, on the hockey establishment, refusing for some 35 years to darken the door of an NHL arena. He died in 1987 at the age of 89.

down + out with kenny reardon

Downfall: Ken Reardon dislocated his left shoulder on the night of April 1, 1950, in Montreal’s 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers at the Forum. It turned out to be the last game of his NHL career. Attending the patient are, from left, Montreal’s Glen Harmon, possibly Kenny Mosdell, unknown, New York goaltender Charlie Rayner, Floyd Curry, and Ranger defenceman Gus Kyle. The trainer is (I think) Bill Head; don’t know the name of the Forum rink attendant.

The game was all but over at the Montreal Forum, and the score was a sour one for the local team on this night, 71 years ago, with the visiting New York Rangers nursing a 3-2 lead. The loss, which would put the Canadiens down two games in their opening-round series against the Rangers, would prove costlier still: as the third-period clock ticked down, Montreal’s Ken Reardon went down in the New York zone.

It happened to be the All-Star defenceman’s 29th birthday. Born in Winnipeg on Friday, April 1, 1929, the future Hall of Famer had earlier in the evening assisted on Norm Dussault’s first-period goal.

That was the very last point of Reardon’s seven-year NHL career — insofar as it turned out to be Reardon’s very last NHL game.

“Canadiens were engaged in an all-out drive on the New York nets when the crash came,” Vern DeGeer reported in the pages of the Gazette. Following a face-off in the Ranger zone, Reardon went after a straying puck. “He was ridden into the boards by big Gus Kyle and collapsed in a heap.”

X-rays taken later that night at Montreal’s Western Hospital told the tale: Reardon’s left shoulder was dislocated. It was the same one he’d hurt a year earlier in a game against Toronto.

With Reardon out of the line-up, Montreal fell to the Rangers in five games. In the opinion of New York coach Lynn Patrick, Reardon’s absence was a key to the Rangers’ success: Montreal just couldn’t replace his drive, rugged defensive play, and capacity to rally a faltering team.

Reardon seems to have been aiming to return to the Montreal roster in the fall of 1950. He rehabilitated his shoulder that summer, even played some baseball with his Canadiens teammates. But by September, with training camp approaching, the shoulder and a longer-term back problem was enough to persuade him that the time was right to retire.

“Reardon is convinced that he should withdraw from active play while he is still in one piece,” was the message to the press from Frank Selke, Montreal’s managing director.

And so, that fall, Reardon started his new job for the Canadiens, as what Selke described as an ambassador of good will. He later served as assistant GM as well as vice-president of the team, playing a part in six Stanley Cup championships in all as a player, manager, and executive.

Also in 1950: the former defenceman got married, in December, to Suzanne Raymond, daughter of Canadiens president Senator Donat Raymond. As Montreal’s playing staff worked on their Stanley Cup project, the happy couple honeymooned in Montego Bay in Jamaica.

crease confab

Coaching Sesh: Born in Winnipeg on a Friday of this date in 1923, Church Russell played three seasons at centre and left wing for the New York Rangers in the mid-1940s, scoring a creditable 20 goals in 1946-47. That’s him in the middle here, number 16, alongside another Manitoban Rene Trudell (Mariapolis), with whom Russell often lined up that season on the Atomic Line, in partnership with Transcona’s own Cal Gardner. At right is the dapper (Ottawa-born) Ranger coach, Frank Boucher.

that wonder-working bird

The Edmonton Hockey Team: The WCHL Eskimos as they lined up in 1925-26. From left: Bobby Boucher, Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, Herb Stuart, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Art Gagne, Johnny Shepard, Spunk Sparrow, Ernie Anderson, Lloyd McIntyre, Bobby Benson.

Born in Hartney, Manitoba, on a Wednesday of this date in 1897, Spunk Sparrow won an Allen Cup in 1916 on the 61st Battalion team that Joe Simpson starred on. Emory was Sparrow’s given name, if you’re wondering; he was a right winger; he died in 1965 at at the age of 67. As a pro, Sparrow mostly played in the old WCHL in the early 1920s, turning out for the Regina Capitals (Dick Irvin and Rabbit McVeigh were teammates), Calgary’s Tigers (alongside Red Dutton and Herb Gardiner), and the Edmonton Eskimos pictured above. He played briefly for Boston, joining Art Ross’s fledgling Bruins in 1925 for six games. He scored some goals in his day, and was oft-penalized and several times suspended — “a sterling hockey player,” the Winnipeg Tribune called him, “but a rather difficult man to handle.” The flaxen flash was an epithet the Edmonton Journal applied to him in 1924 on the occasion of his having scored a handsome goal against Calgary. It was so good, apparently, that one of the paper’s writers saw fit to dash off a poem in his honour, “An Ode To Spunk.” It opened like this:

Tell me, stranger, have you heard
Of that wonder-working bird?
Not the peacock or the wren
Or the brilliant guinea-hen.
It’s the bird who saves our souls
Gets badly-needed goals —
Sparrow!

hockey with a grin

Children’s books featuring Bobby Clarke proliferated in his hockey-playing heyday in the 1970s; I’d even say they abounded. Fred McFadden’s Bobby Clarke (1972) should not be confused with Edward Dolan’s Bobby Clarke (1977); only the former, take note, belonged to the Superpeople series of mini-biographies, which also featured slim volumes profiling Jean Béliveau, Ken Dryden, Bobby Orr, Norman Bethune, Alexander Graham Bell, and Karen Kain, among others. John Gilbert’s An Interview With Bobby Clarke (1977) postulated that Clarke never bragged, whined, forgot a friend, or quit, also that he was too small to be a dirty player, Montreal coach Scotty Bowman just called him that to psych him out. Julian May’s 1975 Clarke bio, Hockey With A Grin, studied the love that Philadelphia fans quickly developed for their superstar centre and concluded this:

He was that rarity — a smiling hockey player. He enjoyed what he was doing and let the whole world know it. With his handsome, boyish face and gap-toothed grin, Bobby won the hearts of the fans.

Born on a Saturday of this date in 1949 in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Clarke turns 71 today. His popularity as a literary figure, of course, has to do with the hockey successes he helped engineer in the mid-1970s, when he captained the Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cups while also winning Masterton and Selke trophies for himself, as well as (three times) the Hart Memorial Trophy.

It’s also founded on the inspiring story of how he succeeded despite having been diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager. “You’d better give up hockey,” is what the doctor in Fred McFadden’s bio tells young Bobby when he first breaks the news; in Julian May’s telling, the doctor says, “It would be best if you did not play hockey.”

Dolan boils it down this way:

Bobby’s doctors said that he might be able to play the goaltender spot but that he could never skate all over the rink in a game and still keep his health.

Whereupon, of course, he showed them, and everybody.

Along with our hero’s health, his smile, his refusal to quit, the Clarke oeuvre examines the man’s modesty; the qualities that made him such a great leader; how deeply Flin Flon was ingrained in his personality; and just what happened back in ol’ ’72 when he swung his stick in Moscow and broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle.

Clarke’s ongoing Flin Flon-ness, McFadden maintains, was apparent in the ’70s in the Flyers’ captain’s insistence on “driving a pick-up and listing hot dogs as his favourite food.”

On Kharlamov, the accounting of Clarke’s intent to injure the Soviet Union’s best player in Game Six of the Summit Series is surprisingly straightforward. All the bios take more or less the same shrugging view of the incident — no big deal, what’s all the fuss? In his Superpeople summing-up, McFadden allows that Clarke’s willingness to break the rules to win did cause “some people” to question his sportsmanship.

That’s as close as any of the Bobby-Clarke-for-young-readers books come to grappling with the ethics of the thing. Otherwise, Julian May’s take in Hockey With A Grin can represent the rest:

… Bobby was trailing Kharlamov. He suddenly realized: “This guy is killing us!” And almost without thinking, Bobby lashed at Kharlamov’s ankles with his stick.

Bobby got a two-minute penalty for slashing. The Russian was out for that game and for the next. “It’s not something I’m proud of,” Bobby recalled later, “but I honestly can’t say I was ashamed to do it.”

Flyerdelphian: Readers of John Gilbert’s 1977 bio-for-young-readers, An Interview With Bobby Clarke, learned that the Flyers’ captain never bragged, whined, or quit.

 

alcoholic drinks? the best they can do is ruin your health

Tabletop: Red Wings defenceman Black Jack Stewart catches up on the day’s news in the Detroit dressing room during a rubdown from team trainer Honey Walker, circa 1946.

When Black Jack Stewart played his defence on the left side for the Detroit Red Wings, a lot of the time Bill Quackenbush was on the right. I’ll let Stewart tell you where he got his nickname:

I bodychecked some fellow one night and when he woke up the next day in the hospital he asked who’d hit him with a blackjack.

He couldn’t remember the player’s name. In other tellings of the tale, it was his own dark visage and disposition that got him the moniker. He was a devastating hitter, says the Hall of hockey’s fame, to which he was inducted in 1964. His online bio there also includes the words: complete packagerock-solid, poise, work ethicexcellent staminabrute force, and subtle clutching and grabbing. He played a dozen NHL seasons in all, the first ten for Detroit, then the final two for the Chicago Black Hawks, where he was the captain. He won two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings; three times he was a First Team All-Star.

Best-Dressed: Stewart featured in a three-page fashion spread in the February, 1948 edition of Sport magazine. “In picking out the leisure wardrobe he is wearing on these pages,” readers were advised, “Jack looked for about the same things most men want in their Winter garments. He kept his eyes open warmth, comfort, and up-to-date styling.”

He never argued with referees. “I figured,” he said, “for every penalty I got I used to get away with around 19.” He carried one of the heaviest sticks at the time he played, in the 1930s and into the ’40s and ’50s. People remembered his bodychecks in Detroit for years after he was gone: when Howie Young played there a decade later, they said he hits almost as hard as Black Jack Stewart. Stewart’s philosophy? He said this:

A defenceman should bodycheck if possible, picking the proper spots and making sure that he gets at least a piece of the opposing player. But it isn’t wise to go in there with the sole idea of bodychecking everything on skates.

Some dates: born in 1917, died 1983, on a Wednesday of this date, when he was 66. The love he had of horses was nurtured in Pilot Mound, Manitoba, where he grew up on the family wheat farm. He went back home to work on the farm in the off-season when he was in the NHL. Later, after he’d hung up his skates, when he was making a living as a salesman for a Detroit lithograph firm, he was a judge for the Canadian Trotting Association.

He’d always remember the day a teenager showed up in Detroit in the later ’40s, fuzzy-cheeked, name of Gordie Howe, with no great fanfare. “We knew he had it all,” Black Jack said, looking back:

He showed spurts of being a really good one. But I think he held back a little that first year. He didn’t seem relaxed enough. But of course he overcame that after he’d had a couple of fights.

There weren’t too many ever got by Black Jack, someone who knew from trying said. I guess he had a little bit of feud with Milt Schmidt of the Boston Bruins: so he said himself. Something else Stewart said was that every team had two players who were tough, for example for Chicago it was Earl Seibert and Johnny Mariucci.

Here’s a story, from ’48, about another Red Wing rookie, the great Red Kelly, who was in his first year in the NHL, a 20-year-old fledgling. That January, driving in downtown Detroit, Kelly made an illegal left turn and hit a car belonging to one John A. Watson. Summoned to traffic court, Kelly appeared before Judge John D. Watts with his teammate Stewart standing by him to argue his defence.

Kelly’s license, it turned out, was Canadian, as was his insurance. Convicted for the improper turn, Judge Watts gave him a suspended sentence and told him to pay $52 in damages to Watson.

“You had better get another attorney before you go to jail,” the magistrate was reported to have told Kelly regarding Stewart’s courtroom efforts. “This man sounds more like a prosecutor.”

Watts did ask Stewart to make sure that his teammate paid the damages and secured a Michigan license. “I’ll see that he does both,” Stewart is said to have promised, “if I have to break his neck.”

The proceedings came to jocular end. “I fine you two goals,” Judge Watts told Kelly, (laughingly, according the Detroit Free Press), “and you’d better deliver them tonight or I’ll have you back in court tomorrow.”

Stepping Out: Stewart’s wool overcoat (with zip-out lining) would have set you back $55 in 1948. His imported capeskin gloves? A mere $7.

Detroit did dispense with the New York Rangers at the Olympia that night, by a score of 6-0, but Kelly wasn’t on the scoresheet. The team, the Free Press noted, “left for Canada shortly after the game.”

Alertness on face-offs was, to Stewart, a cardinal rule. That’s what he said in 1949, when he and his fellow All-Stars were asked to share their hockey insights.

When it came to off-ice conditioning, Stewart said he tried to go walking as much as he could. “I eat foods,” he added, “that my system has been used to and at regular hours. I go easy on pickles and pastries. A steak dinner is the thing not less than three hours before playing a game. I aim at eight hours’ sleep nightly. As for alcoholic drinks, leave them strictly alone — the best they can do for you is ruin your health.”

Smoking? “A boy who is really serious about coming a topnotch player will be wise to shun smoking until he has attained his 21st birthday,” Black Jack Stewart said.

turk ethic

Goal-Line Stand: Today’s the day that Turk Broda was born in 1914, in Brandon, Manitoba — it was a Friday there, then. Conn Smythe bought his contract from the Detroit Red Wings this month in 1936, and after that the history he made was all Maple Leaf. Pictured here in the late ’30s, Broda won five Stanley Cups with Toronto, along with a pair of Vézina trophies. Twice he was voted to the NHL’s First All-Star Team, and in 1952, aged 37, he became the first goaltender in league history to play in 100 playoff games. In recognition for all he achieved in the blue-and-white — and for what he suffered therein, maybe? — the Leafs eventually got around to retiring his number 1. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

riverton’s rifle

Born in Riverton, Manitoba, in 1950 on a Sunday in April of this date, Reggie Leach is 70 today. Just why he still hasn’t been voted to hockey’s Hall of Fame remains a mystery, but the oversight does nothing to diminish what he accomplished as a goalscorer in the NHL. Best known as a Flyer, Leach was never better than he was in the spring of 1976, which is when he scored five goals in a decisive Conference-Final game against the Boston Bruins in the Conference Finals on his way to notching 19 goals in 16 playoff games. Though Philadelphia fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals, Leach was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy that year, as playoff MVP, the only non-goaltender in NHL history to win the award as a member of the losing team.

With an assist from Randi Druzin, Reggie Leach published a memoir in 2015, The Riverton Rifle: Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life. I had a chance to talk to him at the time, on assignment for Slapshot Diaries. I asked him about goaltenders; here’s what he told me:

Q: You scored a lot of goals in the NHL. Was there one goaltender who gave you particular problems?

A: You mean one goaltender I couldn’t score on? Gerry Cheevers. I did score some goals on him, but he was one of the hardest goaltenders for me to score on. I couldn’t figure him out.

When I played, I used to watch the warm-ups all the time and practice shooting from different spots. Where I was dangerous was top of the circle, and out farther. I wasn’t that great inside, I don’t think. Kenny Dryden: the easiest goaltender, for me. Yep. Because Kenny was scared of my shot. And I beat him high all the time, always over the shoulder.

Gerry Cheevers, I’ll tell you a story. When I was in Boston, I remember going to practice as a rookie and as a rookie you just go all-out, you just shoot it, and I go in there and I put one past Cheevers and I thought, Yeah, I beat him. But Gerry, if you hit him with a puck, he’d chase you down the ice. I hit him one time in his chest, he chased me with his stick, and the guys were all laughing, they didn’t tell me that. Gerry Cheevers would stand, no lie, all he did was stand in net, stand there, wave his stick. Right? And that was his practice. And if you hit him, he’d chase you down the ice.

But goaltenders are really strange. Our thing with Bernie Parent, we’d say, Bernie, you weren’t that goddamn good, you only had 18 shots a game. He was funny. One time in Vancouver he comes in — he always smoked the cigar, right — he’d come in with the cigar and say, Boys, I feel good, give me one goal today, that’s it. And guys would be smiling, great, yeah, we only have to get the one goal. And 99 per cent of the time, that’s all we needed, the one goal. That’s the way he was. And Bernie actually stayed out to practice his angle-shots all the time. I would shoot the puck at him and I’d tell him, Bernie, just move over a bit more, and he’d say, Just shoot the puck, I’ll do the moving. He would have everything all angled out, left-handed shots versus right-handed, he would work on that, the only goaltender I ever saw who worked on something after a practice was Bernie. All the other ones I played with never did.

alton white: blazing a trail in the wha

Willie O’Ree was 37 in the fall of 1972, lacing up for his 17th season in professional hockey with the WHL San Diego Gulls. Eleven years after O’Ree skated the right wing for the Boston Bruins, the first black player to play in the NHL, the league was still waiting for a second. Alton White, 27, wasn’t focussed on that: he just wanted his chance to play. Born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, he’d grown up in Winnipeg. A right winger like O’Ree, he could score, and did aplenty, in the IHL and AHL. He attended the New York Rangers’ training camp in 1966; in 1970, he tried his luck with the Oakland Seals.

“I think speed is one of my strong points,” he said then. “I’m a pretty good skater, and I try to be a hustling type, two-way player.” When it didn’t work out in California, or any other NHL territory, White signed, in ’72, with the New York Raiders of the upstart WHA. He played four seasons in the WHA for four different franchises. He finished the ’72-72 season with the Los Angeles Sharks, for whom he scored 20 goals and 37 points. He ended his hockey career in 1976 playing senior hockey in British Columbia for a team fantastically named the North Shore Hurry Kings.

Newspaper profiles from those WHA years often focussed on the fact that he was the WHA’s only black player.

“I don’t consider myself the Jackie Robinson of hockey,” he told one writer in 1972. “He really had a lot of hardships. I have no problems.”

Of his early years, he recalled moving to Manitoba at the age of eight. “Nova Scotia was 90 per cent white and Winnipeg was probably 95 per cent. It was hockey country and I just naturally played hockey. My older brothers played peewee hockey and junior, but there was no other black that I played with or against in Canada.”

He had his hopes for the future. “In the future, there will be a lot more black hockey players. As I travel from city to city, I see some of the junior hockey programs, and I see more and more blacks participating. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t see any.”