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.
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 —
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.”
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 package, rock-solid, poise, work ethic, excellent stamina, brute 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
There’s none of us now who was around to see Joe Simpson skate, so let’s listen to what his contemporaries had to say. Newsy Lalonde, circa 1923, called him the greatest hockey player alive. The great Duke Keats rated Simpson one of the best defencemen he ever saw, on a par with Eddie Shore and Sprague Cleghorn. “He made dazzling, dodging rushes,” Jim Coleman hymned in 1973, “a technique of puck-carrying that earned him [the] nickname ‘Corkscrew Joe.’”
There’s more on Simpson — including discussions of his many nicknames; just what the corkscrew might have looked like; reference to my grandfather; and Wally Stanowski turning pirouettes at Maple Leaf Gardens — over here. Here, for now, we’ll go on to recall that Harold Edward Simpson happens to have been born on an 1893 Sunday of this date in Selkirk, Manitoba, where he ended up skating with his hometown Fisherman before war broke in 1914.
There’s more to know about his military service — that’s still to come — but the short version with hockey at the forefront goes like this: having enlisted with Winnipeg’s 61st Battalion in the summer of 1915, Simpson led the battalion’s hockey team to an Allan Cup championship in 1916 before the soldiers stowed their hockey sticks and shipped out for France. Simpson was wounded on the Somme in ’16 and then again later in the war — but, again, we’ll come back to that another time. Returning from France in 1919, he rejoined the Selkirk Fishermen. The five subsequent seasons he played with the Edmonton Eskimos of the WCHL included a trip, in 1923, to the Stanley Cup finals (Edmonton lost to the Ottawa Senators). They called him Bullet Joe and the Babe Ruth of hockey when he arrived in the NHL in 1926, joining the newfound New York Americans at the age of 33. He played five seasons in New York and, later, served as coach for another three. Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963, Joe Simpson died in 1973, at the age of 80.
Detroit Red Wings coach Jimmy Skinner (right) gears up in the fall of 1957 with his boss, manager Jack Adams. A son of Selkirk, Manitoba, Skinner succeeded Tommy Ivan on the Wings’ bench in 1954, guiding the team to a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship in the spring of ’55. The summer of 1957 was a tumultuous one in Detroit. In July, Ted Lindsay departed the team, traded to Chicago after 13 seasons and 700 points for the crime of heading up the NHL’s incipient player’s association. Lindsay had said he’d rather retire than leave Detroit, but he’d finally agreed to the trade. At a press conference, Lindsay described “the personal resentment of the Detroit general manager toward me.” Adams denied that there was any feud: he said that shipping out 31-year-old Lindsay, the fourth highest goalscorer in NHL history, and All-Star goaltender Glenn Hall, 25, for four players and cash was all about renewing the Red Wings. With Terry Sawchuk back in the net that year, Detroit did end up in third place in the final NHL standings, though they fell to the unstoppable Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs. Skinner was gone by then, having resigned as coach in January on a doctor’s advice about the migraines he couldn’t quell. Sid Abel was the man who replaced him, and he kept the job for the next ten years. His old linemate Ted Lindsay would return to Detroit for a final season in 1964-65 during that time. As for Stanley Cups, Abel’s Wings came close, losing in the Finals four times during his tenure. The team would go without a championship until 1997, with Scotty Bowman in command.