Eric Zweig’s expertise in matters concerning hockey history is shared out, along with his enthusiasm, through a score of books. His first was a novel, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada (1992), about the Renfrew Millionaires. In recent years he’s published a deep-delving biography, Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins (2015), and, this fall, the comprehensive Toronto Maple Leafs: The Complete Oral History.
Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, Ontario, is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research, and has been one of the editorial forces helping to shape the NHL’s Official Guide & Record Book. You can find his work in the pages of The New York Times and elsewhere, as well as on his lively blog at http://www.ericzweig.com. Today, as part of Puckstruck’s ongoing series, he weighs in with memories of his earliest first-hand encounters of big-league hockey.
I grew up in Toronto and attended my first NHL game when I was seven years old. The date was December 30, 1970. It was a Wednesday night during the Christmas holidays. The Maple Leafs always seemed to play at home on Wednesdays and Saturdays when I was a kid. This night, they were playing the California Golden Seals. The Leafs won 3–1.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that all the players who would become my early favourites did something good for the Leaf that night. Dave Keon scored just 33 seconds after the opening face-off. Garry Monahan (he autographed my cast when I broke my arm in the summer of 1973) got the second. Norm Ullman set up Paul Henderson for the third. But goalie Jacques Plante became my favourite of them all. The Toronto Star reported that the Leafs’ goalie was “excellent” that night. “Plante had his moments…” said the Star, “and the youngsters in attendance because of the school holidays rocked the Gardens with their applause.”
I was one of those youngsters!
Now, I’ve always been a person with a great memory for places and dates (though, sadly, that’s not quite as true as it used to be on the other side of 50). That being said, I have realized over the years that I don’t actually have a great memory for visual details. All I really remember about that first game was the score, the teams, and the fact that Plante played so well. (Also, the troughs for urinals in the men’s washroom. Gross!) I had to look up the rest. Even so, I would have to say that, before that game, I have no memories of hockey whatsoever. Since that game, I have been a lifelong fan.
I wish I could remember more from that night, but really, I was lucky enough to attend many games in Maple Leaf Gardens over the years (Leafs, Marlies, Toros) and most of those from my younger days blur together. I’m pretty sure the next Leafs game I attended was December 26, 1973. Another Wednesday night during the Christmas holidays: Toronto beat Montreal 9-2. I was there with my brother, David, who had turned eight the day before. I was 10. We went together, by ourselves, on the subway. Imagine anyone letting children do something like that today.
It was Norm Ullman’s birthday, and David and I carried a homemade sign that read “Leafs Win For Norm” using a team logo for “Leafs” and the number 4 for “For.” I remember the older kids who sat next to us saying that would have been a lot smarter of us if Ullman wore #4 instead of #9 … but that didn’t stop them from leaning in and trying to get on television every time we held up our sign.
My other memories from that night include just how amazed we were to see the Leafs score nine goals and so thoroughly dominate the Canadiens. I also remember a fantastic save by Doug Favell (I always liked the goalies) and the fact that rookie Bob Neely played a very strong game. I have no idea why that stands out. (Looking up this one, I find that Ullman had an assist on the goal Neely scored. Maybe that has something to do with it?)
Among my most vivid memories over the years was seeing Gordie Howe in the stands at a Marlies game during the 1972-73 season. He was watching his sons, Mark and Marty. Two years later, I saw all three Howes at the Gardens again, this time playing together for the Houston Aeros against the Toronto Toros. But one thing that lingers most strongly in my memories of Maple Leaf Gardens has nothing to do with the action on the ice. It’s of an ancient-looking woman working in the concession stands using her bare hands to place a hot dog I’d ordered into a bun. It was a long time before I ate a hot dog at the Gardens after that.
(Ullman: hockeyMedia & The Want List on flickr; Zweig: Stephen Smith)
Pushback: He was still often Gordon Howe in the press in 1947, starting into his second NHL season working the right wing for the Detroit Red Wings, though Gordie was starting to take hold more and more in the hockey pages. Didn’t matter either way, I’ll guess, to Toronto defenceman Gus Mortson, seen here in November of that year on Maple Leaf Gardens ice, doing his best to separate the puck from Howe’s possession. The Leafs prevailed 5-3 on the night, with Howe contributing an assist on a goal Ted Lindsay scored, and serving out two minutes for a minor penalty.
(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 120324)
So, no, that wasn’t Fidel Castro attending his first post-revolutionary hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens. As I wrote in this space back in 2012, it couldn’t have been, based on Castro’s having bypassed Toronto on his 1959 visit to Canada. But I wasn’t able, at the time, to identify the Castro-looking fan in the good seats at MLG.
Staff at the City of Toronto Archives cleared the case for me this weekend, as news carried from Havana that Castro had died at the age of 90. Touring Toronto in April of 1959 (above, in uniform) was the Cuban revolutionary government’s own Director General of Sports, Captain Felipe Guerra Matos.
He was a former rice-mill manager turned rebel, 32, wounded three times as a comrade of Castro’s in the long fight to oust the government of President Fulgencio Batista that had only come to its end in January of the year.
Like Castro, Matos had started his North American journey in the United States, dropping in to New York to see Mickey Mantle’s Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox 3-2 in their American League home opener April 12.
Travelling on to Toronto, Captain Guerra was pencilled in as the starting (ceremonial) pitcher as the local (not-hockey) Maple Leafs opened their International League season against the Havana Sugar Kings. Ontario Lieutenant-Governor J. Keiller Mackay ended up tossing the opening pitch, from what I can tell, with Matos as his catcher: the Toronto Daily Star judged it weak. Leafs won, 6-5, in front of 14, 268 fans. Honest Ed Mirvish was on hand to present Captain Guerra with a gift the Leafs wanted the Cuban people to have: a tractor.
It was later the same evening that Captain Guerra dropped by Maple Leaf Gardens, along with (to Guerra’s right) Bobby Maduro, who owned the Sugar Kings, and (to his left) the team’s road secretary, Ramiro Martinez.
Hockey’s Leafs had finished their season a week-and-a-half earlier, losing in the Stanley Cup final to Montreal. But the Cubans were just in time to catch the Whitby Dunlops take the Allan Cup from the Vernon, B.C. Canadians, and that’s who they’re watching here.
8-3 was the score, which meant that the Dunnies won the series four games to one. Doesn’t sound like it was great finale: “a dreary conclusion,” the Star’s Jim Proudfoot adjudged. Over and above Cubans, only 1,952 spectators showed up to watch Whitby captain Harry Sinden raise Canada’s senior amateur trophy.
Three of the Dunnies’ goals that night were scored by Sid Smith, the former Leaf captain. At age 34, he’d decided to hang up his stick and skates for good. “Working at a job and playing hockey as well becomes too tough a grind,” he told Proudfoot. “This is it for me. I’m going out with a winner.”
On and off the ice, Proudfoot attested, Smith had proved himself a big leaguer every minute of his distinguished career. “With the Maple Leafs he scored nearly 200 goals and played on three Stanley Cup teams. Returning to top-level amateur competition as Whitby player-coach, he helped win the 1958 world championship and now the national senior title. What more can he do?”
No word on just whether Captain Guerra took possession of any further farm machinery. I don’t think so. He did sit down during his time in Toronto with Star columnist Lotta Dempsey, with whom he chatted about his wife and sons; youth fitness; and whether the revolutionary executions of five or six hundred Batista murderers and torturers really mattered in light of the indifference with which the world had regarded the unspeakable cruelties of the former regime.
Back at Maple Leaf Gardens, The Globe and Mail’s Ken McKee wondered, having spent most of the previous three years in Cuba’s Oriente mountains with Castro, what did Captain Guerra think about hockey?
He was very impressed, he said (via Ramiro Martinez, who translated), “by the speed and hard body contact.”
In fact, his office was very interested in bringing hockey to the people of Cuba, most of whom had never seen it before.
Harold Ballard was in the house, president of Toronto’s junior Marlboros and a member of the Maple Leafs’ management committee. He said there might be interest in taking a couple of junior teams down, so long as there was money in it.
What about a league of North Americans playing in Cuba? Bobby Maduro put the chances of that at “very remote.”
“We bring ice shows in for a week or so,” he said, “and would operate a hockey tour the same way. Baseball is our main winter sport. Hockey would be a spectacle.”
(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4903)
Gardens Party: Seen here, above, in the 1980s, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens hosted its first hockey game on this night in 1931. If the occasion was one to remember, the hockey the building hosted that night wasn’t, particularly. The rink that Conn Smythe built all in a hurry to house his Leafs welcomed a crowd that night of 13,542, the largest ever to have seen a hockey game in the Ontario capital. Bert Perry was among them, on hand to report for The Globe. “The immensity of this hippodrome of hockey, claimed to be the last word in buildings of its kind, was impressed upon the spectator, and those present fully agreed that Toronto had at last blossomed forth into major league ranks to the fullest extent.” The Chicago Black Hawks beat the Leafs 2-1 on a goal from Vic Ripley. “It was not,” Perry opined, “a brilliant game of hockey.”
(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 426, Item 16)