behind the boston blueline: safety first

In the catalogue of hockey-player poses, the First Pass falls somewhere between the static standard we’ve already seen on display in the Tripod and the showy effort of the Maximum Slapper. It’s your all-business, man-at-work option: what we’re looking at here, above, is a single-minded man on a mission to clear that puck from the defensive zone. Head up, eyes on the breaking winger, he won’t be waylaid, not even for a photo shoot.  Can there be any doubt that when Mr. Armstrong makes contact here, stick to puck, his pass will be crisp as Melba toast on its way to where it’s going?

Sorry: Bob. Bob Armstrong. He was a regular on the Bruins’ blueline through the 1950s and into the early ’60s, long before I knew him, in high school, in the 1980s. Lakefield, Ontario is where he settled after his hockey career ended, and it’s where he spent some 25 years as a beloved teacher and housemaster, and as a coach of hockey and football players. His First Hockey teams were very good in those years, which meant that I never quite cracked any of his line-ups — I was only ever a Second. In the classroom, where he taught history and economics, he did his best to guide my Grade 12 studies of Schlieffen plans and Keynesian multipliers. Big Bob we called him, too, though not, if we could help it, within his hearing. He was much mourned when he died at the age of 59 in 1990, much too soon.

Back in Boston, he’d worn number 4 for five years before Bobby Orr arrived on the scene. A dozen seasons he skated in the NHL, 542 games, a big, solid, no-nonsense, front-porch defender, which is to say (as I wrote in a book called Puckstruck) stay-at-home. On the Boston blueline his partners over the years included Hal Laycoe, Ray Gariepy, Fernie Flaman, and Leo Boivin, though mostly he paired with peaceable Bill Quackenbush. In 1952, Boston coach Lynn Patrick sometimes deployed a powerplay featuring forwards Real Chrevefils, Leo Lebine, and Jerry Toppazzini with winger Woody Dumart manning the point with Mr. Armstrong. He scored but rarely: in his twelve NHL seasons, he collected just 14 goals.

Bruising is the word that’s often attached to Mr. Armstrong’s name as it appears in old dispatches from the NHL front, which sounds like it could be a reference to his own sensitive skin, though mostly it refers to the welts he raised on that belonging to opponents. He didn’t only batter members of the Montreal Canadiens, but they do figure often in the archive of Mr. Armstrong’s antagonism, cf. his tussle with Goose McCormack (1952); that time he and Tom Johnson were thumbed off for roughing soon after the game started (1954); the other one where he and Bert Olmstead were observed roughing up each other (1955); and/or the night he and Andre Pronovost were sentenced to penalties for fighting but subsequently left the penalty bench to join in a disagreement Labine was having with Maurice Richard (1958), leaving Mr. Armstrong when it was all over with a large purple swollen area around his left eye.

Players who rarely found themselves fighting — Jean Béliveau, Max Bentley — somehow ended up throwing punches at Mr. Armstrong.

“A big fellow, he liked to dish it out,” the Boston Globe’s Herb Ralby wrote in 1953, looking back on Mr. Armstrong’s rookie season. If there was a fault to find in his game then, it might have been his hurry to rid himself of the puck — he was, Ralby wrote, “afraid of making moves that might prove costly.”

Playing alongside Hal Laycoe cured him of that: “a patient, painstaking tutor,” the six-year veteran helped turn his rookie partner into such a polished performer that by 1953 Bruins’ coach Lynn Patrick was ready to rate a 21-year-old Mr. Armstrong the third-best defenceman in the NHL, after Detroit’s Red Kelly and Bill Gadsby of Chicago.

He played in a single All-Star Game, in 1960, when the best-of-the-rest took on the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens at the Forum and beat them 2-1. “The best safety-first defenceman in the league,” Leafs’ assistant manager King Clancy called Mr. A that season. “He doesn’t fool around with that puck behind his own blueline. He gets it out of there in a hurry.”

Gadsby and Kelly were part of the All-Stars’ defensive corps, too, that night, along with Marcel Pronovost, Allan Stanley, and Pierre Pilote. Pronovost was roundly cheered by the Montreal crowd on the night, the local Gazette noted; Mr. Armstrong and Bruins’ teammate Bronco Horvath suffered “distinct booing.”

terry sawchuk: big hands, fast reflexes, an already much-stitched face

Wheelmen: Detroit’s powerful 1959 line-up included (from left) Marcel Pronovost, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, coach Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, and Gordie Howe.

“He has big hands, fast reflexes, and an unorthodox, gorillalike crouch — ‘I feel more comfortable down there.’” So chronicled Life magazine’s unnamed writer in a February, 1952 feature profiling Detroit Red Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk. Winnipeg-born on this date when it was a Saturday in 1929, Sawchuk was a mere 22 in ’52, and just halfway through his second season in the NHL, but already Life was prepared to proclaim him the greatest goalie ever. In 50 games up to that point in the season, he’d accumulated ten shutouts and a miserly average of 1.86 goals a game. He’d play all of the Red Wings’ 70 games that year, and be named to the NHL’s First All-Star while winning the first of his four career Vézina trophies. That same spring, Sawchuk would backstop the Red Wings to the first of the four Stanley Cups he’d get his name on before he died, aged 40, in 1970. Already in ’52, Life was registering the damage he’d sustained doing his duty, noting that it wasn’t so healthy for a man in his position to be guessing where the puck was going and getting it wrong: “Sawchuk has 40 stitches on his face to prove it.”

Sawchuk’s eventful story is the subject of a Canadian biopic due for release in 2019. It’s a narrative (as some early production notes explain) that explores Sawchuk’s youth as well as his 20-year, five-team NHL career — “during which he recorded 103 shutouts and 400 stitches to his face.”

Filmed mostly in Sudbury, Ontario, earlier this year, Goalie (Blue Ice Pictures) stars Mark O’Brien as the man himself. It also features Kevin Pollak in the role of Detroit GM Jack Adams. Adriana Maggs is directing; with her sister Jane Maggs, she also co-wrote the screenplay that draws on both the poems in Night Work (2008) by their father, Randall Maggs, and David Dupuis’ 1998 biography Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie.

wings nuts

Go Wings Go: Toronto’s 2017 Leafs skate in Detroit tonight to renew an old rivalry. In February of 1961, when the Red Wings paid a visit to Maple Leaf Gardens, the crew of winged-wheel fans who made the trip from Michigan included, from left, Rose Marie Galitz, Andrew Sorovetz, and Jack Walker. The game they witnessed would have been a disappointment, with the home team skating to a 4-2 victory. Detroit’s defence was “slipshod,” by one report, leaving goaltender Terry Sawchuk to fend for himself. The Leafs got goals from Bon Nevin, George Armstrong, Ron Stewart, and —“untouched and skating like a gale” down the length of the rink — Eddie Shack. Detroit’s goals came from Vic Stasiuk and Marcel Pronovost. (Photo: Michael Burns)

scoring on your own net: he fell forward on his face, lay prone on the ice, and refused to be comforted

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Handcuffed: “I’ve never seen it happen before in all the years I’ve been in hockey,” Roy Worters said in 1940 when his glove betrayed him.

For all the uproar over the puck Edmonton’s Kris Russell fired into his own net last week, you’d think it was NHL’s first own goal. It wasn’t. Just ask — no, actually, let’s leave Steve Smith out of this. Hasn’t he suffered enough?

Patrick Laine, then. Not quite a year has passed since the then-rookie winger for the Winnipeg Jets scored a goal that counted for the Oilers — won them the game, in fact. Laine skated away without so much as a producer’s credit: Edmonton’s Mark Letestu goes down in scoresheet history as the game-winning-goaler. What else is there to say? “I think everybody saw what happened,” Laine told reporters after the game. “That’s my comments.”

He has a point. Though if hockey is, as they say, is a game of mistakes, the suggestion that we shouldn’t dwell on own goals does kind of limit the conversation. I agree that we probably don’t need a central registry of every last self-inflicted score in NHL history. That doesn’t mean we can’t revisit a bunch of them here. Where to start, though? And once you have started, where then to stop?

In 1931, Boston’s Eddie Shore hammered the puck past teammate Tiny Thompson to win a game for the New York Americans. He did it again five years later, in Toronto: the Leafs’ Bill Thoms took a shot on Thompson, which he saved, only to see the puck bounce up. “As Tiny went down,” the Daily Star’s Andy Lytle wrote, “Eddie Shore batted it into the net instead of over it.”

Detroit defenceman Benny Woit snared a rebound in front Red Wings goaltender Terry Sawchuk at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1954. Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail saw it all. “There wasn’t a Toronto player near him. Evidently he planned to flip the puck behind the net but somehow his radar became fouled up and he tossed it directly into the open goal.”

In 1998, Montreal defenceman Vladimir Malakhov whacked Pittsburgh’s winning goal past Canadiens’ goaltender Andy Moog. Penguin Stu Barnes claimed that one. Moog said it was his fault. Bruce Keidan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette appointed Malakhov a member of Sigma Alpha Oops.

I’ve seen a reference to a couple of “reverse hattricks” — long-ago Amerks’ defencemen Pat Egan and Detroit’s Marcel Pronovost are both implicated in scoring three goals in a single game on their own nets, though I haven’t been able to further verify either one of those claims.

That’s probably enough. Almost. Two last incidents and we’ll leave it there. It’s embarrassing to score on your own net, and terrible-feeling. In Toronto in ’54, 13,115 Leaf fans (quote) roared with delight after Woit scored on Sawchuk. “Woit,” Rex MacLeod wrote, “looked appealingly around the ice, probably praying for a manhole to materialize so that he could jump in.” In Edmonton in ’86, Steve Smith was down on the ice weeping. Which gets us to Roy Worters and Jack Portland.

Roy Worters • January, 1931

Is it an own goal when a goaltender puts the puck past himself? There’s probably a good argument to made that no, it’s not. That’s not going to slow us down here. In February of 1927 Roy Worters was guarding the Pittsburgh Pirate goal in a game that ended up 2-1 for the New York Rangers. The first goal went like this, according to the Associated Press:

Bun Cook went the length and shot, but the puck hit the backboards and bounded back to the front of the net to one side. Worters attempted to clear with his hand and accidentally pushed the disc into the net.

“A tough break,” the AP’s man on the scene called it; an editor for The Pittsburgh Daily Post amplified that to “Bone Play” in the headline overhead.

On to 1931. Worters was tending the New York Americans’ net by now. This time, Montreal Canadiens were in visiting Madison Square Garden. Last minute of the second period, score tied 1-1, Canadiens were pressing. Left winger Georges Mantha flipped the puck high towards the Americans’ goal. Worters dropped to his knees to catch it, did, left-handedly, but then (as one report put it) “became flurried.” In trying to throw the puck into the corner, as goaltenders used to do, he tossed it into his own net. Harold Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle picks up the story:

From the press rows it looked as if the rubber was hot and Roy wanted to get rid of it. But he was just trying to clear his net, as he had done some 25 times before during the evening. However, the puck caught in the tear he didn’t know anything about and, instead of going into the corner, it went right into to the cage behind him. To his horror, the red light went up and the winning goal was scored.

A tear in the leather of his glove, that is. Neither Worters nor Amerks’ trainer Percy Ryan had noticed it, I guess. Burr:

When Roy saw what had happened he fell forward on his face and laid prone on the ice and refused to be comforted.

New York coach Red Dutton had to come out on the ice, and did so, and lifted up his goaltender. Told him to forget it.

Not often does Red’s voice break, but it broke then. For the rest of the game Worters was the most pathetic figure in the rink No one could read his thoughts as he crouched there in his cage, but they must have been scalding.

No-one scored in the third, so Canadiens won 2-1. Burr was down in the New York dressing room for the post-game denouement.

Worters sat staring blindly at the offending glove, bulky and shapeless with its reinforcement of felt padding. It was the first of his harness he discarded belowstairs but the last to toss aside.

“I’ve worn that glove for three years and now I’ll have to throw it away — after this,” he was muttering. “I made the same kind of a play every goalie in the league makes when he catches the puck. But it caught in my glove. I’ve never seen it happen before, all the years I’ve been in hockey. Say, Percy!”

The passing trainer came climbing gingerly over discarded heaps of rag-bag underwear so dear to the heart of a hockey player. He was woebegone for the first time this winter.

“Yes, Roy,” he gulped.

Worters handed him the glove that had failed him. “You’d better order me a new pair of gauntlets from the sporting goods store,” he said kindly. “Those old babies are fairly well shot, anyway,” continued Roy, showing the places where the faithful Percy had darned and patched and darned again. “But it’s going to take me all the rest of the season to break in a new pair. I sure liked those old gloves — until tonight.”

 

Jack Portland • March, 1940

Chicago was the hottest team in the NHL heading into the playoffs that year, though Toronto finished higher in the standings: that’s what The Globe and Mail’s Vern DeGeer was saying in 1940 as the regular season rounded into the playoffs. In the opening round, the Maple Leafs ended up sweeping past the Black Hawks in two straight games. It was closer than that sounds. The first game went to an overtime that Syl Apps ended in the hometown Leafs’ favour. The second game, back in Chicago, was tied 1-1 in the third period when — well, there was nothing so remarkable to Jack Portland’s gaffe. Toronto rookie Hank Goldup had taken a shot on Hawks goaltender Paul Goodman and in trying to swat rebound clear, Portland failed to do that.

The Chicago Tribune’s Charles Bartlett didn’t make a whole lot out of the mistaken game-winner: inadvertent, he called it. But in Toronto’s Daily Star, Andy Lytle went to town on Portland:

That makes him an athletic goat comparable to Roy Reagels, who ran a ball the wrong way for a touch-down in football, to “Wrong-Way Corrigan” in the air, to Merkle in baseball, who forgot to touch a base, and to Snodgrass who muffed a fly in world series baseball and kissed a flock of easy dough a tragic [sic] good-by.

Which seems altogether heartless. Max Bentley was a Chicago rookie that year, and while he didn’t make it to the ice in those playoffs, he was with the team. He later said that he’d never seen a man so heartbroken as Portland, who cried bitterly in the dressing-room after the game, and for days after that locked himself in his room and wouldn’t talk to anyone.

Not that it would have provided much solace at the time, but I hope Portland knew that he wasn’t alone that spring. The Leafs ended up going to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Rangers. In the ten playoff games they played, they scored a total of 21 goals. Nineteen per cent of those were, in fact, knocked into nets by helpful opponents — along with Portland, Chicago’s Art Wiebe and New York’s Mac Colville and Alf Pike scored goals they regretted that counted for the Leafs that spring.

 

 

 

 

that week: if he were a forest, he’d be a national park

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“There will never be another Gordie Howe,” is what Bobby Orr was saying last week, in the days following Howe’s death on June 10 at the age of 88.

“You couldn’t invent Gordie today,” Orr told Dave Stubbs from NHL.com. “If he was playing with today’s rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn’t take liberties with him. The way he played, he’d do real well.”

“He was everything to me,” Wayne Gretzky told NHL.com.

Adam Gopnik wrote a Howe tribute for The New Yorker. “Perhaps only Mark Messier, among players bright in our contemporary memory, combined the same qualities of grit, skill, desire, and accuracy,” he mused. “As Gretzky lived on the edge of his skates, Howe lived in his wrists: the accuracy, power, and quickness of his shot are the first things those who saw him up close, in his prime, often reference (after they reference the elbows that rose above those wrists).”

“My best Christmas ever, I was five years old and my dad — I mean Santa Claus — bought me a Gordie Howe sweater, which I wore for the whole year.” That’s Gretzky again, back in 1994. The same article, from Reuters, goes on to say that when young Wayne pleaded with his father, “a barber,” to cut his hair Gordiewise, Walter Gretzky had to explain that Wayne had too much hair and Gordie too little.

“His elbows were the best,” Joe Peacock wrote in 1997.

Gretzky, last week, helped to clarify that old Reuters story: “I was seven or eight years old and I’d go to the barber shop … and I’d say, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut.’ I was enamored by him at a young age.”

Eddie McCabe, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, circa 1979, said this: “Gordie is such a decent man, he makes up for the yahoos and the boors.”

Frank Selke said there was no-one better. “Gordie Howe is the greatest all-round hockey player I’ve ever seen,” he opined in 1961 when Selke was managing director of the Montreal Canadiens. “He’s a composite of some mighty fine players through the years, and I’ve been watching them all, amateur and professional, since the 1910s around my old hometown, Kitchener. I’ve never known any player combining so many faculties. He’s the greatest of them all.”

Gordie’s dad didn’t necessarily agree. Gordie wrote about this in his “authorized autobiography,” and … Howe! (1995):

According to my Dad, Vic was always the better player, better than me. He was so funny. And Vern, my oldest brother, was the best of us all, so Dad said. It wasn’t until Dad was old, on his death bed, that he finally gave me more credit. He was kidding me, and said, “Aw, I saw a few gams on television. I guess you were better than your brothers.”

“In street clothes, he looks quite slim, an impression heightened by his long arms, rather long neck and narrow face.” This is Peter Gzowski, from a famous Maclean’s profile of Howe from 1963. “His most outstanding physical characteristic is the slope of his shoulders; his trapezius muscles — the muscle you feel if you stretch your arm out to one side — rise into his neck at an angle not far from 45 degrees, while his deltoids, at the top of the arm, look scarcely better developed than the average dentist’s. The enormous strength he displays in hockey flows from him, rather than exploding, and the easy grace with which he moves on the ice, and which has given so many hockey fans pleasure over the years, is also evident in his loose, almost lazy walk.”

“He’s always at the outer edge of the rulebook,” Eric Nesterenko told Gzowski. “You never know when he’s going to slip over into what’s dirty.”

Howe’s longtime linemate concurred. “Gordie gets away with more than anyone else in hockey,” said Ted Lindsay. Andy Bathgate of the New York Ranger indicted Howe for “deliberately inflicting head cuts, of deliberately cauliflowering at least one ear, and of deliberately raising the puck at other people’s heads.” He did not spear, Bathgate said, nor butt-end. Gzowski: “He is a recognized master of ‘high sticking,’ an action that is almost impossible for the fans or even the referees to separate from an accident, and which has carved his signature on a good many faces around the league.”

Gary Ross wrote about Howe in 1978, the year Number 9 turned 50 playing for the New England Whalers, “If Gordie Howe were a building, he’d be sandblasted and declared an historic site. If he were a forest, he’d be made a national park. In an age of $100,000 flakes he’s the real thing. A hero, a wonder, a natural phenomenon.”

When a 45-year-old Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to play with sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who told him to go for it. “I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you’d find similar musculature,” Dr. Bailey said. “It’s a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That’s almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80.”

Herbert Warren Wind was first to profile Howe for the pages of Sports Illustrated. “When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone,” he wrote in 1955, “doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot. Also invisible is Howe’s great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete’s forearm.”

Mark Howe, in his 2013 memoir Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey: “He always regretted dropping out of school and felt that somebody from the hockey club should have stopped him. I think that’s why he took up crossword puzzles — a big-time passion of his — to improve his vocabulary.”

“His success is due in part to the fact that he has the ‘perfect body for hockey,’” Larry Bortstein was able to disclose in 1970. “His shoulders slope so sharply into his huge biceps, which flare out into huge forearms, wrists, and hands. His legs are very strong. ‘I conserve them by sitting down at places where I don’t have to stand,’ he says.”

“When Howe is on the ice,” Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964, “Detroit’s Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable.”

King Clancy was the one who suggested someone ought to bottle the man’s sweat: “It would make a great liniment for hockey players.” Continue reading