manhattan’s mauler

For our text this morning we turn to Hilary Stead’s 2002 book, Guelph: A People’s Heritage, and in particular its accounting of the life and times of Maria and Liberale, who emigrated to the seat of Wellington County in Southern Ontario from Treviso, in Northern Italy 60 years ago or so, arriving with a half-full suitcase as their only luggage. For 40 years Liberale worked at the International Malleable Iron Company in Guelph; he also tended a five-acre market garden on St. George’s Hill, with a milk-cow. Maria and Liberale were blessed with six children, five daughters and a son. His name was Lou, the son, and let it be known that in his boyhood he (Stead says) “played in the quarry behind the rubber plant” and burned “oil-soaked cotton batting pulled from around the bearings of the wheels of the trains at the roundhouse near Alice Street.”

Liberale, Maria, and Lou Fontinato

I don’t know just what that tells us about the manhood that followed for that young Guelpher: something, I’m certain. We do know, more solidly, that the kid in question, Louis Joseph Fontinato, was born on a Wednesday of this date in 1932. Also that as a hockey player, a defenceman, he played nine rough-hewn NHL seasons, mostly with the New York Rangers, also with the Montreal Canadiens, before a broken neck ended his hockey career in 1963.

Leapin’ Lou, they used to call him. He fought, a lot, taking on all comers, including Jean Béliveau, including (against everybody’s better judgment) Gordie Howe. How rambunctious was Lou Fontinato? In 1956, in pre-season practice, the bruising of his bodychecks put two of his Ranger teammates out of action for a couple of days, Dave Creighton and Red Sullivan.

More text: “If there were a prize for refrigerated misbehavior,” Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times that same year, “it’s a cinch that Louie the Leaper would win it.”

Fontinato was the first NHLer, I think, to shred an opponent’s sweater with his skates, though not the last. 1957 this was, in December, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, against the Montreal Canadiens. There was a 15-minute brawl, in the second period. While Fontinato punched, and was punched by, Canadiens’ defenceman Tom Johnson, Montreal’s Jean-Guy Talbot wrestled New York’s Andy Hebenton.

There’s not much on the record that I’ve seen about the aftermath, though we do have one key witness. Talbot lost his sweater at some point in the ruckus. NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss was on hand to watch what happened before the combatants were stowed away in the penalty box:

After the fighting had been stopped Fontinato spotted Talbot’s sweater still on the ice. He went over and made a big production of stomping on the Hab jersey with his skates. Then he went around breaking all the loose Montreal sticks he could find. What a showman that guy is. The New York fans loved it.

Fontinato’s sentence in the wake of all this 15 minutes, five for fighting plus a 10-minute misconduct. Carl Voss (as maybe you already guessed) saw no need for any supplementary discipline.

When the two teams met again in Montreal a few days later, New York coach Phil Watson fought a fan who kicked him outside the Rangers’ dressing room. Fontinato features in accounts of this game for his third-period heroics. When a Forum goal judge flicked on his light to indicate a Montreal goal that wasn’t, in fact, a goal, Fontinato dashed behind the New York net to make his case. From the Montreal Star:

He threw a mighty right hook at the glass protecting the judge, and kept throwing punches at no-one in particular … sitting next to the judge was “Rocket” Richard, and Fontinato had a few words for the injured Hab ace, too.

I can’t say how seriously shredded Talbot’s sweater was in 1957. We have a more detailed damage report from a 1986 incident.

In this one, the Edmonton Oilers were in Calgary to aggravate the Flames, and Edmonton defenceman Marty McSorley did his part by bumping Calgary goaltender Reggie Lemelin. Flames’ centreman Doug Risebrough saw this as grounds for punching McSorley who, of course, punched back in what the Gazette’s Red Fisher described as a “free-swinging affair.”

“Somehow,” Fisher noted, “he found himself in the penalty box with McSorley’s sweater and promptly ripped it to shreds with his skates.”

Edmonton coach and GM Glen Sather wasn’t happy. He called Risebrough “childish” and declared that their friendship was over. He lodged a complaint with NHL disciplinarian Brian O’Neill. “What’s more,” Sather said, “the Flames will be getting a $1,000-bill for McSorley’s shredded sweater.”

The NHL declined to take up the case. Risebrough was contrite. “I’m sorry I did it,” he said, after a day or two. “It’s something you when you’re really upset. It was a bad reaction on my part and I’m embarrassed by it.”

According to Fran Rosa of the Boston Globe, Risebrough had been methodical in the moment, soaking McSorley “in water to soften it” before going to work with his skates.

The Oilers subsequently retrieved the remains, which they hung in their dressing room to stir their memories and anti-Calgary choler.

 

 

(Top image: Tex Coulter, 1958)

collateral damage: a faceful of rocket richard’s stick, and gloves, and other adventures with an nhl whistle

Purpled Hayes: That’s rookie referee George Hayes on the ice in January of 1947 at Maple Leaf Gardens, struck down by Maurice Richard’s flying stick. Attending the patient is linesman Eddie Mepham. Richard looks on with interest and, I think, concern; that’s the Rocket’s stick still airborne behind Hayes. Leafs’ #7 is Bud Poile.

The Toronto Maple Leafs won the game, but it was this photograph of stickstruck referee George Hayes that ended up making the front page of the Globe and Mail on the morning after, 75 years ago this week.

Welcome to life as an NHL official in the late 1940s. Well, the turbulent times of Hayes, anyway, whose start in the league was auspicious for all the wrong reasons, and whose temperament, — and/or lifestyle — and/or suspicion of doctors — didn’t seem to promise much in the way of a long career.

And yet, and yet: in the course of a 19-year career, Hayes would become the first NHL linesman to work 1,000 games. All told, he skated in 1,549 NHL games, regular-season, playoff, and all-star.

The scene above? On Wednesday, January 15, 1947, just months into that tenure, Hayes was working the whistle in Toronto as the Leafs entertained the Montreal Canadiens. Syl Apps and Gaye Stewart got the goals Toronto needed, but (said the Globe’s Jim Vipond) goaltender Turk Broda was “the main factor” in Toronto’s 2-1 win. It cemented the Leafs’ hold on first overall in the NHL, with Montreal standing second.

Here’s Vipond on the mishap depicted here, which Hayes suffered in third period:

Five stitches were necessary to close the gash which split open his left eyebrow. He returned to finish his job after being patched up in the Gardens hospital. Hayes was struck by Maurice (The Rocket) Richard’s stick which accidentally flew out of the Montreal player’s hands. A fraction of an inch lower and the referee might have lost an eye.

Fans at Maple Leaf Gardens booed the very notion of the 32-year-old referee as it was announced that he’d been hurt. For Vipond, that was a “new low for sportsmanship” in Toronto sporting annals. “And the mild clapping when he returned stitched up only partly atoned for the misdemeanor.”

Born in 1914 in Montreal, Hayes grew up in Ingersoll, Ontario. “I could skate before I could walk,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1975. He learned his officiating chops in the OHA and AHL. In 1946, he was considered one of the top amateur referees in Canada. He was, no question, of the busiest: through the 1945-46 season, he officiated 105 games, including the Memorial Cup final, travelling some 32,000 kilometres that year as he attended to his duties.

It was interim NHL President Red Dutton who signed him to a big-league contract in April of ’46. The salary was $2,000 a year, with a bonus of $25 paid for each game he refereed.

By the time Hayes started his new job that fall, former NHL referee Clarence Campbell had taken the helm of the NHL. The six-team league, which played a 60-game schedule, employed just four referees that year: Hayes joined King Clancy, Bill Chadwick, and Georges Gravel on the whistle-blowing staff, who were supported by a dozen or so linesmen.

It was as a linesman that Campbell first eased Hayes into his new job, through October and November of ’46. He got his first assignment as a referee in Boston, where on a Wednesday night, November 27, he adjudicated a 5-2 Bruins’ win over the New York Rangers. He seems to have done just fine, which is to say he managed to stay out of the papers. Let the record show that the very first infraction he whistled was committed by Bruins’ centre Milt Schmidt, a cross-check.

It was one of only two penalties Hayes called on the night, which presumably pleased Campbell who, to start the season and his regime, had declared that he’d told his referees to err on the side of silence. “There’ll be a full 60 minutes of action,” he promised. “I’ve instructed all officials to keep the game moving and to lay off the whistle unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

The first blood Hayes spilled in his NHL career would seem to have been on New Year’s day of 1947, when he was reffing Leafs and Red Wings in Toronto. “Gorgeous George essayed to wrestle [Leaf] Bud Poile and [Wing] Pete Horeck — both at the same time — and finished up counting his teeth carefully,” Jim Coleman wrote in the Globe and Mail. Actually, he got a stick in the nose in the melee and the game was delayed while he went in search of patchwork.

The encounter with Richard’s stick came next, which had Coleman calling him “a scarred hireling.” Following in quickish succession was another game featuring Montreal, this one in Detroit, in which Canadiens’ Ken Mosdell was so irked by a penalty that Hayes had assessed him that the centreman (as the Gazette described it) skated hard against Hayes’ leg and had him stumbling” Hayes stayed up; Mosdell got a 10-minute misconduct for his efforts.

Around this same time, it was reported that Campbell had taken the league’s newest referee aside for a chat in the wake of criticism (notably from the Detroit Red Wings) that Hayes was letting too much go in the games he was overseeing.

If so, Hayes seems to have got the message: at the end of the next game he reffed, a torrid one between Toronto and Chicago, he announced that he was augmenting the penalties he’d assessed with $25 fines to four players who’d been brawling. (His accounting, as it turned out, was slightly off: one of those punished was Leaf left winger Nick Metz, though it was his teammate and younger brother, right winger Don Metz, who’d been in the melee.)

George Hayes’ rookie season didn’t end quietly. That February, in another fractious game between Toronto and Montreal, he gave the notoriously peaceable Leaf captain Syl Apps a 10-minute misconduct. Here’s the Globe and Mail’s Al Nickleson describing what happened:

Apps, who had only one minor penalty up to Sunday, received his misconduct after a shoving and high-sticking bee in the Canadien end. Not on the ice at the time the fracas began, Apps said that as team captain, he skated out to talk to the referee after the whistle had blown. Hayes, he said, told him the penalty was for having too many men on the ice. No penalties were given participants in the fracas.

According to Jim Coleman, as Apps skated to the penalty box, Montreal’s designated rankler Murph Chamberlain followed along to apply his needle: “There goes the Byng trophy, Syl, old boy.”

Maybe so, maybe not: what’s true is that when the post-season votes were tallied that year, Apps was second to Boston winger Bobby Bauer. Hayes’ iffy misconduct was, by then, missing from Apps’ charge-sheet: upon review, Clarence Campbell deemed that Hayes had erred and so erased the penalty from the league’s records. That was an NHL first at the time and, as far as I know, it hasn’t happened again.

March of 1947 had its own trials for Hayes. After a playoff game between Montreal and Boston, Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke declared his officiating “the worst I’ve seen in my life.”

Rocket Richard again figured in the narrative, though this time he was the one who was cut, in a clash at the boards with Boston’s Ken Smith. The former felt the latter deserved a major, but Hayes called a minor, and when Richard slapped his stick on the ice in disgust, Hayes drew one his 10-minute misconducts from his quiver. Asked about Hayes after the game, Selke said, “Clarence Campbell shouldn’t have sent out a child to do a man’s job.”

Campbell came out in defence of Hayes on that occasion: he had “handled the game quite competently.” But the following season, Hayes was back working as an NHL linesman, mostly, his reffing assignments much reduced. Not that he was, on the lines, protected from further harm: in the first weeks of the 1947-48 season, he was either pushed or punched by Montreal defenceman Butch Bouchard, who was duly fined $50.

In 1954, Hayes got to rekindle his relationship with Rocket Richard. This was late December, just three months before Richard punched another linesman, Cliff Thompson, in the face on the way to a match penalty and the suspension that exploded in an eponymous riot. It was Leafs and Canadiens again, in Toronto, and Richard was sparring with Leaf centre Bob Bailey who, as the Rocket later told it, gouged at his eyes. Here’s Richard’s account of what happened next, from his 1971 Stan-Fischler-assisted memoir:

When I got up I was madder’n hell. But I couldn’t see very well. George Hayes, the linesman, was trying told hold me off, and that got me even angrier, because all I wanted to do was get back at Bailey. Hayes didn’t mean any harm to me but I was furious over anybody trying to hold me so I went after Hayes. I didn’t hit him with my fist; just my gloves with a sort of “get away, man, you’re bothering me” kind of push. I just didn’t want to see anybody around me. But Hayes was big and strong and he managed to keep me away. I got fined good for that one and, even worse, I didn’t catch up with Bailey.

“Molesting an official” was the charge entered by Clarence Campbell in fining Richard a total of $250 for that incident.

Hayes was an imposing figure on the ice in his day, 6’3’’, 200+ pounds. “Ox-like” was a description invoked at the time of his death, in 1987. “He used to smell trouble,” NHL referee Art Skov said then. “He’d step between players. He knew how to talk to guys like the Rocket and calm them down. He saved me and a lot of other referees a lot of trouble.”

Break It Up: Linesmen Mush March (left) and George Hayes attend a scuffle during the Bruins’ 3-1 win over the Black Hawks at Chicago Stadium in December of 1950. “There were several fights in the final period resulting from the Hawks’ general frustration at not being able to score,” UPI noted in a write-up of the game, “but no one was hurt.” Embrangled here, that’s the Bruins’ Milt Schmidt, who’d end up winning the Hart Trophy that year as NHL MVP, atop Chicago’s Pete Babando. Referee Bill Knott punished the combatants with two-minute penalties, for roughing. Embrangled here, that’s the Bruins’ Milt Schmidt atop Chicago’s Pete Babando. Referee Bill Knott punished the combatants with two-minute penalties, for roughing.

Skov, who started as a linesman in the later 1950s, remembered Hayes telling him and his fledgling colleagues never to touch Richard, no matter what. “Talk to him, talk about anything,” Skov recalled Hayes saying, “the weather, the news, anything, but never handle him. When the Rocket was mad, he was mad. He might do anything.”

Obituaries would, eventually, cite Hayes’ individualism, hot temper, his stubbornness, love of argument, his drinking.

There was the story of his days as a talented amateur baseball player playing for the Tillsonburg Pandrieds in southern Ontario. Those came to an abrupt halt in 1940 when he took exception to the effrontery of an Aylmer second baseman. “I hauled off and broke his nose,” Hayes later recalled. In the ruckus that ensued, Hayes picked up an umpire and (as he told it) threw him over a fence.

Lionel Conacher was chairman of the Ontario Athletic Commission at the time, and it was the former NHLer who banned Hayes from playing any sports. By the time he was re-instated, he’d taken up as a hockey official.

The episode, Hayes said, taught him “tolerance for the player’s point of view.”

“I wanted to treat them the same as I’d like to be treated.”

Whisky (Canadian Club) and beer (Molson’s) were his drinks. There was the story that when Hayes started working the lines in the NHL, Campbell and referee-in-chief Carl Voss thought that putting him under King Clancy’s wing might regulate his intake. “Campbell knew King didn’t drink,” Hayes had once recalled,” and I did. But he didn’t know that King would sit up with me until five in the morning and drink ginger ale.”

“Hayes makes no secret of his drinking,” a 1965 profile reported, adding Hayes’ own disclaimer. “Sure, I took drinks after a game,” he said. “Who doesn’t? The players do, the officials do. This is a tough racket. But I’ve never taken a drink before a game. I’ve never been in a bar before a game.”

Hayes was fined, apparently, for having a friendly post-game drink with a couple Chicago Black Hawks, Pierre Pilote and Frank Sullivan: $50.

He got into trouble in 1961 for his travel habits: Campbell suspended him for two weeks for going coach on trains to games instead of riding first class while still charging the NHL for the more expensive ticket. At the time, Hayes insisted it wasn’t about the money. “I just can’t sleep in a sleeper, but I can sleep in a day coach.”

That may have been so; he also later said that all the officials were doing it. “the league only allowed us $10 a day and that was supposed to pay for the hotel, meals, taxis, and our laundry. We went in the hole every day. That’s why I rode day coaches — to make up the losses.”

“It would make you $20 or $30 per trip.”

Campbell said that NHL officials had no choice in the matter: they needed a good night’s sleep before a game. “We want officials who are fit and in proper condition to work,” he said.

In 1963, Carl Voss docked Hayes $50 for taking the ice unshaven for an afternoon game.

If it doesn’t sound like a sustainable relationship that Hayes and his employers had, well, no, it wasn’t. It came to its professional end in 1965 when Campbell required all NHL officials to undergo an eye test and Hayes refused.

“Hell,” he protested, “I’ve tested my eyes for years in bars reading the labels on whisky bottles. I can still do it, so who needs an eye test? A guy is an inch or two offside and I can call it from 85 feet away. There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight and there never has been.”

“We all took the test, except George,” Art Skov said in 1987, “and nobody could talk him into it. The part of it is, the guy doing the test was a war buddy of referee Eddie Powers and, even if you were blind as a bat, he was going to give you a good report.”

Campbell wasn’t backing down, either. Again, Hayes was suspended, though this time there was no going back. He never worked another NHL game.

“My name was mud,” he said. “They were going to get me one way or another.”

Nineteen years he’d worked the NHL ice. Towards the end, the job that had started at a base salary of $2,000 was paying him $4,000 a year for working 80 games. Linesmen were by then getting $50 for any additional games they toiled at, $100 for a playoff game. For 1963-64, Hayes made about $6,300 all in.

In his exile, Hayes returned to the family farm in Beachville, in the Ingersoll area. He refereed benefit and oldtimers’ games. He became a sports columnist for the Sentinel-Review in nearby Woodstock, Ontario, weighing in regularly to barrack Voss and Campbell. A 1967 profile said that he walked ten miles a day while noting that it was five miles from his gate to the Ingersoll Inn, his favourite pub, and that he didn’t drive.

He was bitter but not surprised at being overlooked year after year by the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I’ve been blackballed,” he told a reporter in the spring of 1987 when Matt Pavelich became the first NHL linesman to be inducted. “You don’t get any money for it,” Hayes said, “so I don’t really care if I ever get elected. But I’m not bragging when I say I should be in it.”

Georges Hayes died that year, in November. He was 73, though he insisted until the end that he was 67. He had circulation problems in his legs, and had developed gangrene, but he refused to see a doctor, let alone visit a hospital. “George was just as stubborn as always,” his widow, Judy, told a reporter in the wake of his death.

“George just didn’t believe in doctors,” Art Skov said. “We had a tough time getting him sewed up when he’d get cut during games.”

“Nobody could ever tell George what to do,” Matt Pavelich said. “He had no faith in doctors or hospitals. He wanted things in his own hands and that was that, his way or no way.”

No-one from the NHL showed up for Hayes’ funeral, or sent a condoling word, though a phalanx of veteran officials was on hand: Skov and Pavelich, Bruce Hood, John D’Amico, Scotty Morrison, Ron Wicks.

A year later, George Hayes did find his way into the Hall of Fame, a member of the class of 1988 that also included Guy Lafleur, Tony Esposito, Brad Park, Buddy O’Connor, and Philadelphia Flyers’ owner Ed Snider.

Today, if you look him up in the Hall’s register of honoured members, you’ll find Hayes remembered as a “controversial, colourful, proud, and competitive” character who “loved hockey with his every breath.” He’s credited there, too, as a trailblazer in collegial politesse: he was, apparently, the first official to hand-deliver pucks to his colleagues for face-offs, rather than toss or slide them over.

non-fungible number 9

Elbow Room: “Gordie ‘Pow!'” by Detroit artist Zelley was offered for sale as an NFT earlier this fall by the Hoe Foundation. (Image: Howe Foundation)

I lost track of the bidding soon after the bidding started, in October, on the Gordie Howe NFTs. If there was bidding. Was there? I wasn’t bidding, but I think people were, if I’m not mistaken, people who saw an opportunity to acquire exclusive works of art depicting one of the greatest hockey players ever to have played, for the purpose of … not hanging them on the wall, or anywhere, due to the non-fungibility of the works in question, as I understand it, which I don’t, entirely.

I’ve been slow on the NFT uptake, I confess. Trying to catch up. Gordie Howe’s token efforts snared my attention because (i) Gordie Howe and (ii) I’m always interested in the artwork that hockey inspires. I didn’t need to be seeking to acquire any of the vaporous masterworks on offer to activate my curiosity in the subject-matter and the history on which they draw. That came naturally.

Howe’s grandson, Travis Howe, is the founder of this feast — Mark Howe’s son. There’s a video you can watch that has Travis explaining the whole concept behind The Gentl9man 2021 NFT Art Collection. The idea, in short, is to be sharing “some really special stories that have true meaning to the Howe family” while raising money for the good causes that the Howe Foundation has long believed in and supported. I can get behind that, even if I’m not bidding: the Howe Foundation does worthy work in aid of both getting kids active and in backing women aspiring to make their way in the world of sports business.

Along with a reproduction of a sketch of Mr. Hockey’s own, there were eight works originally on offer in October, by a Detroit artist, Matt Zelley, a.k.a. just plain Zelley. Among them is a great piece of puck-pointillism, reproduced at the foot of this post; another portrays Gordie Howe as an oncoming locomotive — at least I think that’s the concept. Promised as a premium bonus to the lucky buyer of the poppy Roy Lichtenstein-inspired piece at the top of the post: “a game-used pair of Gordie’s elbow pads” currently on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Zelley’s interpretations of some of the landmarks of Howe lore are to your taste or not; all the works are up for viewing at the Howe Foundation site.

It’s not the commerce involved with these NFTs that I’m interested in, particularly, nor Zelley’s decisions as an artist. What I’m here for (sorry if you’re not) is the storytelling that’s behind the project, and the messages it’s sending — and ignoring. While there’s plenty to consider and to discuss in each of these Howe Zelleys, the one that catches my attention in particular is the vivid one we’re looking at above, the one titled “Gordie ‘Pow!’”

Let me just disclaim, up front, any desire to mess with Gordie Howe’s legacy. He remains one of hockey’s undeniable greats — Maurice Richard himself will be testifying to that a little further down. Howe’s talents were mountainous, as was his strength and his durability. I’m not denying any of that. He played the game at such a high level for such a long time, was an idol to so many, worked tirelessly as an ambassador of the game he loved, seems to have been just a great guy, so long as you were meeting him in circumstances in which you weren’t trying to take the puck away from him or otherwise stymie his progress on NHL ice.

But also? There’s no getting away from the fact that, on that ice, he was a clear and present danger to anyone who got in his way. Gordie Howe was violent and he was mean.

You don’t have to take my word for it. “Meanest player in the league,” Andy Bathgate called him in 1959, “uses all the tricks plus.” A sampling of the press Howe got when he first retired in 1971 might include Dave Anderson’s verdict in the New York Times: “Sure, this soft-spoken man was dirty. Some say the dirtiest.” Son Marty has called him (with, I guess, affection) “the toughest, meanest guy I’ve ever seen on a pair of skates.” Howe was often injured, we know; he also did a lot of injuring. I’ve written about both, including here and here.

Hockey, which is to say hockey people, long ago found ways to reconcile itself to and excuse the violence it tolerates within the game. One of them is to insist that assaults that take place on the ice are somehow different from those that occur elsewhere, beyond the confines of arena boards. (That this fiction has taken hold and, mostly, been accepted in the wider world is a magic no-one truly understands.) There’s a rhetorical trick hockey people like, too, the one that seeks to detach hockey players from the anti-social behaviours they sometimes perpetrate by emphasizing what wonderful people they are away from the game. I’ve written about this before — specifically in reference to Gordie Howe, in fact — without ever really understanding the logic at work. The Howe Foundation’s NFT project blithely embraces the contradiction by including the concept of [sic] gentl9manliness in the title of a collection that includes portraits of our hero punching and knocking out opponents.

In those works, Zelley honours and adds to another tradition of hockey’s tendency to downplay its own brutality, whether or not he’s actually aware it. “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is an actual cartoon, so it’s hard to blame it for doing (and doing well) what cartoons are meant to do: brighten, distort, exaggerate, spoof the real world for entertainment’s sake.

Here’re the rubric accompanying the piece in the Howe Foundation’s online gallery:

Gordie “Pow!”

“It’s better to give than to receive.”
— Gordie Howe

With playful colors and a comic-inspired style, a smiling Gordie Howe uses one of his infamous elbows on Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Contrary to popular belief, there was no bad blood between the two players. That myth began when Howe hit Richard coming across the line, and according to Howe, “he spun like a rocket and fell down.” Howe went on to explain, “He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.”

Where to begin? Also: how to begin, without sounding like a serious finger-wagging pedant? I guess maybe would I get going by pointing out that elbowing, infamous or otherwise, is a penalty, following up to ask why the act of knocking out an opponent, even rendered with a playful palette, would be one you’d want to spotlight? Yes, I think that’s how I’d do it.

Definitely looks like a headshot, too, that grinning Gordie has delivered here. We’re late to the scene, but I’d say that the Richard we’re seeing is unconscious, even before he’s down — which won’t be good for his head when it does hit the ice in the next (purely notional) panel. I guess if you were aiming to portray both Howe’s cheery nature and his grim record of administering concussions to opponents, this is how you’d do it, but again I’m going to fall back on questioning: why?

I know, I know: it’s comic-inspired, not an accurate portrayal, what’s the big fuss, why do I hate fun?

It just strikes me as stoutly strange that (i) this is the one of the (quote) really special stories that has true meaning to the Howe family and (ii) that no-one involved in the project saw any dissonance in turning hockey head trauma into a cartoon for a Howe-related project.

Mr. Hockey, after all, spent the last years of his life with dementia that, as son Marty talked about in 2012, was surely related to the injuries he suffered in his hockey-playing years. “You play 33 years at that level without a helmet,” the younger Howe told the Toronto Star’s Mark Zwolinski, “and things are going to happen.” Did he have CTE? It’s not clear; as far as I know the family didn’t donate Howe’s brain for study after his death in 2016 at the age of 88. In 2012, Marty Howe said that the Howes had no plans to do so.

Marty and Mark and their two other siblings, Murray and Cathy, did write an afterword to the autobiography that Howe published in 2014. My Story is a bright and entertaining package, written in the confident first-person; only on a back-end acknowledgments page does Howe credit Calgary writer Paul Haavardsrud for helping “to take the thoughts in my head and put them down on paper.” As John Branch wrote in a review of the book for the New York Times, the whole enterprise raises “at least two questions, both unanswered: What kind of damage did hockey do to Howe’s brain? And how does someone with dementia, which severely impacts memory, write a memoir?”

The afterword, which the Howe children presumably penned themselves, does actually attempt to rationalize the punishment and pain that were such prominent parts of their father’s professional brand. It’s almost endearing.

“How can someone who’s so kind and soft-spoken at home become so remorseless once he puts on skates,” they ask. Answer: “It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde duality that’s not easy to reconcile.”

It comes down to his professionalism. That’s what they believe. His job was to win; he did his job.

“He decided early in his career that to be successful in the NHL he’d need to give the opposition a reason to slow down when they came to get the puck. If that meant throwing an elbow or putting some lumber on a guy, then it seemed like fair game to him. After all, everybody in the NHL was being paid to be there, and the odd cut or bruise was just the cost of doing business.”

Here’s where differ from those earlier (and forthcoming) witness statements. “Ironically,” the Howe siblings propose,

it was the respect he had for other players that made him feel like he had a license to play as ruthlessly as he did. He wasn’t mean-spirited or dirty; he just figured that a few stitches or a knock to the ribs didn’t cause any real harm. If it gave him the extra split second he needed to make a play, then that was justification enough for him. In his mind, playing any other way would be shortchanging the team. Some people might not approve, but his tactics gave him the space he needed to operate for more than 30 years. There was definitely a method to his madness.

I can’t decide if the generosity of this reading outweighs its naïveté, or whether do they just cancel each other out? That the Howe children decided to address their father’s on-ice vehemence at all should be recognized — but then so should the fact that they then so studiously avoid any serious discussion of the head trauma that Gordie Howe suffered and administered even as they’re leading up to their mention of his “cognitive impairment” in the last few pages of the book.

The jolly anecdote that Zelley and company have attached to “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is, if nothing else, of a piece with the reputational reset that Mr. Hockey proposes.

I know, I know: the quote about the supposed bad blood between Detroit’s most famous number 9 and his Montreal counterpart is accurate: it’s something that Gordie Howe did indeed tell Dave Stubbs, then of the Montreal Gazette, in 2007. They were in Montreal, at a gala celebrating the charitable works of a mutual acquaintance Howe knew as “John” — Jean Béliveau. Most of the account Stubbs wrote focussed on the amicable relationship that those latter two enjoyed through the years. Here’s a fuller excerpt:

They fought hard, but within the rules during a time of bitter rivalries, when teams met each other 14 or more times per season. Neither recalls ever dropping the gloves against the other.

It was the late Rocket Richard, a fellow right-winger, that lore has Howe detesting.

“There was no dislike,” Howe said. “I respected him. I’d watch every move he made, if it could benefit my hockey. …

“They always thought there was bad blood because I hit him once coming across the line and he spun like a rocket and fell down. He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.

“I felt sorry for the Rocket. I never felt he enjoyed the game. If he wasn’t having a good night, he’d just as soon explode. That fellow didn’t know when to stop, did he? But I admired him.”

So much so that Howe named his dog for Richard. Surely the four-legged Rocket is a ferocious, brooding beast?

Howe leans in close.

“A toy poodle,” he whispered, his playfulness worn in a grin.

A great party piece, that last bit, if a little cruel. The pity, just before that, is interesting. As for Howe’s assertion that there was no antipathy between the two superstars — I’ll grant that it’s entirely likely and unsurprising — allowable, even — that at that late date, when Howe was 79, with almost half-a-century gone by since the two men last met on NHL ice, that’s how he chose to remember the way it once was, benevolently, generously, electing to settle back on the comforting chimera that as old rivals they two had engaged in honourable sportive struggle against one another with reverence and esteem as their mutual watchwords.

The historical record isn’t entirely contradictory — let’s just say that it has a finer grain to it.

Howe and Richard were fighting each other on the ice as early as 1949, when Richard was 27 and Howe was 20. Detroit and Montreal had a bad-tempered meeting that January at the Forum wherein Richard engaged in what the local Gazette rated as “determined slugfests” with Howe and Red Wing captain Sid Abel. In both cases, the Gazette decided, he was “on the short end of the punch-throwing.” The Rocket was hurt, too, in one of those melees, tearing a muscle in his hip.

Red Wing defenceman Red Kelly later recalled that the referee on the night, King Clancy, skated in to adjudicate when Howe and Richard first began to scruffle, calling off the players who were trying to separate the two. “Let ’em alone. Let ’em fight. Let’s see who is the best fighter,” Clancy said, by Kelly’s 1970 account. (Before it was all over — accidentally or not — Richard ended up punching Clancy, too.)

That wasn’t the only occasion on which Howe and Richard brawled. There was this time, too, which I don’t have a precise date for, though the details of the respective uniforms would seem to say it’s pre-1956:

Howe v. Richard: An undated photo of Detroit’s number 9 and Montreal’s. That’s Red Wing Marty Pavelich sitting atop the boards, which suggests that the photo was taken in 1956 or earlier.

However warmly Howe and/or members of his family have spoken of Richard in recent years, both men did see, in their time, see fit to putting some pricklier feelings on the page.

Here’s the Rocket writing about Howe in his 1971 Stan Fischler-mediated autobiography:

He was big and strong and skated with great ease. He could do what no other player in the league could do, shoot the puck from either the left or right side. I noticed Howe when he first joined the Red Wings in the late forties and he impressed me as a good, but not a great, hockey player.

That changed, with the years. “Looking back,” Richard says, “I would say that Howe is the best all-around hockey player I’ve ever seen, and that includes Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.”

The next paragraph, I guess, counts as … praise?

Another thing about Gordie that I experienced firsthand was that he was a dirty hockey player, not tough, mind you, but dirty — and he would take absolutely nothing from anybody. If you gave him a bad check, you could be sure he’d get even with you, in spades! But he wouldn’t start it. In that sense, Howe and I were the same. I would never hit anybody first if he hadn’t done anything to me before.

In their 2000 book, 9: Maurice Richard, Reluctant Hero, Chris Goyens, Frank Orr, and Jean-Luce Duguay quote Richard near the end of his career. “Howe is a great player, the best I ever played against, but he should hustle more. He doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as he could. He was a better all-round player than I was, maybe the best ever. But I think he should have scored more big goals, like in the playoffs.”

Finally, the 1995 memoir Howe produced with Tom DeLisle’s help is instructive, too, and offers more nuance on the relationship than what we’re getting from the Howe Foundation’s NFT catalogue. Billed as “an authorized autobiography by Gordie and Colleen Howe,” And … Howe! includes a chapter called SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT. Here’s the salient sub-head followed by Howe’s reminiscence as it appears on the page:

THE ROCKET AND GORDIE HAVE NEVER BEEN FRIENDS SINCE GORDIE BROKE THE ROCKET’S GOAL RECORD OF 544.

GORDIE: Things have changed but, at the time, I hated the old (bleep). Of course, he hated me too. There were a few guys he hated worse than me, like [Ted] Lindsay and Stan Mikita. But that was then. Now, Rocket and I are pretty good friends. We do a few things together, and he and his now deceased wife, Lucille, were our first choices to be included in a book Colleen produced a few years ago about former players and their families, entitle After The Applause. So I think that shows our respect for him.

Rocket said once in the paper that “Gordie might have more goals, but my goals were more important.” I told somebody, “I don’t want to fight with Rocket, but I’d like to say that his goals meant bugger-all to me.” Essentially he’s such a proud man. He was a goalscorer, I was a goalscorer. I had to take him out, he had to take me out. That was our job from the blueline in. Rocket was such a powerful man. He had one habit I perceived, however, he would come down and cut across the blueline because he liked to get to the center of the ice and shoot. Everything was quick wrist shots. So one time, as he came across the blueline, I really nailed him. We ended up in a fight.

This is the 1949 clash described earlier. As the Detroit Free Press saw it, “Richard and Howe met heavily inside the Detroit blueline and came up fighting. They kept swinging lustily with bare fists and tumbled to the ice.”

Back to Howe’s telling:

There was a flurry of people around. Somebody pushed me from behind and I went down on one knee. And for some reason, Rocket was under my left knee. I waited, and when he looked up, I popped him. I whacked him a pretty good one. Then all hell broke loose, and when they got us apart we were yapping like jaybirds at one another. Then Sid Abel poked his nose in, and said to the Rocket, “Aw, you big frog, you finally got what you were asking for.” And Rocket goes — BAM! — and breaks Sid’s nose. Then I started to laugh, it looked so darn funny. Then Sid went in an did a job on the Rocket, again.

Rocket was talking about that episode a little while ago. He said, “I took on your whole damn team, no wonder I lost.” Even in a loss, he could be so proud. The guy is unbelievable.”

Full Count: Zelley’s “1,071 Pucks,” another NFT that went up for sale earlier this fall, with the number recognizing the goals Howe scored in the NHL and WHA.(Image: Howe Foundation)

maurice richard vous parle

Maurice Richard

Rocket To Pocket: Maurice Richard, in his basement, circa … the late 1960s, or early ’70s? Looking on are sons Jean and Paul. (Image: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

Is Rocket restless?

Vern DeGeer of the Montreal Gazette was someone who was wondering that in 1965; Maurice Richard himself seems to have been another.

He was 43 that year; he’d been retired from the glare and the glory of NHL ice for five years by then. He’d been a force to behold as a right winger for the Canadiens, a phenomenon unto himself, and he was working for the team still … as an assistant to president J. Davidson Molson, out and about as a team ambassador and sports-supper speechmaker, in the business now of gladhanding fans rather than goalscoring.

“When I retired five years ago,” Richard told DeGeer, “I was all wound up inside. I wanted to get away from it all. I seemed to be all worn out mentally and physically. The pressure had been great. I’d been going at top speed for 18 seasons. That’s a long time.”

Had the pressure let off since he’d stowed his skates? Not so much.

“Now I seem to be building new tensions,” Richard said. “I’ve found the calls for public appearances, travelling all across the country, even tougher than playing. The same old questions have to be answered, the same routines.

Would he coach? Maybe. “I haven’t given it much thought until now, but I think I might consider trying my hand as a coach,” said Richard. “I’m not sure. I’ve never had any offers. If they did come, I’d feel more like considering them than I did when I quit in 1960.”

I don’t know if the offers were extended in ’65, or in the years that followed; the Rocket never did, we know, end up coaching in the NHL. He took a brief turn behind the bench when the Quebec Nordiques launched with the WHA in 1972 — only to resign after just two games due to what the newspapers called “severe nervous strain.”

It wasn’t long after that exchange with Vern DeGeer that Richard quit his job with the Canadiens. This time, he announced his departure in the column he wrote for Dimanche-Matin, “Maurice Richard Vous Parle.”

It wasn’t, let’s say, a fond farewell.

“The title of vice-president or assistant to the president — take your choice — was never more than honorary,” he wrote. “I never had time to do it justice, though I would so much have liked to contribute constructively to the cause of the Canadiens. But I was never more than a good-will ambassador.”

As vice-president, he said, “I was never invited to a meeting behind closed doors, never asked for an opinion on anything whatsoever. I kept pace with the news the same way you did, by reading the sports pages.”

The image above comes undated. Could be … late ’60s, early ’70s, maybe? It was taken in the basement of the Richard family home, on Péloquin Avenue in north-end Montreal. The spectators in the background are (I’m pretty sure) Richard’s sons Jean and Paul.

I’ve been visiting the house by way of a couple of old magazine features and so can offer some more basement views. First up is June Callwood, writing for Maclean’s in May of 1959, when Richard was still in the NHL. His wife Lucille figures prominently in this piece, as does the couple’s domestic set-up in their “thirteen-room stone house.”

There were six Richard children at this point: Jean was still to come. “Their living-room windows overlook a strip of park,” Callwood wrote, “beyond which is the river where in summer the Richard boat is in constant use. towing the older children or their father on water skis.”

Indoors, Callwood found the house to be “warm, sparkling clean and bright with sunlight” — and teeming with the spoils of superstardom:

Lucille has stored literally dozens of cups, statues and plaques in a glass-doored case in the recreation room, along with boxes of pucks — all identical in appearance — labeled to indicate that this one won a Stanley Cup playoff game and that one broke a scoring record. The scrapbook situation is almost out of hand and so is the number of paintings of Maurice that fans have made from photographs and sent to him. Several are hung in the living room, others in the recreation room. One, a real trial, is over six feet high and leans against a basement wall.

Many gifts have been of great value, among them a colour television set, a freezer, a stove, a marble-statue floor lamp and four refrigerators. Lucille dispersed the abundance of refrigerators by putting the biggest one in the kitchen, another in the bar in the recreation room and two others in the back entrance vestibule. One of these is packed to the doors with beer, a reflection of an affiliation Maurice has with Dow Breweries, rather than of his drinking habits, which are only a notch above teetotaling.

Callwood found Mrs. Richard gracious and charming. Her first impression of the Rocket: “A thickbodied, not tall, man, Richard normally has an expression of remote sadness and his black eyes are fathomless.”

One of her questions, about dealing with fame, made him uncomfortable. “Sometimes I get fed up, but I can’t let it show,” he admitted. “It’s not nice for kids to hear about me being sore at people.”

Twelve years later, it was Alan Walker from The Canadian Magazine who dropped by to size up Richard and his household. He wrote it up in a feature published in May of 1971.

Richard was 49. “His hair is grey now,” Walker wrote, “and slicked down with Vitalis. His face is scarred by the crunch of sticks and pucks. His false top teeth are expensive, and so look real. His eyes, which used to be piercing enough to terrorize opposition goaltenders into helpless rigidity, now look smaller because his face has fattened.”

Richard was a vice-president again, but of S. Albert & Co. Ltd., a fuel company rather than a famous hockey team. He’d started as a salesman; now he oversaw a sales team of 20. He was still making public appearances and giving speeches, on behalf of breweries, Dow, O’Keefe, and Labatts, though there’s no mention in the piece of how refrigerators remained in the house.

Richard was working from home, too, running General Fishing Lines, a business he’d bought four years earlier.

Here’s Walker describing the Rocket’s set-up:

Richard’s cellar is so crowded that it is difficult for a big man to manoeuvre between the crates of fishing line and the billiard table that dominates the room.

In the adjoining laundry room, sharing scant space with Mrs. Richard’s automatic washer and dryer, Richard has a typewriter, a green filing cabinet, and a red telephone on a neat desk. Unpainted plywood cupboards around the walls hold miles of fishing line ready for labelling.

Back in ’59, talking to June Callwood, Richard did briefly talk about his extra-hockey interests.

“Every year I think I ought to get interested in another business,” he said then, “start a restaurant or something. But when the hockey starts, I forget about everything else. Maybe if I had other interests, I wouldn’t have lasted so long in hockey.”

“Are you afraid of anything?” Callwood wondered.

Richard was quiet a long time. “Yes, I am afraid of the future. I am afraid to grow older. I never used to think of it, now it’s on my mind every day. I will be so lonely when hockey is over for me.”

“Can you coach, maybe?”

“No, I can’t change the way a man plays hockey. Either he can play it or he can’t. I can’t help him.”

It was in May of 2000 that Richard died, at the age of 78. As far as I know, he lived in the house on Péloquin Avenue until the end. That October, Richard’s children put the house on the market, asking $649,000. I’m not sure what it sold for, finally, but by the time the deal went through the following May, the asking price had dropped to $399,000.

That same month, on the anniversary of Richard’s death, the strip of riverside greensward across the street from the Rocket’s house was officially renamed Parc Maurice Richard.

Rocketman: Jacques Doyon’s of Richard adorned the cover of Le Sport Illustre in 1952 and also, apparently, the Montreal legend’s rec room wall. You can see it in the background of the image at the top here.

maurice richard would never wear it

My mother had pulled the blue and white Toronto Maple Leafs sweater over my head and put my arms into the sleeves. She pulled the sweater down and carefully smoothed the maple leaf right in the middle of my chest.

I was crying: “I can’t wear that.”

“Why not? This sweater is a perfect fit.”

“Maurice Richard would never wear it.”

“You’re not Maurice Richard! Besides, it’s not what you put on your back that matters, it’s what you put inside your head.”

“You’ll never make me put in my head to wear a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.”

My mother sighed in despair and explained to me: “If you don’t keep this sweater which fits you perfectly I’ll have to write to Monsieur Eaton and explain that you don’t want to wear the Toronto sweater. Monsieur Eaton understands French perfectly, but he’s English and he’s going to be insulted because he likes the Maple Leafs. If he’s insulted, do you think he’ll be in a hurry to answer us? Spring will come before you play a single game, just because you don’t want to wear that nice blue sweater.”

So, I had to wear the Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.

• from Roch Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater,” The Hockey Sweater and Other Stories (1979), translated from the original French by Sheila Fischman

(Image: a young Leaf fan, circa the 1930s, whose sweater is a perfect fit, and whose mother didn’t have to remonstrate with him because Monsieur Eaton made a mistake.)

game faces: anthony jenkins’ rink renditions

Habtop: Anthony Jenkins’ portrait of Rocket Richard adorns a vintage Eagle table-top hockey game.

“I’m an artist, a hockey fan, and a (fading) hockey player.” That’s how Anthony Jenkins describes himself these days. If you press him a bit on the artistry, he might add that, for all the painting that he does up near Orangeville, Ontario, where he lives, he doesn’t necessarily think of himself as a painter. “I’m kind of more of a drawer who paints,” he told me recently.

If his style seems familiar, it might be that you’re a regular Globe and Mail reader. For 39 years, Jenkins  was on staff at the Toronto newspaper as an award-winning editorial cartoonist, illustrator, and sometime writer.

The scope and charm of his post-Globe oeuvre is on display at his website, over this way. For hockey fans, that’s also the best place to get to know and marvel at Jenkins’ collection of portraits of NHL Hall-of-Famers for which he uses working table hockey games for a canvas.  

“My ‘Game Face’ series of paintings are intended as a homage to the idols of my youth,” he says of the ongoing anthology that he started in about 15 years ago. Subjects to date have included Guy Lafleur and Gump Worsley, Tim Horton, Wendel Clark, and Auston Matthews. His preferred canvas might be the old Eagle table-hockey game from the 1960s, but he also frequently works with Stiga games, which are Swedish-made. As far as he can determine, Stiga is the only manufacturer still producing table-hockey rinks on any scale.

Several of Jenkins’ hockey portraits have featured in gallery shows, including in 2019 at a hockey-minded exhibition at the Michael Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario, that also included etchings by Peter Doig, the photographs of Diana Thorneycroft, and paintings by former Hockey in Night Canada broadcaster Brian McFarlane.

Some of those same works of Jenkins’ are available for sale (see, again, his website); he’s also glad, he says, to take on commissions, whether the subject excelled on NHL ice or is someone you know (aor are) who laces up to chase late-night beer-league pucks.

Earlier this year, Anthony Jenkins was good enough to collaborate on a Puckstruck Q+A. Our conversation, edited and condensed, is reflected in these answers to my questions.

On his background, in hockey and art:

I grew up in Toronto, Scarborough, played hockey as a young boy. I wasn’t particularly good. My first team was Baby Bunny Nuts — sounds pretty ferocious, doesn’t it? They were a firm that had hot-nut machines in grocery stores … so I played for Baby Bunny Nuts for a year.

I always wanted to be an artist and ended up being a cartoonist and later on, an artist. I dropped away from playing hockey and picked it up again as an adult. I’ve played pick-up hockey for years since.

Leafly: Jenkins’ own Auston Matthews.

On matching hockey portraits with hockey games:

The hockey game thing — I guess a friend of mine was painting on various kinds of toys and games, and one of them was a little tiny, almost palm-of-your-hand-sized, hockey game.

And so it dawned on me — I was familiar with the big hockey games, because I played them as avidly as a boy, and even in university. I thought, if you stand this upright, it’s a natural frame — I’m going to paint something on there.

I’m a face guy — I love painting faces — so I thought I’ll paint a hockey player on there. And then I found out: not so easy. Because your canvas has got slots and spikes sticking out of it, with mobile players. So it was more of a challenge to get an interesting pose that the slots didn’t interfere with. And that’s where the most work is, laying that out, designing how you’re going to paint it. Then once you do that, on goes the portrait.

I’d say I’ve done 30, at least. Mostly I just do them and then try and show them and sell them. Sometimes people call me and I’ll do commissions of their favourite guy: can you do a Gump Worsley? Absolutely. They’re a quirky thing, because, you know, most people wouldn’t put him on the living-room wall … it’s more of a man-cave thing. Some people can take them or leave them, but the people who like them, like them a lot. I like them a lot.

On materials and methods:

As far as I’m aware, Stiga is the only company still making table hockey games. I grew up in the as a kid in the ’60s, so I knew that the old Eagle games with the flat metal players. I’ve still got a few of them up on my bookcase, just as a memory. You can still get them on eBay, but they’re really hard to find, and they’re expensive.

The Gretzky games are from the ’80s, so the next generation, and they’re a little bit easier to find. I like them in that they’re big and solid, and they’re very white, so they’re the easiest for me to paint on. The Rocket one I painted, that’s the kind of game I had as a kid. I’ve done a couple of those, and they’re really quite nice.

Hull Yes: The Golden Brett in his St. Louis heyday.

On process:

What I do is I tape the rods up, inside, using hockey tape, so they can’t slip out. Otherwise a three-foot game becomes a six-foot game.

So they’re all taped in place. And the players come off and then I just start painting over top. I’ll paint out the area I need in white — I’m getting rid of lines and circles — and then I do a line drawing in grease pencil, because you’re drawing on plastic and a grease pencil works best. And then I paint over top of that. And then one thing I’m proud of doing is, I don’t just want to paint the player on the game, I want to integrate him, so I paint a lot of the lines and circles and ice insignia back into the image, so it looks like he’s kind of emerging from the game.

I paint in acrylic, which dries more quickly. It’s quite bright, too. And the idea is, what I trying to do, I’m not trying to reproduce a photograph. So the skin colour isn’t pink, and (say) the Leafs’ blue jersey is not just blue, I’ll get in some turquoise and some pink, and other shades. So, just visually, it’s interesting as well. I mean, it is a painting. It’s more than hockey memorabilia: it’s art.

Putting actual paint on the surface, it takes maybe 12 or 15 hours. Then you’ve got to factor in, I’ve got to go online and find the game, get it, then an hour or two (or more) just kind of plotting the layout, which is the hardest part.

It’s not necessarily the most creative part, but it’s the most important part. I mean, when I first started doing it, I thought, this is great. Then I’d paint a player onto the game and there’d be one of the game-rods sticking out of his eyeball, so I’ve just wasted 15 hours. I learned: planning is key. 

Flower Arrangement: Guy Lafleur in bloom.

On Gump and JC:

The commissions have largely been of Toronto Maple Leafs. At first, I did strictly Hall of Famers I revered as a boy, Howe, Rocket, people like that, Tim Horton. And then later on, when the commissions came in, they were often people who’d end up in the Hall, like Yzerman. And then sometimes the oddball, like Gump. He was a character beyond hockey, of course. 

I have one of Christ in a Leafs’ jersey. I forget what prompted that one, but it’s called “Jesus, we lost again?”

It was polarizing. I had one show, in Etobicoke, I had two or three paintings there, including the Jesus one. And very quickly, the gallery curator said, We’ve got to take it down, we’ve got some complaints. I asked why, and it was, well, it’s blasphemous, mocking Christ. Well, no, I wasn’t. But it came down.

And then within a year, I was showing the same painting in Collingwood. They had a  contest and I was up there and it turns out I won it. The judges said that they liked the physical application of paint, but they also liked the idea and the sheer bravery. So they got it. It’s a satire, or a sympathy, with suffering Leaf fans, not at all mocking anything.

Defining himself:

There are painters … I’m kind of more of a drawer who paints. Painters, they start off with a pink blob, and then they refine the details, refine the details, until all of a sudden it looks like me or you. I do a drawing and then kind of paint it out and paint down until it doesn’t look like a drawing, it looks like a painting. So I’m kind of doing it in reverse. It works for me. 

Selfie: Portrait of the artist, by same.

stand and deliver — and, if you can get away with it, knock your net off its pegs

Love Displace: Detroit Red Wings’ assistant trainer Lefty Wilson tends Toronto’s net in January of 1956, unmooring it, as described in accounts of the game, to stymie Detroit winger Marty Pavelich.

Everybody loves an EBUG — just ask David Ayres, the 42-year-old sometime Zamboni driver who stepped into the breach at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena in early 2020 as Carolina’s goalie-of-last-resort and backstopped the Hurricanes to a 6-3 win over the Maple Leafs.

Ayres wasn’t , of course, the first emergency back-up in NHL history, not by a long shot. Nor can he lay a claim (yet) on being the busiest stand-in on the league’s books. Born in Toronto on a Wednesday of this date in 1919, Ross (a.k.a. Lefty) Wilson filled in on three separate occasions in the 1950s, for three different teams. His career numbers may be meagre, but they’re nothing to be ashamed of: 81 minutes played, one goal allowed, one tie and an average of 0.74 secured.

As the Detroit Red Wings’ assistant trainer and sometime practice goalie in the ’50s, Wilson was (i) readily available and (ii) willing to lend a pad and a glove at a time when NHL teams didn’t usually dress a spare goaltender.

His NHL debut came in 1953 when, aged 33, Detroit’s own Terry Sawchuk had to withdraw from a game in Montreal with a cut on his knee. For 16 third-period minutes, Wilson faced the likes of Rocket Richard, Boom-Boom Geoffrion, and Jean Béliveau, stopping four shots as he preserved Detroit’s 4-1 lead.

In 1956, Detroit was playing at home to Toronto when the Leafs’ Harry Lumley twisted a knee. Wilson played 13 minutes on that occasion, staring down Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay as he blanked the team that paid his salary. Detroit won that one all the same, also by a score of 4-1.

In his dispatch for the Globe and Mail, Rex MacLeod described what would seem to be the scene captured in the photo above:

One Detroit rush was frustrated with Wilson in goal when the Toronto net came loose from its moorings. There was no explanation for the accident but Wilson was a No. 1 suspect.

Marshall Dann of the Detroit Free Press was able to track down a witness to the crime willing to testify for the prosecution:

[Detroit winger Marty] Pavelich was skating in for a shot when the goal suddenly became unanchored and Wilson swung it sideways to prevent any shot. Knowing Lefty, Pavelich figures it was too much of a coincidence.

Wilson’s final appearance in an NHL net was in 1957 in Boston when the Bruins’ Don Simmons went down mid-game with a dislocated shoulder. Now 38, Wilson played 52 minutes on Boston’s behalf that night, giving up a goal for the first time in his big-league career, not to Howe or Alex Delvecchio, but to Wings’ defenceman Jack McIntyre as the teams fought to a 2-2 tie.

Lefty Wilson continued in his off-ice duties with the Red Wings until 1962. He also served as Team Canada’s trainer at the 1976 Canada Cup. He was 83 when died in 2002.

 

 

 

this week in 1951: frank boucher turns 50, redraws the nhl rink

Let’s Stick Together: Frank Boucher, in the middle, poses with two of his elder brothers in 1928. George (a.k.a. Buck) Boucher, at left, won four Stanley Cups with Ottawa’s powerhouse Senatos in the ’20s and went on to coach the Boston Bruins; Billy, on the right, spent most of his career with the Montreal Canadiens before signing with New York’s Americans.

Frank Boucher’s legacy as an altogether upright and admirable citizen was already well-established in the fall of 1951 as the NHL prepared to launch into its 34th season on ice. Scion of a famous Ottawa sporting family, he’d served as a constable in the RCMP before starting into a stellar career as a pro hockey centreman for Ottawa’s original Senators, the old PCHA Vancouver Maroons, and (most notably) New York’s Rangers.

Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958, Boucher had helped engineer Stanley Cup championships for the Rangers in 1928 and ’33, combining superlative skills with good graces, such that he was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy seven times in eight years in the NHL’s first decades. The respect for fair play he learned, he always said, from his hero, the original winner of the Lady Byng, Frank Nighbor. Boucher took as coach of the Rangers in 1939, and served a decade in the job. By 1951, he was concentrating on his role as the team’s GM — and on refining the hockey that was playing out on NHL ice.

Born in Ottawa in 1901 on a Monday of this past Thursday’s date, October 7, Frank Boucher found himself turning 50 this mid-century week in ’51. He was with his team at training camp in Guelph, Ontario, working with Rangers’ coach Neil Colville to evaluate his team’s talent and, ever an innovator, tinkering with the tenor of the game.

Rangerswise, Boucher considered his team to be 25 per cent better than it had been the previous year, when the Rangers had finished fifth — out of the playoffs — in the six-team NHL.

“The big difference will be in offensive power,” he told Al Nickleson from the Globe and Mail. “Now we have more fellows who can put the puck in the net. One of the new ones, Gaye Stewart, can help us plenty. The team is in much better shape than at this time last year. Centre Ed Laprade looks better right now than he has for the last three seasons and shows no effect from the leg he fractured last winter.”

If the previous season had been a write-off for the Rangers, it did include, for Boucher, at least one rewarding night. In February of ’51, ahead of a Madison Square Garden meeting with the Chicago Black Hawks, the Rangers celebrated Boucher with a generous testimonial. Bill and Bun Cook, Boucher’s old Ranger linemates, were on hand, along with Murray Murdoch, another Ranger original. New York mayor Vincent Impelliterri presented Boucher with the keys to a brand-new black 1951 Studebaker sedan, paid for by fan subscription.

Other gifts included a typewriter (from New York’s hockey writers); a tool chest (from the St. Paul Saints, a Ranger farm team); a pen-and-pencil set (from the MSG Corporation). Ranger captain Frank Eddolls and his Ranger teammates chipped in for a television — and a 5-1 win over the Black Hawks.

In September, as the off-season dwindled away, Boucher was back in the news, advocating for the NHL to institute an amateur draft. The league didn’t get around to doing that, of course, until 1963; in the meantime, as the longtime chairman of the NHL’s Rules Committee, Boucher was doing his best to streamline (and possibly even improve) the game the league was unleashing on the ice day-to-day.

Try Out: Frank Boucher coached the New York Rangers rom 1939 through 1949 before he stepped back to focus on the job of GM. Here, circa the early ’50s, he measures up defenceman Allan Stanley.

By the first week of October, with the opening of the new season just a week away, Boucher’s mind was on the perennial challenge of how to keep players focussed on playing the hockey they were of capable of rather than concentrating on straying outside the rules to thwart their opponents.

A pre-season report from Guelph noted that he was telling his own players to cut out “hacking, slashing, boarding and other illegal tactics.”

“No particular person is to blame for the type of play that is spoiling the game,” he expounded. “The rules haven’t changed. The only thing needed is for the referees to call the play according to the book, and this rough stuff will be cut out.”

Boucher maintained that the rules committee was all for a crackdown. “Spectators like a good tough check, if it is clean, and the fans, players, club officials, and referees should be told that any rules infractions will be penalized. Then we’ll see some hockey.”

Unleash the league’s stars, Boucher implored. “[Montreal’s Maurice] Richard would be a truly great player if he didn’t have a couple of guys draped around him during a game.”

There’s no record of any official NHL response to Boucher’s opinionating — none that I’ve been able to unearth, anyway. League president Clarence Campbell was focussed on a project of his own: replacing the two 20-foot face-off circles that traditionally flanked NHL nets at either end of the rink with a single one, 30 feet in diameter, directly in front of each goal.

A decade had passed since the NHL’s introduction of the ten-foot circles. They’d been introduced to augment the face-off dots that had been in place since 1937 at the same time as the penalty-shot circle was erased from the high slot. The new-old face-off circle was described in press reports as Campbell’s “brainchild.” It quickly proved unpopular.

Campbell’s motive for refiguring each zone with a single central face-off circle? “It is his idea,” Windsor Star columnist Doug Vaughan explained, “that it will provide spectators with a clearer view of what takes place, livelier action, and prevent a lot of the old jamming along the boards.”

Frank Boucher didn’t agree. “Suicide,” he called it. The central face-off circle was, he said, unfair to goaltenders. “Also,” he argued, “the new circle will only prolong something we have long been trying to eliminate. At least under the old system the teams spread out for a face-off. Now they gang up in a huddle in front of the goal.”

Toronto Maple Leaf managing director Conn Smythe was with him. “In sport,” he ventured, “you want rules that won’t prevent the better side from winning. But you also them so that the better side doesn’t get the advantage of a rule. This new circle gives the advantage top the better team which can put on the pressure and keep the puck in there.”

“A goalie can make a great save, but can’t get rid of the puck before the whistle blows. Then, under this new plan, he’s actually penalized because the face-off is made directly in front of him. That’s not right.”

NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss watched a couple of pre-season games in which the new circle was deployed and came out as another naysayer. “I was for it at first,” he said. “But now, in the last two games I’ve seen, the players seem to be getting on to it, and it’s not working out the way we had hoped.”

Major changes in the rules needed approval from all six teams. “It won’t get it,” Boucher said of unanimous support for Campbell’s plan. Never mind settling for the status quo, Boucher had his own variation to offer: keep the two face-off circles on either side of each net but enlarge them from 20 to 30 feet across.

The Rangers quickly put the expanded circles to the test in a pre-season game against the Black Hawks in Guelph. In Toronto, Smythe had them drawn in at Maple Leaf Gardens for a Leaf scrimmage. Both goaltenders, Turk Broda and Al Rollins, declared them a success.

Clarence Campbell, too, came around. He agreed that his idea posed problems for goaltenders. “We don’t want any rule which makes a good team better at the expense of its opponent,” he conceded. All six team were in favour of Boucher’s fix, Campbell said; it was duly adopted for the new season.

consummate joe

Captain Colorado: A birthday today for the sublimely skilled Hall-of-Fame centreman Joe Sakic, who was born in Burnaby, B.C., on a Monday of this date in 1969: he’s 52 today. His current job, of course, is as GM and executive vice-president of the Colorado Avalanche, the team he starred for in his salady days, when he led the team to a pair of Stanley Cups, in 1996 and 2001. He played 20 seasons with the team, starting (as they did) in Quebec, as a Nordique, and serving as captain for 17 seasons in all. When Sakic retired in 2009, he did so as the eighth-highest scorer in NHL history, with 1,641 career points. (He stands ninth, now.) Sakic ranks seventh all-time in playoff goals (84) and ninth in playoff points (188-tied with Doug Gilmour), and he still holds the NHL record for postseason overtime goals, eight, which is tow more than Maurice Richard scored. 
 

on a day like this, 1955: toe picked

The early months of 1955 were tumultuous ones for the Montreal Canadiens. In March, as the regular season was winding to an end, Maurice Richard’s suspension roiled the team and, soon enough, the city of Montreal. The Canadiens did get to the finals that spring, but without the Rocket they fell to the Detroit Red Wings, who won their second consecutive Stanley Cup. That was in April. To start May, the news from Montreal was that after 15 seasons and three Cup championships, coach Dick Irvin was moving out and on, to Chicago, where he hoped to resurrect the Black Hawks.

There was plenty of speculation in Montreal, of course, on the matter of who might take Irvin’s place. Canadiens Managing Director Frank Selke was quick to rule out a couple of candidates with experience on the Montreal blueline: Ken Reardon, who was already ensconced in the organization’s front office, was thought to be a GM-in-waiting, while Butch Bouchard still hoped to play another season or two. Former Leaf great Charlie Conacher had experience coaching in Chicago, and when he was seen chatting with Selke, the rumour was quick to spread that he was the man. Another defenceman on the Canadiens roster, Tom Johnson, told a reporter that while he’d heard the names of former Canadiens Leroy Goldsworthy and Toe Blake bandied about, he didn’t think either man would end up in the job: he suspected the new man would be a Quebecer. So maybe Roger Léger, yet another former Canadien (and one more defender), who was coach of Shawinigan in the Quebec league? Billy Reay was mentioned, too, though he was from Winnipeg, an erstwhile Canadien now coaching the Victoria Cougars in the WHL. 

By the end May, Maurice Richard was weighing in. No disrespect to his old teammates Léger and Reay, but the Rocket felt — or knew — that it would be his former linemate, Blake, who should be taking charge. “I think Blake is the best of the three men, as he can handle men both on and off the ice,” Richard told reporters on a visit to Timmins, Ontario, to receive an award. “He should get the job over Reay or Léger, although they both have done good jobs.”

Blake, who was 42 that spring, and a son of Coniston, Ontario, which is now p[art of Sudbury, had been coaching previously in Montreal’s farm system, notably with the Valleyfield Braves of Quebec’s Senior League. As predicted by the Rocket, he was appointed to the job of Canadiens coach 11 days later, on a Wednesday of this date in 1955. 

“I am stepping into a big pair of shoes in taking over from Dick Irvin,” Blake said told the press that day. “I have always considered him the best in the league, and with the help of Mr. Selke and Mr. Reardon and the players, we will continue to keep Canadiens hockey name on top. The team won’t let the fans down. I am not going to promise the Stanley Cup, but we will continue as a great fighting club.”

Blake’s first game in charge came that October, when Montreal beat Toronto 2-0 in the opening game of the 1955-56 season. The Stanley Cup that Blake’s Canadiens won the following spring was the first of five in a row, of course, as Blake steered Montreal to eight championships in the 13 years he remained at the helm before retiring in 1968 and handing over to Claude Ruel. 

(Image, from the late 1960s: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

l’idole d’un peuple

It was on a Saturday, 21 years ago today, that Maurice Richard died at Montreal’s Hôtel Dieu Hospital at the age of 78. “When he’s worked up,” long-time Canadiens GM Frank Selke once said, “his eyes gleam like headlights. Not a glow, but a piercing intensity. Goalies have said he’s like a motorcar coming on you at night. He is terrifying. He is the greatest hockey player that ever lived. I can contradict myself by saying that 10 or 15 do the mechanics of play better. But it’s results that count. Others play well, build up, eventually get a goal. He is like a flash of lightning. It’s a fine summer day, suddenly.”

(Image: “Maurice Richard et deux jeunes enfants, vers 1957,” Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM94, Ed-33A)