training camp, 1940: all aboard for hibbing

Slow Train Going: Ready to board the train for Hibbing, Minnesota, members of the 1940-41 Black Hawks doff their hats at Chicago’s North Western Station. From left, they are: Bill Thoms, Pep Kelly, Earl Seibert, Johnny Gottselig, Jack Portland, Mush March, coach Paul Thompson, and trainer Eddie Froelich.

The Chicago Black Hawks went to Hibbing, Minnesota, for training camp in October of 1940, which is what they did in those years, having prepped for years, pre-seasonally, in Champaign, Illinois. Later, 1943, the Hawks would shift briefly to Minneapolis before giving up on Minnesota altogether in the fall ’45, when they took their training to Regina, in Saskatchewan. In ’40, second-year coach Paul Thompson was young, 33; two seasons earlier, he’d been manning the left wing for the Black Hawks, as he’d been doing since 1931. In ’38, coached by Bill Stewart, Chicago had won a surprising Stanley Cup. Aiming to repeat that feat, Thompson’s team convened in Minnesota three weeks ahead of their opening game of their 48-game regular-season schedule, a November 7 meeting with the New York Americans slated for Chicago Stadium.

Twenty-five players travelled to Hibbing. Those who didn’t accompany the coach on the train from Chicago came south from Winnipeg. Paul Goodman was the incumbent in goal, though the Hawks were excited by a young local prospect, too, Sam LoPresti. Defensive veterans Earl Seibert, Jack Portland, and Art Wiebe would be challenged by another Minnesotan, Eveleth’s own John Mariucci, and a recently graduated mining engineer from the University of Alberta, Dave MacKay. Returning forwards included Mush March, Johnny Gottselig, Phil Hergesheimer, and Doug Bentley. The latter’s brother, Max, was given a good chance of making the team, as was a young Winnipegger  by the name of Bill Mosienko.

Thompson was enthusiastic: to his mind, this team was shaping up to be “the most evenly balanced in Chicago history.” The team’s tempestuous owner was on the page when he blew in for a visit midway through camp. Never before, Major Frederic McLaughlin declared, had a team of his looked so good so early.

This despite the fact that the Hawks hardly skated the first week of the pre-season. The ice was iffy in Hibbing that October — what there was of it. This despite the fact that the Hawks hardly skated the first week of the pre-season. The ice was iffy in Hibbing that October — what there was of it. The crew at Memorial Arena was no doubt doing its best to get a freeze on for the hockey players, but they had their troubles that first week. Five days into camp the Hawks still hadn’t seen a serviceable surface. Thompson curtailed Wednesday’s drills before they really got going: “five minutes of skating,” the Canadian Press reported, had worn the ice down to the floor.” The players took to the outdoors, where they kept themselves busy with a little road work, a little golf. Wednesday saw Mush March score a hole-in-one on the Hibbing course’s 190-yard seventh hole. He’d been prepping all summer long, you could say: March had spent the summer as a club pro in Valparaiso, Indiana.

By Thursday, the coach’s patience was almost at its end: if the Hibbing rink couldn’t get it together by Friday, he’d take his team and head west for 500 miles, to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where former Chicago defenceman Taffy Abel managed the rink.

Friday, with the team packed and ready to go, Hibbing’s ice-makers came through, and the Hawks skated for the first time with sticks and pucks. “The frozen surface stood up under two 90-minute tests,” the CP noted; “jubilation was rampant.” Art Wiebe was the season’s first casualty, suffering a gash over the right eye along with what the CP termed “a slight brain concussion.” No worries, said coach Thompson: he’d be back in action next day.

The second week of camp, the ice was fine. Monday 1,000 spectators showed up to watch Chicago’s first open scrimmage. Coach Thompson played referee, “allowing some fouls to pass unnoticed, but … quick to stop play on offsides.” It was 19 minutes before anyone could score, with Johnny Gottselig beating Paul Goodman.

As planned, the Hawks decamped the following Monday for St. Paul. They had another week of drills ahead of them there, along with a series of exhibition games against the local American Hockey Association Saints. Those were played, eventually: when the Black Hawks first arrived in St. Paul that vexed pre-season, they learned that the refrigeration plant had broken down, and that the ice wouldn’t be ready to receive them for another day or two.

 

lift-off

Like Frank Brimsek and Mike Karakas (and … well, Bob Dylan, too), Sam LoPresti hailed from Minnesota’s Iron Range. He guarded Chicago’s goal for two seasons in the early 1940s before volunteering himself out of hockey and into the U.S. Navy. Posing here in 1940-41, he puts Emile Francis to shame, I’d say, sailing across his net in search of a puck that may or not ever show up.

 

gump agonistes

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They’re just a few of them, Canadians we feel we know so well (and maybe even revere) that just the one name will do. Most of them are singers, Drake and Shania, Joni, Neil, Leonard, though we also have a prime minister now, Justin, with whom we’re first-name familiar. Hockey has Gordie, Wayne, Mario, Sid — and now I guess Connor, too.

Also? Gump.

That one is an older vintage, and maybe doesn’t have the currency it once did. Still, it does retain a certain power, as a byword for the audacity and sheer foolery of old-time NHL goaltenders, one that conveys not only the awkward dignity of the man himself but also the fall-down, scrambling valor of a whole nervy puckstopping generation of maskless men, long before Tom Hanks was cast in the role of a slow-wit hero from Alabama.

Not that the surname isn’t just as good as the first: Worsley is Dickensian in its perfection, up there with Gradgrind, Cheeryble, Pickwick, Pecksniff. Paired, Gump Worsley not only sounds like a character from a story, one from whom you could figure out the gist of the plot just by looking at the man: oh, yes, right, so this is the one about the kind-hearted London orphan, bit of a sad case, all alone in the world, at the behest of his anonymous benefactor, without any training or apparent aptitude, has to take up goaltending in the six-team National Hockey League in order to prove himself and find his destiny.

John K. Samson once told me he carried a glorious old Gump-faced hockey card with him wherever he went. We were talking at the time about Reggie Leach, Riverton’s own Rifle, but then the talk turned as the Winnipeg singer explained that a lot of his admiration for Gump was based, like mine, on just how unlikely a goaltender he seemed, accidental, almost, and how amiably he seemed to bearing up in the situation into which he’d been thrust.

That’s in the song Samson wrote, of course, “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” that he sang with his erstwhile band, The Weakerthans. The words go like this:

He looked more like our fathers, not a goalie, player, athlete period. Smoke, half ash, stuck in that permanent smirk, tugging jersey around the beergut, “I’m strictly a whiskey man” was one of the sticks he taped up and gave to a nation of pudgy boys in beverage rooms. Favourites from Plimpton’s list of objects thrown by Rangers fans: soup cans, a persimmon, eggs, a folding chair and a dead rabbit. The nervous breakdown of ’68-’69 after pant-crap flights from LA, the expansion, “the shrink told me to change occupations. I had to forget it.” He swore he was never afraid of the puck. We believe him. If anyone asks, the inscription should read, “My face was my mask.”

He played 21 years in the NHL, mostly for the New York Rangers, most successfully for Montreal, finally for the Minnesota North Stars. He died at the age of 77 in 2007.

It’s possible that I saw him play, later on in his career, staying up late to watch Hockey Night In Canada in the early ’70s. If so, I don’t remember. I loved his memoir, They Call Me Gump (1975), which he wrote with Tim Moriarty’s aid, and not just because he devotes Chapter 21 to his recipe for pineapple squares. Okay, well, yes, that’s where a lot of the love is centred. Also with his affable way of looking at the world, and that if there’s a joke in his playing NHL goal, then it’s a joke he’s very much in on, and enjoying as much as the rest of us.

If Gump looked helpless, if he seemed hapless, well, of course, he was anything but. You don’t need to go and stand in front of his plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame (elected in 1980) to know that he was one of the best of his era. Traded to Montreal for Jacques Plante, he went on to play his part in four Stanley Cup championships. He was a First All-Star Team and twice had a share (with Charlie Hodge and Rogie Vachon, respectively) in a Vézina Trophy. Of all the goaltenders to have defended NHL nets, he stands 22nd when it comes to regular-season wins (335). He had 40 more in the playoffs, which is more than Johnny Bower and Bernie Parent and lots of other Brahmins of the crease.

I don’t know where he slots in when it comes to the all-time index of pain and suffering. In his book, he mostly makes light of the wear and tear of being worn and torn. “The main occupational hazard is trying to stay alive while facing up to 40 and 50 shots a game,” he writes. “We’re not well, you know,” he says elsewhere, “or we wouldn’t be playing the position.” And: “It helps to be nuts.” If he were in the business of hiring goaltenders, his prerequisites would include “a hard skull to deflect flying pucks, plus a thick skin to absorb the abuse of coaches and fans.”

Like a lot of hockey memoirs, They Call Me Gump reads like a medical file. It’s longtime Ranger physician Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa attending, mostly, dropping in every few pages to consult on the tendons in Gump’s hand that Bobby Hull’s skate severed, or to remove cartilage from his knee. Gump pulls hamstrings, tears thigh muscles, sprains knees. He devotes another entire chapter (without going too deep) to the stress and fear of flying that fuelled the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1968.

The injuries would have contributed to that, too, though Gump doesn’t really make much of the connection. For all the damage he chronicles, there’s relatively little mention of concussions. One that features is famous in its way — a “mild” one that knocked him out of a 1967 game at Madison Square Garden when he was back in playing for Montreal. Others he leaves out entirely or tosses in with what passes for trouperly bravado:

[Boom-Boom] Geoffrion hit me right between the eyes with a slapshot in the Forum one night, and the puck ricocheted 40 rows into the stands.

Gump finally put on a mask in 1974, but only for the last six games of his career. “Hated it,” he said in 1984, looking back. “Sure I got knocked out a lot. I got knocked out oftener than Joe Palooka. But there was only one goalie to a team at that time, so they’d revive you and sew you up and you went back on.”

That’s all in keeping, I guess, with hockey’s historical nonchalance when it comes to head injuries. Getting your bell proverbially rung was just part of the game; you shook it off, headed back out on the ice. Knowing what we know now about head trauma and the long-time devastation of CTE casts a grim shade on those old attitudes, even as the modern-day NHL refuses to acknowledge the connections.

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Worsley Out: Montreal teammates Ted Harris and Bob Rousseau aid training staff in getting Gump off the ice in Chicago in April of 1968 after he hit his head on a goalpost.

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’cause: nobel

David Remnick gets it right, as the editor of The New Yorker usually does: if you mean to celebrate today’s announcement that Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, do it by ear. Cue up “Abandoned Love,” listen to “Desolation Row,” with “Brownsville Girl” to follow that, then “Dignity,” then “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” Keep going. And while you’re doing that, read this, from Dylan’s seductive memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004), in which he recalls his youth in Minnesota:

Winters, ten below with a twenty below wind-chill factor were common, thawing spring and hot, steamy summers — penetrating sun and balmy weather where temperatures rose over one hundred degrees. Summers were filled with mosquitoes that could bite through your boots — winters with blizzards that could freeze a man dead. There were glorious autumns as well.

Mostly what I did growing up was bide my time. I always knew there was a bigger world out there but the one I was in at the time was all right, too. With not much media to speak of it, it was basically life as you saw it. The things I did growing up were the things I thought everybody did — march in parades, have bike races, play ice hockey. (Not everyone was expected to play football or basketball or even baseball, but you had to know how to skate and play ice hockey.)

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hp[in]hb: ching johnson, again

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Bedspread: It was said in 1937 that Ching Johnson had spent 29 weeks of his 19-year hockey career in hospital beds; this stay, above, dates to January, 1940, so best to add a few days to his career calendar of convalescence. Johnson was 41 by then, and out of the NHL. Back in Minnesota, where he’d played in the 1920s before Conn Smythe signed him to the New York Rangers, Johnson was player-coach now of the AHA Millers. His injury? Undisclosed: upper and/or lower body, we’ll say, to be safe, front and possibly back, inner and probably — why not? — outer.

this week: nothing that you can’t not say good about gordie howe

gordie howe day

“Pond hockey!” wrote Scott Feschuk in Maclean’s (a while ago; it bears repeating). “Short of getting Gordon Lightfoot to write a song about Stompin’ Tom Connors singing a song about Anne Murray, you just can’t get any more Canadian.”

Eighty-six-year old Gordie Howe went home to Saskatoon. That was more recent, but still a week ago; the occasion was the Kinsmen Sports Celebrity Dinner. “Howe had a stroke late last year,” noted Saskatoon’s Star-Phoenix, “but has shown signs of improvement following a stem cell procedure in Mexico in December.” Everybody was thrilled to see him. Bobby Hull was on hand, too, and his son, Brett. Wayne Gretzky was the keynote speaker. “There’s nothing that you can’t not say good about Gordie Howe,” was one of the things Gretzky said.

“It is not just what he has accomplished, but who he is as a person that makes Howe especially beloved,” said The Star Phoenix in an editorial. “Howe’s qualities represent the kind of person Saskatchewan people most respect: humility, resilience and kindness.”

Could he have originated anywhere else? No.

It is impossible, however, to imagine Howe emerging from anywhere but the Prairies.

His tough, Depression-era upbringing shaped Howe into the resilient man who remains one of Canada’s great heroes. He skated out of those humble beginnings in Saskatoon and onto rough-and-tumble NHL arenas, throwing elbows and firing pucks, the shy prairie kid making himself impossible to ignore.

Brett Popplewell from Sportsnet Magazine paid a visit to Detroit coach Mike Babcock’s house:

He has an office, lined with hockey memorabilia and the sun-baked skulls of some of the animals he has killed — an African lion, a leopard, some bears and deer — but today he’s working in the kitchen.

Max Pacioretty pointed to Brendan Gallagher this week. The Globe and Mail’s Sean Gordon was there and saw this and he wrote down what Pacioretty said as he was pointing: “He doesn’t dive at all, but maybe it looks that way because he’s battling hard, he’s smaller, he’s getting knocked over.”

Gretzky on the first time he played against Howe in 1978:

“I stole the puck from him and was going the other way. All of the sudden I felt a whack. He hit me and took the puck back. He said, ‘Don’t you ever take the puck from me.’ I said, ‘All right. It will never happen again.’”

The Star Phoenix:

He carries his hometown with him wherever he goes. Howe hasn’t lived here in a long time, but he’s Saskatoon through and through.

Las Vegas set out this week to find out how much local support there might be for an NHL team in town, taking actual deposits on notional tickets to convince the league why they should be expanding there soon. From http://www.vegaswantshockey.net:

Our story begins with a goal … to bring NHL® hockey to Las Vegas. And Las Vegas is ready — ready for the energy, excitement and thrill that only NHL® hockey can deliver. We’ve done the research, polled the community and rallied our local businesses. ALL are eager to support an NHL® team. Las Vegas is ready to join the elite list of “NHL® Cities”.

Why does Nevada need hockey? The franchise’s enthusiastic backers say its for the Community and

For Our Youth …

Hockey is an excellent motivator for our youth, teaching the value of team skills, hard work and determination. If we are able to secure a team in Las Vegas, we are committed to supporting youth hockey in Las Vegas through the development of youth hockey rinks, programs and other activities.

Another week, not this, Dave Bidini was writing in The National Post:

I play goal one night a week, likely as penance for some murderous sin I committed in another lifetime.

I’ve come to enjoy being hit, but one of the other small pleasures of the crease is when everything swooshes away and you’re left naked in the zone, the rest of the players having gathered up ice, leaving you like an abandoned party guest.

It’s during these instances that I ponder mortality, taxes, and whether I’ve left the oven on at home.

Also not this week: Ron MacLean was in Newfoundland, where he ate a seal burger at Mallard Cottage in St. John’s. When he told Don Cherry about it on national television, Cherry said, “What are you, a savage? A barbarian?”

Words that failed to please many people across the country, many of whom have Twitter accounts. Matthew Coon Come, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was one. “According to Don Cherry, my Inuk friends are savages because they eat seal,” he wrote. “The network should fire him for his racist remark.”

“I hope he apologizes,” said Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq, the Minister of Health, who called Cherry’s comments “hurtful and insensitive.”

“Our government will continue to defend Canada’s humane seal hunt which is so important to many of our Northern and coastal communities.”

Cherry took to Twitter the next day, posting an explanation if not quite an apology in one of his rawly poetic bursts of numbered tweets:

1) Evidently I upset some people about my seal burger comments. I would like to try to explain my comments. Not because I was told to

2) or forced to. I do it because I feel I have hurt the feelings of some people I like and admire. I have friends who hunt deer and ducks

3) and I myself have eaten venison and duck meat. Just the same as people who hunt seals and eat seal meat. I have no problem with my

4) friends who are hunters and eat venison and duck. Just the same, as I have no problem, with people who hunt seals and seal meat.

5) I do however find it very unusual, in my world, that a person would go into a restaurant and order a seal burger for lunch.

6) I meant no disrespect to the hunters who hunt and eat seal meat just like I have no disrespect for the hunters who hunt deer and duck

7) and eat their meat. Again, I do this explanation because I want to. I have hurt some people’s feelings that I like and admire.

8) If this explanation isn’t good enough, then let the cards fall where they may.

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