Born in Flin Flon, Manitoba, on a Tuesday of this date in 1933, Eric Nesterenko turns 86 today. Having made his NHL debut in 1952 as an 18-year-old right winger for Toronto, he played parts of five seasons with the Leafs and a further 16 in Chicago, helping the Black Hawks win the 1961 Stanley Cup. At the age of 40, he put in a single season in the WHA, 1973-74, for the Chicago Cougars. “He was a player who does everything well,” is a summing-up of Andrew Podnieks’. “He scored, played physically, stickhandled nicely, and backchecked.” He accumulated a whole parcel of nicknames over the course of his hockey career: Mr. Elbows, Nester, The Hinge, Eric The Great, Swoops, Sonja, the Shadow, the Silent One. Off the ice, he coached, worked for a brokerage firm, and as a ski instructor. He had a bit of an acting career, as well, featuring in a 1979 CBC movie about hockey violence called Cement Head. More famously, he took on the role of Blane Youngblood, father of the eponymous hero played by Rob Lowe in that 1986 epic of the ice, Youngblood.
Phil Watson’s hair was wavy brown, and parted in the middle; his eyes were alert and green. This was in 1947, when Watson was 32 and a prominent right winger and sometime centreman for the New York Rangers, a talented, tireless, and conspicuously belligerent veteran of a dozen NHL seasons. According to Robert Lewis Taylor, Watson was one of the best-looking players in the game in those years — and it is true that he was, a decade earlier, recruited to double for Clark Gable in a hockey movie that was never released. Watson’s smile, Taylor wrote, was “uncommonly pleasant,” if “largely synthetic” — to replace the four top front teeth he’d had knocked out in the line of duty, the Rangers bought him the dental bridge he wore when he wasn’t doing battle on the ice.
Watson was born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1914; he died in 1991 at the age of 76. The man they called Phiery Phil got his name of the Stanley Cup twice — with the Rangers in 1940 and, in 1944, when wartime restrictions kept him home in Canada, as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. In 13 NHL seasons, he proved himself to be a skilled defensive player as well as a first-class annoyance to his opponents. He also contributed offensively, and led the league in assists in 1941-42.
As a coach, he got two cracks at steering the Rangers during the 1950s and another, in the ’60s, behind the Boston Bruins’ bench. He coached two seasons in the WHA in the ’70s, guiding the Blazers in Philadelphia and subsequently in Vancouver.
For views of Watson’s background, unruly prowess on ice (think Brad Marchand before he reined himself in), and surpassing eccentricity, I recommend the long, droll, eventful profile Robert Lewis Taylor published in The New Yorker in 1947 under the title “Disorder On The Rink.” I count it as a bit of a lost classic of hockey non-fiction, well worth your while, particularly if you’re looking to round out your understanding of just how outlandishly unrestrained the excesses of NHL hockey once were.
It doesn’t extend to Watson’s coaching years, and it bypasses several key episodes in the Watson story. It doesn’t delve into the circumstances under which Watson annoyed his own Ranger goaltender so thoroughly that Chuck Rayner attacked him in the team’s dressing room. Also missing: his brief 1938 brush with Hollywood stardom wherein he served as Clark Gable’s skating and puckhandling stand-in opposite Myrna Loy in an ill-fated feature called The Great Canadian.
A taste of what Taylor does offer up in his portrayal of Watson’s tempestuous tenure in the NHL, in three excerpts:
The two most effective methods of taking a puck away from an advancing opponent are probing for it with a stick, which is known as “poke checking,” and slamming into the man bodily, which is called “body checking.” At these two arts, Watson has no master. A head-on collision with any moving object smaller than a pick-up truck provides him with the sort of comfort that some bankers get from foreclosing on a valuable farm.
Most hockey players consider it bad form to strike a referee with a stick, and the rules are explicit on the subject — the striker is subject to a fine or to suspension from the league. Watson, displaying a kind of instinctive legal ingenuity, has detected loopholes in the code: there is no mention of spitting in a referee’s face. In moments of extreme urgency, he performs this act and generally draws a severe penalty, under whatever rule the referee feels may be stretched to cover the case.
On one occasion, when he was relating an anecdote to Lew Burton, the Journal-American sportswriter, in the Rangers’ dressing room after a game which had featured a really spectacular brawl between him and the Detroit Red Wings, Burton interrupted to ask, “How’d it get started, Phil?” Watson jumped up, cried, “I tell you, Lew, they started it like this!,” and brought a hockey stick crashing down on Burton’s head, benching him for about twenty minutes. “It was the wrong way to tell that story,” Watson frequently says, with a gloomy inflection.
(A version of this post appeared on page SP4 of The New York Times on July 1, 2018, under the headline “Writing the Twisting History of Indigenous Players.”)
At some point during Fred Sasakamoose’s first visit to New York in the fall of 1953, he found himself in a radio station studio. At 19, Sasakamoose was a junior hockey star from Saskatchewan. Speedy and ambidextrous, he was about to make his NHL debut at center for the Chicago Black Hawks. He was also a novelty: one of the first Indigenous players in the league.
He remembers the gifts he was given at the studio, cigars and a transistor radio. And he remembers being asked, for broadcast, to say something in Cree.
“They wanted me to talk Indian,” he said.
He obliged, thanking the interviewer and saying he had never been to New York before.
It was just a few simple sentences, but Sasakamoose struggled, on air, to summon his own language. Home, then and now, was Ahtahkakoop First Nation, in Saskatchewan, but in 1953 it had been years since he had lived there.
Hockey had planted him in Moose Jaw, and before that he’d spent a decade 60 miles from home at St. Michael’s in Duck Lake. one of Canada’s notorious residential schools where the mandate was to erase Indigenous language and culture.
“They don’t allow you to talk your language,” Sasakamoose, now 84, recalled earlier this year from Ahtahkakoop. “Either you talk French or English — and then you go to church, and you’ve got to talk Latin.”
In May, Governor-General Julie Payette inducted Sasakamoose as a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Revered as a hockey trailblazer, he has worked tirelessly over the years with youth in his community and across the country. Sasakamoose said he was humbled by the honor.
“There’s so much pride,” he added. “It’s just marvelous.”
Proud as the moment is, it is impossible to consider Sasakamoose’s life and career without reflecting on the historical scarcity of Indigenous players at the top levels of the game that Canadians so fervently claim as their own. First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit make up 4.9 percent of Canada’s population. But of the more than 7,600 players, some 5,100 from Canada, to have skated in the NHL in the 100 years of its history, only about 80 have been of Indigenous heritage.
Canada’s reckoning with its history with Indigenous peoples has been underway for years, reaching not just into the justice system and the resource sector, but across society.
Within hockey, this has been both a season for celebrating the achievements of Indigenous players and one filled with reminders of the ongoing struggles they face — against racism, and for opportunity and recognition.
Recent NHL success stories include Ethan Bear, 20, from Saskatchewan’s Ochapowace Cree Nation, who made his debut with the Edmonton Oilers in March. At the Winter Olympics in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Canada’s women’s hockey team featured two Indigenous players, Jocelyne Larocque, who’s Métis from Manitoba, and Brigette Lacquette, a member of the Cote Saulteaux First Nation in Saskatchewan.
The game is thriving in Indigenous communities across the country, at the pond and pick-up level and through organized events like the annual National Aboriginal Hockey Championships for elite teenage players. In March, about 3,000 Indigenous youth players took part in the Little Native Hockey League in Mississauga, Ontario.
“I think we as First Nations people are probably some of the biggest supporters of hockey across Canada,” said Reggie Leach, the NHL’s first Indigenous superstar who continues to work with young players on hockey and life skills. Leach, who is Ojibwe, spent 13 seasons in the NHL, mostly with the Philadelphia Flyers, winning a Stanley Cup in 1975.
Still, the story of Indigenous hockey in Canada is one that has been shaped by familiar themes of geographical isolation and social marginalization. It also continues to be poisoned by racism. In May, a team of 13- and 14-year-old First Nations boys faced racial slurs at a tournament in Quebec City.
“Reading this story made me sad,” Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s Minister of Justice and a member of the We Wai Kai Nation in British Columbia, wrote on Twitter. “Be proud of who you are and always remember where you come from!”
Residential schools are knotted into the history, too. For more than a century through to 1996, the Canadian government made a policy of separating some 150,000 children from their families with the express purpose of indoctrinating them into a culture not their own — taking “the Indian out of the child,” in one early insidious formulation of what the schools were all about.
The government has apologized and compensated survivors. Between 2008 and 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission crossed Canada to hear their stories and investigate abuses. Among the findings in the commission’s final 2015 report is ample evidence of how sports, including hockey, could be a refuge for many children. But the report also explains how, especially in early years, some in authority looked to sports as an instrument of forced assimilation, just another means of “civilizing” students.
The comfort and freedom that hockey offered only went so far. That’s a story told in Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese’s powerful 2012 novel of hockey and residential-school abuse that director Stephen Campanelli and executive producer Clint Eastwood brought to movie screens in the spring of 2018. The pain and the rage deriving from what the central character, Saul, calls the “scorched earth” of his residential-school boyhood — “it corroded everything, even the game.”
Tracing the history of hockey’s Indigenous players, you can’t help but reflect on the ways in which narratives form, shift and settle, and on the stories that get told or don’t. While Indigenous players are scarcely seen in the annals of early hockey history, it’s also true that those in the business of recording the sport’s history have simply neglected or overlooked some of those who did make it to hockey’s highest levels.
Henry Maracle is one of those whose story has been erased, one way and another. While Fred Sasakamoose is still often described as having been the NHL’s first Indigenous player — including by the league itself and in his Order-of-Canada citation — the evidence seems to increasingly contradict that distinction.
Hockey teams in Canada started vying for the Stanley Cup in 1893, well before the NHL came into being in 1917. In 1901 and again in 1902, the Winnipeg Victorias won the Cup with a roster featuring three Métis stars, Tony Gingras and the brothers Rod and Magnus Flett.
Toronto’s NHL lineup in 1918-19 may have included a Mohawk defenseman, Paul Jacobs. While league records show him playing a game in the league’s second season, it’s unclear whether he actually made it onto the ice. Taffy Abel, who had Chippewa background, was a member of the 1924 United States Olympic team and one of the earliest Americans to flourish in the N.H.L. Could he be counted as the league’s first Indigenous player?
New York got its first N.H.L. team in 1925, the Americans, a year before the Rangers hit the ice. With an idea of adding an exotic accent to the Americans’ lineup, manager Tommy Gorman briefly pretended that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born center, Rene Boileau, was a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater.
While the N.H.L. seems strangely loath to acknowledge him, Maracle is slowly gaining wider recognition as the first Indigenous player in the league. Maracle, who died in 1958, was honoured this past June at a community ceremony in Ayr, Ontario, the small town where he was born.
Midway through the 1930-31 season, the Rangers summoned Maracle, a 27-year-old Mohawk left winger, from their affiliate in Springfield, Mass. That the Springfield team was nicknamed the Indians was not lost on headline writers and reporters narrating the scoring exploits of the “Springfield Injun” and “Redskin Icer.”
Maracle, who went by Buddy, was often, inevitably, called “Chief.” His NHL career lasted 15 games, yielding a goal and three assists. While he would thrive as a minor leaguer for years to come, that was all for Maracle in the NHL.
In 1944, the Rangers called up an Indigenous defenseman, Jim Jamieson, whose background was Cayuga, from Six Nations First Nation in southwestern Ontario. He played a single game.
Maracle and Jamieson were already forgotten when Sasakamoose made his NHL debut in 1953. “Chief Running Deer,” the papers dubbed him; when he first skated out at Chicago Stadium, organist Al Melgard broke into “Indian Love Call.” Sasakamoose played 11 games that season and looked like he was in the league to stay. Until he decided he wasn’t.
Years later, Sasakamoose recalls, Hall-of-Fame goaltender and fellow Chicago alumnus Glenn Hall told him he should write a book. “He said, ‘You know what you call it?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said: ‘I Want To Go Home.’”
He laughs now, but the memory of homesickness remains raw. “For me,” Sasakamoose said, “I wanted to come home all the time.
“Because, 10 years of residential school. Ten years when you’re small. And you live in that place, in that big huge building, and you don’t see mom and dad. You don’t know them anymore.”
Sasakamoose has spoken over the years about the physical abuse he suffered at Duck Lake, and he testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Of his school years, the commission report noted, “He left as soon as he could.”
At the same time, Sasakamoose’s memory of those distant school years in the 1940s can still brighten as he describes learning to stickhandle, or recalls the team with which he won a provincial championship.
Also: Saturday nights in wintertime. One of the presiding priests at Duck Lake would rig up a speaker in time for the weekly broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada from Toronto, 1,300 miles away. “We’d sit there, about 30 or 40 of us, and we’d listen to the Foster Hewitt. Everybody wanted to be a Charlie Conacher.”
For many Canadians, Hewitt, the broadcaster whose signature phrase was a strident “He shoots, he scores!,” remains the original and eternal voice of hockey.
In 1953, when Sasakamoose played his first game at Toronto’s Maple Leafs Gardens, Hewitt descended from his broadcast booth: he wanted to meet the Chicago rookie — and to find out how to pronounce his name.
“I said, ‘Foster, my name is Sa-SA-ka-moose.’”
He laughs now. When the time came to call the action, Hewitt never quite got it right.
“That was okay,” Sasakamoose said. “I was there. I wanted to get there and I did get there.”
In Damien: Omen II, the dubious appeal of the original — a toddler turns out to be the son of the devil — is missing. The sequel takes place approximately seven years later and the toddler is now a teenage brat. Frankly, there’s nothing particularly surprising or horrifying about a teenager in league with the devil. Also, the commotion the kid inspires this time is not particularly frightening. A crow eats an old woman. Big deal.
• Gene Siskel, The Chicago Tribune, July 6, 1978
Before Damien has finished this time, there have been approximately a dozen new victims, a couple of whom have succumbed to what appears to be internal disorders while others have been sliced in half, stabbed, burned, impaled, gassed, pecked (by a nasty crow) and in the film’s most inspired moment of cinematic nonsense, drowned beneath the clear ice of a Wisconsin lake.
• Vincent Canby, The New York Times, June 10, 1978
Chilliest of the horror sequences — imaginatively achieved — a drowning scene during an ice hockey game.
• Bernie Harrison, The Washington Star, February 5, 1980
FIRST. CBC TV is airing Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story on April 28 at 8 p.m. Made for television, the movie stars Vancouver-born actor Michael Shanks (Stargate SG-1, Arctic Blast, Mega Snake) as Mr. H. It tells the story of Howe’s return to the professional ice, in 1973, at the age of 45. He’d retired, reluctantly, in 1971 from the Detroit Red Wings, but when sons Mark and Marty signed with the WHA’s Houston Aeros, the temptation was too much to resist.
From a CBC press release, last week:
In addition to the challenge of playing real people, the actors had to be prepared to play hockey like the Howes.
Shanks may look more like a latter-day Barry Melrose than a middle-aged Mr. Elbows, but he does have some hockey chops, apparently. His online biography reports that
at 16, he had to decide whether or not to become a professional hockey player. He chose not to, but he continues to support the Canucks (though pragmatically admits that sometimes “They suck”) and has played for the Stargate SG-1 team against teams from other Vancouver-based shows.
Having decided that pro hockey was not for him, Michael went to the University of British Columbia to study business, financing his studies by taking laboring and lumberjack work. Math proved to be his downfall as a failed calculus course meant he was a half credit short of getting a Business degree. He switched to Theatre and graduated in March, 1994 with a degree in Fine Arts
SECOND. Marty and Mark Howe, who were 19 and 18 respectively, signed four-year deals with the Aeros that were worth a reported $400,000 each in June of 1973. Howe Sr. was a vice-president with the Red Wings at the time. Before he signed his deal with Houston (four years, $1-million), the NHL had offered him a five-year deal worth $500,000 — as a PR man. League president Clarence Campbell didn’t take it too hard when Howe turned him down. He was disappointed, sure, but he understood:
“It was his choice and he was obviously unhappy with his position in Detroit. I hope he won’t suffer the fate of other people who have played too long.
“It would make me sick if instead of applause he was greeted by boos. It would make me sorry to see him in that position.”
Howe, of course, went on to play six seasons in the WHA along with one more in the NHL for good measure, retiring in 1980 at the age of 52. Campbell retired in 1977.
THIRD. Andrew Podnieks has a great piece about our hockey-loving heads of state at iihf.com. On the occasion of Governor-General David Johnston’s patronage of the Women’s World Championship that wraps up tonight in Ottawa, Podnieks talked to him his early hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, where his U-17 teammates included Phil and Tony Esposito and Lou Nanne.
Johnston went on to Harvard, where he ended up captaining the hockey team. Like Michael Shanks, he came to the point where he had to decide whether to continue. Podnieks:
He played for four years starting in 1959 under coach Cooney Weiland, Boston Bruins legend and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was good enough that a career in the pro ranks was not out of the question.
“I did [consider a pro career],” he confessed. “I was 150 pounds at Harvard. I played defence, and I was in the hospital the last two weeks of my final season with mononucleosis, but I had been invited to the Bruins training camp. This was before the draft, and there were only six teams in the NHL. I think if I had been healthier, stronger, and played when there were 30 teams, not six, I probably would have told myself to go. But, I had a scholarship opportunity in Cambridge, England to study law, and the law called me.”
Along with his skill as a player, Podnieks points to the GG’s “Drydenian” understanding of the game’s details:
“I played forward and defence, and at one point I even played goal,” Johnston explained. “The thing I enjoyed most about hockey was seeing the whole ice and being able to see how individual virtuosity works into overall plan. I loved the strategy and the on-the-go intelligence of the game. I love the intensity. It’s played at such speed that you simply cannot skate for more than a minute or so without requiring relief. Very few sports have the same intensity that you need wave upon wave of players to maintain that intensity.”
OVERTIME. Reporting in the fall of 1934 of the Montreal Canadiens’ preparations for the upcoming season, Montreal’s Gazette noted that coach Newsy Lalonde was tending towards a number one line of Wildor Larochelle on the right, Pit Lepine at centre, Aurele Joliat over on the left. Further down the bench, Lalonde had Nels Crutchfield centering Joe Lamb and Jack McGill in the pre-season: “the first completely English line ever turned out by the Canadiens,” according to the paper.
At some point this afternoon during Detroit’s game with Chicago at the Joe Louis they’ll be singing “Happy Birthday” to Gordie Howe, who’ll be there, on the day he’s turning 85.
If we can’t all be there for that, maybe what we can do join with the pride of Wawota, Saskatchewan, to say, “Hi, Mr. Howe, my name is Brooks Laich, and on behalf of the Washington Capitals we’d like to wish you a happy 85th birthday and many more years of health and happiness.”
That’s from a short video that was making the rounds last week as NHL players including Dion Phaneuf, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Smyth, and Teemu Selanne — “You’re da man,” he said — stepped up with their happy returns of the day.
A few stray Howe notes on the day:
• As a boy growing up in Saskatoon, Howe caught sturgeon in the South Saskatchewan River, right behind the Bessborough Hotel, where they’d pay $10 a fish at the kitchen door. Also, in eighth grade, playing for King George School, he once scored 14 goals in a 15-0 win. He also added an assist.
• The headline on the front day of The Detroit Free Press the day after an 18-year-old Howe made his NHL debut against Toronto: “Goering Kills Self.” He — Howe — played on a line with Sid Abel and Adam Brown, who helped him score a goal in a game that ended in a 3-3 tie. The Leafs’ Bill Ezinicki helped him get into his first fight.
• In 1963, on his 35th birthday, the Red Wings beat Chicago 4-2. Howe, noted a reporter, “slipped away from his convoy, Eric Nesterenko” to score a goal and add two assists.
• www.gordiehowe.com is the place to satisfy all your Howe souvenir needs, whether it’s a doubly signed unframed photograph of Howe with golfer Jack Nicklaus (US$999) or an autographed Red Wings’ sweater (US$599). Also available on the site is a gratis list of Howe’s nicknames, which include Mr. Power, Mr. Hockey®, The Great Gordie, Mr. Elbows, The King of Hockey, and Number 9.
• If you’re scoring at home, you may have had Howe’s career facial stitch-count at 300 — or as a newspaper put it in 1972, “enough to sew your average couch.” There’s no consensus on this, though. Other accounts put it at 500, of which 300 were to the face (“you have to peer closely to see their delicate tracery,” noted The Edmonton Journal in 1971). gordiehowe.com says 500, all of them in the face.
• In March of 1959, celebrating Gordie Howe Night ahead of a game with Boston, the Red Wings presented Mr. Elbows with an Oldsmobile station wagon. Inside were his parents, who’d flown in from Saskatoon. In Howe’s 13 years in the NHL, it was the first time his father Albert had seen him play.
• In 1964, Robert Rosenthal, 20, sued Howe for $25,000 for punching him in the mouth. Rosenthal, a Black Hawks fan, said Howe’s fist cut his lip, which needed eight stitches, and got infected, and swelled up to three times its usual size. He told a Chicago circuit court that he’d been humiliated, embarrassed, and held up to public ridicule. Howe said he’d punched an abusive fan “a good one” as the Red Wings were leaving the Chicago Stadium after a 5-4 win. Judge John Sullivan dismissed the suit. “On the basis of the evidence you’ve given me,” he told Rosenthal, “any judge in my opinion would find Mr. Howe not guilty, since you admitted you provoked him.”
• The Hallmark Channel has made a movie for TV about the return to hockey Howe made in 1973 at the age of 45, coming out of retirement to play with his sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros. Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story debuts May 4, with Michael Shanks in the lead role and Kathleen Robertson as Howe’s late wife Colleen.
• Asked in 1983 what he thought of the state of the game, Howe, 55, said this: “Not enough sacrifice, not enough discipline, not enough guts.” And this: “Take off the helmets and the face masks. Those things are turning mice into elephants.” Also: “I see everybody carry their sticks five feet over their heads now. My stick was always on the ice because it’s the only place you can handle the puck. The only things I kept high were my elbows.”
• From The Evening Independent in 1972:
There was the time not long ago that Gordie Howe had a distinct dislike for anything yellow. It made him see red.
He’d gladly sign autographs, but if you shoved a yellow legal pad in his face and asked for his signature, he’d refuse the request. “I’ve never been connected with anything yellow in my life,” he said yesterday. …
Howe’s own war with yellow took on other proportions. When he saw the proof of his book, Gordie Howe: Number 9, the color of the cover was yellow. The publisher should have known better. An indignant Howe raced to the printing plant. “I got them to change it to white. Yellow? Never.”