slap happy

Shot and Chaser: Cincinnati Stingers’ Claude Larose unleashes a shot on goaltender Christer Abrahamsson of the New England Whalers in 1976. Larose, a left winger, went on to play a handful of games with the New York Rangers in the NHL, but he’s not to be confused with the other, elder Claude Larose, a right winger, who won six Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1960s and early ’70s. This Larose scored 28 goals for the Stingers in his WHA rookie season, 1975-76, and 30 the following year. (Image: Mark Treitel)

total prose, that’s what I’m here for

Crease Crouch: Born in Toronto on a Saturday of this date in 1945, Al Smith tended goals in the NHL for Leafs, Penguins, Red Wings, Sabres, Whalers, and Rockies in the 1960s, ’70s, and into the ’80s. Pictured here in the fall of 1978, he was also a star in the WHA with New England, and thereby an inaugural member of the league’s Hall of Fame. A busy writer, too, in his later years. Al Smith died at the age of 56 in 2002.

 

whale music

The New England Whalers compiled the best regular-season record over the course of the WHA’s inaugural season, 1972-73. And on a Sunday of this date 48 years ago, the Whalers beat Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets to earn the Avco World Trophy in five games — even though, sorry to say, the actual cup wasn’t on hand at Boston Garden for the occasion.

Al Smith was New England’s goaltender in that decisive game, and his preventative measures were sufficient to see the home team to a 9-6 win over the Jets. Right winger Tom Webster scored two goals for New England and added two assists; centre Larry Pleau chipped in with a pair of goals of his own. Webster, 24, had led the Whalers in scoring through the season, notching 53 goals and 103 points, which tied him for fourth on the league list— with Bobby Hull, among others — behind Andre Lacroix of the Philadelphia Blazers, who collected 50 goals and 124 points.

wordsmith

You Can Call Him: Al Smith was a Penguin in Pittsburgh for two seasons, 1969-70 and 1970-71.

Al Smith’s best year in the nets might have been in 1977-78, with the New England Whalers, when he won the Ben Hatskin Trophy as the WHA’s best goaltender. Smith, who died on a Wednesday of this date in 2002 at the age of 56, got his pro start as a Toronto Maple Leaf in 1966. Before he retired from puckstopping in 1981, he also saw NHL service with Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Hartford, and the Colorado Rockies. He subsequently worked selling cars and ads, picking fruit, and driving taxis. He wrote, too, in his later years, novels, including The Parade Has Passed and The Tragedy of Lake Tuscarora, and a long poem called Raymond Hollywood, and the play Confessions To Anne Sexton.

 

new england nine

Recalling Mr. Hockey: It’s four years ago today that the great Gordie Howe died, on a Friday, at the age of 88, in Sylvania, Ohio. He was 49 when he joined the WHA’s New England Whalers in May of 1977. In 1979, after the WHA folded and the team joined the NHL as the Hartford Whalers, Howe played his final year, all 80 games, contributing 15 goals and 41 points. He turned 52 before the season was over, by which time the Whalers’ line-up also featured Dave Keon, 40, and 41-year-old Bobby Hull.

whalers won, but the cup was a no-show

No Show: The New England Whalers eventually got to see the Avco World Trophy in all its Lucite and Britannia silver glory, but on the May day they won it in 1973, the winners of the first WHA championship had to make do with a stand-in.

Ted Green won a Stanley Cup in 1972, his second as an unforgiving defenceman on the Boston Bruins’ blueline, but by all accounts it was a forlorn experience for the 32 veteran of 11 seasons. “The man nobody seems to care about anymore,” a columnist called him a couple of May days before the Bruins claimed the Cup with a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. “The only time Green ever gets on the ice is when [Bobby] Orr needs a quick ice pack on his sore knee.”

He’d slowed down, lost his edge, his grit. “The fans at Boston Garden were tolerant of him for a long time,” Dwayne Netland wrote in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “They cheered his good plays and ignored his mistakes, but finally they turned on him and now they roast him for every bad pass, every missed check.” Bruins’ coach Tom Johnson’s merciful solution: “He just doesn’t put Green on the ice unless he has to.” Game five at the Boston Garden, with Orr playing every shift, Green took none: he never left the bench. “He had not felt part of the team, part of the victory,” Fran Rosa later recalled in the local Globe. When the Bruins returned to Boston with the Cup, Green slipped away from his teammates and the crowds awaiting them at Logan Airport to hitchhike into the city on his own.

That sad story got a happy ending: a year later, almost to the day, Green was back at Boston Garden captaining his new team to a championship, the very first in WHA history. Forty-seven years ago today, on a Sunday of this date in 1973, Green’s New England Whalers beat Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets to claim the inaugural Avco World Trophy in five games.

“I can’t say I was thinking about last year,” Green said in the aftermath. “When they gave me the cup and told me to skate around with it, I might have thought a little about Johnny Bucyk skating around with the Stanley Cup last year.”

In The Moment: Ted Green and (not the Avco) cup on the ice at Boston Garden on May 6, 1973.

Green’s joyful teammates that day included Larry Pleau, Tom Webster, Rick Ley, and goaltender Al Smith. Together they paraded their cup and kissed it, filled it with Gold Seal champagne, which they drank and also dumped on one another.

But if the feeling was right, the cup was (as Fran Rosa put it) wrong: instead of the Avco World Trophy, the silverware that WHA president Gary Davidson handed to Green was a stand-in. The next day’s Boston Globe identified it as “the Division Cup” — i.e. the Whalers’ reward for topping the WHA’s Eastern bracket.

Whalers’ owner Harold Baldwin told Ed Willes a different tale for the latter’s 2004 history, The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association. While the league had sold naming rights for the cup to Avco Financial Services before the season started, it occurred to Baldwin ahead of game five that he had yet to see an actual trophy.

“Everyone’s going, ‘Where’s the Cup? We don’t have a Cup,’” he told Willes. “I sent my PR guy out, and he came back with this huge trophy he bought from a sporting-goods store. I think it cost $1.99, but it looked good on television. It kind of looked like the U.S. Open tennis trophy.”

With Steve Milton assisting on the writing, Baldwin published his own memoir in 2014, and in Slim To None: My Wild Ride From The WHA To The NHL All The Way to Hollywood, he refines the story a little. “Right before the game I had this vague feeling I’d never seen the league championship trophy,” he writes. This time it’s his co-owner, Bill Barnes, who dispatches an unnamed PR guy to a local sporting goods store. “He comes back with this large trophy that cost 20 bucks. It was cheap but big, and it was shiny, so it looked good on 1973 television.”

No word on what became of that temporary trophy after its brief fling with the limelight. Let me know if you have it, or know where it ended up.

The real thing was designed in Toronto by Donald Murphy, creative director of the ad firm Vickers and Benson, and rendered, in all its Lucite and Britannia-silver’d glory, by Birks jewelers at a cost of $8,000 (about $50,500 in 2020 money).

The first public sighting Boston seems to have had of the Avco World Trophy, as far as I can discern, came in September of ’73, at an event at a new restaurant on the city’s waterfront. I don’t know if there was a formal presentation. Accounts of the Whalers’ 1973-74 home opener that October don’t mention it.

Back in May, while Ted Green still had the faux Avco in his clutches back at the Boston Garden, Howard Baldwin was quick to issue a Stanley Cup challenge. The Montreal Canadiens were still a few days away from beating the Chicago Black Hawks for their 18th Cup as Baldwin offered to play the winner in a one-game, neutral-site playoff for all the toys.

He meant no disrespect, he said, “to either of those two fine teams or the National Hockey League.”

“This is a challenge intended only to restore to the people to see a true champion decided in this, the world’s fastest sport.”

The Boston Globe duly reported all this, amid the coverage of Ted Green’s redemption, while also noting this: “No reply was expected from the National Hockey League.”

Whaler King: “Kind of looked like the U.S. Open tennis trophy,” Harold Baldwin said of the trophy that Ted Green held close on May 6, 1973.

shirley fischler, 1940—2014

With the sad news, from Monday, of Shirley Fischler’s death at the age of 74, a salute to her work as a hockey journalist and broadcaster is in order. At 82, her husband Stan remains the game’s most productive commentator, in print and out on the web, via the Tweetosphere and through the broadcast air. In her own long and varied career, Shirley co-authored several of his 90-odd books. She also blazed a trail for women into hockey’s press boxes and, in the early 1970s, became the first female hockey analyst when she covered the New England Whalers of the WHA with her husband.

She’ll also be remembered as the last journalist to talk to Terry Sawchuk, a week before his death at the age of 40 in May of 1970. The story is part of the goaltender’s tragic legend by now. Hockey season had ended. After what seems to have been an alcoholic scuffle at home with New York Rangers teammate Ron Stewart, an injured Sawchuk was hospitalized in Long Beach, New York. He had his gallbladder removed and underwent another operation on his damaged liver.

Brian Kendall tells the story in his fine Sawchuk biography, Shutout (1996). Introducing herself with her maiden name, Walton, Shirley Fischler walked into Sawchuk’s room bearing flowers. She said she was a big Ranger fan; no mention of any reporting or newspapers. Her story was in The Toronto Star next day:

Terry Sawchuk: ‘can never come back from this’

He was battered, she wrote, weak. “I’m retired, man,” he told her. Stewart had been testily denying any involvement to reporters. Sawchuk wasn’t much more forthcoming about what had happened. An accident, he said.

His face was pale, sunken, “so much so that the map of scars had almost disappeared.”

Often abrasive and harsh, he now commands nought but pity. He lies in a semi-private hospital room which is bare except for a single vase of flowers and some soft drink bottles his two oldest sons had brought.

His roommate’s coughing bothered him. There was a shipping channel out his window and he spent the hours watching ships go by. The Rangers were saying he was going to be fine, but Sawchuk wasn’t so sure. He’d been in a bad way. “They still don’t know if I’ll be okay. I’m full of tubes and my back bothers me.”

“Seeing him,” Shirley Walton wrote, “is believing he’ll never play again.” She asked him all the same about a rumoured three-cornered deal that would get Jacques Plante to Toronto and send Sawchuk to St. Louis. “I’m through,” he said.

Sawchuk died on May 31 of pulmonary embolism. “His life was a ceaseless procession of tragedies,” Jim Proudfoot wrote in The Star. “For each of his achievements, and there were many, there were half a dozen sad reversals — sickness, injury, personal heartbreak.”

The Daily Freeman in Kingston, New York, has a tribute to Shirley Fischler’s career, this way, along with an archive of some of her work, sporting and otherwise.