once a blueshirt

“I haven’t stopped the puck this well in years,” a 29-year-old John Davidson was saying in the fall of 1982 as he prepared to for his return to the New York Rangers’ crease after months of injury. “It’s a combination of hard work and experience. Starting off again is kind of new to me, and it feels good. It feels good to get out with the guys and contribute.” Davidson lost his first start of the season 3-2 to the New Jersey Devils, but five days later he helped the Rangers beat the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 5-2 at Madison Square Garden. “The Flyers are a back-alley team,” he enthused after that one. “They come to play the game and work hard. This was a good, old-fashioned, hard-fought, knee-crawling hockey game. Whether you play in Philadelphia or here, you know you’re going to be in a battle and you look forward to it — you look forward to just going to war … and it was a war tonight.”

It also happened to be the last game of Davidson’s 10-year NHL career.

A few days after the Flyers’ game, at practice, Rangers’ assistant coach Walt Tkaczuk came in on a breakaway, deked, and — Davidson felt his back go. “When it went, it went,” he said later. “I felt a kind of jolt, like an electric shock.” Disc surgery ended his season before October was out, and though he focussed on making a return to the ice, by the summer of 1983 he was ready to call it quits. For all the trouble his back had given him, it took a knee to force him out, finally — the left one. “It’s full of arthritis and calcium,” he said. “I’m 30 years old and I guess my knee is 45 or 50.”

Davidson went into broadcasting and then, in 2006, hockey management. After six years as president of the St. Louis Blues, he took the helm of the Columbus Blue Jackets, a job he kept until he resigned last week. Now 66, Davidson made his return to the Rangers as the team’s new president. “New York’s special. There’s only one New York,” is what he told reporters who gathered today at MSG. “Once you figure it out, and it gets in your blood, it’s there forever. It’s a special place to win and that’s what we plan on doing.’’

a code of his own: colliding head-on with phiery phil

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.

great goodbye

Wane Check: Wayne Gretzky played his last NHL game 20 years ago today, bowing out as his New York Rangers fell 2-1 to the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. The 38-year-old centre played 22 minutes and 30 seconds that Sunday afternoon, leaving the ice on a shift-change at the at 5:55 p.m. EST just before Pittsburgh’s Jaromir Jagr put an end to his career with an overtime goal. Gretzky registered two shots on that final afternoon, and assisted on Brian Leetch’s second-period goal. The Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,200 gave Gretzky a 15-minute ovation before he skated into retirement. “This is a great game, but it’s a hard game,” he told reporters. “Time does something to you, and it’s time.” (Image by Gypsy Oak, whose work you can find on Twitter @gyspyoak)

jimmy jamieson: recalling the nhl’s second indigenous player

Born on a Monday of this date in 1921, Jimmy Jamieson was a hard-hitting defenceman who played just a single big-league game, with the New York Rangers, in 1944. When he suited up that winter for duty on the bluelines of Madison Square Garden, Jamieson almost certainly became the second Indigenous player to play in the NHL, 13 years after Buddy Maracle debuted in Rangers’ blue in 1931, nine years before Fred Sasakamoose skated for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953.

During his hockey career, newspapers tended to refer to Jamieson’s Cayuga background, though Canadian government records seem to show that his family was Mohawk. He was born in Brantford, Ontario, though his family lived on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, probably near Ohsweken. His father, Venus, was a farmer who’s said to have chased pucks in his own right, plying a stick on outdoor rinks as a youth.

His son’s eight-year career as a minor-league defenceman took him to New York and Baltimore in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, out to Pasadena for a stint in the Pacific Coast Hockey League, and to Milwaukee and Akron in the International Hockey League. While we have have his physical specs from those years (5’9” and 170 pounds), and the usual bare-bones statistical reporting, there’s no detailed descriptive accounting of Jimmy Jamieson’s hockey years.

He played one full season, 1943-44, with the Rangers’ farm team, the EAHL New York Rovers, and it looks to have been a solid one. The Rangers took him to their pre-season training Winnipeg that year, but he didn’t make the cut. With the Rovers his teammates included goaltender Al Rollins, who was later a Leaf and a Black Hawk, as well as defenceman Fred Shero, a Ranger-to-be who’d eventually win a pair of Stanley Cups coaching the Philadelphia Flyers. In 40 games, Jamieson was the highest-scoring defenceman, with six goals and 16 points, and led the team in penalty minutes with 73.

Frank Boucher was in his fifth year coaching the New York Rangers in 1943. While he’d steered the team to a Stanley Cup in his first year behind the bench, things had slipped since then. As the new year replaced the old, the team was, as the local Daily News put it, firmly cellared, dead last in the six-team NHL standings, 13 points adrift of Chicago. Though Boucher’s stellar career on the ice had ended five years earlier, the situation was so desperate in New York — and the Ranger roster so depleted by wartime manpower shortages — that Boucher had returned to the ice at the age of 42.

It wasn’t enough. Heading into a mid-January home game against the Black Hawks, New York was mired in a five-game losing streak. Trying to jolt the team’s fortunes, manager Lester Patrick announced that he was adding three new players to the roster, including winger Kilby Macdonald, who’d been on that 1940 Stanley Cup team and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. With centre Hank Damore, acquired from the Brooklyn Crescents of the EAHL, he’d do his best to boost the Rangers’ attack. Jamieson was summoned from the Rovers to bolster New York’s blueline.

Macdonald didn’t make it to New York in time for the Chicago game, but the other two suited up. It’s possibly (probably?) a coincidence that Jamieson wore the number 14 that night — the same one that Buddy Maracle had borne on his sweater during his stay with the Rangers 13 years earlier. (No-one seems to have noticed at that time; in fact, I can find no mention of Maracle and his achievement at all in the coverage from the 1940s.)

Against Chicago, when Damore rifled a second-period shot past Black Hawks’ goaltender Mike Karakas, the assists went to Ab DeMarco and Jamieson. That made the score 4-1 for Chicago, and the visitors did end up winning 5-2 to push New York’s unhappy streak of losses to six games.

And that was all for Jim Jamieson in the NHL. Macdonald would stick, playing out the season in New York and returning for one more; Damore lasted four games in all, the only ones he played in the NHL before returning to the minors.

For Jamieson, it was one and done: following the Chicago loss, he was returned to the Rovers. The coming-and-going was nothing new, Harold Burr wrote that same week in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle; the way it was with the Rangers that year, he quipped, trainer Harry Westerby didn’t know half of the players’ first names.

Other factors that may have been at play: by adding three new players, Patrick does seem to have exceeded the NHL roster limit. With centre Chuck Scherza out injured, the Rangers’ long-serving captain Ott Heller had been moved up to the forward line. With Scherza’s return, Heller was shifting back. So it may have been a matter of numbers that bumped Jamieson back to the Rovers.

The American papers did take note of Jamieson’s background, even if they weren’t quite so sure what it was they were talking about, variously identifying him as “a full-blooded Cherokee Indian;” “a full-blooded Iroquois Indian;” “a full-blooded Cayuga, Indian;” and a plain old “full-blooded Indian.”

Several reports did note that his status eased his travels between Canada and the U.S., which was often a complicated process for hockey players in wartime. “His people,” the Daily Eagle advised, “have numerous peace treaties with the Canadian Government that make it easy for Jimmy to cross the border where other players are held up by yards of red tape.”

Accounts of Buddy Maracle’s career from a decade earlier make the racism he faced, in rinks and in newsprint, all too insidiously clear. That there’s nothing so explicit in the press attending Jamieson’s years as a professionally hockey player doesn’t mean that he didn’t experience any, just that it may not have been written down and reported as it once so casually was.

I can’t tell you much about Jim Jamieson’s post-hockey life, other than that he seems to have done some coaching in Brantford in the 1950s. He died at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Brantford in December of 1985 at the age of 64. He’s buried in a family plot at Six Nations.

Also worth a note: Jamieson’s brother, elder by seven years, was also a talented hockey player. Mostly a right winger, Wendell Jamieson was (somewhat confusingly) also mostly known as Jimmy during his hockey-playing days. He never made it to the NHL, but he did have a long career as a minor-leaguer through the 1930s and ’40s, much of it in the old American Hockey League.

In 1938-39, the elder, non-NHL Jimmy Jamieson joined the Detroit Holzbaugh of the Michigan-Ontario Hockey League. At 24, he was described as a fast skater and accomplished stickhandler, and seen as one of his team’s prime offensive threats. Anchoring the defence of one of the teams he faced that year, the Detroit Pontiac Chiefs, was a 34-year veteran with “an oft-broken nose” who’d converted from left wing to blueliner: Buddy Maracle.

ivan irwin: think twice + avoid

It took defenceman Ivan Irwin a couple of tries before he stuck in the NHL. Boston and Montreal both took a look in the early 1950s, but he was deemed too awkward, not strong enough a skater. He finally caught on in New York at the age of 26, playing four seasons with the Rangers. Born in Chicago to Canadian parents on a Sunday of this date in 1927, Irwin died last month in Toronto, on February 11, at the age of 91. Contemporary articles recounting his exploits on the Ranger defence feature words like thump and bash and bop. “There’s a crudeness to his form when he’s in action,” Stan Saplin wrote in a 1955 profile for Hockey Blueline magazine, “and yet, if this makes any sense, there is a polish to Irwin’s crudeness. As he says, he’s far from an accomplished skater and often he looks like a first-timer on blades as he hurries to respond to a distress signal. There’s nothing amateurish about his defensive work.” His coach, Frank Boucher, thought that even as a newcomer to the NHL, he played like a veteran. “He gives you that little opening and then closes it,” Boucher said. “And when he hits you, you know it. I’ve noticed time and again that forwards bringing the puck in don’t drive against us as they did before Irwin joined us. They think twice and look to avoid him.”

harry howell, 1932—2019

Harry Howell’s adjectives as a Hall-of-Fame NHL defenceman included smart and steady, efficient, and unostentatious, but it’s Roger Angell’s description of his late-career blueline style in 1967 that I hold dear: “Howell,” he wrote in The New Yorker, “has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic.”

Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1932, Howell died on Saturday at the age of 86. Appreciations of his life and times that you might want to attend: Scott Radley’s for The Hamilton Spectator and, at NHL.com, this one by Dave Stubbs.

Howell was 20 when he joined the New York Rangers in 1952. Three years later, he was appointed captain of the team, though he relinquished the role after two seasons, handing the C to Red Sullivan. “Handsome Harry voluntarily gave up the post,” The New York Daily News reported at the time, “agreeing that the weight of the job had affected his play.” It couldn’t have helped that the fans in New York had started to boo him and his relentless (if not exactly electrifying) competence.

“It was quite a relief,” Howell said, years later. “I added about ten pounds to my playing weight and I turned my game around right away.”

The fans forgave, or forgot, or learned to appreciate Howell’s game. In all, he skated in 17 seasons for the Rangers, and he remains the club’s all-time leader in games played, with 1,194. He ended his NHL years on the west coast, serving with stints with the Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, and California Golden Seals. He played three years in the WHA, for the New York Golden Blades/Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners, and the Calgary Cowboys.

He was 35 in 1967 when he won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman, edging out Chicago’s Pierre Pilote and Boston’s 19-year-old rookie Bobby Orr. “I’m glad I won it this year,” Howell said when he took the trophy in hand, “because I think some other guy is going to win it for the next decade.” He was close: Orr would win the Norris in each of the next eight years. They would enter the Hall of Fame, as it happened, together, in 1979.

In January of 1968, the Rangers celebrated Howell’s stout service ahead of his 1,002nd NHL game. New York was playing Boston that night at Madison Square Garden, and would beat them by a score of 2-1. Ahead of the hockey, Howell, along with his wife Marilyn, and the couple’s two children (11-year-old Cheryl and seven-year-old Daniel), stood at centre ice to receive a shower of gifts. Other NHL teams had organized nights  like this, for it was a first for the Rangers. I promise you I’m not inventing any of this. As reported in the press that week, the inventory included:

A set of Ben Hogan woods and irons
A golf-club membership (“paid-up”)

A three-piece set of luggage

A cartoon of Howell (“laminated”)

Kent cigarettes (“cartons of”)
Cigars (“from 21 Club”)

Binoculars
A pool cue

A razor and a year’s supply of blades
Revlon cosmetics

A set of encyclopedias (32 volumes)

A hat
A dozen Gant shirts
Golf shirts
Two pairs of custom-made golf slacks
A ski outfit
A bespoke mohair suit
Thread (50 spools)

Roses for Mrs. Howell before every Rangers’ game played on a Wednesday night
Ten beauty-parlor appointments for Mrs. Howell

A vacation at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, near Liberty, New York
Dinner at a Hamilton, Ontario hotel
A month’s stay at Glen Oaks Village, in Queens, New York
A night at the Upstairs at the Downstairs nightclub, New York
A two-week vacation in Palm Beach, Florida
Swimming-pool privileges at Loew’s Midtown Hotel, New York
Dinner at Toots Shor’s restaurant, New York

A pair of children’s bicycles

A gas barbecue
An electric frying pan
An electric blender
A dishwasher (also “electric”)
An portable stereo (RCA)
25 record albums
A radio
A portable TV
An 8mm movie camera and lighting equipment
An 8mm projector and screen
A colour film of the evening’s proceedings
A hairdryer (“women’s”)

A Christmas tree (“seven-foot artificial”)

A year’s supply of cheese (“from Finland”) and hams (“Polish”)

A week’s rental from Avis Rent-A-Car
Four tires
Gasoline vouchers

The final gift, driven out on the ice by two of Howell’s former teammates, Red Sullivan and Lou Fontinato, was a 1967 Mercury Cougar.

(Top image: Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)

espo in la la land

SpokesPhil: Born on a Friday of this date in 1942 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Phil Esposito is 77 today. In 1981, when he laid himself out in the name of Sasson and their slacks, knit tops, and luggage, it was in the company of New York Rangers teammates Don Maloney, Barry Beck, Ron Greschner, and Anders Hedberg. The campaign included TV commercials, too, and if haven’t seen those (here they are), they’re worth the wince.