mixed-up confusion

The Detroit Red Wings were up on top of the American Division in the first week of January in 1936, ahead of the Rangers by a point when they went to New York to play. A crowd of more than 10,000 was on hand to watch. Despite the Red Wings’ tendency to defend, the clash was exciting enough. That’s what Joseph C. Nichols wrote in The New York Timesclashexcitingenough. He said that Ching Johnson, who hailed from Winnipeg, was sterlingon defence for the Rangers, and in attack, too, and came within an ace of tying it. But that was late in the third period.

First, earlier, Pete Kelly, a son of St. Vital, Manitoba, scored for Detroit. The Blueshirts were pressing — charged without stint. Frank Boucher, from Kemptville, Ontario, was in on this, with Cook brothers on the wings, Bun and Bill, from Kingston. They couldn’t break down Detroit’s Normie Smith (Toronto): he wouldn’t break. Herb Lewis (Calgary) added a second goal for the Red Wings with Johnson on the penalty bench for hooking.

This was the second period now. Then came the sequence we’re seeing here: Ranger left winger Butch Keeling dashed in across the Detroit line. He was from Owen Sound, Ontario; that’s him, above, with the part in his hair and the stripy-taped stick. Pete Kelly is with him. This whole sequence lasted just a few seconds. Mix-up is the word in the original caption describing what happened: Kelly barged Keeling into the net, Normie Smith, in his cap, got the puck. I’m pretty sure that’s a young Bucko McDonald from Fergus, Ontario, in the last frame, with the helmet. Kelly went off for holding. Nichols:

The Rangers moved all their skaters forward. After several futile thrusts had been directed at the net, Johnson took Brydson’s pass and scored in 11.29.

Glen Brydson that would be, from Swansea, Ontario. 2-1. In the third, the Red Wings iced the puck when they could, which worked. The Rangers had some chances: Johnson by the post; Keeling on a long drive; a couple of hard raps from Bill Cook. That’s all, though.

Butch Keeling died on a Monday of this date in 1984. He was 79. Melvillewas the name he was given, but he was a butcher’s son in Owen Sound, and so he got his nickname early on. After making his NHL debut in 1926-27, the year the Toronto St. Patricks transformed into the Maple Leafs, he played ten seasons for the Rangers, helping them win the Stanley Cup in 1933.

owning up: don delillo comes clean

Cover Story: The cover of the 1982 British mass market edition of DeLillo’s hockey classic.

It’s a stretch of years now since Keith Gessen, a writer I’ll gladly follow into any paragraph he chooses to lead me, wrote his New York Times Book Reviewessay on hockey’s literature and its lacks, and I’m trying to remember whether, in 2006, I embraced his premise that when it comes to hockey books, two tower above all the rest —No question about Ken Dryden’s 1983 classic The Game— but what about Amazons (1980), the Cleo Birdwell novel that Gessen declared “the other monument of hockey literature thus far”?

You can read the Gessen here. I don’t think that I quite agreed with him on Amazons then, and still don’t, though the novel does tell a feisty, funny, bawdy, insightful story about the first woman to play in the NHL.

You’d expect that, the funny and the insight, of course, given that Birdwell was a masquerade and that the actual author was in fact Don DeLillo. It’s no secret that the man who gave us Libra and White Noise and Underworld has never openly acknowledged that he actually wrote Amazons, nor that he’s reportedly been adamant in his refusal to allow the novel to be reprinted: the mystery, if there is any, is in why he’s been so silent all this time in his spurning of his hockey romp.

No more. DeLillo, who turns 84 this month, has a new novel out, The Silence. Last month, in a New York Times Magazine interview with David Marchese, DeLillo finally came clean. I don’t know why this wasn’t bigger news, though I guess we did have our distractions in October. Anyway, the exchange came halfway through Marchese’s and DeLillo’s back-and-forth. The latter had already dangled a lure, earlier, mentioning Amazons in passing. DeLillo, it’s noted, laughed, but didn’t bite.

A little later, Marchese changed bait, bringing up a prominent DeLillo character. Here’s the exchange:

You know who else shows up in two of your books? Murray Jay Siskind. Both times described as having an “Amish” beard. Murray Jay! Remind me, what book is he in?

White Noise. And where else?

Amazons. Oh god. How do you remember that. Idon’t remember that.

I think I just got a scoop. I don’t know if you’ve ever publicly acknowledged that you wrote Amazons. I probably did, somewhere or other. [Laughs.] Maybe to an interviewer from Thailand.

And there it is. Boom.

I e-mailed David Marchese to congratulate him on his catch. I was also, I guess, hoping for an outtake or two, the rest of the conversation that he’d had to edit out, wherein DeLillo unpacked just how he’d come to write the book, and what he felt about the late-70s Rangers.

Alas.

What was there in the Times was all there was on Amazons, Marchese told me. “He just sort of laughed and changed the subject,” he wrote. “I didn’t really follow up on it because it seemed a little bit too much inside baseball (to mix metaphors) for the general reader.”

The novelist previously known as Cleo Birdwell

Ah, well. DeLillo’s admission doesn’t really change anything. Whether he wants to talk about it or not, the book’s prose is his, along with its vision, and that’s worth paying attention to. For all the hockey in Amazons (not to mention all the sex), the novel’s particular subject is, as Keith Gessen points out, America, “the dark schizy heart of it.” It’s a book, he writes, that’s “not about hockey in just the right way.”

At one point, Cleo, who at 23 has just made the Rangers, is talking to the blusterous Kinross, president of Madison Square Garden, who hates hockey, doesn’t understand why he should bother to host it in his building.

“It’s a fuggin shit-ass game,” he tells her, “for my money. You don’t have a black or Hispanic element. It doesn’t reflect the urban reality. Who wants to see two white guys hit each other? The violence has no bite to it. It’s not relevant. It doesn’t reflect the streets and I come from the streets.”

Cleo isn’t fazed. “It reflects the Canadian streets,” she says. “It’s a Canadian game. It reflects ice and snow, that’s what it reflects.”

“Well and good,” he says. “I understand that. But this is New York, New York. Where’s the fuggin criminal element? Who do we root for? Escapist violence is all right in the movies. But this is live. Real people swinging sticks. Without any relevance, it’s kind of disgusting. If it doesn’t reflect the streets, you wonder what these guys are doing it for. What’s the point?”

Rookie Move: The cover of the 1980 U.S. first edition.

 

 

 

 

jim neilson, 1940—2020

The New York Rangers are reporting the sad news this hour that former defenceman Jim Neilson has died at the age of 79. Born in 1940 in Big River, Saskatchewan, northwest of Prince Albert, Neilson, whose mother was Cree, made his debut with the New York Rangers in 1962. He played a dozen seasons with the Blueshirts before GM Emile Francis engineered a deal in 1974 via the waiver draft that saw Derek Sanderson join the Rangers from Boston, while the Bruins got Walt McKechnie from the the California Golden Seals, who acquired Neilson. He spent two seasons on the coast before the franchise moved to Cleveland, and he played two more years with the Barons. He was named captain of the Seals in 1975 and when the team shifted the following year he became Cleveland’s first captain. Neilson played his final year of pro hockey in 1978-79 with the WHA version of Edmonton’s Oilers.

cal gardner does his time (cameo by sin bin sally)

Born in Transcona, on Winnipeg’s east side, on a Thursday of this date in 1924, Cal Gardner made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers before a trade took him to Toronto in 1948. He won two Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs. He was briefly a Black Hawk and then finished his 12-year career in the NHL with four seasons with the Bruins. The scene here dates to his final year, 1957, when Boston visited Madison Square Garden and the Rangers beat them 5-2. Dean Prentice scored the winning goal for New York; Gump Worsley (Rangers) and Don Simmons (Bruins) were the goaltenders.

There was no penalty box as such at the old Garden in those years, which meant that if you transgressed and went to wait out your sentence, you sat just west of the Rangers’ bench on the 49thStreet (south) side of the rink, amid paying customers. Gardner served two time-outs that night, in the first period (for slashing) and in the third (hooking), visiting, unavoidably, with Sally Lark on both occasions.

“Now that some of the Rangers’ games are being televised nationally, she is becoming to many more who assume that she is the wife of someone connected with the team.” That’s from a short profile Sports Illustrated ran in ’57. No, not so, no such connection: 28-year-old Lark was an interior decorator from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, just a big Ranger fan with a season’s ticket that kept her front and centre. “Sin Bin Sally,” the papers sometimes called her. She’d attended her first game in 1942, and in the 15 years since, she’d only missed about ten home games.

“It’s better not to talk to them at first,” Lark said of the players from visiting teams who ended up in her precinct. “They’re not in a very good humour. But if a player gets a major penalty he usually has time to cool off before he leaves the box. Then, maybe, we speak.”

The night of Gardner’s visit was a busy one, despite being brawl-free: Rangers Lou Fontinato, Harry Howell, Prentice, Red Sullivan, Andy Bathgate, and Bill Gadsby all dropped by the penalty bench at one time or another, along with Boston’s Fleming MacKell, Don McKenney, Fern Flaman, Johnny Peirson, and Allan Stanley.

Lark had tickets for two more seats on her right, for friends; on her left sat the Garden timekeeper. In all her years at the Garden, she was injured only once, before the Garden installed glass around the boards in 1946, when she was hit by a puck in the ear. “Just a few drops of blood,” she said. “Even now,” SI advised, “if she wears a hat, she is likely to have it knocked into her lap by some player thrashing about her on the penalty bench.” Lark said she didn’t mind: life by the ice was “exciting but safe.”

as soon as you get on the ice

Not The George Bell (And Nowhere Near): “Shinny Rink, 2004,” by prize-winning Edmonton photographer Scott Conarroe is, in fact, a Halifax scene. (Image: © Scott Conarroe / courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery)

I saw the snow, and let me say this: it was grimy stuff, no romance in it whatever, just stray leaves and cigarette butts, where it was dumped there behind the big warehouse-looking building as if in disgrace.

Still, for a while there last week, I thought maybe the snow was the lede I needed for the feature I was working on, about the ways in which Canadians are finding a way back to the ice in these pandemical times we’re in, something about the snow behind the arena indicating that the Zamboni was at work again after several months of coronavirus interruption and with that, I don’t know, how better to announce the advent of the new season, not winter, hockey.

I couldn’t work it, though, that lede. I tried, but it wouldn’t work. The feature is on the page today in The New York Times (and onscreen here), with no snow in the opening at all. The rink that the snow came from, the ugly snow I saw and tried to make work, the George Bell Arena in west-end Toronto, didn’t end up in the piece, either. Nor did, I should say, several the people who were good enough to talk to me about getting back to ice, including Amanda Fenech and Dave Bidini. Thank you to them, and sorry.

The George Bell sits by a park, amid meatpacking plants, near railway lines, in the city’s Stockyard District. It’s run by a board of management, though it’s owned by the City of Toronto, which built it in 1961. It has a certain 60-year-old cinderblock charm to it, I guess, from the parking lot. Indoors — well, I’ve never skated there myself, but when I looked in last week, it looked like home.

It replaced another rink, Ravina Gardens, located just to the south, that the City demolished in ’61. I was going to work that into the feature, too, as a point of historical interest for a New York audience: Ravina Gardens is where the fledgling NHL Rangers, still then under Conn Smythe’s command, held their first training camp in 1926. (I couldn’t work that in, either.)

Amanda Fenech is a Zamboni operator and certified ice technician at the George Bell.  She told me about everything shutting down at the arena back in March and how for the first time in years they took the ice out for the summer.

When they opened up again in September, it was (of course) with Covid precautions in place, no spectators, limits on how long players could spend in the dressing rooms, constant sanitizing. On the ice, there were restrictions on how many kids could be out there, and what they were allowed to do, mostly it was instruction, skills only, no scrimmages or games allowed, though they did get some of those in, for a while, back in September, before Toronto’s infection numbers started to rise again.

“It truly is a very tough time right now,” Fenech told me. “I really feel for the coaches, for the parents, and I feel 100 per cent for the kids.”

I asked her about the ice: how’s the ice? “I think the ice is wonderful,” she said. The thing is, with minor hockey locked down, with rentals fewer and farther between, the ice just isn’t being used as much as it normally would be, and so for Fenech and the rest of the crew at the George Bell, there’s just not so much call to be doing their jobs.

“A lot of rentals, they don’t want floods, they don’t need them. And so when you do get out there, instead of a ten-minute flood, you can do a 20-minute flood. You can be out there shaving, cutting, more than what you usually do, working on your low spots.” She laughed, though not with a whole lot of joy. “It’s a horrible situation.”

Dave Bidini plays at the George Bell, and I talked to him about that. Do I have to introduce Bidini? Rheostatic, Bindinibandero, founder and editor-in-chief of the West End Phoenix, if you haven’t read his hockey-minded books, including Tropic of Hockey, The Best Game You Can Name, and Keon And Me, what (may I ask) are you thinking?

If you have read The Best Game You Can Name, you know the Morningstars, Bidini’s rec team. Maybe you didn’t know this: 27 years they’ve been playing together. When the pandemic shut it all down in the spring, the team found a way to keep convening — with lawnchairs, in the parking lot of a brewery not far from the George Bell.

And this fall? “Nobody really wanted to give it up, if the league was going to happen,” Bidini said. The closer it came to having to make a decision, the uneasier it got. “Half the team was in, half the team was absolutely not.” In the end, provincial restrictions made the call for them — as it did for everybody in Toronto.

Bidini has been finding games through this fraught fall, here and there, as protocols and prohibitions allow. “Yeah, as soon as you get on the ice, as soon as the puck drops, the world does fall away,” he said.

He plays net some of the time, in some of the games. That has its own rewards — but then it always did, too. “Honestly, you’re kind of in a bubble anyway. It’s funny — goaltending is kind of an anti-social position anyway. Nobody really gets that close to you.”

 

election day, 1961: béliveau for the win — on the second ballot

C+: “Nobody will deny,” the novelist and Béliveau biographer Hugh Hood wrote in 1970, “that for sheer beauty of style, Jean is the greatest of them all — and not just on the ice, either.” (Image: January 21, 1967. Library and Archives Canada, TCS-00828, 2000815187)

Election Day was a Friday on this date in 1961 — for the Montreal Canadiens.

Ahead of the new NHL season, the players were choosing a new captain, and the winner, when it was all over, was no surprise, really, even if it did take two ballots for Jean Béliveau’s teammates to elect him the 16th captain in Canadiens’ history.

Fifteenth to wear the C was defenceman Doug Harvey. The year before, 1960, he was 36 when he was voted in following Maurice Richard’s retirement. Harvey’s reign lasted just the one season: in May of ’61, after Chicago ousted Montreal from the playoffs, Canadiens GM Frank Selke foisted his best defenceman on the New York Rangers. Harvey played for and coached the Blueshirts in 1962 — and, of course, won his seventh Norris Trophy.

In October of ’61, the schedule didn’t waste any time in bringing Harvey back to Montreal , as the Canadiens opened their season by welcoming the Rangers to the Forum on Saturday, October 14.

The day before was when Montreal’s players went to the polls to pick a new captain. Boom Boom Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, and Tom Johnson were also said to be in the running. “Since so many players had started with the club about the same time,” coach Toe Blake took the trouble to explain, “we decided to let the players pick their captain, rather than appoint one as has often been the case in previous years.”

Very democratic, to be sure — although Harvey, Richard, and (back as far as 1948) Butch Bouchard had all been voted in, too, by the players.

The first round of voting in ’61 produced a tie between Geoffrion and Béliveau, both of them 30, though Geoffrion had played two more seasons for Montreal than Le Gros Bill. A second ballot gave Béliveau the captaincy, which he kept for a decade, leading the Canadiens to five Stanley Cups before he retired in 1971.

Béliveau didn’t, however, immediately make his debut as captain, missing the Rangers game (Montreal prevailed, 3-1) and many more besides. He’d had injured a knee at the end of September of ’61 in a mishap in Trail, B.C. during a pre-season game Montreal played against the WHL’s Spokane Comets. The game was only two minutes old when Béliveau, trying to get past Spokane defenceman Bill Folk, went down. “In attempting to get the loose puck,” Pat Curran of the Gazette reported, “Folk lost his balance and fell on Béliveau.”

Canadiens outshot the Comets 42-8, outscored them 5-0 on the night; Béliveau went to hospital, where he was in such pain that he had to be examined under anesthetic. He had partially severed tendons in his right knee, as it turned out, and wore a cast for weeks. He finally rejoined the team for a game against Toronto in early December, and scored his first goal as captain against Boston nine days later.

 

 

 

also famed for prize apples

Brew Maestro: Frank Boucher was nearing the end of his coaching tenure with the New York Rangers in 1948 when he went to bat for America’s ancient lager. Born in Ottawa on a Monday of this date in 1901, Boucher belonged to a hockey dynasty, of course, and was a star centreman before he got around to coaching. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1958, he was a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the New York Rangers. In recognition of his skilled and gentlemanly conduct, he also earned the Lady Byng Trophy so many times — seven in eight years in the 1920s and early ’30s — that he was awarded the original trophy outright (Lady Byng donated another). Boucher’s best year on the bench was his first, 1939-40, when he steered the Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship. After that, the war years were mostly a struggle for the Rangers, and they missed out on many playoffs. They did make it back to the post-season in ’48, though they ended up losing in the semi-finals to Detroit.

fellows, don’t risk coffee nerves

Take It From Chuck: If you were drinking the hot mealtime drink that New York Rangers’ netminder Charlie Rayner was drinking in 1951, well, sounds disgusting: “made from healthful wheat and bran,” Postum promised a “vigorous grain-rich flavor.” “Delicious with cream and sugar!” Why? A Ranger stalwart for eight seasons, Rayner started his NHL career in 1940 with the other team in town, the Americans, and guarded their goal again in ’41-42 when they moved (if in name only) to Brooklyn. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973, Chuck Rayner died on a Sunday of this date in 2002. He was 82.

exit the king

Gone Goalie: After 15 handsome seasons in the New York net, Henrik Lundqvist comes to the end of his stellar Ranger career today as the team buys out the final year of his contract. Born in Åre, in Sweden, in 1982, Lundqvist, 38, departs as the games-playedest, winningest, save-percentagest, shutting-outmost goaltender in team history. He’s the lone netminder in the annals of the NHL to have recorded 30 wins in each of first seven seasons. Winner of the Vézina Trophy in 2012 (he was a First Team All-Star that year, too), Lundqvist helped the Rangers reach the Eastern Conference Final three times and the Stanley Cup Final once, in 2014, when they couldn’t overcome the Los Angeles Kings. Tending the net for Sweden’s national team, Lundqvist won Olympic gold in 2006 in Turin as well as a world championship in 2017.

bob nevin, 1938—2020

Shake On It: Bob Nevin, left, lends a hand to Chicago defenceman Dollard St. Laurent in the aftermath of the 1962 Stanley Cup Finals, wherein Toronto overcame the Black Hawks in six games.

Sad to see the news this morning that Bob Nevin has died at the age of 82. Born in 1938 in South Porcupine, Ontario, Nevin made his NHL debut in 1960 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. A right winger, he finished second in voting for the league’s top rookie, trailing teammate Dave Keon when the ballots for the Calder Trophy were tallied. Nevin won a pair of Stanley Cups with Toronto, in 1962 and ’63. In early 1964, a trade took him to New York when the Leafs swapped him (along with Rod Seiling, Arnie Brown, Dick Duff, and Bill Collins) for Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney. He succeeded Camille Henry as captain of the Rangers in 1965, serving six years in the role before another trade sent him to the Minnesota North Stars. Nevin went on to skate for the Los Angeles Kings and spent a final year, 1976-77, with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers.

cook nook

Breadman: Born in Kingston, Ontario, on a Friday of this date in 1903, Bun Cook was an original Ranger, skating the left wing on New York’s prolific Bread Line alongside fellow Hall of Famers Frank Boucher and his own older brother, Bill. That the Rangers still haven’t got around to retiring their numbers — 6, 7, and 5, respectively — remains a wrong that ought to be broadcast far and wide — and then duly righted. Bun played a decade in New York before the Rangers sold him in 1936 to Boston, where he played the final year of his NHL career. That’s him on the right here, lacing up with Bruins’ teammate Ray Getliffe. He went on to coach, steering the AHL’s Providence Reds and Cleveland Barons, before retiring to his hometown. Bun Cook died at 84 in 1988. He was elected to hockey’s Hall in 1995. (Image: © Richard Merrill, Boston Public Library)

worth the weight

Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Toronto’s Auston Matthews, and Ryan O’Reilly of St. Louis are the finalists in the running for the 2020 edition of the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, which is intended to recognize NHL players whose superior skills coincide with exceptional sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct. With the NHL set to announce the winner today, maybe a gesture to the 1958 Lady Byng laureate might be in order, Camille Henry, who also happens to have died on a Thursday of this date in 1997, of diabetes, at the age of 64.

The best of Henry’s 14 years in the NHL saw him wearing New York Ranger blue, though he also skated for the Chicago Black Hawks and St. Louis Blues. In addition to the ’58 Lady Byng that recognized his mix of good manners and superior skills, claims for his fame might also include the Calder Trophy he won as the NHL’s top rookie in 1954. They might reference, equally, the chase he took up in 1960 when a high-spirited fan smacked him in the face with his own stick. That incident came a year after the portrait here was taken, or two years after yet another newspaper article made the rounds focussing on his weight, or lack thereof. Spoiler alert: at 24, Henry was on the smaller side, 5’7”, “a scrawny-looking French-Canadian youngster,” as profiled by an unnamed Associated Press correspondent, “who answers to the nickname of Camille the Eel.”

This was January of 1958, when Henry’s 23 goals happened to be more than anyone else had scored in the NHL to that point, ahead of Detroit’s Gordie Howe and Dickie Moore of Montreal. (Both would end up passing Henry by season’s end; he finished the year with 32 to Howe’s 33 and Moore’s 36.)

“Camille weighs about 149 pounds soaking wet,” the AP explained, “which he usually is after most of the games in the bruising, contact-filled sport.”

Henry’s view? “I figure being light helps me,” he said. “I can sometimes squeeze in among the bigger men, get my stick in the way of the puck and get it past the goalie. If I was heavier I might not be able to maneuver so well.”

(Image: Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada/e002343730)