my first hockey game: eric zweig

Eric Zweig’s expertise in matters concerning hockey history is shared out, along with his enthusiasm, through a score of books. His first was a novel, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada (1992), about the Renfrew Millionaires. In recent years he’s published a deep-delving biography, Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins (2015), and, this fall, the comprehensive Toronto Maple Leafs: The Complete Oral History.

 Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, Ontario, is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research, and has been one of the editorial forces helping to shape the NHL’s Official Guide & Record Book. You can find his work in the pages of The New York Times and elsewhere, as well as on his lively blog at http://www.ericzweig.com. Today, as part of Puckstruck’s ongoing series, he weighs in with memories of his earliest first-hand encounters of big-league hockey.  

I grew up in Toronto and attended my first NHL game when I was seven years old. The date was December 30, 1970. It was a Wednesday night during the Christmas holidays. The Maple Leafs always seemed to play at home on Wednesdays and Saturdays when I was a kid. This night, they were playing the California Golden Seals. The Leafs won 3–1.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that all the players who would become my early favourites did something good for the Leaf that night. Dave Keon scored just 33 seconds after the opening face-off. Garry Monahan (he autographed my cast when I broke my arm in the summer of 1973) got the second. Norm Ullman set up Paul Henderson for the third. But goalie Jacques Plante became my favourite of them all. The Toronto Star reported that the Leafs’ goalie was “excellent” that night. “Plante had his moments…” said the Star, “and the youngsters in attendance because of the school holidays rocked the Gardens with their applause.”

I was one of those youngsters!

Author and historian Eric Zweig shows off a famous wrench. Hurled (the wrench) at Toronto GM Charlie Querrie in the early ’20s, it was later fitted with a clock and given as a gift to Boston’s Art Ross.

Now, I’ve always been a person with a great memory for places and dates (though, sadly, that’s not quite as true as it used to be on the other side of 50). That being said, I have realized over the years that I don’t actually have a great memory for visual details. All I really remember about that first game was the score, the teams, and the fact that Plante played so well. (Also, the troughs for urinals in the men’s washroom. Gross!) I had to look up the rest. Even so, I would have to say that, before that game, I have no memories of hockey whatsoever. Since that game, I have been a lifelong fan.

I wish I could remember more from that night, but really, I was lucky enough to attend many games in Maple Leaf Gardens over the years (Leafs, Marlies, Toros) and most of those from my younger days blur together. I’m pretty sure the next Leafs game I attended was December 26, 1973. Another Wednesday night during the Christmas holidays: Toronto beat Montreal 9-2. I was there with my brother, David, who had turned eight the day before. I was 10. We went together, by ourselves, on the subway. Imagine anyone letting children do something like that today.

It was Norm Ullman’s birthday, and David and I carried a homemade sign that read “Leafs Win For Norm” using a team logo for “Leafs” and the number 4 for “For.” I remember the older kids who sat next to us saying that would have been a lot smarter of us if Ullman wore #4 instead of #9 … but that didn’t stop them from leaning in and trying to get on television every time we held up our sign.

My other memories from that night include just how amazed we were to see the Leafs score nine goals and so thoroughly dominate the Canadiens. I also remember a fantastic save by Doug Favell (I always liked the goalies) and the fact that rookie Bob Neely played a very strong game. I have no idea why that stands out. (Looking up this one, I find that Ullman had an assist on the goal Neely scored. Maybe that has something to do with it?)

Among my most vivid memories over the years was seeing Gordie Howe in the stands at a Marlies game during the 1972-73 season. He was watching his sons, Mark and Marty. Two years later, I saw all three Howes at the Gardens again, this time playing together for the Houston Aeros against the Toronto Toros. But one thing that lingers most strongly in my memories of Maple Leaf Gardens has nothing to do with the action on the ice. It’s of an ancient-looking woman working in the concession stands using her bare hands to place a hot dog I’d ordered into a bun. It was a long time before I ate a hot dog at the Gardens after that.

 

 

(Ullman: hockeyMedia & The Want List on flickr; Zweig: Stephen Smith)

 

leafs in springtime: nobody is going to give us anything

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Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan delivered his verdict on the year just ended on Sunday, when he fired GM Dave Nonis, coach Peter Horachek, and nearly 20 other members of the team’s hockey staff. Yesterday, winger Joffrey Lupul called it “a wasted season” while captain Dion Phaneuf called it “the toughest year” of his career. In a press conference, Shanahan looked to the future. “We need to have a team with more character and one that represents this city the way it deserves,” he said. If you were looking for cruel vituperative fun on an altogether sombre day in and around the Air Canada Centre, there was always Rosie DiManno’s column in The Toronto Star, which I’ll just boil down here to a dozen or so key words and phrases she used to describe the team and its effort:

unlamented, unloved, misery, big whoop, defunct, blighted, arse-over-teakettle, implode, benumbed, laughable, how many times and how many ways can you say: Oh. My. God. irrelevant, plague of inertia, ignominy, moribund, the team’s loutish character, comedia del hockey.

This isn’t the first time the Leafs have missed the playoffs, of course, even if it is among the ugliest cases in recent memory. Counting back to 1917 and the dawn of the franchise, Toronto teams have avoided the playoffs about a third of the time, 32 of 97 seasons, or more than twice as often as they’ve won Stanley Cups. Actually, in fact, Toronto is the playoffs-missingest team in the history of the NHL: no team has fallen short more than they have — though the New York Rangers are a close second, with 31 futile campaigns to their credit.

With that in mind, before Shanahan’s future takes hold, there’s just time to review what lies behind, in the past, in the Leafs’ forlorn history of not being good enough.

In 1957, Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe took sole responsibility for his team’s — I don’t know what you want to call it, demise? downfall? collapse? Anyway, Toronto missed the playoffs that year for the first time in four years, and just the fourth in 27 seasons. “A year of failure,” Smythe called it at a “flamboyant” press conference he felt the need to hold in New York, where the NHL governors were meeting while the Leafs played out their season.

They still had a couple of games left, but Smythe wanted to get a headstart on the post-season turmoil. He’d already left his captain at home in Toronto, defenceman Jim Thomson, because treachery: he’d had the gall to be trying to help organize a players’ association.

“Next year,” Smythe thundered in New York, “our players will have to understand that they owe 100 per cent loyalty to the team.”

He didn’t fire his rookie coach that day, Howie Meeker, nor the GM, Hap Day, though many of the newspapermen had come expecting one or both to be sacrificed.

Smythe was willing to say that just maybe the Leafs would have to change the way they played. “We have a Spartan system,” he mused, “and we may be out of date. We prefer the body … we have stressed the defensive and not the offensive … Our system may be open to question.”

The very first year the Leafs were Leafs, they missed the playoffs. That was 1926-27, the year Conn Smythe took control of the team with a group of investors and in mid-season exchanged an old name (St. Patricks) and colour (green) for news. The team had three coaches that year and ended up bottom of the Canadian Division. They played their final game at home, hosting Montreal. Only a small crowd showed up, most of whom had come to see Howie Morenz and the Canadiens. But the Leafs played as if life depended on it, The Daily Star said, and ended up winning by a score of 2-1, with Bill Carson playing a prominent role along with, on the Leaf defence, Hap Day.

So that’s a plus.

In 1930, the club wanted to send the players off to their summers in style one the games were over, with a banquet, but it was hard to organize. Charlie Conacher, Red Horner Ace Bailey, and Busher Jackson were off in Montreal, watching the Maroons and Bruins in their playoff series as guests of a “Toronto hockey enthusiast,” while back in Toronto, the rest of the team was packing up for home. I don’t know whether they ever got their meal, but the Leafs returned to the playoffs the following year. The year after that, they won the Stanley Cup.

Just to be keeping it positive.

It was 14 years before they ended their season early again and while there’s no good reason, really, to be ranking the years of disappointment one above another, dropping out the year after you’ve won a Stanley Cup would have to smart, wouldn’t? 1946 Toronto did that with Hap Day now presiding as coach. (It happened again, though not until 1968.)

If only, wrote Jim Coleman in The Globe and Mail in ’46, the Leafs had a goaltender like Durnan, and defencemen of Reardon’s and Bouchard’s quality, maybe a front line resembling the likes of Lach, Blake, and Richard — well, then they’d be the Canadiens, of course, who did indeed end up winning that spring.

For solace, at least, the Leafs triumphed in the last two games they played that season, whupping Detroit 7-3 and 11-7. And that had to have felt pretty good.

Still, it was time to clean out the old, sweep in the new. It was a particularly poignant day, once the whupping was over, for a couple of long-serving Leafs who’d scored a bunch of goals over the years. Sweeney Schriner and Lorne Carr were retiring — though they did mention as they prepared to head home to Calgary that they’d be happy to listen to any other NHL teams who might be willing to make them an offer. (None were.)

As the spring playoffs went ahead without his team, Conn Smythe was feeling — surprisingly? — peppy. If nothing else, he noted for anyone who wanted to hear, the Leafs had rights to and/or options on a veritable mass of hockey talent for the year coming up, 82 players.

“We’re definitely,” he advised, “on the upswing.”

True enough: the Leafs did take home four of the next five Stanley Cups.

I’m not going to trudge through every season the team failed — where’s the fun in that? But back to 1957 for a minute. It is, if nothing else, a bit of a watershed. Teeder Kennedy, 31, retired that year for a second and final time, having returned to the ice midway through the year before deciding that it was time to make way for the next generation. Former Leafs captain Sid Smith, also 31, decided he was quitting, too, until Smythe talked him into returning for one more year. Continue reading

the power is in his wrists

zander hZander Hollander died in Manhattan on April 11 at the age of 91. If you grew up in the pre-Google age with any appetite for hockey trivia, you’ll recall the name from the covers of the indispensable annual handbooks he filled with a nerd’s cornucopia of quizzes and line-ups, schedules, records, scouting reports, vital statistics. Douglas Martin recalled his legacy in The New York Times earlier this week, here. From Hollander’s 1972 Complete Handbook of Pro Hockey, some selected biographical intel from the season’s crop of NHL talent:

Nicknamed Smiley Bates because of his addiction to country music. (Bruce Gamble)

A rugged type, he once dropped down to block a shot with his mouth and it cost him 40 stitches. (Ed Van Impe)

Call this little Frenchman the Lone Star North Star. (Jude Drouin)

Real first name is Hubert. (Pit Martin)

Allergic to Toronto air, he lives outside of the city and comes into town only for games and practices. (Norm Ullman)

Possesses a fiery temper and often explodes in anger. (Henri Richard)

After each game, he jots down a check list of his own mistakes. (George Armstrong)

Nicknamed Gump after Andy Gump, his childhood comic strip favorite. (Lorne Worsley)

Married daughter of Red Wings’ team dentist. (Bert Marshall)

Known as something of a flake among fellow players. (Eddie Shack)

Not appreciated as much by the fans as he is by his teammates and other hockey players. (Bob Nevin)

Joined Canadian Army, lying about his age, and attained rank of sergeant. (Emile Francis)

Wife, June, is an expert figure skater. (Dean Prentice)

Takes 55 units of insulin every morning and drinks sweetened soda and orange juice to keep up his strength during games. (Bobby Clarke)

Native of Finland pronounces name “You-ha Vee-ding.” (Juha Widing)

The power is in his wrists. (Jacques Lemaire)