Sorry to say that Curt Ridley has died at the age of 70. Born in Winnipeg in September of 1951, he got his NHL start at the age of 23 with the New York Rangers in 1974 when Ed Giacomin was sidelined, nursing a wonky knee. Ridley was tending goals for the AHL Providence Reds that year when his coach, John Muckler, told him he’d be starting for the Rangers against the Boston Bruins. “Was he surprised?” Muckler was asked. “I dunno,” Muckler said. “He had his mask on.” The Bruins rang up six goals on Ridley before Giacomin limped in to relieve him. With Phil Esposito notching three goals and four assists, the Bruins won 11-3. Ridley found some redemption (and his first NHL win) ten days later when he was back in net for New York’s 2-1 triumph over the Kansas City Scouts. Ridley’s did his steadiest NHL work for the Vancouver Canucks, with whom he played parts of four seasons. He took several turns, too, in net for the Toronto Maple Leafs before his NHL career came to its end in 1981. In 2015, Curt Ridley was inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.
Happy to oblige photographer Louis Jaques, captain Leo Boivin smiled for his camera at the end of December, 1963, but the truth is that his Boston Bruins were in a bad patch, losers of five games in a row.
Saddened to hear of Boivin’s death today, at the age of 90. Born in Prescott, Ontario, in August of 1931, he went on to play 19 seasons as an NHL defenceman, serving time with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Minnesota North Stars as well as with the Bruins. Appointed Boston’s 17th captain in ’63, he wore the Bruin C for three seasons. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986. As a coach Leo Boivin steered the St. Louis Blues for parts of two seasons in the 1970s.
That winter of ’63, the Bruins’ five-game spiral included two losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs, starting with a Christmas-Day rout, 5-1, at the Boston Garden in a game in which Frank Mahovlich scored two goals.
In Toronto on the 28th, Johnny Bower shut them out 2-0. Bruins coach Milt Schmidt wasn’t pleased, of course. He was giving speeches behind closed doors and, in the press, looking to players like Johnny Bucyk to step up. “Bucyk is a guy who could do a lot for us, if he puts his mind to it,” Schmidt was saying. “He just has to go out there and punish himself. He has to work harder and quit taking that big skate. A forward has to take it out of himself with stops and starts to get anywhere. There’s no easy way.”
After Toronto, the Bruins went to Detroit where Schmidt moved Boivin from the defence onto Bucyk’s wing in an effort to keep Gordie Howe under wraps. The Bruins lost again. “We’re hitting a lot of posts,” Schmidt said, “but we’re not scoring those goals.” The new year brought some respite: on January 1, back home, they managed a 3-3 tie with the Montreal Canadiens. No goals for Bucyk, and no game for Leo Boivin: he was out of the line-up with strep throat.
(Photo: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada/e002343751)
Saddened to hear the news that former Boston Bruins centreman Fred Stanfield has died at the age of 77. Born in Toronto in 1944, he broke into the NHL with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1964 before he was traded (along with Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge) to the Bruins in 1967 in exchange for Pit Martin, Gilles Marotte, and Jack Norris. In Boston, he often lined up with Johnnys Mackenzie and Bucyk, and in so doing, piled up six successive 20-goal seasons, aiding in a pair of Bruin Stanley Cup championships, in 1970 and ’72. He played two seasons with the Minnesota North Stars and parts of four others with the Sabres in Buffalo before he stowed his skates in 1978.
So sorry to hear the news this evening of the death of Rod Gilbert at the age of 80. Born in Montreal in 1941, he only ever skated in the NHL as a New York Ranger. He was a speedy right winger who scored profusely for the Blueshirts: the 406 regular-season goals and 1,021 points he collected in his 18 seasons with New York are still tops among Rangers. In 1979, a year after his retirement, the seven Gilbert wore on his sweater became the first number to be retired by the Rangers. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982.
Saddened to hear of Tony Esposito’s death today at the age of 78; the Chicago Blackhawks announced the news, here, this afternoon.
Sorry to learn of the death of Dolores Claman, who composed the rousing theme song that used to open broadcasts of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada back when the world was younger. Born in Vancouver in 1927, she died this week in Spain at the age of 94.
Claman was trained as a concert pianist before she switched keys to dedicate herself to composing. She was working for Maclaren Advertising in Toronto when she was hired in 1968 to craft a fanfare to open the national broadcaster’s Saturday-night flagship. The theme she came up with became a proxy national anthem. It was 2008 that the Hockey Night relationship ended, in acrimony: CTV ended up buying the rights to the song after the CBC and Claman couldn’t settle a financial dispute. While Claman’s iconic theme took an early retirement on broadcasts of regional games on TSN, Hockey Night resorted to replacing it with an imperfect (and perfectly forgettable) facsimile.
From 2008, here’s the Globe and Mail’s Peter Cheney with the musical origin story:
It started on a peaceful afternoon in 1968, when Dolores Claman sat down at her Knabe grand piano and began picking at the keys, searching for a sound. Outside the window was her garden, then the blue expanse of Lake Ontario. Ms. Claman tried B-flat, then the key of C, seeking the musical essence of something she had never seen firsthand: a professional hockey game.
Ms. Claman was a classically trained musician who loved Bach, but she made her living composing jingles. She had written music for everything from toothpaste to its natural enemy, Macintosh toffee. Now she was thinking about Canada’s national sport. She pictured Roman gladiators wearing skates. Suddenly, five notes popped into her head. She tapped them out, stressing the third: “dunt-da-DUNT-da-dunt.”
Ms. Claman had no idea that she just made herself part of Canadian history — and that she had set the stage for an epic battle 40 years in the future.
“I wasn’t thinking about much at the time,” Ms. Claman, 80, said yesterday from her home in London, England. “The song wasn’t hard to do.”
Sorry be hearing the news tonight that René Robert has died at the age of 72. Born in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, in 1948, he made his name in the 1970s as the right winger on the Buffalo Sabres’ famous French Connection line. Robert had suffered a heart attack in Florida a week ago. The Buffalo News has an obituary here.
Saddened to have learned it, sorry to report it: former lofty defenceman Gilles Lupien died of cancer on Tuesday at the age of 67. Born in Lachute in 1954, he was drafted by Montreal in 1974 and joined the AHL’s Nova Scotia Voyageurs. At 6’6” and 210 pounds, he got into policing, and led the league in penalty minutes for two of the three full-time seasons he spent in the A. “I guess you can say they wanted me to be an enforcer,” Lupien said in 2010. “I think I did a good job.” He played three seasons with the Canadiens, collecting a single regular-season goal and 100+ penalty minutes in each one. His colleagues on defence included Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, and Guy Lapointe, which goes a long way to exaplaining why, at the end of both of the first two seasons in Montreal, in 1978 and again in ’79, Lupien hoisted the Stanley Cup with his teammates. He went on to play parts of two more NHL seasons, lining up with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hartford Whalers before ending his on-ice career with a combative season with the AHL Binghampton Whalers in 1981-82. Gilles Lupien was, in recent years, a popular player agent.
He described himself as an “above-average not-great player,” but maybe flag that for excess of modesty, because Johnny Peirson was a very proficient goalscorer in the 11 seasons he played the right wing for the Boston Bruins between 1946 and 1958, scoring 20 goals in four of those campaigns, and finishing among the NHL’s top ten scorers three times.
Peirson, who was born in Winnipeg in 1925, died on April 16 at the age of 95. The Bruins’ alumni site has an obituary, here. After 98-year-old former Detroit Red Wing Steve Wochy, Peirson was the second-oldest NHLer.
Peirson got much of his hockey upbringing in Montreal, where he chased high-school pucks for Westmount Academy before joining the Montreal Junior Canadiens. After a stint in the Canadian Army, he studied and skated at McGill. In 1946, he signed for Boston’s AHL farm team, the Hershey Bears, for a princely $4,500.
As a rookie with the Bruins, Peirson found a berth on what teammate Woody Dumart dubbed the “Muscles Line,” for the irony: at 5’11” and 170 pounds, 22-year-old Peirson was the bulk of a unit that also counted centre Paul Ronty (6’, 150) and left winger Kenny Smith (5’7”, 155).
“I would say I was above average because I was a better balanced player,” he told writer Frank Pagnucco, “a forward that knew how to backcheck. I had some defensive skills as well as being able to find the net sometimes.”
The first time he retired was in 1954, when he was 28. He stashed his skates to go into the furniture business with his father-in-law, across the river from Boston in Cambridge. He unretired after a year, rejoining the Bruins in 1955. His first game back, he played on a line with Cal Gardner and Vic Stasiuk, scoring a goal and setting up another to spark the Bruins to a 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks.
He played three seasons, after his comeback, and could have kept it going beyond that, maybe, but decided not to. “You reach a point in your career where you realized you’ve lost half a step,” he said, looking back. “In those days, with six teams, there weren’t a lot of places to go. I had a job offer which I had to weigh against the possibility of making the team again or moving to another team … and with four kids, that didn’t make any sense.”
Regrets? Hockey-wise, he had at least a couple. “I’d have given my eyeteeth to play on a Stanley Cup winner,” he once said. He also wished he’d worked harder on developing his upper-body strength — his, well, muscles. “I would have been a better player. I lost a lot of battles and wasn’t able to do what I would like to have done from the point of view of strength.”
While the Bruins Peirson played for never won a Stanley Cup, he was at close hand when the team started winning championships in the late 1960s, serving as a long-time colour analyst on Bruins’ TV and radio broadcasts alongside Fred Cusick.
Sad news tonight that Ralph Backstrom has died at the age of 83. A son of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, he played parts of 13 seasons at centre for the Montreal Canadiens starting in the late 1950s and on through the ’60s, winning six Stanley Cups and a Calder Trophy along the way. He skated for the Los Angeles Kings, too, and the Blackhawks in Chicago. In the WHA, he played for Chicago’s Cougars as well as the Denver Spurs/Ottawa Civics, and the New England Whalers. He later coached at the University of Denver and with the IHL Phoenix Roadrunners. He was a founder, too, of the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles.
Dave Stubbs has a good look at Backstrom’s memorable career at NHL.com, here.
(Top Image: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada)
Sorry to hear the news today that, just days after his 97th birthday, Howie Meeker has died. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1923, Meeker broke into the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1946. He won the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, just three years after he’d been injured in a training accident involving a grenade while he was serving in the Canadian Army. Meeker went on to play eight seasons on the Toronto right wing, winning four Stanley Cups for his efforts. He was elected to Canada’s Parliament in 1951, while he was still skating for the Leafs, and served two years the Progressive Conservative MP representing the southern Ontario riding of Waterloo South.
Meeker’s tenure as coach of the Leafs lasted just a single season, 1956-57, and when the team fell short of the playoffs, Billy Reay replaced him as he took on duties as Toronto’s GM. He started job with a bang, signing 19-year-old Frank Mahovlich to a contract on his very first day in office. The thrill didn’t last: Meeker was dismissed before the pucks dropped to start the new season. He upped skates, next, for Newfoundland: Premier Joey Smallwood wanted him to come and help develop the province’s youth hockey program, so he did that.
As a player, the adjectives that adhered to Meeker were speedyand pugnacious. If you’re of an age to recall his fervent years at the Telestrator on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada, you might remember that his style as a broadcaster was much the same, and how he shook the nation weekly with his barky sermonizing. His enthusiasm for teaching hockey fundamentals extended to summer skills camps as well as to books.
Howie Meeker’s Hockey Basics (1973) was influential enough to have been the only hockey-minded volume to be included in The Literary Review of Canada’s 2006 listing of Canada’s all-time Most Important Books. The author himself professed some shock that his modest 1973 paperback was mingling in the company of Margaret Atwood, Stephen Leacock, Jacques Cartier, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. “You’re kidding,” Meeker said when he heard the news. “That’s sensational.”
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.