fred stanfield, 1944—2021

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.

rod gilbert, 1941—2021

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.  

  

dunt da DUNT da dunt

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.”

rené robert, 1948—2021

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.  

gilles lupien, 1954—2021

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.   

Montreal’s Cup-winning 1978-79 Canadiens. Back row, left to right: Gilles Lupien, Larry Robinson, Rod Langway, Serge Savard, Brian Engblom, Guy Lapointe, Rick Chartraw. Second tier from the back, that’s Yvon Lamber, Pat Hughes, Mario Tremblay, Bob Gainey, Cam Connor, Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Doug Risebrough. Third tier from the back: trainer Eddie Palchak, Doug Jarvis, Pierre Mondou, Mark Napier, Pierre Larouche, Rejean Houle, Jacques Lemaire, trainer Pierre Meilleur. Front: Michel Larocque, director of player development Claude Ruel, coach Scotty Bowman, captain Yvan Cournoyer, president Jacques Courtois, GM Irving Grundman, vice-president Jean Béliveau, Ken Dryden.

johnny peirson, 1925—2021

Bruinhaha: From left, Johnny Peirson, Fleming Mackell, Jim Henry and Leo Labine pose for the camera against a background of trousers and underwear in the Boston dressing room circa 1953. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

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. 

Golden Bears: Boston’s Bruins, 1956-57 edition. Back row, from the left: Trainer Win Green, Larry Regan, Cal Gardner, Johnny Peirson, Floyd Smith, Leo Boivin, assistant trainer Hammy Moore. Middle, left to right: Doug Mohns, Jack Caffery, Floyd Hillman, Vic Stasiuk, Bob Armstrong, Don McKenney, Jerry Toppazzini. Front, from left: Allan Stanley, Fleming Mackell, GM Lynn Patrick, Terry Sawchuk, coach Milt Schmidt, president Walter Brown, Leo Labine, captain Fern Flaman.

ralph backstrom, 1937—2021

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)

howie meeker, 1923—2020

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.”

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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.

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.

dale hawerchuk, 1963—2020

Heavy news today: Dale Hawerchuk has died, of cancer, at the age of 57. A son of Oshawa, Ontario, he was a sublime centreman whose 16-year NHL career flourished most memorably in the 1980s when he led the Winnipeg Jets. It was with Winnipeg that he  won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 1982. He went on to play for Buffalo, St. Louis, and Philadelphia before a hip injury ended his on-ice career in 1997. With the 1,409 regular-season points he racked up over the course of his career, he stands 20th in the all-time NHL register, just behind Doug Gilmour, a little ahead of Jari Kurri. Hawerchuk was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.