greening the game

This week on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman sit down with Ron Francis, GM of the NHL’s new and yet-unnamed Seattle franchise for a wide-ranging discussion of what’s coming on the west coast. They discuss Francis’ decision to join the project and how he’s staffing the new team, and about the state-of-the-art new rink they’re fashioning out of the old KeyArena. They touch on whether Kraken might be in the cards as a name (could be, Francis divulged, but maybe not) and Marek’s notion of raising a banner to the rafters to honour the Stanley Cup the Seattle Metropolitans won in 1917.

There’s talk, too, of movie and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a co-founder and co-majority owner of the Seattle team, and what he might bring to the hockey table. “I think he’s excited to be a part of this,” Francis says, “I think he’s excited to help shape the organization as it moves forward, whether it’s colours, how it’s presented on TV, names, you name it.”

Which leads Marek to wonder about how radical some of the changes he might float could be. Could we see NHL games played on colourful ice instead of the wintry white we’re used to? Francis suggests that might be something that a Bruckheimer-inspired Seattle might indeed be aiming to introduce.

We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s recall, why not, that NHL ice hasn’t always been so pallid as appears is now. In the earliest decades of the league, the ice tended to be murky. Here’s a description from The New Yorker in 1925, when the New York Americans debuted at Madison Square Garden (the Rangers would join them there as tenants the following year):

The ice, by the way, is coffee-coloured, and as the evening progresses, grows to look more and more like a big cake of maple sugar the mice have scratched up.

And one from Boston’s Herald in 1929, the year the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup:

The Garden ice, as usual, was dark brown. Boston and New York Garden have something to learn from Montreal Forum. There the floor is painted white under the ice and visibility is increased greatly.

On the New York end of things, that seems to contradict another New Yorker dispatch from early in 1926, reporting that “whereas a month ago the ice was a dirty and disturbing brown, it has lately become nice and white.”

“The procedure, until recently,” the item continued, “was to run a couple of inches of water over the concrete and freeze it, with the result that the concrete showed through a shabby chocolate colour.”

The rumour was that Garden owner Tex Rickard had arranged for milk to be mixed in with the water wasn’t to be credited: the deal was that rink staff were now freezing an inch of ice, painting it white, then freezing a further inch or so atop the paint.

Just when other NHL rinks got into the blanching of the ice isn’t clear — by one report I’ve seen, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Garden didn’t start whitening the ice until 1949.

Jerry Bruckheimer take note: 66 years ago, the Detroit Red Wings did play two regular-season games at the Olympia on green ice.

To be more specific: pastel green.

Edmonton Journal headline from January of 1953.

This was in early 1953. The first reference to this that caught my eye was in a French-language account, and the word that stood out was combattre. The thought I had, naturally enough, was bien sûr, c’est logique, bonne idée. I assumed that hockey had reached one of its breaking points, where the game on the ice had grown so tetchy and tempestuous that the league would try anythingto calm the tempers of its players, including dyeing the ice as green and soothing as grass.

The Red Wings were the defending Stanley Cup champions that season. Almost 50 games into the 1952-53 season, they were battling the equally mighty Montreal Canadiens for first place in the league standings. The last Saturday in January was when they first skated out on green ice, beating the Chicago Black Hawks by a score of 4-0. The next night they did it again, walloping the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 on the tinted ice. Already topping league scoring, Gordie Howe helped himself to two more goals and three assists against the Leafs.

If the cool of the green of the ice was supposed to bring down the thermometer of the players, well, let’s just note referee Jack Mehlenbacher did call seven roughing penalties before the night was out, sanctioning several noted hotheads in so doing, including Detroit’s Ted Lindsay and Marcel Bonin and Toronto’s Fernie Flaman.

The Globe and Mail weighs in.

In fact, the experiment of greening the ice wasn’t about mood-altering, at all. The combattre that caught my eye had to do with reduction that combat. As Red Burnett of the Toronto Star explained, “it was designed to cut the white glare that bounced off the eyeballs of customers in the upper balcony seats.” Locally, TV viewers of WXYZ broadcasts of Red Wings’ games had also complained that the white ice was hard to watch. The idea to tint it green was said to come from a Detroit newspaper photographer.

So with the NHL’s blessing, the Olympia’s ice-man, Red Tonkin, gave it a go, mixing in 15 gallons of green paint instead of the usual white with the 400 gallons of water he froze to make the playing surface.

According to Burnett, the colouring was “hardly visible to the naked eye.” The players were said to approve, and NHL president Clarence Campbell deemed the experiment a success, though that’s as far as it went. Four days after beating the Leafs, the Olympia ice was its regular chalky colour as the Red Wings tied the New York Rangers 3-3.

Toronto Star headline, quoting “one office wag.”

at home in hockeytown

What’s Sup?: Looks like spaghetti and meatballs. From left the Wings at the table on Lawton Street in the early 1950s are Gordie Howe, Bob Goldham, Metro Prystai, Ted Lindsay, and Marty Pavelich, with Ma Shaw serving.

“I can’t imagine that young Detroit players would go for a similar arrangement these days, but back then most of the Red Wing bachelors lived together in rooming houses organized by the team.”

That’s Gordie Howe writing, or at least Paul Haavardsrud, who ghosted Howe’s memories into Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). In the 1950s, Red Wings’ manager Jack Adams had his Stanley-Cup-winning stars housed with nearby neighbours of Detroit’s old Olympia on Grand River Avenue. Howe’s memoir names some of them — Ma Tannahill and the Michaud brothers — though none was more renowned than Mr. Hockey’s own landlady, who welcomed a succession of Wings to her four-bedroom brick house a block over from the arena. “I was happy at Ma Shaw’s,” Haavardsrud’s Howe recalls.

Minnie Shaw (née Schunk) lived at 5721 Lawton Street which, if you Google over for a visit, looks very calm and green, if entirely houseless. (Where the Olympia stood is bleaker yet: barbed wire tops the fencing that defends the emptiness of the parking lot that used to be a rink.) What would Mr. Shaw, Asa, who was a real estate broker, make of the current view? It was after he died in 1938 that his widow began to take in hockey players. The pride of Pilot Mound, Manitoba, was her first, defenceman Black Jack Stewart.

A memorial post from Red Wings this morning shows Howe and Lindsay cavorting at home at Ma Shaw’s.

Gordie Howe got Bill Quackenbush’s room when he was traded to Boston, so 1949. Stewart was still there; Ted Lindsay and goaltender Harry Lumley were the other roommates. When Metro Prystai moved in after arriving from Chicago in 1950, Howe’s memoir says that, with Howe, Lindsay, Red Kelly, and Marty Pavelich already in residence, four became five. Sid Abel was there for a season, ’39-40; Kelly stayed for 11 years. The Metro Prystai Story, a 2015 biography by Frank Block, notes other Ma Shaw alumni: Glen Skov, Alex Delvecchio, and Red Wings’ trainer Lefty Wilson. I’d like to know what Ma Shaw’s arrangements were: none of the literature I’ve reviewed mentions just where in her own house she was sleeping.

Jack Adams had a man spying on the house to make sure the players didn’t violate his nightly 11 o’clock curfew. Sid Abel remembered this; also that Jack Stewart would watch the watchman, and once he departed, around 11.30, the players would scuttle out to the Crystal Bar on Grand River Avenue. The owner would let them in the back door, and they’d drink in the basement — “would rap on the pipes when they wanted a waitress and beer,” as a later account described the players’ routine.

Boarders paid about $10 a week at Ma Shaw’s. A normal day got going around 8.30 with breakfast, after which the players would walk to the Olympia for practice. Lunch was often at the Central Restaurant on Grand River Avenue, Ted Lindsay remembered, followed by pinball, and maybe a nap.

Detroit Free Press reporter Marshall Dann covered the Wings in the 1950s, and he recalled that the players like to bowl, once or twice a week, at the Lucky Strike Alley on Grand River. “Howe instantly became a good bowler,” he said. “I don’t recall Lindsay setting any records.”

If the Wings were playing well, Jack Adams was pro-bowling. When they lost, Dann said, he soured. “I don’t want anybody bowling,” he’d tell his players. “It’s bad for your legs.”

The players got their dry cleaning done at General Cleaners across from the Olympia. Pete Torigan was the owner. The players used to sit in the back, by the presses, play cards. Lindsay and Kelly had the most cleaning — “Kelly probably more than anybody.”

Torigan: “I used to go to Ma Shaw’s and get his clothes right off the hanger. He’d just say, ‘Go in and take it from the closet.’”

Ma Shaw hated mess, Howe said. “I had the big back room with a big double closet.” For a gag, his teammates would empty it, spread his clothes all around. “Ma would get bloody mad.”

What else? Marshall Dann recalled that when Howe was critically injured in 1950, reporters would telephone Ma Shaw for medical updates during the winger’s long recovery.

By Metro Prystai’s account, the neighbourhood had its, quote, scoundrels, but if they came across a parked car bearing Canadian license plates, they’d leave it alone, out of respect for the hockey players. But when Red Kelly got a new Oldsmobile convertible, “pretty fancy,” in Prystai’s telling, his “fancy hubcaps” were gone the first night.

After a game, the Crystal would be jammed with fans and hockey players alike. Sometimes the Wings would drive to Sid Abel’s home on Detroit’s east side for beers — or head home, to Ma Shaw’s, to review, replay, relive the night they’d had on the ice.

Minnie Shaw died in 1968 at the age of 86. A Detroit obituary noted some of her Red Wing tenants, How and Lindsay and Kelly, and ended with this:

She was practically a mother to the entire club.

sawchuk’s reward, this night in 1952? a smoke and a stanley cup

On this night in 1952, Terry Sawchuk deterred 26 Montreal shots to see his Detroit Red Wings to a 3-0 win over Canadiens and, thereby, a sweep of the Stanley Cup finals. It was the first of four Cups for Sawchuk, who also collected a Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. With his fourth shutout in eight playoff games, Sawchuk tied an NHL record that night at Detroit’s Olympia. As time ticked away to end the game, his teammates mobbed the 22-year-old in his crease as the organist played “Auld Lang Syne.” Later, Marshall Dann of the hometown Free Press found him in the dressing room, puffing on a cigarette and posing with the Cup. “This last game was the toughest of the entire series,” Sawchuk said, “and I believe it was my best game. The Canadiens were trying to rough me up in the goalmouth and knock me off my feet every time they skated by.”

(Image: Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / PA-209513)

when fans attack: out on the street in his skates, the eel gives chase

Shake It Off: Showing the wound he was willing to forgive, the New York Rangers’ Camille Henry makes peace with Detroit salesman Eric Steiner in January of 1960.

He was just small, the newspapers liked to point out: at 5’10”, the New York Rangers’ centreman Camille Henry scaled in at a feathery 151 pounds. In 1960, the Associated Press decided this was news enough to flash out as free-standing story across the wires to its North American readers. In his sixth NHL season, the 27-year-old Henry had made his mark in the league in other ways, too, starting out with a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in NHL. Dubbed, inevitably, the Eel, he was a reliable scorer. As a mostly peaceable presence on the ice, he won a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for gentlemanly proficiency in 1958. In his first five seasons, Henry accrued just 20 minutes in penalties, and while 1959-60 was a more delinquent year, his total by the end of the regular season was a mere six minutes.

That’s not to say that his restraint didn’t have its limits. On this day in 1960, he seems to have crossed over as he left the ice at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium at the end of a game that saw the Rangers tie the Red Wings 2-2. An account of what happened next made up of sentences cut and pasted from several contemporary newspaper reports might look like this:

Some fans threw small objects at the players and words were exchanged.
Bumped when the New York Rangers’ Camille Henry stumbled and dropped his stick …
Eric Steiner, a 37-year-old Detroit salesman, picked up the stick and gave Henry a good thumping under the right eye.
Henry — skates and all — lit out after the fan.
He caught Steiner in the street outside the stadium, some 50 yards from the rink, and held him for police.
A half-dozen other players were chasing fans but officers quickly quelled the uprising.

While the police questioned Steiner, Henry took on four stitches. Detroit coach Jack Adams conferred with New York Alf Pike and, by one report, they were all for pressing charges. But Henry demurred. He settled for an apology and (above) a handshake. “I just lost my head,” Steiner is on the record as explaining; he also gained a ban attending future hockey games at the Olympia.

A week later, the two teams met again New York, tying again, 3-3. This time, the damage Henry sustained was on the ice, in the rush of play. Again he stumbled, crashing this time into a goal post, fracturing his left forearm. The Rangers’ Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa took care of the surgery later that week, putting in a pin. Henry was back in the line-up by the end of February.