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.
Born in 1903 on a Friday of this date in Bracebridge, Ontario, Ace Bailey only ever played for Toronto during his short NHL career. He debuted with the St. Patricks in 1926, the year they transformed into Maple Leafs, and played seven further seasons after that, on the right wing. He was speedy, and prone to scoring, leading the league in goals and points in 1928-29, and notching the goal, in 1932, that won the Leafs the Stanley Cup. His career came an end when he was 30 years old, one December night in 1933, after Eddie Shore of the Bruins blindsided him at the Boston Garden. His head hit the ice hard; a doctor at the scene diagnosed a lacerated brain. Two subsequent surgeries saved his life. “It’s all in the game, Eddie,” is what he’s supposed to have told Shore at the rink when the Boston defenceman apologized for knocking him down. After he didn’t die, when he’d recovered enough to never play hockey ever again, Bailey went on to coach the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues men’s hockey team. Later, he worked as a timekeeper at Maple Leaf Gardens. His number, 6, was the first in NHL history to be retired. Inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1975, Ace Bailey died in 1992. He was 88.
Rick MacLeish was the first Philadelphia Flyer to score 50 goals, a feat he achieved in 1972-73, when he was 22, and finished the season with 100 points, good enough for fourth in NHL scoring. The following year, when the Flyers won the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups, MacLeish led the league in playoff scoring.
A master of the wrist shot is a phrase you’ll see, occasionally, when you cast back to those days by way of old newspapers, which sometimes also reference his stylish finesse and magic wrists. They mention him, circa 1978, as the best pure skater on the club and the only man with a possible chance to win a skate-off down the ice with a streaking Montreal Canadien like Guy Lafleur. MacLeish, they now and then assert, looks like Edgar Allan Poe reincarnated and shares the American short story writer’s grim demeanor. “He is quiet and keeps to himself,” they’ve been know to suggest, “letting others do the talking while he dresses quickly and hurries home.”
“Rick displays so little emotion that his expression hardly ever changes.” That was Bobby Clarke, the Philadelphia captain, in ’78. “That and his easy skating style can give people the impression that Rick’s not putting out. Sometimes even we get on him about it in practice. But if you look at his statistics, particularly in the big games, you’ll know just how important Rick is to the club.”
MacLeish, who died on a Monday of this date in 2016 at the age of 66, was born and raised in Cannington, in middle Ontario, north of Sonya, east of Brock, not far from Lake Simcoe. The rink there, on Elliot Street, is named after him. He played 12 seasons with the Flyers in all, and turned out, too, briefly, for Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Detroit.
On the origins of his shot, he had this to say, in 1980: “There was a bridge over a little stream not far from our place and I used to go down there and fire pucks at the cement for hours. I used to play games with myself. You know, draw circles on the wall and try to see how many out of ten I could get in the circle. I got pretty good at it.”
Born in Parry Sound, Ontario, on a Saturday of this same date in 1948, Bobby Orr turns 72 today. He was already a phenom at 16 when Trent Frayne went to watch him play for the OHL Junior A Oshawa Generals for a 1965 feature for Maclean’s. “A crew-cut, blue-eyed, well-adjusted, polite, medium-sized boy,” is what Frayne encountered, one with the potential to “become the finest offensive defenceman since Doug Harvey.” Talking to Lynn Patrick, Frayne heard the Boston GM say this about his eagerly awaited top prospect: “He amazes me every time I see him. The way he can anticipate what’s going to happen is sometimes uncanny. You know, sensing where the puck is going to be and moving there even before the puck does. I never saw a promising player.”
Orr was 18 when he played his NHL game for the Bruins in October of 1966 against the Detroit Red Wings. “I think it’s wonderful, but I can’t help being a little anxious,” his mother, Arva, told the Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald from Parry Sound on the eve of her boy’s debut. “I guess it’ll be the same as always. I’ll be biting my nails until it’s over and we hear how it comes out on the late news.”
The tidings that reached north were good: the Bruins won, 6-2, with Orr assisting on Wayne Connelly’s second-period marker. “Although he did not score a goal,” Fitzgerald reported, “the boy with the blond whiffle did everything else expected of the best at his position. Bobby demonstrated that the critics who doubted his defensive savvy were dead wrong. He played the position like a veteran; was very tough in dislodging opponents around the net; blocked shots; and made adept moves in moving the puck from his own end.”
Interviewed in the Detroit dressing room after the game, a Red Wing elder was asked for his assessment of the rookie. “The kid’s all right,” said a 38-year-old Gordie Howe. “He’ll do, for sure.”
(Image by Gypsy Oak. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)
“Anyone seeing Roger Crozier for the first time probably wouldn’t think he was watching just about the best goalie in the National Hockey League,” Tom Cohen wrote in the pages of his slim, admiring 1967 Crozier biography. “For one thing, Roger was short and skinny and looked a bit like a timid bank clerk. And he was always flopping around on the ice, sliding, diving, falling down, jumping up, falling down again. He didn’t use his stick as much as other goalies in the League used theirs. He stopped the puck with his legs or used his catching glove instead. And he had a habit of roaming far out in front of the goal. It didn’t seem possible for him to be able to get back in time if an attack came quickly. But Roger Crozier had become famous for doing the impossible. He made unbelievable saves, turned certain defeats into victories and played with injuries that should have put him in hospital.”
Born in Bracebridge, Ontario, on this date in 1942 (when it was also a Monday), Crozier played 14 seasons in the NHL, tending the twine for the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, and Washington Capitals. He never did win a Stanley Cup, but he was named a First Team All-Star in 1965, the year he also earned the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 1965. A year later, when his Red Wings fell to Montreal in the Finals, he was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. Roger Crozier died at the age of 53 in 1996.
Born on a Thursday of this date in 1943, Paul Henderson — do we even need to say it? — scored the end-of-September Game-Eight goal that decided the 1972 Summit Series. Remarkably, he also notched the winning goals in the two previous games in Moscow, including the one depicted here. The disappointed goaltender is, of course, Vladislav Tretiak; the floundering defenceman, number 6, is Valery Vasiliev.
On the subject of his hometown, Henderson, who’s 77 today, is most often attached to Lucknow, Ontario, near the Lake Huron shore. He wasn’t born there, though. Just where he did debut back in ’43 is … well, let’s just say the folk tale of his mother’s having given birth out on the midwinter ice of Lake Huron is a tantalizing one if not entirely likely.
Three different Henderson memoirs offer three slightly different versions of how Henderson’s birth went down. The Fans Go Wild: Paul Henderson’s Miracle was an authorized biography that appeared in 1973, hot on the heels of Henderson’s Soviet heroics. As author John Gault tells it, the fact that a blizzard of historic proportions had left western Ontario snowed under didn’t stop a pregnant Evelyn Henderson (“young and healthy and youthfully silly”) from hiking out 5 kilometres from her in-laws’ farm and back on January 27.
Her husband, Garnet, was overseas, serving with the Canadian Army. When labour pains began that night, Evelyn’s in-laws hitched up horses to a sleigh to make the dash for the hospital at Kincardine, 16 kilometres away. “At the bottom of the second-to-last hill, at a point where she could see the lights of the hospital in the first light of dawn, she began to give birth,” Gault writes. “Actually, Paul’s grandparents were not called upon to make delivery because they reached the hospital before the boy was completely born.”
By 1997, Henderson was telling his own story, with Mike Leonetti’s help. Shooting For Glory mentions a journey across frozen Lake Huron that didn’t appear in Gault’s telling, with the arrival at Kincardine’s hospital somewhat amended: “About 1,000 yards from the front door my mother gave birth, and when they finally got me into the hospital, I had started to turn blue.”
Roger Lajoie shaped Henderson’s 2012 memoir, The Goal of My Life, which sticks with the colourful outdoor birth over the indoor: “Mom gave birth to me on the sleigh before we made it to the hospital, and by the time they finally arrived, I had started to turn blue. Quite the first day of my life, to be sure, but I made it.”
(Image: Frank Lennon/Library and Archives Canada/4169297)
A tribute, on a summer’s Friday, where tribute’s due: today is Roy MacGregor’s last day at The Globe and Mail, where he’s been a columnist for the past 17 years. That trim word, columnist, doesn’t quite contain his talents, of course, or do them proper justice: again and again across the almost 50 years during which he’s worked his words in Canadian newspapers, magazines, and books, MacGregor (seen here, above, in a 1983 incarnation) has reminded readers just how thoughtful and sharply incisive a chronicler of our hockey obsession he is. Beyond the Globe, the papers he’s improved have included The Ottawa Citizen and The National Post, and the magazines, Maclean’s and The Canadian. His work therein was duly recognized in 2012 when he won the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for distinguished reportage. The marvelous books that confirm his standing as our finest hockey storyteller include The Home Team and the novel The Last Season. (Parents and younger readers might not forgive the lack of a mention of the Screech Owl mysteries, so here it is.) For all his icy writings, he is (again: of course) not only a hockey writer: do we have, on the page, any more reliable canoe and river guide, a better companion to Tom Thomson studies or Ottawa or Algonquin wildernesses? MacGregor is a true Canadian explorer; we’ll see where he leads us next.
The occasion seems to call for a look back at where he’s taken us before. Here then, from Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada, the 1989 book on which he collaborated with Ken Dryden, a brief excerpt in which he carries us back to his Muskoka childhood in Huntsville, Ontario:
It is difficult now to convey how deeply hockey could penetrate a life back then. We had no television. My brother had a table-top hockey game, the kind where the metal players fit on and are controlled by steel rods running beneath. There were no slots, however, so the players could no go up and down the ice. All you could do was turn the rod between the thumb and finger so they could pass and shoot. All four defence rods eventually broke and we realized a shot was faster if we flicked the players from above rather than turned from below. And marbles were better than pucks. My brother found he could raise the marbles if he slightly bent his man, I suffered my first serious hockey injury wearing my pajamas in his bedroom.
Our father took us to Maple Leaf Gardens to see the Leafs play Detroit. Neither of us had ever seen lights so bright or felt air so alive. In an instant we more than doubled the number of other humans we had seen in our lives. The urinals spooked me. Our father pointed to Gordie Howe and said he was the greatest hockey player of all time. At least once a year in the thirty-odd years since he asks if we remember. We will always remember, even when he can no longer remind.
(Top image: Fred Lum, Random House of Canada)
(A version of this post appeared on page SP3 of The New York Times on June 18, 2017.)
Howie Morenz wept when he finally agreed to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1923, abandoning a budding career as a railway machinist and departing his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to become the world’s greatest hockey player.
That’s the story: he didn’t want to go, refused to believe he was good enough to play in the NHL. He’d be fine, of course: within the year, he’d be winning his first Stanley Cup. By then, the fame of his name was already spreading across North America. As it turned out, he was what an admiring rival called “that near-perfect human hockey machine.”
For 14 years his legend grew. Then, shockingly, 80 years ago this month, he died at 34. His friends said Morenz’s heart shattered when he realized his career was over.
His hockey résumé by then would include two more Stanley Cups. Three times he was recognized as NHL MVP, and twice he led the league in scoring. He was one of the original nine players honored when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1945. In 1950, a national poll of Canadian sportswriters named Morenz the greatest hockey player of the half-century.
Not so easily quantified is how much Morenz’s blazing talents helped solidify the NHL’s early success, especially in brand-new U.S. markets. Beloved in Montreal, he was the league’s biggest box-office draw. The sight of Morenz in motion is said to have convinced the boxing promoter Tex Rickard to start up the New York Rangers.
As part of the effort to spread the hockey gospel in the U.S., several Canadian players including Boston’s obstreperous defenceman Eddie Shore) were dubbed “the Babe Ruth of hockey,”
Morenz was the one the Bambino himself venerated. He said that Morenz had the biggest heart of any athlete he’d ever known.
Visitors to Stratford today tend to come for this handsome city of 33,000 for its renowned Shakespearean festival; some others, perhaps, are pilgrims seeking Justin Bieber sites — like Morenz, the singer grew up here.
While you can book “Twelfth Night” tickets online, maybe download Stratford Tourism’s 25-point map of sacred Bieberly locations, a century after the hockey player’s family arrived in town, you’re on your own when it comes to Morenz monuments.
Portraits hang in the city’s arenas, and there’s a street in his name. After you’ve gazed at the family house on Wellington Street where Morenz signed his first fateful contract, you might make your next stop 20 minutes to the west, in the smaller town of Mitchell, where Morenz was born in 1902 — ice zero for one of hockey’s most dynamic personalities, even when waning winter has freed the flow of the river where he played his earliest hockey.
Mitchell wears its Morenz association with pride. The wider world may have known him as the Stratford Streak, but hereabouts he’ll always remain Mitchell’s Meteor. The arena where he played in his youth is gone now, but if you stand in the park named for him and peer north, you start to get your bearings on the story. It helps if you have Dean Robinson at hand.
Mitchell-born, he’s a retired journalist and local historian who last fall published Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, an updated edition of his 1982 biography.
“He was good when he played here, but he wasn’t yet a stand-out,” Robinson says. “There were a couple of other guys who were better.” He can tell you how boy Howie skipped piano lessons to play hockey, and show you the spot, above the new dam, just north from where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River. “He just loved to play the game,” Robinson says.
Morenz has a street here, too, to his name, along with a mural adorning the main-street wall of the supermarket. Minor hockey teams here are nicknamed Meteors in his honour.
From a storytelling perspective, Mitchell moves you from Shakespeare towards Alice Munro: continue west on Highway 8 and you’ll soon find yourself in Huron County, home to the influential 2013 literary Nobel laureate and her fiction. And here on the edge of Munro territory, it’s tempting to borrow some of her atmospheres, maybe a suggestion of secret sorrows to cast a shadow into the narrative.
It is true that one of Morenz’s elder brothers died young. And in 1922, the budding 19-year-old star returned home from hockey to learn that his mother, Rose, had drowned in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” a Toronto newspaper reported.
Toronto tried to sign Morenz in 1923 before Montreal secured his signature. Robinson wonders whether Rose would have nixed his plan to turn professional if she had been alive. As it was, Morenz doubted his decision from the moment he made it, and was trying to escape his commitment almost to the moment he left for Canadiens training camp. Stratford did its best to keep him, too: local businessmen offered him $1,000 to stay.
The Morenz era was hatched on an alternative fact: unsure of how a hockey player of German descent would be greeted in Montreal in the wake of the First World War, the Canadiens amended Morenz’s background to neutral Swiss. Morenz laughed, later, recalling the lie, joking that his legendary agility on the ice was learned leaping alp to alp.
He thrived in Montreal. If the Canadiens were already known as the Flying Frenchmen when he arrived, Morenz, a centre, and his two speedy wingers, Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, accelerated their attack and their popularity. The NHL had four teams when he started in 1923; by the end of the decade it had expanded to ten. Morenz was the league’s biggest box-office draw. Another team offered to buy him for $50,000 — nearly four times the franchise fee the Boston Bruins paid to come aboard in 1924.
When it comes to filmed footage of Morenz in flight, a few grey skittering sequences survive. Mostly, his legacy is preserved in prose. He was small, fragile-looking, but he played the game fast and with an enthusiasm that often looked like recklessness. He took the word dash, verb and noun, and made it his own; he was a “comet of centre ice,” “cyclonic,” riding skates that were “mercury-dipped.”
“Jesus Christ, could he go!” said Joliat. New York Americans’ goaltender Roy Worters claimed never to have seen Morenz’s number 7 sweater at a standstill. “He was number 777 — just a blur.”
Referee Bobby Hewitson described the signature of his style: “He moved down center ice giving a little hop every once in a while as he would literally skip over the opposition’s sticks.”
He was said to pack the NHL’s hardest shot, and its most accurate. His bodychecks, fair and fearsome, prompted Toronto executive Frank Selke, Sr. to the highest praise he could muster: “I’ve seen many fellas throw up their dinner after he hit them.”
The novelist Hugh MacLennan watched him play. “The little smile on his lips,” he said, “showed that he was having a wonderful time.”
Off the ice, he was said to be modest, friendly and funny, a bon vivant who loved the racetrack, and to sing while he strummed his ukulele.
Hockey players expect their sport to damage them: all those brash sticks and colliding bad tempers. Morenz was in the league five seasons before he lost a tooth, but in the meantime hockey tore his ligaments and dislocated his collarbone, gashed his head. He seems to have been almost constantly piling into goalposts. His thumbs broke, his kidney bruised.
He was in danger off the ice, too. In 1932 he chased off a burglar from his mother-in-law’s house in Montreal, though not before the intruder bashed him over the head with his revolver. Another time, on the golf course, lightning struck as Morenz raised his (wooden) club to swing. A crackle, a flash: Morenz said he felt a jolt, no more.
In 1934, after Chicago knocked Montreal from the playoffs, he told the newspapermen that he had another four, five seasons left in him. “I am not old,” he declared, “only 31, and I will be back there as long as the Canadiens want me.”
But he’d started to slip. He wasn’t scoring so much. Did the fans in the Forum actually dare to boo him? Dean Robinson says they did, and that Morenz cried.
When Montreal manager Leo Dandurand traded his star to the Chicago Black Hawks that fall, he said it was to spare him further indignity. Morenz said he’d rather retire than leave, though eventually he boarded the train south, in more tears.
Chicago was a bust. The goals didn’t return, and then he wasn’t playing. It was a mercy when he was traded again, this time to New York to play for the Rangers.
The Canadiens bought him back in the summer of 1936. Re-united with his family, back with his old wingers, he was revived, and so too were the Canadiens. Dead last in the NHL the previous season, they were, by the start of 1937, atop the league’s International Section.
Chicago stopped in at the Forum late in January. Morenz had a bad knee, which might have something to do with the fall he took early into the game.
As teammate Toe Blake saw it, Morenz lost his balance, slid into the boards, was in turn crashed into by a big Chicago defenceman, Earl Seibert. Unless Seibert knocked him down. Either way, the tip of Morenz’s left skate dug into the boards, stuck, and in the tumult the leg snapped. The Montreal paper La Patrie reported the awful noise of it: “un sinistre craquement.”
A rink attendant would later mark the boards where Morenz’s skate held fast — as a warning to navigation or for commemorative reasons, it’s not quite clear.
“I’m all through,” Morenz is supposed to have said in the dressing-room. His tears were hot, according to one reporter, but he wasn’t blaming Seibert. He tossed up a brave wave to worried fans and teammates as he was stretchered to the ambulance.
He was front-page La Patrie news next morning, peering up from bed in the photograph from his room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Inside, on page 24, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. Were there two, four, five? It wasn’t not entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.
“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.” His room was filled with well-wishers in the following weeks, and (so it seemed) as much optimism as healthy good cheer. He was said to be mending well. There were tales of parties, beer under the bed.
Then — something happened. Columnists mentioned “une violente dépression nerveuse.” Dr. Forgues said the patient was suffering from nervous breakdown but was improving. Vague at the time, the story hasn’t really clarified. There was talk that his weight wasted away. When he told Joliat that he’d be watching the Canadiens’ playoff games from “up there,” did he mean, maybe, a heavenly press box? Uncertain. That first week of March, visitors were banned, a guard put on the door, a nurse on constant duty.
He died late on a Monday night, March 8. Did he try to leave his bed only to collapse? Die in his doctor’s arms, with an unnamed friend nearby? Other versions of the scene had him sighing and/or smiling at a nurse. Officially, the cause was deemed “accidental” — a heart attack — and the papers, at least, left at that.
At the Forum two days later, boards covered the ice. An estimated 14,000 filled the arena. Attendees remembered flowers and silence. “He made straight for the goal,” the clergyman intoned, “in life as he did in the game of hockey — there were needless curves or loops in his course.” A further crowd of 25,000 lined the streets of Montreal as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.
The Canadiens said no-one would ever Morenz’s number 7 again — not until his eldest son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team.
An NHL benefit game in the fall of 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for widowed Mary Morenz and her three young children, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.
Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Seven-year-old Donald died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.
Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. He was talented and worked hard. He was a heavily scrutinized junior in Montreal first, then went on to play professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.
Howie Jr. died in 2015 at the age of 88. I asked his son recently whether the pressures of name and expectation had ever made him bitter.
“I don’t think so,” he told me. “He was, I think, disappointed.”
The third Howard Morenz is in his 50s, lives in Ottawa, where he’s semi-retired from a career in information technology. He played some hockey in his time, but decided early it wasn’t something he’d pursue.
He’s been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way his grandfather’s death is depicted is an ongoing project, as it was for his father. Back in 1937, friends (including Aurèle Joliat) trying to make sense of sudden death spoke of Morenz’s heartbreak. It didn’t take much for that notion to pass into the culture, an easy shorthand explanation that seemed to make sense in a country where the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man is anything but remarkable.
The family takes a different view.
“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” the third Howie says. “We don’t believe that at all.”
There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report says that Morenz died “violently,” and it mentions cardiac deficiency and the fractured leg along with “acute maniacal excitement.”
“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery.
His father spoke sometimes of a chance encounter with a nurse in Montreal in the 1950s. She’d been on duty the night the original Morenz died. It was negligence, she said. “I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary in that hospital,” Howie III says.
His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Dean Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz III acknowledges that a definitive account of just what happened is unlikely at this point.
He does find comfort in the respect Morenz still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens continue to command an almost religious devotion, his grandfather remains a senior saint. His dash is represented in a statue outside the team’s home at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And he was recognized earlier this year when the NHL named its top 100 players of all-time.
The third Howie Morenz takes pride, too, in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend. “I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he says. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.” His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”