under review: writing the good fight

 

A version of this review appeared in the December, 2021 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Why did a couple of Zacks feel the need to shed their gloves that October evening in Edmonton in early October to fling fists at each other’s heads? Could be, I guess, that Zack Kassian, a winger for the NHL Oilers, disparaged Zack McEwen’s manhood, mother, or mien. It was the NHL’s pre-season still, so maybe McEwen, then a Vancouver Canuck, wanting to audition for his own coach, asked his rival for the pleasure of the punch in the time-honoured way of these things: “You wanna go?”

Was this a warning we were seeing, or maybe a dose of vengeance? Was it fulfillment of an arcane rite only understood by Zacks? There was some suggestion that Vancouver’s forwards had sinned by skating too close to Oiler goaltender Mike Smith, and so there was (in the parlance) a price to be paid, which required (as laid out, possibly, in the game’s opaque Code) a message to be delivered.

It’s easy to make light of hockey’s theatre of the brutally absurd, but in the quick chaos, Kassian lost his helmet, then his footing, fell, headfirst, to the ice, was knocked out. He revived, eventually, and left the ice under his own power, a towel pressed to his right temple. It was all over, then, except for the talking. “He’s got a pretty good bump on his head,” said Kassian’s coach, Dave Tippett. “It’s one of those ones that upsets you when that happens.”

“It’s scary, it’s terrible, it’s not cool,” said a young Vancouver defenceman, Quinn Hughes. “It probably didn’t need to happen.”

And that was mostly it, so far as further reckoning went. There was nothing, certainly, forthcoming from the NHL, which maintains both a rulebook and a Department of Player Safety.

According to the website hockeyfights.com, where these things are reverently logged and parsed, that Zack-on-Zack fight was the 39th (and counting) of Kassian’s 12-year NHL career, the 13th in four years for McEwen. Nowhere is there such a ready archive where you can look into the motives of any given hockey fight, no register of messages sent and received, no docket of damages done. In Canada, we’re so generally socialized to hockey’s culture of on-ice assault that October’s clash of Zacks made no more impression within the sport, the culture, or the Edmonton Police Department than the last time one hockey player punched another in the head. Will the next time be any different?

•••

Questions, questions, questions.

They hang in a haze over the NHL’s ice that never quite dissipates, though the fighting goes on.

Are hockey fights a good idea? Is the difference between a brawl on the street outside Edmonton’s Rogers Place and one that breaks out inside, on the ice, still sufficient to accommodate hockey’s proud exceptionalism? Do angry physical attacks really deserve a place in a game that purports to be for everybody? What do they say about our civil society? What about the potential for harm? Why use them to market the product you’re selling? Could it possibly be true that the blows that the punches that hockey players punch are (actually) a marvelous safety measure without which the game would teach us all the true meaning of mayhem?

Madison Mayhem: “The fight was a honey,” the New York Daily News reported in November of 1937 after New York’s Phil Watson collided with Dave Trottier of Montreal’s Maroons. “They ditched sticks in a hurry and began throwing punches.”

You don’t have to be especially timid or a paragon of moral rectitude to interrogate hockey violence, despite what some fighting enthusiasts in the public square might suggest. You should know that the search for answers might take you in unexpected destinations. The bookshelf, for example, as old-fashioned a resource as that might seem in the digital present.

And yet it is true that the sport’s library has added, over the years, a positive melee of memoirs by former — I was going to say goons, but won’t, since that’s considered a dire insult to the honest folk who put in the time to do the dirty work that others won’t, the keeping of the peace, the protecting of the honour, the delivering of the messages, the doing of time in the penalty box. You’d know this if you’d come across Don’t Call Me Goon: Hockey’s Greatest Enforcers, Gunslingers, and Bad Boys, an actual book, from 2013, by Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen, or if you’d spent weeks immersed in the prose of hockey’s rowdies, ruffians, heavyweights, tough guys, and policemen. Take note: the term of art preferred by the artisans themselves seems to be enforcer.

What exactly do hockey enforcers enforce? That’s not always easy to glean, whether you’re watching the game or reading about it. Not the rules, obviously. John Ferguson (52 fights) offers an explanation in his 1989 memoir Thunder and Lightning, in which he makes the case that he was the league’s original enforcer. His remit, as he understood it: beyond his regular workaday within-the-rules duties, he was to intervene “to maintain decorum if anyone tried to trifle” with Jean Béliveau (7 fights), or Bernie Geoffrion (6), or with “any of our other stars.”

Uh-huh. Of course, Ferguson is here using “maintain decorum” in the hockey sense, where it more commonly means “commit assault.” But if you pay any attention to the NHL at all, you’re used to the ways in which language abstracts the game’s violent tendencies.

There’s nothing particularly insidious in a broadcaster, rinkside reporter, Twitterer, or NHL executive resorting to arcane terms (donnybrook, fisticuffs) or euphemisms (dropping the gloves i.e. the mitts, squaring off, going at it, chucking the knuckles, in a boutthat may also be a tussle, scrap, scuffle, or maybe just someone was taking liberties, that’s what the extra-curriculars are all about, other than showing emotion, sending messages, & etc.). It’s normal, natural enough — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t downplay and normalize the bone-hard brutality of hockey fights, the injuries that result, the examples they set.

They’re a conservative bunch, the enforcers, until, sometimes, they’re not. Dave Schultz was the primary puncher for the Philadelphia Flyers when they ran roughshod to a pair of Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s. The Hammer they called him in the unruly years when he was bashing out new records for penalty minutes, throwing his weight into 164 fights. In 1981, a year after he retired from all that, Schultz enlisted Stan Fischler as his co-writer and published a memoir in which he all but renounced the life he’d been living, pondering withal what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. He also accused his former captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.

Clarke (36 fights) happens to have led a call for the NHL to abolish fighting in 1976, when he was head of the players’ association. (It wasn’t heard.) Champions of bellicose hockey like to point out that the game has always been violent, how can you possibly engineer it otherwise at this late date? Chris Nilan played 13 NHL seasons, helped Montreal win a Stanley Cup championship; the nearly 60 hours he spent in penalty boxes count as the fifth most ever to be accumulated in NHL history, and they include sanctions for 196 career fights. What would hockey be without fighting? “It is simply part of the game, deeply embedded in it, and at its core,” he wrote in his 2013 book Fighting Back, “and it provides hockey with so much of the emotion, spirit, and energy that make it special.”

•••

The first rule of the NHL’s fight club is that no-one in the league’s corporate structure really wants to talk too much about all the punching or its consequences. The worry is, I believe, that all those wolfish lawsuits that roam the land might hear, and circle closer, which just puts everybody in danger.

When someone like the league’s Commissioner, Gary Bettman, does speak up, the message to reporters and legislators and sundry detractors tends to come in same frame that Clarence Campbell carpentered in the 1970s, towards the end of his 31-year reign as league president. When he wasn’t telling critics to mind their own business, Campbell would settle back on his long expertise, advising (as he did in 1975) that, “I feel that the safest and most satisfactory reaction to being fouled is by retaliating with a punch in the nose.”

It was Campbell, too, who may have first come up with the formulation of hockey as some kind of steam-powered 19th-century industrial sporting locomotive whose machinery, which is ever in danger of overheating, has never been upgraded. With temperatures running so hot, of course you need a regulator. “Fighting on the ice is a safety valve,” Campbell explained in 1969. “Stop it and players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.

Gloves Off: “The fight, or rather fights, were swell and snapped 5,000 dozing customers erect in their seats,” the New York Daily News advised after this Manhattan meeting between the local Americans and the Toronto Maple Leafs in March of 1940. Wearing #2 is Eddie Shore, along with (#6) teammate Charlie Conacher. Leafs’ Bob Davidson is their quarry.

The NHL has, it’s true, been beset by legal challenges in recent years. In 2018, the NHL arranged a US$18.9-million settlement with 318 former players who felt that the league has minimized the long-term risks of brain trauma. Hockey’s concussion crisis is separate from, if not unrelated to, the issue of fighting’s place in the game. The NHL doesn’t really want to talk about concussions, either, so that’s one area of overlap; another relates to what medical science has been steadily revealing about what can happen to brains that are battered in sports like hockey.

The brains of boxers have been showing signs of deep damage, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, going back to the 1920s. While post-mortem studies of the brains of football players confirmed the presence of CTE in 2006, the first hockey case wasn’t confirmed until 2009, following the death of a furious NHL enforcer from the 1960s and ’70s, Reggie Fleming (73 fights).

I’d contend that since then — post-Fleming — many of the default rationalizations that hockey leaders reach for when it comes to arguing that fighting is a necessity feel increasingly unconvincing. Less than plausible. Derek Boogaard (66 fights) died in 2011, followed by an appalling succession of other, too-young former fighters, some by suicide, other by “natural” causes: Wade Belak (136), Rick Rypien (38), Steve Montador (69), Todd Ewen (150).

Checking back in on Gary Bettman, he has at least updated the technological metaphor that his league uses to help stall on the status quo. “The threat of fighting,” he earnestly told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa in 2019, “has people believe it’s an important thermostat in the game.”

•••

Is there another sport with a literature so swollen with the memoirs of so many of its lesser talents? Can you name any other game that takes such serious interest in players whose main role and renown is in straying beyond the rules of play? Hockey’s goons are often, of course, beloved as teammates, fêted by fans. Tie Domi (278), Georges Laraque (142), John Scott (44), Bob Probert (242): all of them were celebrities in skates and out. Fans chanted their names, wore sweaters bearing their names and numbers; why wouldn’t they now buy the autobiographies the hockey fighters publish?

That they do is not surprising, or controversial. It’s not news that fans revere role players like Shawn Thornton, the latest heavily penalized NHLer, a puncher in 168 fights, to publish an autobiography. As Terry Ryan, an experienced hockey combatant in his own right (4 NHL fights) as well as a vivid storyteller, has written that hockey players who make a business of punching are “some of the most interesting, funny, charismatic players you’ll ever come across in sports,” as well as “the most genuine and charitable.” Do you have to deny that to wonder why it’s an argument in favour of keeping fighting in the game? You don’t.

•••

In his cocksure 2017 memoir Offside, Sean Avery (83 fights) tells how he once smoked a joint with actress Scarlett Johansson, also kissed her, and “gave her a bit of unexpected sass.” Tie Domi’s Shift Work (2015) explores the author’s views on manscaping, and divulges that he was the very first NHLer to own a Blackberry.

The literature of hockey enforcement, it’s fair to say, contains multitudes.

Some memoirs are livelier than others, more insightful, forthright, better-written. Georges Laraque’s self-titled 2011 foray, for instance. The son of Haitian immigrants, the former Edmonton Oiler winger reflects on the violence he faced from his own father and the racism that poisoned his childhood in Montreal. No-one he knew as a boy believed it was possible that he’d grow up to play in the NHL, “because of the colour of my skin, a colour that would never be suitable for the whiteness of the ice.” Hockeyfights.com tallies Laraque’s NHL combats at 142, and he spends plenty of time talking about those — when he’s not weighing in on why he’s vegan, his commitment to animal rights, or his time as deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada.

In The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior (2019), Stu Grimson (207 NHL fights) offers a thoughtful and often surprising accounting of hockey violence — and of his Christian faith and the peace it’s brought him. “Not everyone could reconcile that I was a Christian whose job involved hurting others,” he writes. He never saw a contradiction: “Who better than Christian to take on the role of protector?”

Pain Killer: A Memory of Big League Addiction (2021) is a harrowing chronicle of the toll that hockey fighting took on Brantt Myhres (58 fights). He survived his addictions and built back a life, he tells us, which makes his book something of a companion to Boy On Ice, John Branch’s devastating 2014 account of the life of Derek Boogaard’s tragic trajectory that ended with his death, in 2011, from an overdose of painkillers and alcohol.

Sean Avery’s is as frank as any of the hockey-fighter memoirs, but if that’s a solace, it’s a sour one. Avery has many titillating tales to share in Offside, lots of disdain to distpense, scores to settle; what’s not entirely clear is what it was — ego? arrogance? — that curdled his personality and left him wandering the world as Not A Nice Person.

The further you trail back with these memoirists, the less defensive they are on the page. “Hockey’s a fast game and tempers flare real quickly,” the late Dave Semenko (73) explains in Looking Out For Number One (1989). “That’s when the fighting comes in. It only lasts a little while. You don’t see a lot of guys getting hurt from it. The majority of times you’ll get your equipment messed up and that’s about it.”

Other than Dave Schultz, these are authors without regrets. “If I could, I’d do it all over again,” Chris Nilan declares in Fighting Back. “Wouldn’t change a thing.” That’s right before he talks about “swimming in alcohol and burying myself in pills” to deal with the pain he still suffers, 29 years after he last played in the NHL.”

The enforcers don’t generally lash out at fighting critics, either. Rob Ray (248 fights) is one of the few to come out whingeing about people who don’t (as he writes) “get it.”

Ray punched people for a living, but he didn’t just punch people. How was it his fault if people watching NHL games didn’t bother to learn that hockey’s “intangibles don’t get printed on the scoresheet.” And hey, parents: it wasn’t his job to be a role model, or to teach kids the difference between right and wrong.

As might be seen to befit his blue-collar roots as an Irish kid from Oshawa, Ontario, Shawn Thornton isn’t blaming anyone, or shifting his focus too far beyond his own understanding of the value (and values) of hard work and personal responsibility. Thornton, who’s 44, played 14 NHL seasons, winning two Stanley Cup championships along the way. He seems like a stand-up guy, a stout family man, a good friend, great teammate. It’s easy to cheer for him, if only because, well, everybody’s doing it, all through the book. Plumped by fond tributes from many former colleagues Fighting My Way To The Top, published in the fall of 2021, often has the feel of a going-away card that’s made its way around the office ahead of the retirement of a cherished co-worker — supposing that at your office you now and then bare your knuckles over by the copier.

“I knew full well the job I signed up to do,” Thornton writes. “I did what I had to do.” Why? Because “the game is a pressure cooker, and fighting helps remove the lid and relieve some of that pressure.” Being a sous-chef in charge of crockpots wasn’t easy, Thornton explains in his entirely affable way. It was actually hard, kind of like being a cop, or working in a steel factory, sometimes the anxiety made it hard to sleep at night, sometimes a teammate got hurt, which meant Thornton had a duty to do, that he did, even if sometimes that meant fighting friends who played for other teams, who then got hurt, he hurt them, unfortunately, nobody wanted that, but, hey: “It was just part of the job.”

The reward? Well, Thornton was, of course, paid well, a handsome US$3-million for his last three seasons in the NHL, though that doesn’t come up in the book. Respect is the currency that he seems to value over most others, and he sounds satisfied that he earned his share as an NHLer.

Thornton doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to tutor the next generation, which, I guess, counts as some kind of progress. Because whether you’re an eager student or not, these books do, taken together, amount to some of kind of masterclass in hockey fighting. John Ferguson: “When I fought, I liked to keep my hands moving and get my legs set wide apart.” Bob Probert: “The fights I did best in were the ones I was truly mad and upset.” Dave Schultz: “My technique was predicated on getting my right arm free to swing at my opponent.” Sean Avery: “My strategy is to be tactical and to not actually get hit, but to show patience until BOOM you can catch your opponent with a solid punch after he’s thrown four or five wild ones and is starting to get tired.”

If it isn’t outlandish enough that sentences like those are a recurring feature of Canadian letters, wait until you get into what the fighters are writing about their own breakages and the prospects of what the future might hold.

“My situation went from bad to nightmarish when he connected with three left-hand jackhammer punches to my face,” Stu Grimson confides. Rob Ray: “I broke my knuckles fighting against Ottawa’s Dennis Vial in 1994. I had my jaw broken, and all the disks in my jaw are gone.” (Vial’s fight total, since we’re keeping score: 87.)

In some of the memoirs published since signs of CTE were discovered  in Reggie Fleming’s brain,  the enforcers gaze grimly into the future. “Getting hit repeatedly in the head is a bad thing that happens repeatedly,” Chris Nilan allows in the opening chapter of his Fighting Back. “The trauma has to do lasting damage.”

Tie Domi bustles by, quick as he can. “I am not one of those people who can weigh in on concussions or the other health issues that some guys in hockey are going through.” That’s Shawn Thornton’s line, too, more or less: “I see that some people express concerns about head trauma, concussions, CTE … But as I said earlier, we all sign up for this and we all get the benefits of being NHL players.”

Saddest of all might be Rob Ray, who published Rayzor’s Edge in 2007, when he was 39: “I try to hope that medical technology will have improved enough in the future so that they’ll be able to fix me up when I’m older.”

•••

Questions, questions.

If hockey’s fighting is so dreadful, why has it endured so long? Aren’t the fighters consenting adults? How come fans all leap to their feet every time the fists flurry? Doesn’t the violence sometimes enliven a team that’s lost its mojo; can’t a punch-up change the energy of a game?

I’ve heard the answers, mulled them. Do they contain compelling arguments for maintaining the status quo when it comes to fighting? I don’t see them. Any of those, for me, are superseded by the potential for harm that every bare-knuckle fight presents. No matter what messages need sending, there has to be a better way.

Does the NHL’s own Department of Player Safety have an opinion on this? Not to mention (may I just mention) the official NHL rulebook. If you’re dipping into the statutes contained therein at all, I’d suggest you bypass the five pages of hows and wherefores relating to Rule 46, the league’s official ordinance on fighting. Instead, I’d direct you to Rule 21, which governs match penalties. The latter is much more succinct in stipulating the fate of any player who attempts to injure another — out of the game, gone. Intent doesn’t figure in; you only need to be attempting to do harm. What is a punch in the head if not an attempt to injure? But no NHL fight, Zacks-only or otherwise, ends with match penalties, and no-one is surprised by — or even discusses — the league’s ongoing willful flouting of its own explicit regulations.

Earlier this year, in another NHL season, Zack Kassian missed 17 games after breaking a hand punching an Ottawa defenceman. In the aftermath of his more recent October fight, he was ready to ready to return to Edmonton’s line-up just a week after hitting his head on the ice.

“It’s an unfortunate injury,” shrugged his coach, Dave Tippett (1 NHL fight as a player). “You can get hurt with by a shot, you can get hurt in a fight. Injuries happen in hockey. Always, all different ways, not just fighting.”

Kassian himself was just grateful. “It’s an emotional game and things boil over,” he told reporters. “Obviously when you see pictures of my situation, first thing that comes to mind is stop fighting. But fighting’s been in the game a very long time, it’s what makes hockey unique.”

He owed so much to punching and being punched, Kassian said. “It’s one of my attributes that made me a unique player. It’s given my family a great life and it’s something I enjoy doing.”

Why.

Emptied Benches: A meeting of Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden during the 1977-78 NHL season.

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total prose, that’s what I’m here for

Crease Crouch: Born in Toronto on a Saturday of this date in 1945, Al Smith tended goals in the NHL for Leafs, Penguins, Red Wings, Sabres, Whalers, and Rockies in the 1960s, ’70s, and into the ’80s. Pictured here in the fall of 1978, he was also a star in the WHA with New England, and thereby an inaugural member of the league’s Hall of Fame. A busy writer, too, in his later years. Al Smith died at the age of 56 in 2002.

 

win column

“When the parade was held along the usual route (on Ste-Catherine St., heading east from the Forum), Westmount matrons, wandering hippies, downtown businessmen and fiery separatists were all linked, for one sun-splashed May afternoon, in cheering on their heroes, who were notable for their pallid winter complexions and the welts and bruises visible on their faces, necks and forearms.”

That’s Jack Todd, writing in Montreal’s Gazette earlier this week about the Montreal Canadiens and the unlikely Stanley Cup they won in May of 1971. Do me a favour (and yourself, too), and cast a cursor over to his accounting of how young Ken Dryden and Jean Béliveau, older, rustled up another Cup championship

Canadiens wrapped up the series on May 18, 1971, when they beat the Black Hawks 3-2 at Chicago Stadium to take the Cup in seven games. The following day, another Wednesday of this very date, the happy Habs took to the streets of Montreal to greet some 500,000 of their (also happy) fans. Above, that’s a fine-looking Frank Mahovlich en route that day; below are his fellow wingers John Ferguson and brother Peter. 

(Images: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM94-Ed041-071, VM94-Ed041-033)

farewell the forum

Castle On Cabot Square: An architectural rendering of the Forum’s 1960s-era renovation.

It was 25 years ago, on a Monday of this date in 1996, that Montreal’s Canadiens took a final turn on the ice of the famous Forum. They beat the Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1, for the record, though the game itself was truly the undercard for the pre- and post-game ceremonies by which Canadiens bade farewell to the arena that was their home for 72 years and some 3,500 games. A crowd of former Canadiens was on hand that night, including 20 Hall-of-Famers. Guy Lafleur and Jean Béliveau were on hand for the game’s ceremonial opening face-off, and when Maurice Richard joined them at centre ice, the crowd stood and cheered for ten glorious minutes.

I was there that night, high up at the north end, Section 601, with the overflow press, near where they used to keep the ghosts. I won’t say that I was there under false pretenses, though it’s true that I may have stretched those same pretenses to accommodate my powerful need to witness and distill the history unfolding … I mean, Émile Bouchard was out there on the ice, for Gump Worsley’s sake — and of course Gump was there, too. Both Butches Bouchard, in fact, father and son!! Mahovliches, major and minor! Lach and Reardon and Moore, Henri Richard, Savard and Lapointe, Ferguson, Shutt, Dryden, Cournoyer! It was unbelievable.

I was freelancing for The Financial Post in those years, reporting for the paper’s arts section from several non-fiscal sectors — that is, I wrote book and movie reviews, travel features. The Post didn’t need me covering a hockey game, even a historic one, but I was able to convince my editor that the auction on the day after that Forum finale was enough of a business story to demand my presence. The Canadiens didn’t mind accommodating me — or if they did, they didn’t mention it. (The feature I filed is here.)

Ezra Soiferman was at the Forum that night, too, and he was toiling harder than I was. It may be that we passed one another in the halls as the old arena’s time as the home of the Habs expired; it’s possible. A Montreal filmmaker and photographer, he attended the game as a guest of Forum anthem-singer André Ouellet.

Soiferman took some 250 images as he wandered the arena that night. It wasn’t until 2016 that he collected some of them into a book, which he published privately to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Canadiens’ departure for the Molson (now Bell) Centre. Other than the cover image, below, and a photo of a Guy Lafleur greeting Ouellet, there’s nary a hockey player in it: this particular album is filled with last glimpses of fans and ushers, custodians and purveyors of chiens chauds, security guards, corridors, stairwells, seats, doorways, escalators, grey girders, and — yes — urinals. It’s an odd, honest, altogether charming chronicle of a venerable old arena on one night at the end of an era.

a lot can happen in thirty-four seconds

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It’s been coming around every year on this day, since 1972, and every year we duly give bow our heads and give our thanks while observing the anniversary with small gestures of national relief (whew, we almost lost) and self-congratulation (wow, are we great). Yes, that’s right, on this day, September 28, 44 years ago, 34 seconds remained in the final ill-tempered game of the long grim Summit Series pitting many of Canada’s best hockey players against a squad of the Soviet Union’s. The clock at the Palace of Sports of the Central Lenin Stadium stopped at 19:26 of the third period, you’ll recall: that’s when Paul Henderson scored his timely goal to give the Canadians a 6-5 lead in the game. Accounts of the series describe the euphoria of that moment; they also tell of how the remainder of the game unfolded. A sampling of the latter, including a touch of the former:

Roy MacSkimming
Cold War: The Amazing Canada-Soviet Hockey Series of 1972 (1996) by Roy MacSkimming

The Canadian bench empties. Even Dryden goes lumbering all the way down the rink to join the ecstatic mob of white sweaters hugging, patting, squeezing and slapping Henderson.

The Soviets skate sluggishly about, stunned, their faces drained of hope, their cause apparently lost. Yet thirty-four seconds remain to play, and the Soviets are gifted with the power to score a sudden goal. It’s easy to imagine them tying this one up in thirty-four seconds, thus tying the series, and going on to claim victory on goal-differential.

Sinden stays with Stapleton, who was on the ice for the goal along with Savard. He sends out White and his two steadiest defensive forwards, Ellis and Peter Mahovlich, to join the indefatigable Esposito. The five don’t let the Soviets anywhere near Dryden. Even the Soviets themselves go halfheartedly through the motions, as if they don’t really expect to score. As if it were somehow ordained the Canadians would win.

With Gusev the last Soviet player to touch the puck, with the Canadian fans absolutely roaring out the countdown of the final seconds, Dryden hands off to Stapleton. Carefully, Stapleton carries the puck behind his net and passes up the boards to Mahovlich as the final horn sounds. Mahovlich lets the puck go by, Stapleton races after it, and the fans, as Foster Hewitt says, go wild.

Brad Park
Straight Shooter: The Brad Park Story (2012) by Brad Park and Thom Sears

When Paul Henderson scored the winning goal, I was on the bench. I had just got off the ice, maybe 20 seconds before. When he scored the winner, I was jumping out of my jockstrap!

Dennis Hull
The Third Best Hull (2013) by Dennis Hull and Robert Thompson

After Henderson scored, the whole team jumped out on the ice, but the game wasn’t over and Harry knew it. There were still 34 seconds remaining, but the Russians never really tried after Paul scored. They were finished. They didn’t pull the goalie, they didn’t rush, they didn’t give it all their effort.

Paul Henderson
Shooting For Glory (1997) by Paul Henderson with Mike Leonetti

I skated back to the bench and told Sinden, “Harry, I’m done.” I knew I couldn’t play those last 34 seconds. I was physically and emotionally drained. In any event, we held them off to win 6-5 and take the series four wins to three wit one game tied.

Ron Ellis
How Hockey Explains Canada: The Sport That Defines a Country (2012), by Jim Prime and Paul Henderson

When Paul scored that goal, I was one of the first guys over the boards. We were all huddled together. We started chanting, ‘We did it, we did it …’ but we still had 34 seconds to kill off. I was actually very honoured. Harry Sinden sent Pete Mahovlich and myself and Phil Esposito on to kill off that final 34 seconds. I remember Paul saying to me when the game was over, ‘That guy wasn’t going to go anywhere.’ I had him so wrapped up! For me, for myself I was pleased that Harry had enough confidence in me because a lot can happen in 34 seconds.

Jack Ludwig
Moscow Diary (1972) by Jack Ludwig

In time the game began again, but it was all count-down, the longest loudest triumphant cry-out numbers may have ever received. “O Canada” roared out suddenly: Canadians for this moment softened, and gave up trying to sound like a lynch mob.

In the final seconds it was the tour’s end, wedding, anniversary, christening, bar mitzvah, birth, birthday, New Year’s Eve, carnival, Day of Misrule — yes, and the Dieppe that ended with V-E Day!

Paul Henderson
The Goal of My Life (2012) by Paul Henderson with Roger Lajoie

I went back to the bench exhausted. I said, “Harry, I’m done, the tank is empty!” There was no way I was going back out there for the final thirty-four seconds. We killed those seconds off, the clock wound down, and we had the greatest victory of our lives. We were desperate to win and it showed, and that was the difference really. We didn’t want to go don in history as the team that couldn’t lose to the Russians but did … and thanks to that third-period rally, we didn’t!

Phil Esposito
Thunder and Lightning: A No B.S. Memoir (2003) by Phil Esposito and Peter Golenbock

After Pauly scored, we were ahead for the first time with only thirty-four seconds left in the game. I figured Harry Sinden wanted me to come out, but I looked at him like, Don’t you dare take me out. I was determined not to let them score.

I never left the ice. I was not going off until the whistle blew. I was bad that way, but I could not help myself. I felt I had to stay out there.

The puck came around the back of our net, and I got it, and I looked up to see that the time was running out, and when the horn blew, I looked up and cheered, and all the Team Canada players on the ice went crazy. The trumpeter from the Montreal Forum was sitting in the stands blowing loudly, and the Canadian fans in the stands — three thousand of them — were going crazy.

When the game ended I found myself right beside Ken Dryden, and I grabbed him. All the guys came over. The emotion we all felt more than anything else was relief.

I skated past the Russian coach, Kulagin, a big fat guy with a fat face who we nicknamed “Chuckles.” I said, “Too fucking bad, you fucking Commie prick.”

Harry Sinden
Hockey Showdown: The Canada-Russia Hockey Series (1972) by Harry Sinden

As I remember it now, we didn’t believe it for a split second. Our bench seemed to freeze. Maybe it was too good to be true. Suddenly, all the players were over the boards smothering Henderson. I looked at the clock — 34 seconds. I thought we had more time left than that, but I wished it were only four. I got the players who were going to be on the ice for the final half minute — Ellis, Espo, Peter — and told them not to take any chances. Just dump the puck out of the zone and keep them at center ice. The Russians never came close. When the game ended, Fergie, Eagleson, and I threw our arms around one another and ran across the ice like little kids. It’s a wonder we didn’t break our necks. I kept telling them, “Never in doubt, was it, fellas?”

Ken Dryden
Face-Off At The Summit (1973) by Ken Dryden with Mark Mulvoy

Then I realized there were still thirty-four seconds to play. The Russians had scored twice in nine seconds the other night. It was, without doubt, the longest thirty-four seconds I have ever played. It seemed like thirty-four days, but after everything we had been through, we weren’t going to let anything crush us now. We checked furiously and they never got off a decent shot. It was over. 6-5. The Canadians were singing “O Canada” in the stands and waving their miniature Canadian flags. And then they started that incessant cheer: “We’re No. 1, We’re No. 1.”

We are.

34

(Top photo: Frank Lennon, Library and Archives Canada, e010933343; Headline: The Globe and Mail, September 29, 1972)

apples and oranges, sugar for the brothers

mahovlichesFrank Mahovlich was a better reader than brother Pete, comic books first, then later storybooks. Frank did pretty well in school as a boy; Pete, well, he needed a push. Sorry, Peter. “Peter was smart, but he just didn’t want to do it.”

That from the boys’ mother, Cecilia, in 1971, when a weekend magazine got her talking about what her wingers were like as children. They were both skating for Montreal at the time. Frank was 33, Pete 24; both, by then, had long since given up the violin. Once, said Mrs. M, they really had loved to play. “In fact, they would give me hell if I forgot to tell them it was time to practice.”

Frank liked to play with guns, while Pete was more of a trucks man. “They were good boys,” testified their mother, “and did everything they were supposed to do.” Although:

Peter watched too much television, and drank too much pop, and chewed gum. Frank was better about that. He ate a lot of apples and oranges.

Frank was never much of a help to young Peter — he just told him to protect himself.

The Bigger M made his debut for Toronto back in the 1956-57 season. It was almost ten years before M the Littler followed him into the league, with Detroit. It was the fall of 1966 when they first played against one another as NHLers. First there was an exhibition, in Kitchener, where Pete prevailed — well, he scored a goal, at least, while Frank cracked his ribs. At the end of October, at Maple Leaf Gardens, the two met again in a regular season game.

“Brand X” was what 20-year-old Pete was calling himself that year. His brother was, at 28, an established star, three times a Stanley Cup-winner, with a Calder Trophy and a couple of First All-Star selections to his name. At Toronto’s Daily Star, Milt Dunnell profiled Pete the day after the Leafs beat the Wings 3-2:

The younger Mahovlich is as different from brother Frank as the ace of hearts is from the ace of diamonds. Where Frank is shy and reserved, Pete is an extrovert and a package of personality.

Also, he could eat. So Red Wings’ defenceman Gary Bergman told Dunnell: “That Pete Mahovlich eats doubles of everything. What an eater — world champion and only 20.”

The Leafs’ season would end that years with another Stanley Cup, but at this point it was only three games old, and the win was their first of the campaign. They were leading 2-0 after two periods on goals by John Brenneman and Kent Douglas. Then in the intermission goaltender Terry Sawchuk got a message to call home to Detroit, where his mother-in-law was seriously ill, and while he wasn’t looking for excuses, he did say later that he had a bad feeling heading into the third, wherein Paul Henderson scored within the first minute and then again a little, though Eddie Shack scored, too, for the Leafs, so not to worry.

“The big thing is we won,” said Sawchuk, the game’s first star, “and the news from home wasn’t as bad as I expected.”

Johnny Bower had played the first two games of the Leafs against the New York Rangers, a tie and a loss. Sawchuk’s summer had included back surgery in June and though he was feeling good when he arrived at Toronto’s Peterborough training camp in September, that didn’t last.

“Physical and mental fatigue set in,” he said. “I hated the sight of pads, skates and the ice: wanted to chuck the whole thing. I walked in on Imlach one Saturday and told him I’d had the course.”

Punch Imlach, the Leafs’ coach and GM. He talked to Sawchuk, calmed him, told him he could set his own schedule. Sawchuk: “You have to stick and stay for a guy like that. Punch may trade me tomorrow but I’ll still say he was great for me.”

He felt like a rookie, to the start the night. “I had the jitters when I skated out before that crowd. But after the first few shots I was okay. I know my back will stand the gaff.”

Mrs. Mahovlich was in that crowd, along with her husband, Peter, Sr. That’s them, above. “They would root for the Big M when he had the puck,” The Daily Star reported, “and go through the same routine when young Pete stepped out.” Neither of the younger Mahovliches made any impression on the score sheet. Frank had missed the first two games of the season, too, suspended by the team in contract dispute. Before that, he’d been out rehabilitating those cracked ribs. So Imlach excused his muted showing. (Adding to Frank’s woes: he fell on an elbow, needed five stitches to close the cut.)

He said he didn’t notice Pete too much. Pete said, sure, yes, he was a little self-conscious, playing against his big brother. Of their dad, Frank said, “He wasn’t rooting, just hoping for both of us. And that’s the way it should be.”

The brothers did end up winning two Stanley Cups together, as Canadiens, in 1971 and ’73. It was in the opening game of the latter championship series that both Frank and Pete scored in an 8-3 win over the Chicago Black Hawks. Ted Blackman of Montreal’s Gazette told of Peter Sr. arriving in the Habs’ jubilant dressing room after the game:

Pete spotted him in the midst of reporters and hollered something in Croatian, then translated for the benefit of the bystanders. “Cut the gab, Dad, and get up some sugar for the brothers,” he whooped.

Mr. Mahovlich stuck a paw in his pants and pulled out a wad of U.S. dollars. He peeled off one for Peter and gave him another fro brother Frank. Twenty years out of short pants and these $100,000 athletes are still taking allowance from an old miner?

“I pay my boys one dollar for each goal I see,” Pete Sr. explained. “Not for games I don’t go to, only those where I’m there. See, my boys must get me tickets or they don’t get a dollar.”

tinsmiths and bakers, five-foot-one butchers

Johns Ferguson, Sr. & Jr.

It’s good to have a dad. If you don’t have one there’s no way you can make pro. That’s too bad but that’s just the way it is.
Pete McCormack, Understanding Ken (1998)

Hockey fathers are titans, if you read back into the game’s histories and its biographies and memoirs, that’s what you find, the fathers are like characters from folklore. They have bear-paw hands[1] and their strength earns them the nickname Magilla Gorilla.[2] If they felt like it, they could trace their ancestry back to the Duke of Rutland.[3]

They’re painters and five-foot-one butchers. [4] They’re tinsmiths with the MacDonald Sheet Metal Company in Winnipeg, as strong as an ox, and one day they knock a man down, one punch, at the corner of Selkirk and MacGregor, and then the man’s pal comes along, name of China Pete, and studies the downed man and says it’s Harry Dillon, the light heavyweight boxing champion.[5] Or else they work for the CNR in Lucknow, Ontario, in the wintertime, where they singlehandedly lift back onto the road a car that has skidded off. Once, on a dare, they hoist a 600-pound salt barrel onto a scale.[6] They’re excellent swimmers, and compete in three Olympics: 1968, 1972, 1976.[7] At one point they own a Coca-Cola franchise and then a Kuntz’s Brewery franchise out of Waterloo, Ontario. They have two big Geoffesson trucks.[8] They’re pleasant-looking men – five-foot-eight with brown hair, grey eyes, and head tilted at a jaunty angle to the right. Nobody wants to embarrass them, so they never ask the reason for the jaunty tilt.[9] They have no affinity for Americans. If they’re driving from Ontario to Saskatchewan in the summertime, even though it would make for a shorter trip, they refuse to travel through the United States.[10] One of their hobbies was mice.[11] They’re maintenance men at a textile factory in Ruzomberok.[12] They’re machinists in the Angus Shops of the Canadian Pacific Railway in east-end Montreal,[13] and also they’re bakers in Chicoutimi.[14] During the years when their son George is captain of the Maple Leafs, they work in Sudbury’s mines for Falconbridge and if a co-worker abuses Toronto, the fathers of hockey players piss on the heads of the abusers as they come up in a cage from underground.[15] Continue reading