Frank Mahovlich scored a pair of goals on this date in 1968, the day of his 30thbirthday, powering his Toronto Maple Leafs to a 2-1 win over the visiting Detroit Red Wings. But the man they called the Big M wasn’t long for the Leafs at that point: a little more than a month later, after almost 12 years in the blue-and-white, Mahovlich was traded to those very same Wings in a seven-player deal. Heading for Detroit with him were Pete Stemkowski, and Garry Unger (along with Carl Brewer’s rights); the return for the Leafs was Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith, Norm Ullman, and Doug Barrie.
Born in 1938 in Timmins, Ontario, Mahovlich grew up to be a golden boy in Toronto, of course, starting in the mid-1950s with a starring Junior-A role as a St. Michael’s Major. Profiled by Hockey Pictorial’s Margaret Scott after he won the Calder Trophy in 1958 as the NHL’s superlative rookie, Mahovlich divulged his boyhood heroes (Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay) and discussed what he liked to eat on a game-day (steak at lunch, eggs around four o’clock). In terms of his record collection, well, he admitted a partiality for musicals like Oklahoma! and the “semi-classical” stylings of Mantovani. An “enthusiastic” dancer, Mahovlich acknowledged that no-one had to coax him onto a dancefloor, unless the music playing was rock ’n’ roll. “I guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music,” he told Scott. “Something nice and quiet and not too fast.”
The impact that Mahovlich continued to have as a Leaf left winger is hard to overstate. Twice named to the NHL’s First All-Star team, he featured on a very good Toronto team that would win four Stanley Cups in six years through the 1960s. Writing in Maclean’sin ’61, Peter Gzowski thought he could be a defining figure in NHL history, the rightful heir to Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. At 23, Mahovlich was, Gzowski felt, “making an honest, exciting and, it appears now, worthy bid to claim the new era for his own.” Even if that didn’t quite work out as planned, The Globe and Mail’s Louis Cauz had no trouble deeming him “the most productive goalscorer the Leafs have ever had.”
That was in 1967. Earlier the same year, Leaf legend King Clancy offered this on Mahovlich: “He’s as nice a man as I’ve ever known in this game. Perhaps that is his trouble. He has the talent to be the greatest hockey player who ever lived, if only he was a little meaner. But he isn’t, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”
For all the goals scored and the Stanley Cups hoisted, it’s true that life as a Leaf came with a cost for Mahovlich, who was twice treated in the 1960s for what the papers variously termed “emotional breakdown,” “tension,” and “nervous depressions.” The second time, in the fall of ’67, Mahovlich missed 11 games. Gordie Howe was one who weighed in with a diagnosis at the time — of the Leaf faithful. “If Toronto fans would appreciate his great talent and give him the cheers he deserves, instead of booing him, maybe the pressure wouldn’t cook the guy.”
Mahovlich had his ups and his downs when he returned to the fold in ’67, dominating one night, lagging some others. The boos continued. Leafs coach and GM Punch Imlach was said to be dissatisfied, too, with Mahovlich’s defensive play, and by time Imlach sent him to Detroit in March of ’68 all the talk of rifts between coach and fans and player meant that the trade didn’t come as a surprise to many.
That’s not to say it didn’t traumatize Toronto. Indignant fans jammed the switchboard at Maple Leaf Gardens with complaining calls the morning the deal was announced, while others out in front of the rink stopped traffic on Carlton Street with their moody milling. In the wake of the trade’s announcement, The Globe and Mail reported that shares in MLG Inc. fell by $1.50 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
For Mahovlich, the shift to Gordie Howe’s Red Wings was as good (on the ice) as a rest: he would thrive in Detroit, scoring a career-high 49 goals the following season, 1968-69. He eventually went to Montreal, where he enjoyed his best years, statistically, in a three-and-a-half-year stint that saw him help Canadiens to Stanley Cup championships in 1971 and ’73. Mahovlich played three seasons in the WHA after that, returning to Toronto as a Toro in 1975 before following the team when they moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and reconstituted as Bulls.
Lightly interrogated by Norman Brown for the 1965 edition of Canadian Boy, a magazine published by the Boy Scouts of Canada, Mahovlich had said he thought he had another eight years of hockey in him. “I don’t know. I’d say I might quit around 34 or 35.”
As it was, he was 41 in the fall of 1979 when he made a bid to return to the NHL with the Red Wings before deciding that it wasn’t to be. “He gave it everything he had,” said Detroit coach Bobby Kromm. “When the exhibition games were over, he came to us and said he didn’t think he could hack it. I’m glad it happened that way, that we didn’t have to go to him. He was a great player.”
Officials at the game charged with breaking up such fights let this one run its course. Showing instincts toward self-preservation, neither linesman chose to step between the pair of 200-pounders as they flailed freely with their fists.
“I never saw one like it,” says goalie Terry Sawchuk, who had a ringside seat when the action exploded behind his net.
• Marshall Dann, The Detroit Free Press, February 2, 1959
Today in concussion history: it was on this day in 1959 that Gordie Howe put his fist into Lou Fontinato’s face, and hard. “The most famous single punch in NHL history,” Peter Gzowksi called it. If that’s true, the fame might not have been spread so far and so wide if Life magazine hadn’t broadcast the news so graphically across the United States and beyond two weeks later.
It’s certainly a tale much (if not always consistently) told. The Detroit Red Wings were in New York to play the Rangers. With the home team out to a 4-1 win near the end of the first period, Fontinato, 27 at the time, skated over to talk to Howe, 30, at a face-off — “warned him about something or the other,” Marshall Dann reported. When the puck dropped, Howe soon ran into his shadow for the evening, Eddie Shack. Howe cross-checked him or just “whacked” him; descriptions differ. (“Shack got his hair parted … from Howe’s stick,” is yet another view.) They, in the hockey parlance, tussled, but didn’t fight. As Howe wrote in several of his memoirs, his history with Fontinato included the high stick with which he’d cut Fontinato’s ear earlier that season, so he wasn’t surprised when Fontinato dropped his stick and came skating at him from 20 feet away.
Howe saw him coming and ducked Fontinato’s first fist. Gzowski didn’t quite get it right: Howe pluralized his punch. Howe: “I hit him with everything I had as hard and as often as possible.” Dann: he “loaded up and started with a steady stream of right uppercuts. He got Fontinato’s uniform by the left hand and pulled it half off, cutting down Lou’s return punches.”
Howe said he changed hands, and then dislocated a finger. That hurt “like a son of a gun,” according to the account in 2014’s My Story, wherein ghostwriter Paul Haavardsrud streamlined and gently updated an earlier effort at autobiography, and … Howe! (1995). Of regrets, the latter admits none: “Did I feel sorry for him? No. We’d gone at one another for years.” Nineteen years later, the official Howe line was slightly softened: “It didn’t make me happy to see Louie in such bad shape, but I can’t say I feel sorry for him. That might make me sound cold-hearted, but to my way of thinking he was just doing his job and I was doing mine.”
Fontinato didn’t leave any memoirs, but he did talk to reporters in the days after the damaging. He shared his opening statement to Howe with the Associated Press: “ ‘Keep your stick to yourself,’ I tells him.” As for his nose: “It’s been broken four times before and there’s hardly any bone there. It’s very easy to push out of place.”
Fontinato also made his case to Tony Saxon of The Guelph Mercury in 2006. “I know one thing,” he said then. “A lot of people thought I lost that fight, but I didn’t. I probably threw ten punches to his one. Then I look up to see what damage I’ve done because I’ve been hammering away for a couple of minutes. I look up and he gets me with one right on the nose.”
The whole affair got a sustained revival in 2016, when Fontinato’s death followed Howe’s by just three weeks. Mentioned in passing in most of the Howe coverage, it was defining anecdote featured in Fontinato’s obituaries. The New York Times included one of Howe’s more uncharitable lines: “That honker of his was right there, and I drilled it.”
“Gordie Howe performed rhinoplasty on Mr. Fontinato’s prominent proboscis with his knuckles,” Tom Hawthorn epitaphed in The Globe and Mail.
Back in 1959, mostly everybody had a go Fontinato’s nose-job. “The bugle was detoured by Gordie Howe” was one of Milt Dunnell’s efforts; “bombed out of commission” was Jimmy Breslin’s contribution on the news-wire.
It’s worth noting just how audible the written record is. Under the headline “Don’t Mess Around With Gordie,” Life’s write-up had an unnamed Red Wing recalling that “Howe’s punches went whop-whop-whop, just like someone chopping wood.”
Frank Udvari was the referee that night, and he either read that and absorbed it into his own experience or thought kindling at the time, too. “Never in my life have I heard anything like it,” he said in 1979, “except maybe the sound of someone chopping wood. Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”
One of the witnesses that Roy MacSkimming canvassed for his 1994 biography Gordie: A Hockey Legend was Red Wings’ trainer Lefty Wilson, who reported what reached him at the bench: “With every blow, you could hear something break — squish, squish.”
Stan Fischler was watching from the Garden press box that night. He’d later describe Howe’s fists moving “like locomotive pistons,” though the sound they made was decidedly equestrian: “Clop! Clop! Clop!”
MacSkimming writes that that the portraits Charles Hoff took for Life juxtaposing Fontinato’s face and Howe’s flex may have shocked “gentle American readers by portraying the vicious side of hockey.” Maybe so, but in Canada and the hockey-knowing northeast United States, it mostly went into the books as just another hockey fight.
A brutal one, to be sure — Detroit coach Sid Abel called it “the fiercest I’ve seen since Jack Stewart battled John Mariucci 15 years ago” — but nothing but nothing so especially out of the run of the league’s ordinary brutality. The headlines were almost cheery, even if the photographs weren’t: “Gordie Convinces Lou With Well-Placed Right” readers in Nanaimo learned a few days after the fact; “Gord Howe’s Fists Too Much For Lou,” advised Toronto’s Daily Star. If Fontinato had been (as the AP put it) the NHL’s reigning “bare-knuckle champion,” it was no longer so, according to much of the coverage. “Howe is champ,” declared the AP. “Another smudge on Lou’s escutcheon,” the Star’s Milt Dunnell wrote, while in The Globe and Mail Jim Coleman warned that “even such peace-loving players” as Alex Delvecchio and Ralph Backstrom would now be emboldened to toss “tentative punches at Fontinato’s sore schnozzle.”
Rangers coach Phil Watson had his own historical benchmark. For him, it was “the best fight I’ve seen since Art Coulter and Dit Clapper tried to cripple each other 20 years ago.” He wasn’t what you’d call entirely pleased, however. “Howe gets away with murder,” he railed after the game. “He cross-checked Shack in the head for three stitches. He’s been doing things like this for years, but the referees won’t give penalties to Howe.”
Watson would have more cause for complaint. Holding steady in playoff contention at the start of February, the Rangers would go 6-13-2 post-clout, ceding the last spot for the post-season to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We never got over Louie’s pasting,” Watson said. “His nose looked like a subway hit it.” Detroit missed out, too, though it’s unclear if that was any solace.
Back on the night itself, 59 years ago, Udvari sent Howe and Fontinato to the penalty to serve out their five-minute majors. Because, well, hockey, both men returned to the ice to play out what ended as a 5-4 Rangers win. “Although he suffered a broken nose and had several heavy bruises on his face,” Marshall Dann reported, “Fontinato finished the game.”
Only afterwards did he check into St. Clare Hospital. “The doctors had to wait until the hemorrhaging stopped before they could operate,” he’d recall. He stayed for two days. Two days after his release, he went with his teammates to Detroit. With the newspapers touting a “rematch,” Fontinato skated in the warm-up but didn’t play. He was back in action a week after that when the teams played again. Wearing a protective mask, he seems to have steered clear of Howe, and Howe of him.
The two men did meet again, in a civilian setting, in April of ’59, when their teams were watching the rest of the NHL partake in the playoffs. Scott Young was there to see Howe offer his hand to Fontinato for shaking. “When Fontinato saw who it was,” Young reported, “he grinned and pulled his own hand back and said, ‘It wasn’t like this the last time!’ and then shook hands with the man who had broken his nose in New York.”
Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.
These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.
There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.
It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.
Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.
This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).
In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.
To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.
Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.
The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.
And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.
Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.
The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:
Goal Scoring Ability
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”
At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”
All of the nine wrote back.
“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.
“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”
King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.
Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.
I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.
I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.
Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:
Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.
Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”
If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:
Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.
Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:
My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.
Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?
Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:
I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.
Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”
I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.
I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.
Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).
When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:
- Howie Morenz
- Maurice Richard
- Bobby Orr
- Gordie Howe
- Bobby Hull
- Jean Béliveau.
Gordie Howe was quite possibly the nicest man you ever met — supposing you ever met him. Wayne Gretzky did, and has said just that, many times, including recently, during the sad week following Howe’s death on June 10. “A special man,” said Dan Robson, someone else who encountered Howe in person. He met a lot of people, over the years, and their consensus has been clear: he was a softspoken prince of man, funny and friendly, gentle, generous with his time, humble and cheerful.
Except at work. On the job, he was a different man: cruel and nasty, pitiless, a danger to navigation. “Mean as a rattlesnake,” Paul Henderson said in memoriam. “Tougher than a night in jail,” according to Brian Burke. Carl Brewer: “The dirtiest player who ever lived.”
“Everybody,” reminisced Rod Gilbert, “was scared of him.”
You’d think he hated his work. You’d guess he’d been forced into it, made to keep at it, couldn’t wait to escape. But no, of course not, quite the contrary — everybody knows that Gordie Howe loved the game that he was so dominantly (and malevolently) good at.
The meanness was a piece of the goodness, integral. Which is to wonder, also: could he have been quite so very good if he’d maintained his civilian decorum on the ice without turning on the viciousness?
No. Or, well — who knows. We assume not. If we ask the question at all, that is. Mostly, we don’t. Mostly we — Canadians especially — understand that this is a game, hockey, that demands a certain savagery. He did what he had to do. Howe talked about this, in his way. “Hockey,” he used to say, “is a man’s game.”
The second time Howe tried an autobiography, with Paul Haavardsrud’s assistance, he talked about self-preservation. “Not only was it hard to make the NHL, but once you broke in, you also had to fight like hell to stay there,” they wrote in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). “When there were only six teams, every player in the league came prepared to claw over his best friend the second the puck dropped.”
“I play tough,” is something else Howe said, in person, in 1974, “but I never hurt somebody.”
Gordie Howe wasn’t the first hockey player to be cast as a peaceable Jekyll who, donning skates, stepping to the ice, transformed into a remorseless Hyde. Not at all: hockey’s narratives note split personalities going back to the beginning of the organized sport. A few years ago, when I was reading all the hockey books, it became a bit of a hobby for me, collecting up variations on the trope. In most cases it’s framed as both an apology for bad on-ice behaviour. It also usually carries an implicit reassurance that a given player’s tranquil off-ice self is the genuine and governing one.
Don Cherry had another theory, which he framed for George Plimpton. Tiger Williams, Bob Kelly, Dave Schultz, Dan Maloney — they were very much alike in their personalities, he explains in Open Net (1981):
“… quiet off the ice, soft-spoken, and semi-shy. I’ve never seen a tough guy off the ice who was a wild man on, nor have I seen a wild man on the ice behave the same way out on the street. It’s one or the other. I guess if you were wild both on and off the ice, they’d park you away in a loony bin somewhere.”
Included in the pages of my book I had a former Leaf hardman, Kris King, talking about how, in his unintimidating time off the ice, he liked to fish and do a bit of charity work. My thick file also features citations of:
• the late Bob Probert, one of the most fearsome fighters in NHL history, “a classic goon,” in one writer’s phrase, who also had enough of a scoring touch to twice record 20-goal season with Detroit. “He was a teddy bear off the ice,” Jeremy Roenick wrote his autobiography, J.R. (2013), “and a fucking animal on the ice.”
When I played against Probert, he seemed like a wild-eyed, vicious thug. But when I played one season with him in Chicago, my attitude about him changed. He seemed like a gentle giant, a pleasant man with a big heart. If you met him in the dressing room, he would strike you as the guy you would want as your neighbour.
• Dave Schultz, one of the heaviest implements in Philadelphia’s toolbox during the bullyish 1970s. Asked for his opinion of Schultz in early 1975, NHL president Clarence Campbell didn’t hesitate: “He denigrates the sport.” An Associated Press feature from that same spring called Schultz “a Teddy Roosevelt type” who “speaks softly and wields a big stick.”
Off the ice, Schultz is a pussycat. He’s not an arguer. As a matter of fact the so-called ‘hammer’ of the Philadelphia Flyers is more of a peacemaker. His blonde wife, Cathy, says so.
If you were introduced to Dave Schultz without knowing he is a hockey player, you’d probably never guess his vocation. He could be a school teacher, an insurance executive. He comes off a low-key guy.
A year earlier, Dick Chapman of Montreal’s Gazette noted that back home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Schultz filled the hours “with things like jigsaw puzzles, building model ships and golf.”
• Ron Harris, a teammate of Howe’s and of Paul Henderson’s in Detroit in the 1960s. “By far the toughest guy in the league,” Henderson wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012). And:
… just like a lot of tough guys — guys like John Ferguson, for example — he was one of the nicest people in the world off the ice. But put a pair of skates on him, and he would get that glaze in his eyes. It’s kind of like Jekyll and Hyde — guys like that become crazy!
The toughness Ronnie added to our team made him really valuable.
The Edmonton Oilers are honouring erstwhile captain, coach, GM and president Glen Sather tonight, ahead of their game against the New York Rangers, for whom he left them. Now 72, the pride of High River, Alberta, oversaw five Oiler Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s, of course, with teams of Gretzkys and Messiers, Kurris and Coffeys, Lowes and Fuhrs, and now a banner bearing his name will hang with theirs in the rafters of Rexall Place.
With Sather stories trending today all around the Alberta capital, you’re advised to take in a few choice offerings from veteran Oiler-watchers like Jim Matheson at The Edmonton Journal and Terry Jones at The Edmonton Sun. The Oilers, too, are savouring Sather at their website.
Peter Gzowski got to know Sather when he spent the 1980-81 season embedded with the young, rising Oilers. His first impressions, from the inimitable book that followed, The Game of Our Lives (1981):
He has light hair and a pale complexion that rouges when he is emotional. When he was a player, his nickname, Slats, which is still used by those who are or would be his friends, occasionally gave way to Tomato. There are blushes on his cheeks tonight.
“I played my first game as a pro in this rink,” he says. “No, wait, I played my first game as a defenceman here.”
Sather sometimes has difficulty remembering the details of his career. He was a prototypical journeyman, a scrapper. In nine seasons, he played for six teams: Boston, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, St. Louis, Montreal, and Minnesota. He racked up an impressive number of penalty minutes, 724, but a paltry number of goals, 80. Wherever he went, he impressed both his coaches and his teammates with his competitive zeal. “You can tell it’s getting close to the playoffs,” Vic Hadfield, then the captain of the New York rangers, wrote in a diary he kept for the season of 1972-73. “Slats is getting bitchy.” Hadfield, the thirty-second highest goal-scorer in NHL history, sits down the pressbox from Sather tonight, smoking a cheroot. In the off-season, he is a successful golf professional, and the owner of substantial golfing real estate. But in hockey he is a part-time scout for the Oilers and Sather is his boss.
“I thought you were a defensive forward,” someone says to Sather.
“Yeah, sure,” he replies. “But sometimes they put me back on defence.” His mind seems to be somewhere else for a moment. “Jeez, I liked playing,” he says. “I always liked playing.”
(1976-77 O-Pee-Chee WHA card image courtesy of Hockey Media)
If you’re going to write a hockey book, I’m going to suggest you do it the way Peter Gzowski did it with The Game of Our Lives. First thing: hook up with a hockey team that’s just about to turn into one of the very best ever to play in the NHL, with a roster that makes room for names like Gretzky, Messier, and Coffey. Two: have Peter Pocklington own that team, so that in the fall of the year you’re publishing your book, he’ll pre-purchase 7,500 copies to give away to people who’ve bought season’s tickets to watch said team.
Pocklington did that in 1981, without having read Gzowski’s chronicle of the ascendant Edmonton Oilers that McClelland & Stewart published just as the team was preparing to win five Stanley Cups in seven years. I’m guessing Pocklington didn’t read the reviews, either, but if he had he would learned that in Gzowski he’d backed a winner. “He has captured everything about hockey,” Christie Blatchford effused in The Toronto Star. “And he’s done it so well, so eloquently, so plainly, that it breaks your heart.”
Readers who hadn’t bought Oilers tickets joined in with Pocklington to make the book a bestseller. Thirty-four years later, it remains one of the most perceptive books yet to have found a place on the hockey shelf.
The Oilers weren’t Gzowski’s first choice as a subject, as it turns out. As a journalist he’d been writing about the game his whole career, both in print at Maclean’s and The Toronto Star and for CBC Radio, on This Country in the Morning and Morningside. The book he first had in mind would focus on an institution that (as he put it) flourished in a time in which it was hard to flourish, one that demanded to be admired and celebrated, that made you feel good just thinking about them, “like a good piece of architecture painting or a Christmas morning.”
The hockey book Gzowski was going to write, first, was about the Montreal Canadiens. Class is what he wanted to call it.
This is all in a letter I was reading not long ago in Peterborough, Ontario. Gzowski was Chancellor of Trent University there from 1999 to 2002, and one of the campus colleges bears his name. I had lunch in the cafeteria on my visit — a Peter Gzowski Burger, no less — before walking back across the bridge over the Otonabee River to Trent’s Archives, where many of Gzowski’s papers are preserved. Studying a plan for a book that never was, I recognized the shadows of another one that he did eventually write.
It’s two pages and a half, Gzowski’s letter, typewritten, on brown paper. It’s a draft of a letter, I should say, much edited and annotated, a little jumbled, certainly unfinalized, pencilled over, xxxxxxx’d, amended. It isn’t dated, but Gzowski talks about joining the Canadiens ahead of the 1978-79 season, so I’ll guess that he was working on it in the early months of ’78. I don’t know if there ever was a second, clean copy, much less whether Gzowski got it enveloped and stamped to send to the man it addresses. That would be Doug Gibson, the esteemed editor, writer, and publisher revered for his work with Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, among many others, not to mention the man who steered Ken Dryden’s The Game to print. He was, at this time, editorial editor of Toronto-based Macmillan of Canada. Continue reading