the five leaf retirements of george armstrong

Born this day in 1930, George Armstrong turns 87 today. He remains, of course, the most recent captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs to have hoisted the Stanley Cup in victory.

That was in May of 1967. Armstrong was 36, with four Cups to show for his 16 NHL seasons. In June, he announced a decision he’d made. “I’m retiring,” he said. “That’s it. It’s taken all my guts to quit. I wasn’t too happy with my year. Sure I played well at the end, but does one month make up for seven bad months?”

There was some question whether would be protecting in the summer’s expansion draft: that was another factor. Still, Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach was said to be shaken by the news. “I don’t accept his resignation,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I don’t even know about it.”

Four days later, after Los Angeles and California, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh had plucked Terry Sawchuck, Bob Baun, Kent Douglas, Brit Selby, Al Arbour, and others from the champions’ roster, Imlach did end up shielding Armstrong, and by September, when the Leafs headed to Peterborough, Ontario, for training camp, the captain was back in the fold.

He admitted to being a little embarrassed. “To say you’re going to quit is easy,” he told Louis Cauz. “It’s harder to do it, especially when hockey has been your whole life.”

He’d been thinking on it all summer. “I can’t pin it down to one day when I suddenly made up my mind. About a month ago, I started watching my weight. Maybe I made up my mind then and I didn’t know it. Subconsciously my mind was made up, though. You’d have to be a psychiatrist to figure it out.”

He played the season and, points-wise, improved on his 1966-67 numbers. He was back at camp in September of ’68, preparing for the new season when he called it quits again. He just didn’t think he could help the team.

The Leafs told him to take some time. “I guess they hope I’ll change my mind,” Armstrong said. “I could. The easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. But right now my mind is more or less made up — I’m through.”

He wasn’t. He ended up rejoining the Leafs in early December.

“When I said I was retiring, I meant it,” he insisted after he’d made his comeback. “I said I was going into the hotel business, but I didn’t try that hard to get into it. I missed hockey and Punch kept asking me to come back.”

Summer of ’69, he decided again that he was finished — no, really.

It didn’t take, though. “I got bored,” he said, back in Peterborough again, come September. “When you’re a hockey player, you don’t lose interest until you die.”

“My mind was more made up to stay retired last year,” he said, “than it was this year.”

He didn’t mind that the Leafs’ named a new captain that fall, Dave Keon. “The C is on the guy who should be wearing it,” he said. After all, Armstrong was only going to play that one last year.

The Globe had lost count of Armstrong’s unsuccessful retirements by the time the 1970 rolled around, announcing that he was ending his third retirement to rejoin the Leafs that fall when in fact it was his fourth.

Never mind. He signed a one-year contract in November, played out the year.

Do I even need to say that he was back getting ready for a new campaign in the fall of ’71? “I feel good,” he said, “and am enjoying camp.”

Coach John McLellan wasn’t making any promises, though. “The Chief is a tremendous guy to have around,” he said, “great with the younger players.”

“But he has to beat out a young guy and right now that looks like a rough job.”

He was still in the picture as the new season approached. “He is skating every day in Toronto,” the coach said, “and would be ready if we called him.”

It didn’t work out, in the end. It was mid-October when the Leafs announced that George Armstrong would be packing his skates away for a fifth and final time, and joining Leafs’ management as a scout.

(Image, from 1963: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505690)

you naturally hope it can turn things around: a field guide to hiring and firing boston coaches

Rodden + Patrick 1935 Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Boards Meeting: Boston coach Frank Patrick, at his command post on the Bruin bench, confers with referee Mike Rodden at the Garden, c. 1935. This was still a time before coaches patrolled behind the bench and their players; mostly, they sat alongside them. (Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Claude Julien lost his job as coach of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday. GM Don Sweeney announced the news at 8 a.m. in a written statement, and then followed that with a press conference a few hours later. Whether or not they agreed with the decision to dump the coach, many Boston fans and commentators found the whole business distasteful if not outright insulting to the city and all it stands for: the New England Patriots, after all, were parading in Boston that very day to celebrate Sunday’s Super Bowl victory.

Sweeney, as you would, looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, in any historical period. He apologized for the poor timing, tried to explain. He wanted to give the new, interim coach — 51-year-old Bruce Cassidy, who’d been aiding Julien as an assistant — hoped to give him a chance to practice with the players before they had to play a game.

“So we have a real opportunity,” Sweeney said, “to sort of step back from the emotional piece of this, and allow our players to get away and vacate it mentally and physically. I thought it was a good opportunity, today and tomorrow, to get their feet on the ground in a practice environment, which we haven’t had playing 50 games in 102 days. The schedule has been challenging in that regard.”

Julien, who’s 56, started in Boston in 2007. That made him (up to the minute of his dismissal) the longest serving of NHL coaches. He departed the Boston bench as one of game’s most respected benchers, having steered the club to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011, the first for the Bruins since 1972. No coach has won more Cups than that in the team’s 93-year-history. Julien also coached the team through more games than anyone else, including the legendary Art Ross, while chalking up the most wins. Graded by winning percentage (regular season + playoffs), his .555 falls back of Tom Johnson (.670) and Cooney Weiland (.602).

Cassidy has two wins, so far, to his name, and a perfect percentage: the Bruins followed up Thursday’s 6-3 victory over San Jose with a 4-3 decision this afternoon versus Vancouver.

While he relishes those, maybe what we’d better do is review the hirings and firings of Cassidy’s 27 forebears on the Bruins’ bench, starting back when the Bruins started, in 1924. Art Ross came first, of course, serving as Boston’s everything in those early years of the club, stocking the roster, forging an identity, and coaching the team through its first 461 games, which yielded one Stanley Cup (1929).

That gets us to the spring of 1934. The Bruins had finished at the bottom of the American Division, out of the playoffs. “I am leaving for Montreal on the 8.45 o’clock train tonight,” Ross told Victor Jones of The Boston Globe a couple days after the team played their final game. “I shall do some scouting during my absence and I may take in part of the Stanley Cup series. And before long I shall engage a coach for the Bruins.”

After ten years at the helm, he was looking to focus his energy. He was 49 and he’d been ill with intestinal trouble. Candidates were said to include Lionel Hitchman, Eddie Powers, Cecil Hart, and Tommy Gorman — maybe Nels Stewart? In the end Ross hired Frank Patrick, also 49, a good friend who’d been working as the NHL’s managing director.

“In my opinion,” Ross said, “he is the best coach in the game today. He should bring Boston a winning team.”

The Bruins did win under Patrick, though they didn’t manage a championship in the two seasons he was in charge. Eric Zweig’s 2015 biography Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built The Bruins is a good guide to Patrick’s exit in 1936. Ross thought that Patrick was too friendly with players and referees, plus he was drinking too much, and the two men had stopped talking.

Frank’s son Joe Jr. told Eric Whitehead alcohol was a problem, but so was Ross’ reluctance to give his coach autonomy. “Art simply couldn’t or wouldn’t let go of the reins,” Joe Jr. says in Whitehead’s The Patricks (1980), “and my father couldn’t abide that.”

Patrick wasn’t fired, exactly: he just wasn’t, in newspaper parlance from the time, “re-engaged.” Former Bruins’ captain Lionel Hitchman was coaching the team’s minor-league affiliate, the Boston Cubs, and he was once again mentioned as a possible successor. Asked whether star defenceman Eddie Shore might take on coaching the team from the blueline, Ross was non-committal.

“Personally I do not think it would be a wise move,” he said. “In the first place, hockey is too tough a game for a playing manager and in the second, Eddie is much too valuable a player to ruin him by loading so much responsibility on his shoulders. A defenceman these days has all he can do watching opposing forwards without having to keep an eye on his own.”

So Ross returned. He stayed on through to 1939, when he decided for a second time that he’d had enough.

“I can’t go through this any more,” he said this time. “For some time I’ve thought I ought to get off the bench. Lester Patrick of the Rangers and I are about the only men in the NHL who have tried to combine front-office work and bench managing for so many years. He told me after the Bruins-Rangers series that he couldn’t stand it any more, and I know I can’t.”

ross-cooney-version-2

He ceded the coaching to Cooney Weiland, the newly retired erstwhile captain of the Bruins who’d spent the last year of his NHL career as Ross’ playing assistant. Under Weiland, the Bruins prospered, and in his second year, 1940-41, they won a Stanley Cup — whereupon the coach left the champions to take over the AHL Hershey Bears.

Eric Zweig suggests another feud. In a chapter of his book in which he looks into Ross’ fallings-out with Eddie Shore, Bill Cowley, and Herb Cain (not to mention his blood-grudge with Conn Smythe), he concludes that Ross wouldn’t, couldn’t — didn’t — let his coach coach.

Again Ross was ready to get back to doing it for himself. He stayed on this time through 1945. “I’m through,” he declared that spring. “I’ll never sit on the bench again.” Another of his faithful captains had been acting as a playing assistant, 38-year-old Dit Clapper, who was now ready to retire.

Or maybe be retired. “We want Dit to quit before he is seriously hurt,” Ross said. Clapper himself wasn’t entirely sure he was through as a player. Not long before hewas appointed, he’d been telling Harold Kaese of The Boston Globe that he’d “hate to do nothing but sit on the bench.” And, true enough, he did continue to play for the first couple of years he coached, if mainly on spot duty, replacing injured players in the line-up.

Something else Kaese reported: “The manager said he liked Clapper as a coach because he was willing to take his advice, which other Bruins coaches (Frank Patrick and Cooney Weiland) were not.”

Clapper coached on through the 1948-49 season. At the team’s annual season-ending banquet,  owner Weston Adams stood up and quieted the crowd. “I’m sorry that I have to make the saddest announcement of my career,” he said. “Just this noon I learned that Dit will not be with us another year.”

Clapper, who was 42, was headed for home. His wife hadn’t been well, and he had a teenaged son and daughter, along with (as Ross, once, had had, in Montreal) a thriving sporting goods store. “My family and my business in Peterborough, Ontario, now demand all my attention,” he told the room.

Art Ross was overcome with emotion. As for the players, they had a gift to give: a hunting rifle.

“Being a coach is a pretty tough job,” Clapper said, “particularly for an old player. To be a really good coach you have to drive the guys. I just couldn’t do that. All these boys were really my friends.”

I don’t suppose anyone would have batted an eye if Art Ross, now 64, had returned one more time to the Boston bench. He didn’t, though.

“We wanted a man who didn’t know our players at all,” Bruins’ president Weston Adams advised in 1949 when he hired 52-year-old George (Buck) Boucher, famous Frank’s older brother. “Everybody now starts from scratch. They’ve got to make the team. It’s up to Buck to select the men he wants. I don’t think we will have to make apologies for next year’s Bruins.”

Art Ross was on the same page. “Yeah,” he said. “We were looking for a two-fisted guy and got one. He won’t be a yes man to me.”

When the Bruins let him go a year later, Boucher was surprised. He called it a “dirty deal.” Ross let him know as the team travelled to Toronto for the final regular-season game of the season. “It was a blow, and made it a rough ride,” Boucher said. “I had rather expected it but it was tough to take. Art Ross told me I’d done a good job, but the club had other plans for next season. I asked him, ‘If I’ve done such a good job, why am I being fired? I think I deserve another chance.’ And he told me, ‘We have other plans.’”

Art Ross had his side of the story to tell. He was up in Canada, acting as league supervisor for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but made a special trip home to Boston to clarify things for reporters.

“We haven’t lied to you people in 26 years,” he told them at a press conference where he sat alongside team president Weston Adams and a director named Frank Ryan.

Ross reminded everybody what good friends he and Boucher were. They’d discussed finding another coaching job for him. “We could have paid him off for the season — we all know his contract was for one year — several times after some mistakes, but we didn’t.”

Ross addressed charges that upper management had interfered with Boucher through the course of the season. “Regardless of what has been written or said by anyone, it’s not true that any of us interfered at any time with Boucher,” he said. “I called him on the phone once in the season during the course of a game and that was to tell him one of several kids we had brought up for a look was sick and maybe should not play any more.”

“I also suggested — only suggested mind you — perhaps the kids should be changed more often in the third period or we might get licked. We had a three-goal lead at the time. Well, we lost the game. But that’s the only time he was ever told anything by either of us at any time during a game, immediately before or immediately after.”

Boston’s players were sorry to see Boucher go. They presented him with “a powerful short wave radio.”

“This was no sympathy act,” said captain Milt Schmidt. “We planned this some weeks ago as a gift to a swell guy.”

Bun Cook would be the next coach. That was the word. Or Joe Primeau? But no. Instead, Ross lured 38-year-old Lynn Patrick in from the wilds of Victoria, British Columbia. Lester’s son, he’d coached the Rangers for one successful year then quit. He preferred, he’d said then, “to rear my family in some place other than a big city.”

Suburban Boston would work, too. “This is the kind of an opportunity I’ve been hoping and searching for,” Patrick said. “I’m ambitious to get ahead in hockey and don’t want to be a coach all my life.” And so a succession plan was in place: after two years of coaching, Patrick would ascend to replace a retiring Ross as general manager.

That didn’t go quite as planned. Ross kept going through the spring of 1954, announcing his retirement, in the Bruin way, at the team’s annual end-of-year banquet. Under the new plan, Patrick would take on the role of general manager while continuing to coach for one more year. By then, captain Milt Schmidt would be ready to retire and, in the Bruin way, turn himself into the coach.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

Bench Bruin: Coach Milt Schmidt, as he was when he finally hung up his playing gear, guided Boston through 11 seasons, from 1954 through to 1966. He later steered the Washington Capitals, from 1974-76.

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ron wicks, 1940—2016

Long-serving NHL referee Ron Wicks, who died on Friday in Brampton, Ontario, at the age of 75, got his big-league officiating start in the fall of 1960, not long after his 20th birthday. NHL refereeing supremo Carl Voss had invited him to audition that year, and in his memoir, A Referee’s Life (2010), he tells of catching the train from Sudbury and spending $3.50 for a night in Toronto at the King Edward Hotel. His novitiate at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ training camp in Peterborough, included a stint on the lines of a Leaf exhibition against the Black Hawks in which his duties included untangling a fight between Toronto’s Tim Horton and Chicago’s Moose Vasko. Hired as a linesman, he worked his first regular-season game on October 5, Rangers and Bruins at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Frank Udvari was the referee that night,  George Hayes the other linesman. “League president Clarence Campbell at this opener,” Wicks would later write, “and said I missed an offside by 20 feet.” He went on to work 79 games that year, for which he was paid $3,300. By the time he retired in the spring of 1986, he’d patrolled the ice for 1,800 professional games, including 1,072 as an NHL referee. This is one of those, above: on February 12, 1982, Wicks seeks refuge as Bob Lorimer of the Colorado Rockies clashes with Quebec’s Marc Tardif as Colorado’s Steve Tambellini goes for the puck in the foreground.

I seem to be able to get along with hockey players: the book peter gzowski never wrote

gzowski

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

this week: sale prices and a heart so huge, mumps and whatnot

Irish Times: The Toronto St. Patricks weren’t long for the world when four of them posed in early December of 1926. The following February, Conn Smythe and a parcel of investors bought the team and decided change was order. Just like that, in mid-season, green-and-brown St. Patricks turned to blue-and-white Maple Leafs. Above, looking sternly, left to right, are Hap Day, Al Pudas, Bert Corbeau, and Ace Bailey.

Irish Times: The Toronto St. Patricks weren’t long for the world when four of them posed in early December of 1926. The following February, Conn Smythe and a parcel of investors bought the team and decided that change was order. Just like that, in mid-season, green-and-brown St. Patricks turned to blue-and-white Maple Leafs. Above, looking out sternly in black and white are (left to right) Hap Day, Al Pudas, Bert Corbeau, and Ace Bailey.

Washington Capitals defenceman Mike Green talked, this week, about the distractions of playing out of doors at the NHL’s New Year’s Day Winter Classic. He wasn’t worried about sun or winds or snows. “Once you’re in the game,” he told Stephen Whyno from The Canadian Press, “everything’s instinct and whatnot.”

Washington captain Alex Ovechkin? Also no concerned. “I just don’t think about what I’m gonna do out there. We’re gonna skate on the ice and then we’re gonna go to the locker-room.”

His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada (and a distinguished hockey player in his own right, announced today 95 new appointments to the Order of Canada this week, and hockey names were among them, including the former Bruin and Red Wing Sheldon Kennedy and broadcaster Bob Cole.

Kennedy’s citation lauds his, quote, courageous leadership in raising awareness of childhood sexual abuse and his continued efforts to prevent abuse in schools, sports and communities.

Cole’s recognitions comes

For enhancing the hockey experience for generations of Canadians with his analysis and spirited announcing as one of Canada’s most iconic voices in sports broadcasting.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am today,” he told Six Seixeiro and Stephen Brunt at Sportsnet. “All I’ve done is tried my best at my job, and enjoyed what my job is.”

Other appointees included Mark Carney, erstwhile goaltender for the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club, and hockey biographer Charles Foran, author of Extraordinary Canadians: Maurice Richard (2011).

Martin Brodeur shut his net to the Colorado Avalanche this week: 16 shots they took and not a one went past him. St. Louis’ 3-0 win was the 691st victory of Brodeur’s career, and his 125th shutout (an NHL record).

“This is the first one with the Blues, so it definitely means a lot to me,” Brodeur was saying after the game. “It’s our job as goaltenders not to give up anything. It wasn’t the hardest game to play, but you still have to make the saves.”

Signed to fill Brian Elliott’s injured absence, Brodeur isn’t sure what’s next. Elliott is recovered now and returning to the Blues’ net, so there was talk this week that Brodeur might be out of a job and (maybe?) a career. Or would he find another temporary home with another needy team?

“If St. Louis decides to let him go,” wrote Guy Spurrier in The National Post, “he could become the most accomplished rent-a-goalie in NHL history, wandering the league, helping teams with short-term crises like a puck-stopping Littlest Hobo.” Continue reading

under the influenze

On The Rhode: Mickey Murray (fourth from the right) lines up with the 1929-30 edition of the Providence Reds. Teammates include Johnny Gagnon (second from left), Gizzy Hart (fifth), and Art Chapman (seventh from right). The coach is Sprague Cleghorn (light overcoat). (Credit: Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society, http://www.rireds.org)

On The Rhode: Mickey Murray (fourth from the right) lines up with the 1929-30 edition of the Providence Reds. Teammates include Johnny Gagnon (second from left), Gizzy Hart (fifth), and Art Chapman (seventh from right). The coach is Sprague Cleghorn (light overcoat). (Credit: Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society, http://www.rireds.org)

Peterborough’s hockeyness has yielded 38 NHLers, including ironmen whom the Hockey Hall of Fame deems crafty (Steve Larmer); sudden playoff scoring wonders (John Druce); rugged customers (the HHoF on Steve Webb); doughty face-off artists with country superstar wives (Mike Fisher); and the best all-around player in the world, ever (as Viktor Tikhonov called Bob Gainey in 1981; okay, he didn’t say ever).

But let’s be honest: we don’t really do goaltenders in Peterborough. Forge them, I mean, polish them up, send them out into the world to shine. It’s just never been a specialty of ours. If you look to the ledger there are only three who got to the NHL. Zac Bierk was the longest lasting, playing 47 games for Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Phoenix between 1997 and 2004. He won nine of those — I was going to say just nine, but that seems harsh. Bierk was large-framed and quick-reflexed, it says in the HHoF’s register, a natural.

Cam Newton played 16 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 1970s, winning a quarter of those. The Hall calls his goalkeeping hot and recalls his bright blue mask.

Then there was Mickey Murray. He had a long career fending off pucks, starting in his hometown in 1915 and not giving it up for another 24 years, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Along the way he got into precisely one NHL game, with the Montreal Canadiens, in 1930. Continue reading