snow show

In the vast catalogue of hockey-player portraits, the Show-Your-Snow is as classic as they come. It can’t, perhaps, match the nimble drama of the Leap (a.k.a. the Up-Up-And-Away) or the slightly distressing mystery of the Man Down, but neither of them evokes the rink like this — the shish of the skates, the spray of the snow, the wind of the collision just barely avoided. As Phil Goyette demonstrates above, you don’t have to produce a blizzard — although as fellow Blues centre Camille Henry emphasizes below, why not? Goyette played 13 seasons for Montreal and the New York Rangers before arriving in St. Louis at the age of 36 for the 1969-70 campaign, leading the team in regular-season and helping the Blues gain the Stanley Cup Finals. Henry, who was 37 that year, came to the Blues after 13 distinguished years as a Ranger, though he played just a few final games in ’69-’70 (none in the playoffs) before announcing his retirement.

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

tijuana brash

Jean Béliveau, thoroughbreding through centre!

Frank Mahovlich, moosing down the wing past the Montreal blueline!

I don’t what it is about Blades and Brass, but it makes sense. If you’ve screened William Canning’s short film from back in bygone 1967, maybe you know this already. The old technicoloured hockey is fascinating in its own, though without the soundtrack, it just wouldn’t be the classic it is. Don Douglas wrote that, and Ken Campbell orchestrated it. Just what kind of sense the pairing of the hockey and the music makes, the how, and the why of it — that’s a whole other parcel of questions that might be better off left to itself, over there, in the shade, where maybe is it best if we just leave it unopened? The National Film Board’s catalogue copy has an understated charm that  surprises even as it fails to convey the near-perfect oddity of what you’re about to watch. “This short documentary showcases the best of the 1967 National Hockey League season, set to music in the Tijuana Brass style.”

Well, why not?

Jacques Laperriere!

Bobby Hull!

John Ferguson!

Forgive all the exclaiming, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to translate the footage to the page.

Terry Sawchuk! Eddie Giacomin! Gump Worsley in full flop!

Toronto’s Bob Pulford looking downcast! Béliveau wailing on Reggie Fleming of the New York Rangers! Phil Goyette, not seeing the shot that hits him amidships and drops him to the ice in painful anguish that causes you to shift in your seat, especially if you happen to be male! J.C. Tremblay carried off on a stretcher! One lonesome overshoe on the ice! The rink crew scraping up bloody slush! Toe Blake in a porkpie hat, chewing his chaw! Béliveau pressing a towel to a cut! Great goal, Claude Provost!

Blades And Brass is a masterpiece. Is there any doubting this? Watch it, the whole thing. It’s not long. Me, now — watching these 50-year-old scenes, I’m just not sure how I’m going to be able to endure the plain old modern non-mariachi NHL.

 

enemy bombers arriving in howell’s territory are rarely shot down

Baseball’s Opening Day yesterday, which is all the reason as I need to invoke the venerable name and prose virtues of Roger Angell who, at 96, remains the finest, most exacting of the game’s expressionists. I trust he watched the New York Yankees succumb on Sunday, 7-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays, and that he’ll be soon be weighing in at The New Yorker on Masahiro Tanaka and the flaws in his fastball.

Baseball, it’s true, has been Angell’s bread and … batter. But he knows his hockey, too. He’d tell you so himself, and there’s plenty of evidence in The New Yorker’s archives. Around this time of year in 1967, for instance, he penned a long “Sporting Scene” review of the up-and- down season of the New York Rangers as the team prepared to depart the third Madison Square Garden in favour of the brand-new fourth. “The Last Flowers in the Garden” finds Angell in a mood for nostalgia, recalling the heroes of good old days (Don Raleigh + the Gumper), even as he coddles hopes for the future (maybe they can hang on to second place as the playoffs loomed).

In the here-and-now of late-season ’67, Angell likes the team that GM Emile Francis has wrought, muscled as it is with Reg Fleming and Orland Kurtenbach, sped by forwards Rod Gilbert, Bob Nevin, and Phil Goyette, veteran’d with a 36-year-old Boom-Boom Geoffrion. Maybe the Rangers’ recent history has been one of failing at the finish, but Angell is feeling good: Francis, he feels, has “rebuilt their quaint, four-cylinder interior engine that used to poop out on every winter hillock.” The Rangers have been healthy and playing well: who knows what might happen once the Stanley Cup is in play?

It’s in this spirit that Angell keys in on another veteran, a 34-year-old son of Hamilton, Ontario, pictured here above. “The sudden and absolute apotheosis of Harry Howell, the handsome gray-haired defenseman who has been with the team since 1952 and has played in more Ranger games than anyone else in club history” is, in Angell’s eye, one of the best stories of the season. As he says, memorably:

Over the years, Harry’s sincere, fatherly competence had won him more admiration from the ladies at the Garden than from the sportswriters, but early this season it became apparent to everybody that at last, at the age of thirty-four, he had developed into the best defenceman in the league. Enemy bombers arriving in Howell’s territory are rarely shot down; they seem, rather, to fly into a wall of wet Kleenex and stick there, kicking. When carrying the puck through a cloud of opposing forecheckers and up to the safety of center ice, Howell has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic. This year, relieved by better defense and goaltending, he is no longer burdened with the notion that he must hurry back instantly, and help out at the steam tables, and his low, accurate shots from the blue line have brought him more goals and assists than most of the team’s forwards. In the midseason balloting, Howell was a unanimous choice for the league’s all-star team.

dickie moore, 1931—2015

dickie m

Dickie Moore was 84 when he died on Saturday in Montreal. A Hall-of-Fame left winger, he twice won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer. While he also turned out, later in his career, for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the St. Louis Blues, it’s as a Montreal Canadien that he’ll be remembered, a Habs’ legend on six of their Stanley Cup-winning teams through the 1950s. The New York Times has an obituary here — though better, first, to read Red Fisher’s heartfelt memoir of his long-time friend from Montreal’s Gazette. Then, maybe, these few views of Dickie Moore’s years on ice:

1

He was supposed to be headed for New York, the Rangers, in exchange for Dean Prentice, it was in the papers, except for, well, then, no. The Canadian Press reported that Rangers GM Frank Boucher called up Selke to say he didn’t have anyone of Moore’s calibre to trade, other than maybe Danny Lewicki. Selke: You can’t trade Lewicki, he’s playing too well. As Selke told it, Boucher said Prentice and Ron Murphy weren’t good enough and they left it at that. Next day, Rangers’ president General J.R. Kilpatrick phoned up to say he’d pay cash for Moore. “I told him,” said Selke, “we couldn’t play with cash.”

So he stayed, as did Mazur, though the latter was sent down to the Montreal Royals, and eventually found his way to Chicago. Three seasons later, Moore topped the league in scoring for the first time.

2

His nickname, of course, was Digging Dickie.

As a rookie for Montreal in 1952, he played with Elmer Lach and Dick Gamble on what was described as the league’s most torrid line. His most famous linemates: Maurice and Henri Richard.

3

Adjectives that appear next to his name in the register of Hall-of-Famers include aggressive and robust. Stan Fischler has called him brash to a fault and at first believed to be uncontrollable.

In sundry newspapers he was described as the problem child of Quebec junior hockey (1950) as well as a bellicose showboating rugged winger and colorful type and darling of the crowd and paradoxically, roundly despised by others because of his flair for showmanship (1950); speedy young forward (1951); brilliant rookie (1952); chippy operator (1952); aggressive, two-way performer (1955); also plucky (1961); a dependable playoff performer (1962); battle-scarred (1967); and once-proficient (1967). Toronto GM Punch Imlach called him a great competitor (1964) and sore-legged all-star (1966).

4

For his first Art Ross in 1957-58 he scored 36 goals and 84 points in 70 games. The following year he piled up 41 goals; his 96 points that years were the most an NHL player had ever accumulated in a season.

A brilliant goal from the Habs’ 1959 Cup-winning game against Chicago was described this way:

Instead of passing from the end boards, he sprinted out and jammed the puck past Hall.

5

Some wounds and infirmities:

He went to hospital in 1952 with badly bruised knees.

In 1958 his fractured hand impaired his stickhandling and shooting. Canadiens’ physiotherapist Bill Head said it was a small bone just under the thumb that was broken, and that it was injury often incurred by baseball players.

Irwin Spencer of the New York Rangers slashed him in 1961, fractured a bone in his foot.

Later that year, in the playoffs, he was on a list of Hab casualties compiled by Bill Head that included: Billy Hicke, concussion and head gash; Tom Johnson, pulled groin; Phil Goyette, mild concussion; Ralph Backstrom, leg and ankle; Jean Béliveau, head injury; Dickie Moore, wrist; Jean-Guy Talbot, loose teeth.

In the summer of 1961 he had surgery on his left knee to remove cartilage. At training camp that September the knee was weak.

With the Leafs in 1964, he bruised the base of his spine hitting the boards backwards in New York, an injury he concealed for two weeks until he couldn’t skate.

A word often associated with his knees was gimpy. Back again in 1962, he was 31 with a limp and a question mark hovering just in front of him, in front and up a bit. He’d had knee surgery in the summer, the left knee again, this time the doctors removed a cyst. Moore hoisted the leg of his trousers for a reporter to study the aftermath of all the hospital work: three six-inch scars.

“The thing is that I have to work at this game,” he explained. “The knee will never be perfect and I have to do some things a little differently. I have to know how to twist and turn without straining it and to expect a little pain once in a while.”

At training camp in Verdun he had his best day on September 19 when he scored a picturesque goal and set up another by Lou Fontinato and (Pat Curran wrote in The Gazette) “was skating much like The Digger of old.”

“I should have had another goal but that Patate picked it off when I tried to flip the puck past him.”

Patate: wily old Jacques Plante.

6

Youths attacked him: youths. The Habs were in Detroit, April of 1952, in the finals. The Red Wings won the game, 3-0, to take a three-game lead, it was all over, except for the hallway scuffling. The Ottawa Citizen told the tale: a jostling group of youthful fans was waiting for the Canadiens outside their dressing room when

One youth laid into Moore with a body check. Moore shoved him and the band grabbed the Canadiens. But [Red Wing Leo] Reise and [Ted] Lindsay, passing by, grabbed two of the youths and ended the scuffle.

7

He couldn’t do it any more in 1963, his ailing legs wouldn’t let him. He was 33 a year later when Punch Imlach plucked him off waivers and brought him to Toronto (he also grabbed Terry Sawchuk). “When I draft players,” Imlach said, “I tell them to throw away the medical reports and birth certificates

“We have nothing to lose by taking a shot with Moore, we’ve had guys play with almost broken legs so I’m certainly not worried about a couple of sore knees.”

He played 38 games for the Leafs before he decided his knees really weren’t up to the work.

He did come back for one more season, in 1967-68, when the St. Louis Blues convinced him to give them a whirl. On a team that iced Glenn Hall, Doug Harvey, and Red Berenson, Moore only played 27 regular-season games, but he was instrumental in getting the Blues into the playoffs, and he was the team’s leading scorer (seven goals, 14 points) as they fought a way to the finals, where Montreal beat them in four games.

“They’re paying me well and when a guy likes the game as much as I do, it’s pretty hard to turn down something like this,” he said as the season got underway. “They’re not expecting the world from me. They want me to set my on pace and I don’t think I’ll disgrace anyone.”

“I mean, people don’t go out now strictly with the idea of knocking somebody down. In my day, guys would come off the bench with only one idea in mind: run the other guy into the boards or knock him off his skates.”

 

(Photo: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada/e002343728)