department of throwing stuff: nuts, steel bolts, smoked fish, bags of rice, bags of flour, boxes of soap flakes

Clang Clan: Chicago fan Georgia De Larne on duty as “one of the many noisemakers” at Chicago Stadium in 1941.

Famous for the din of their allegiance to their beloved Black Hawks, fans who used to frequent Chicago’s old Stadium also, occasionally, got the team into trouble.

In April of 1944, for instance, when Chicago was vying with the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup. With Canadiens having won the opening game of the finals at the Forum, they took their show on the road, riding a Maurice Richard hat trick to secure a 3-1 game-two win in Chicago.

It wasn’t pretty. “It was an unruly crowd that held up the game for almost a quarter of an hour after Richard scored his final goal in the third period,” the Montreal Gazette reported the next morning. “It heaved everything — papers, pennies, compacts, decks of cards, and vegetables — down on the ice to show its displeasure over Referee Bill Chadwick’s refusal to call a penalty against Elmer Lach. It blew automobile horns and beat tin pans that it brought with it into the big rink. There were 16,003 fans in the crowd and they made a lot of noise.”

One of the quieter members of the audience was baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, sitting in the good seats and thereby, in the line of line. “It’s an unusual contest at the Stadium when hockey fans do not shower the rink with pennies, paper, hats, fruit, and other objects that endanger the safety of contestants,” Arch Ward noted in his Chicago Tribune column. On this night, he continued, a chair came sailing out of the upper balcony, narrowly missing Landis, “who promptly decided there were more enjoyable ways of spending an evening than watching a hockey game.”  

Din And Bear It: Duncan Macpherson’s “Hockey game in Chicago,” ink, wash, and textured card glued on board. (Image: © McCord Museum)

For his part, NHL President Red Dutton was not best pleased by Chicago’s game-two enthusiasm. His statement ahead of game three went like this:

In response to a telegraphic vote which I requested from the board of governors of the National Hockey League resulting from a 20-minute delay in the third period in the Stanley Cup game in Chicago on Thursday, while the ice was being cleared of debris thrown by fans, I have been empowered to forfeit any future game to the visiting club if a repetition of this kind occurs in any of the forthcoming games, and I definitely intend to exercise my authority.

Game three hit the ice on a Sunday of this date. Fans arriving at the Stadium was subjected to searches. The Gazette:

The big throng of 17,694 spectators were frisked for missiles on the way in, particularly those who had seats in the top gallery, and the following is an inventory of articles collected: coat-hangers, nuts, steel bolts, smoked fish, bags of rice, bags of flour, lemons, oranges, limes, boxes of soap flakes, rolls of toilet paper, megaphones, candy, peanuts, beer and pop bottles, large and small bells, playing cards, pieces of steel, cartons, pennies in 25c rolls, 1,000 paper scooters, and several folding chairs.

Paper scooters, anyone? Airplanes is my guess. The good news, for Red Dutton and lovers of public order:

The denuded onlookers had nothing left to throw and there was no debris hurled on the ice.

Montreal won that game 3-2, with Phil Watson notching the deciding goal. They wrapped up the series in Montreal four nights later with a 5-4 overtime win (Toe Blake scored the winner), sweeping up their first Stanley Cup since 1931.

None of this implicates the two cacophonous Black Hawk fans depicted here: there’s no evidence that Mrs. Georgia De Larne (top) or Irving Birnbaum (below) ever partook in any missile-launching. Seen here in Chicago Stadium’s upper balcony during a Black Hawks game in 1941, these two seem to have been more committed to making a racket than a bad example. A contemporary newspaper described Mrs. De Larne as “one of the many noisemakers present in the galley.”

Bell of the Ball: Black Hawk fan Irving Birnbaum does his thing at Chicago Stadium in 1941.

 

 

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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eustace tilley on ice

Front And Centre: A gallery of some of the The New Yorker‘s hockey covers through the years. The first of them was Constantin Alajálov’s (bottom row, second from left), from January of 1927. Centred here is the newest exemplar, by Bruce McCall, from the magazine’s issue of February 7, 2022.

Professional hockey arrived in New York in 1925 wearing the stars and stripes of Bill Dwyer’s Americans, who skated their claim out on the ice of Tex Rickard’s newly built Madison Square Garden. That was the same year that Harold Ross launched The New Yorker and while the magazine’s offices on West 45th Street weren’t even a mile’s stroll away from the rink on Eighth Avenue, it was the winter of 1926 before hockey began to find a place in its pages.

The New Yorker’s first hockey cover, which adorned the magazine’s 100th issue, was the (charming) work of artist Constantin Alajálov. It debuted on January 15, 1927, by which time the New York Rangers had arrived in town, and were 19 games into their inaugural season. That same issue, R.K. Arthur’s “Sports of the Week” column featured the magazine’s first substantive hockey coverage with a round-up of recent Garden action that included a description of a rush by one of the Americans’ Sudbury-born Green brothers, Shorty or Red (Arthur didn’t say which), on Boston Bruins’ goaltender Doc Stewart:

Stewart, on one occasion, foiled Green after he had outwitted the entire Boston team, by nose-diving straight at the puck and the shot on the top of his head. Green could have been excused if he had retired to a corner and shed scalding tears.

This month, 95 years later, hockey players are back on the cover of the magazine. “Boxing Rink,” by illustrator, humorist, and long-time New Yorker contributor (also, Simcoe, Ontario-born) Bruce McCall, evokes a 1924 painting by George Bellows to make a point about the performative violence of NHL hockey. Fighting is on the slow wane and mostly, these days, out of the news, which is how the NHL prefers it. Still, I can’t imagine that the league can be pleased to see The New Yorker’s reminder of the game’s testy tendencies broadcast so broadly. McCall talks about the tribute to Bellows’ work on the magazine’s website, here, if not the punching that hockey still, somehow, tolerates.

In the years separating Alajálov and McCall, hockey scenes have appeared at least 15 times on the cover of The New Yorker, inspiring the talents of artists Abe Birnbaum, Robert Day, Peter Arno, Leo Rackow, and Charles E. Martin, among others.

The thorough chronicling of the game that the magazine has done since Niven Busch set up in the late ’20s as a regular hockey columnist has been undertaken over the years by the distinguished (and incisive) likes of Robert Lewis Taylor, Herbert Warren Wind, Roger Angell, Alec Wilkinson, Charles McGrath, Adam Gopnik, Nick Paumgarten, and Ben McGrath.

They’ve celebrated the joys of pick-up puck (see Charles McGrath’s 1993 “Rink Rat”) and recounted the costs of concussions (Paumgarten, “The Symptoms,” in 2019). They’ve explored the game’s hinterlands and the sublime talents its yielded: see Taylor’s 1947 profile of Phil Watson, Wind’s feature from 1970 on Bobby Orr, or Ben McGrath in 2014 on P.K. Subban.

McCall’s is the first cover to focus on fighting, but The New Yorker has a long tradition of reflecting on the battering hockey players do, lampooning and (persuasively, to me) lambasting it. There are lots of instances of the former, including here below, and here; for the latter, I’d refer you to Adam Gopnik’s online essay from 2012, “Hockey Without Rules.” That’s the one in which he writes, “Either the NHL is going to end the violence, or the violence is going to end the NHL.” You can read it here.

(Image: Nick Downes, The New Yorker, December 23, 2019)

 

 

manhattan’s mauler

For our text this morning we turn to Hilary Stead’s 2002 book, Guelph: A People’s Heritage, and in particular its accounting of the life and times of Maria and Liberale, who emigrated to the seat of Wellington County in Southern Ontario from Treviso, in Northern Italy 60 years ago or so, arriving with a half-full suitcase as their only luggage. For 40 years Liberale worked at the International Malleable Iron Company in Guelph; he also tended a five-acre market garden on St. George’s Hill, with a milk-cow. Maria and Liberale were blessed with six children, five daughters and a son. His name was Lou, the son, and let it be known that in his boyhood he (Stead says) “played in the quarry behind the rubber plant” and burned “oil-soaked cotton batting pulled from around the bearings of the wheels of the trains at the roundhouse near Alice Street.”

Liberale, Maria, and Lou Fontinato

I don’t know just what that tells us about the manhood that followed for that young Guelpher: something, I’m certain. We do know, more solidly, that the kid in question, Louis Joseph Fontinato, was born on a Wednesday of this date in 1932. Also that as a hockey player, a defenceman, he played nine rough-hewn NHL seasons, mostly with the New York Rangers, also with the Montreal Canadiens, before a broken neck ended his hockey career in 1963.

Leapin’ Lou, they used to call him. He fought, a lot, taking on all comers, including Jean Béliveau, including (against everybody’s better judgment) Gordie Howe. How rambunctious was Lou Fontinato? In 1956, in pre-season practice, the bruising of his bodychecks put two of his Ranger teammates out of action for a couple of days, Dave Creighton and Red Sullivan.

More text: “If there were a prize for refrigerated misbehavior,” Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times that same year, “it’s a cinch that Louie the Leaper would win it.”

Fontinato was the first NHLer, I think, to shred an opponent’s sweater with his skates, though not the last. 1957 this was, in December, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, against the Montreal Canadiens. There was a 15-minute brawl, in the second period. While Fontinato punched, and was punched by, Canadiens’ defenceman Tom Johnson, Montreal’s Jean-Guy Talbot wrestled New York’s Andy Hebenton.

There’s not much on the record that I’ve seen about the aftermath, though we do have one key witness. Talbot lost his sweater at some point in the ruckus. NHL Referee-in-Chief Carl Voss was on hand to watch what happened before the combatants were stowed away in the penalty box:

After the fighting had been stopped Fontinato spotted Talbot’s sweater still on the ice. He went over and made a big production of stomping on the Hab jersey with his skates. Then he went around breaking all the loose Montreal sticks he could find. What a showman that guy is. The New York fans loved it.

Fontinato’s sentence in the wake of all this 15 minutes, five for fighting plus a 10-minute misconduct. Carl Voss (as maybe you already guessed) saw no need for any supplementary discipline.

When the two teams met again in Montreal a few days later, New York coach Phil Watson fought a fan who kicked him outside the Rangers’ dressing room. Fontinato features in accounts of this game for his third-period heroics. When a Forum goal judge flicked on his light to indicate a Montreal goal that wasn’t, in fact, a goal, Fontinato dashed behind the New York net to make his case. From the Montreal Star:

He threw a mighty right hook at the glass protecting the judge, and kept throwing punches at no-one in particular … sitting next to the judge was “Rocket” Richard, and Fontinato had a few words for the injured Hab ace, too.

I can’t say how seriously shredded Talbot’s sweater was in 1957. We have a more detailed damage report from a 1986 incident.

In this one, the Edmonton Oilers were in Calgary to aggravate the Flames, and Edmonton defenceman Marty McSorley did his part by bumping Calgary goaltender Reggie Lemelin. Flames’ centreman Doug Risebrough saw this as grounds for punching McSorley who, of course, punched back in what the Gazette’s Red Fisher described as a “free-swinging affair.”

“Somehow,” Fisher noted, “he found himself in the penalty box with McSorley’s sweater and promptly ripped it to shreds with his skates.”

Edmonton coach and GM Glen Sather wasn’t happy. He called Risebrough “childish” and declared that their friendship was over. He lodged a complaint with NHL disciplinarian Brian O’Neill. “What’s more,” Sather said, “the Flames will be getting a $1,000-bill for McSorley’s shredded sweater.”

The NHL declined to take up the case. Risebrough was contrite. “I’m sorry I did it,” he said, after a day or two. “It’s something you when you’re really upset. It was a bad reaction on my part and I’m embarrassed by it.”

According to Fran Rosa of the Boston Globe, Risebrough had been methodical in the moment, soaking McSorley “in water to soften it” before going to work with his skates.

The Oilers subsequently retrieved the remains, which they hung in their dressing room to stir their memories and anti-Calgary choler.

 

 

(Top image: Tex Coulter, 1958)

diesel power

Benchview: Born in Capreol, Ontario, on a Wednesday of this same date in 1933, Doug Mohns started out a defenceman, winning a pair of Memorial Cups with the Barrie Flyers in 1951 and ’53. In the NHL, the man they called Diesel played a decade with Boston, which is where coach Phil Watson converted him to a winger. With Chicago, he made his name as a member of the Black Hawks’ high-yield Scooter Line, lining up alongside Ken Wharram and Stan Mikita and scoring 20 goals or more in four consecutive seasons. He later played for the Minnesota North Stars, Atlanta Flames, and Washington Capitals before setting skates and sticks aside. The Stanley Cup eluded him: all in all, Mohns played 1,484 NHL games without winning a championship. (Artist: Tex Coulter)

charlie conacher lends a hand

Palmistry: Charlie Conacher, in the foreground here, shows goaltender Earl Robertson how it’s done at Madison Square Garden circa 1940. Otherwise, from the right, that’s Ranger Dutch Hiller (#8), Amerks’ Busher Jackson in the distance, and Ranger Phil Watson tussling with (I think) Art Chapman. Note the chicken-wire fencing protecting the fans. The only question: where’s the puck?

Birthday tidings today for the great Charlie Conacher — unless those are due tomorrow, or on December 20? Questions abound; you can review them here, if you’re in a mood. The scene here dates to the Big Bomber’s latter NHL years when, after ten seasons starring for the Toronto Maple Leafs and another year’s stop in Detroit, Conacher played his final two seasons with the New York Americans. Red Dutton’s team was not very good in those years, going 15-29-4 in 1939-40 and 8-29-11 the following year. Conacher’s own returns were modest, compared to the heady days when he was playing the Toronto wing, earlier in the decade. In New York, he contributed 10 goals and 28 points in 47 games his first year, 7 and 23 in 46 in his last.

Take a note, here, of the hand he’s showing. Cutting the palms out of hockey gloves is an old trick, of course, that someone like Conacher might have pleaded allowed him a better grip on his stick. That may have been the case; palmless gloves also aided in the freer and more surreptitious clutching of opponents in tight quarters. The NHL eventually cracked down on the practice, though not until 1964, when Leaf defenceman Carl Brewer was caught in the act and copped to the reason why his gloves were doctored. A new rule followed: all NHL gloves, after that, had to be fully palmed.

Toronto, remember, was on a three-year run winning Stanley Cups at the time. Coach Punch Imlach griped about the new rule, and others: he thought they were part of anti-Leaf campaign to throw the team off its championship form. “Those changes are aimed at us,” he said.

big bob + fiery phil

Lynn Patrick called Bob Armstrong “the most underrated defenceman in the NHL” in 1960, high praise, even if the praiser was Armstrong’s own GM with the Boston Bruins. Armstrong, who died on a Tuesday of this date in 1990 at the too-young age of 59, played 13 seasons in Boston. I’ll personally attest that, post-NHL, he was a much-loved teacher and coach at Lakefield College School, north of Peterborough, Ontario.

Beside him here on the Bruins bench is coach Phil Watson on the night of Watson’s debut as Boston coach, in October of 1961. New York beat the home team 6-2 that night. Watson didn’t get his first Bruins’ win until the team’s ninth game, when his charges dismissed the Detroit Red Wings by a score of 4-0. That happened to be Armstrong’s last game as a Bruin: after the game, GM Patrick announced that he’d traded his 30-year-old veteran to Montreal in exchange for winger Wayne Connelly, 21. Assigned to the EPHL Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, Bob Armstrong played out the season there. While his NHL career had reached its end, he did skate one more year as a pro, 1962-63, with the AHL’s Rochester Americans.

In ’61-62, Phil Watson steered Boston to … well, they finished out of the playoffs, last overall in the NHL standings. He returned the following year, but only lasted 14 games: in November of ’62, Lynn Patrick replaced Watson with his assistant GM, former Bruin great Milt Schmidt — the man Watson had replaced in ’61 behind the bench.

phil watson’s piston trouble

Phil Watson’s credentials as an NHL coach were forged out of a 13-year NHL career as a rumbustious right winger, all but one season of which he spent with the New York Rangers. Born in Montreal on a Friday of this same date in 1914, Watson took up behind the bench the year after he hung up stick and skates in 1948, at first with the New York Rovers, then of the QSHL, and later with the QJHL’s Quebec Citadelles.

In 1955, a 42-year-old Watson succeeded Muzz Patrick as coach of the Rangers. Pictured here is the end of his first campaign, which came on a March night in 1956. On their way to another Stanley Cup that season, the Canadiens dispensed with Watson’s Rangers in five first-round games, completing the job with a 7-0 demolition at the Forum.

Doug Harvey, Henri Richard, and Dickie Moore each scored a pair of goals; the shutout was Jacques Plante’s. The Gazette described the moment we’re seeing here: “When the siren sounded to end the game the Ranger players shook hands with their conquerors. Then Phil Watson and Toe Blake, the rival coaches, met at centre ice. Toe took off his hat when he received Watson’s congratulations. The crowd liked it and roared approval.” 

Watson steered the Rangers through five not-specially-glorious seasons before he was fired midway through the 1959-60 season. He would go on to coach the Boston Bruins for another two seasons in the early 1960s. His coaching finale came a decade after that when he took charge of the WHA’s Philadelphia/Vancouver Blazers for two seasons in the ’70s.

Back when Gay Talese was writing hockey dispatches for The New York Times, he caught up to Watson after a game against the Boston Bruins. This was October of 1958; Watson explained the situation this way:

“My club is like a new car that has little things wrong with it. We got trouble with the windshield wipers, squeaks in the rear, and brakes need adjusting. It’ll take 10,000 miles to break this club in. In Boston I had piston trouble and we’re tied, 4-4. They also had the referee on their side.”

rinkside with lynn patrick

Date Night: Dorothea Davis and fiancé Lynn Patrick at Madison Square Garden in January of 1939.

Born in Victoria, B.C. on a Saturday of this date in 1912, Lynn Patrick was Lester’s son, Frank’s nephew, older brother of Muzz. A centreman, he was signed by his dad, GM of the Rangers, in 1934, and played the left wing for New York for a decade. Muzz joined the team in 1938, and together they helped the Rangers take the 1940 Stanley Cup. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980, Lynn had his best offensive year in 1942-43 when he scored 22 goals and 61 points. He later coached the Rangers and Bruins, and was the first coach in St. Louis Blues’ history, (He also served as GM in Boston.)

Lynn hurt his knee in December of 1938 and didn’t make it back to the Ranger line-up until late in January, when he returned to help his team beat the Montreal Canadiens at Madison Square Garden in front of 11,113 spectators on a Sunday night, scoring a goal in a 7-3 win. Two nights later, Patrick was back at the Garden in a crowd of 8,000 to watch the New York Americans dispatch the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 4-1. That’s the story here, above: Patrick and his fiancée, Dorothea Davis, had seats by the boards.

She was from Winnipeg, 18 that year; Patrick was 26. In April of that same year, a week after the Rangers were bumped from the playoffs by Boston’s Bruins, the couple served as bridesmaid and best man, respectively, when Lynn’s linemate Phil Watson married Helen Edison in New York.

“A model who scorned a movie contract for matrimony” is how the Canadian Press described Miss Davis on that occasion. She and Lynn exchanged their vows within the week, at New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, by the pastor who presided there and noted positive-thinker, the Reverend Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.

Shadow dance: Lynn Patrick throws a mighty shadow as he nears his own net at Maple Leaf Gardens circa 1940. In a pile in front of the Ranger net that’s (probably) New York goaltender Dave Kerr along with (#16) Ranger Alf Pike and Toronto’s Nick Metz (#15).

 

 

around the big apple with phil watson

The New York Rangers were in Montreal as January ran out of calendar in 1948: they beat the hometown Canadiens 4-2 that Saturday night. Veteran (and famously combustible) Ranger right winger Phil Watson contributed a goal to the effort, foiling Bill Durnan, and was boxed as well (Watson was) twice for sins of interference. Watson, who died on a Friday of this date in 1991, was 33 that winter, playing out the last of his boisterous 13 NHL seasons. He went on to coach the Rangers, Boston, too, as well as, for a couple of WHA seasons in the 1970s, Philadelphia and Vancouver.

The Rangers were home next day in ’48, a whole other February 1, which is when this photograph was taken, Watson on the left, Rangers centre Neil Colville by his side. After their game, I guess? They met Chicago that night at Madison Square Garden, tying the Black Hawks 2-2. Again Watson scored, beating Hawk goaltender Emile Francis on a set-up by Buddy O’Connor, who maintained his lead in NHL scoring that night.

The Rangers followed that up, midweek, with another tie, 4-4 this time, in Detroit. Watson didn’t score, but he did take a swing at a Red Wings fan by the name of Claude Hughes who’d been jeering him as he rested between shifts.

“The patron,” the Windsor Star reported, “was moved to another seat, away from the Ranger bench.”

first: socko! next: rangers win

“Syl Apps had counted for Toronto in the first session, Nick Metz in the second and 14,894 were all excited over a series-tying triumph from their heroes when Rangers started to ride the icy plains. Socko! Neil Colville shook Red Horner out of his hair and made it 2-1. One minute, 54 seconds later in the third period, Alf Pike feinted goalie Turk Broda out of position and delivered the tying goal.” That’s how Gene Ward opened his New York Daily News dispatch describing the Saturday-night soiree that saw the Rangers win the third of their four Stanley Cups on this very date in 1940. With the circus ensconced at Madison Square Garden, four of the series’ six games were played at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, and it was there in overtime in the decisive game that New York’s Bryan Hextall beat Broda for the winner after two minutes.

Seen here receiving the stove-pipe Stanley Cup are, from left — well, Rangers’ goaltender Dave Kerr is all but missing from the frame (his pads are present and accounted for). In view next to him is Dutch Hiller alongside Lynn Patrick, Clint Smith, coach Frank Boucher, Babe Pratt, captain Art Coulter, Bryan Hextall, Madison Square Garden president Colonel John Reed Kilpatrick, an unidentified obscured Ranger, NHL president Frank Calder, Ranger manager Lester Patrick, another hard-to-identify Ranger, Neil Colville, Alf Pike, and Phil Watson.

an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose

Eddie Shore was 36 in 1939, playing out the last few years of his spectacular career as a defenceman for the Boston Bruins. He was into his 13th and penultimate season for Boston that year, making a salary of $7,000 (the league maximum), which works out to about $130,000 in today’s dollars. In the spring of the year, he’d help the Bruins win their second Stanley Cup, their first since 1929. This day in that year, it so happens, is the infamous one on which the Montreal Maroons stopped short of killing Shore.

Almost a decade later, Shore’s brand of hockey was as physical and unyielding as ever. He was, as ever, a punishing and occasionally vicious opponent. He suffered, too, for his sins; the story of the bandaging seen here attests to that. It dates to March of ’39, when the Bruins were battling the New York Rangers in a Stanley Cup semi-final series.

Having topped the NHL’s regular-season standings, the Bruins only played a single playoff series that year on the way to the championship round. Under the league’s quirky playoff format, they rode a bye to the semi-final against the second-place Rangers while four teams that had finished lower down in the table battled through two rounds on the other side of the bracket. Dispensing with the Rangers, Boston went on to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs to earn the Cup.

But that was later. The Bruins/Rangers series was the first in the NHL’s 22-year history to go to seven games. It’s the fourth game we’re concerned with here, played on Tuesday, March 28, 1939, at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. The Rangers prevailed on the night by a score of 2-1, with left winger Lynn Patrick scoring the winner shorthanded in the second period.

In those years, the Rangers featured a plurality of Patricks. Father Lester was still coaching and GM’ing a team while he counted on Lynn, 25, and his defence-playing brother, 23-year-old Murray — a.k.a. Muzz — in his line-up.

It was Muzz who featured in the game’s first period, along with Shore, when the hockey gave way to chaos.

Newspaper accounts trot out all the old epithets: meleepitched battle, and free-for-all. Canadian Press called it a “five-star punching bee,” while the Associated Press went with “one of the largest and bloodiest fights in a good many years. The New York Times settled on “the mass fist-fight.”

To sum up: it was just another old-time instance of hockey players swinging sticks and fists to concuss one another, after which a few penalties were called, repairs more or rendered, and everybody carried on despite the damage done.

Melee: The fracas unfolds. Shore is number 2, with Muzz Patrick in front of him. Number 8 is Jack Portland, 16 is Red Hamill. Boston goaltender Frank Brimsek stands alongside referee Mickey Ion.

It all got going halfway through the period, when the score was tied 1-1. Joseph Nichols from the Times testified that the situation began mildly enough with Bruins’ defenceman Portland meeting pesky Rangers forward Phil Watson in a corner back of the Bruins’ net. But let’s go to the eyewitness account that Lynn Patrick gave many years later:

I can see it now: Jack Portland and Phil Watson got into a high-sticking duel down in the 49th Street — 8th Avenue corner of the rink.

Shore, who never liked Watson anyway, went charging into it. As soon as Muzz saw that, he went in and pulled Shore off. As he did, Eddie swung at him. Muzz let his big one go … booooom. Shore was out for the rest of the period, but he came back wearing a lot of plaster across his face.

Victor Jones of the Boston Globe saw it from a different perspective. His account went like this:

… there’s no doubt that the Rangers started the jam and that they concentrated their best efforts on Shore.

The original battlers were Jack Portland and Phil Watson, who engaged in a bumping and high-sticking duel in the corner.

That blew over and Portland was skating away when [Bryan] Hextall climbed up his back. Shore then went over to aid Portland in his affair with the two Ranger forwards and this was the signal for Murray Patrick and Art Coulter, the Ranger defence pair, to skate the length of the ice and gang up on Shore.

Eddie of course got all the worst of it. He’s no match for Murray Patrick, former Canadian boxing champion, with his fists. He was outweighed 20 or 30 pounds and for a while seemed to be fighting the whole team single-handed.

Mickey Ion was the referee. He fell to the ice, or was knocked down, twice before the fracas was over. Restored to his skates, Ion assigned six major penalties, to Shore, Jack Portland, and Gord Pettinger of the Bruins, as well as to New York’s Phil Watson, Muzz Patrick, and Dutch Hiller.

Shore went to the dressing room for medical attention, so Ray Getliffe sat on the penalty bench in his stead.

Muzz Patrick in 1935, when he won the Dominion Heavyweight boxing title.

As mentioned, Patrick did have a particular punching pedigree: in 1935, in Edmonton, he boxed his way to the Dominion Heavyweight crown with an upset TKO of Tommy Osborne, the challenger from Quebec. A contemporary account of the championship bout is as instructive as it is dispiriting, an historical case study for retrospective concussion spotters and students of punch-drunk syndrome alike.

Four years later, in New York in ’39, Shore was almost certainly concussed when he returned to the ice midway through the second period. “I told him not to play any more after it happened,” Boston coach Art Ross later said. “But he insisted on getting out there again. He was fighting mad.”

Edmonton Eddie’s dented and bent prow was Harold Parrott’s jovial description in the next morning’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “It was smeared over on the right side of Eddie’s face by three Muzz Patrick punches, and only a band of adhesive tape held it back in place when Shore returned to the wars.

Papers in New York, Boston, and beyond would spend the next several days cultivating a discussion of just how Shore had sustained his damage. “Patrick didn’t do that,” the man himself told Parrott, gesturing to his nose, which he said had been shattered “for about the tenth time.”

“Watson hit me with the butt-end of his stick even before the scrapping started.”

But Muzz Patrick was adamant. “I hit him three clean shots. I felt his nose give way.”

Hy Hurwitz of the Boston Globe later got Patrick on the record regarding his erstwhile boxing career. He tracked him down in the coffee shop of the Manger Hotel, next to Boston Garden, where Patrick started off by saying, “I’m a hockey player, not a fighter.”

“Sure,” he said, “I used to box as an amateur, but I haven’t fought since 1935, and the fight the other night was the first I’ve had since I quit boxing.”

Following up his Canadian heavyweight crown with several other titles, he’d considered trying to represent his country at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was having trouble with his own nose, though, and underwent surgery for a deviated septum.

So that was what ended his career in the ring?

“Oh, no,” Muzz Patrick told Hurwitz, “my mother was against it. She never liked it from the start. It was all right for me to come home from a hockey game with seven stitches in my head, but if I ever came home from a fight with a little black eye, it was terrible. I gave it up for her.”

Aftermath: Shore adjusts his helmet next to referee Ion. That’s Ranger goaltender Bert Gardiner restraining (I think) Brimsek. The Rangers in front of him include Muzz Patrick, whom Boston number 11, Gord Pettinger, is about to punch. Jack Portland, number 8, is all done.

(Top image © Arthur Griffin Courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography; photograph may not be reproduced in any form per the copyright holder. All rights reserved.)