Sad news today from the alumni association of the Vancouver Canucks: former defenceman Jack McIlhargey died yesterday, July 19, of cancer. He was 68. Edmonton-born, McIlhargey was a Cougar in Victoria and a Bomber in Flin Flon before he got started in the NHL, in 1974, with the Philadelphia. Along with Larry Goodenough, McIlhargey and his moustache arrived in Vancouver in 1977 by way of a trade that returned Bob Dailey to Philadelphia. McIlhargey worked the Canucks’ blueline for parts of four seasons before ending his career with the Hartford Whalers. After retiring in 1982, he worked as both an assistant coach and assistant GM for the Canucks; he also, over the years, steered several of Vancouver’s minor-league affiliates, in Milwaukee, Hamilton, and Syracuse. He had stints, too, back in Philadelphia, with the Flyers, as both an assistant coach and as a scout. Jack McIlhargey was elevated to British Columbia’s Hall of hockey Fame in 2011.
Rick MacLeish was the first Philadelphia Flyer to score 50 goals, a feat he achieved in 1972-73, when he was 22, and finished the season with 100 points, good enough for fourth in NHL scoring. The following year, when the Flyers won the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups, MacLeish led the league in playoff scoring.
A master of the wrist shot is a phrase you’ll see, occasionally, when you cast back to those days by way of old newspapers, which sometimes also reference his stylish finesse and magic wrists. They mention him, circa 1978, as the best pure skater on the club and the only man with a possible chance to win a skate-off down the ice with a streaking Montreal Canadien like Guy Lafleur. MacLeish, they now and then assert, looks like Edgar Allan Poe reincarnated and shares the American short story writer’s grim demeanor. “He is quiet and keeps to himself,” they’ve been know to suggest, “letting others do the talking while he dresses quickly and hurries home.”
“Rick displays so little emotion that his expression hardly ever changes.” That was Bobby Clarke, the Philadelphia captain, in ’78. “That and his easy skating style can give people the impression that Rick’s not putting out. Sometimes even we get on him about it in practice. But if you look at his statistics, particularly in the big games, you’ll know just how important Rick is to the club.”
MacLeish, who died on a Monday of this date in 2016 at the age of 66, was born and raised in Cannington, in middle Ontario, north of Sonya, east of Brock, not far from Lake Simcoe. The rink there, on Elliot Street, is named after him. He played 12 seasons with the Flyers in all, and turned out, too, briefly, for Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Detroit.
On the origins of his shot, he had this to say, in 1980: “There was a bridge over a little stream not far from our place and I used to go down there and fire pucks at the cement for hours. I used to play games with myself. You know, draw circles on the wall and try to see how many out of ten I could get in the circle. I got pretty good at it.”
Born in Riverton, Manitoba, in 1950 on a Sunday in April of this date, Reggie Leach is 70 today. Just why he still hasn’t been voted to hockey’s Hall of Fame remains a mystery, but the oversight does nothing to diminish what he accomplished as a goalscorer in the NHL. Best known as a Flyer, Leach was never better than he was in the spring of 1976, which is when he scored five goals in a decisive Conference-Final game against the Boston Bruins in the Conference Finals on his way to notching 19 goals in 16 playoff games. Though Philadelphia fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals, Leach was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy that year, as playoff MVP, the only non-goaltender in NHL history to win the award as a member of the losing team.
With an assist from Randi Druzin, Reggie Leach published a memoir in 2015, The Riverton Rifle: Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life. I had a chance to talk to him at the time, on assignment for Slapshot Diaries. I asked him about goaltenders; here’s what he told me:
Q: You scored a lot of goals in the NHL. Was there one goaltender who gave you particular problems?
A: You mean one goaltender I couldn’t score on? Gerry Cheevers. I did score some goals on him, but he was one of the hardest goaltenders for me to score on. I couldn’t figure him out.
When I played, I used to watch the warm-ups all the time and practice shooting from different spots. Where I was dangerous was top of the circle, and out farther. I wasn’t that great inside, I don’t think. Kenny Dryden: the easiest goaltender, for me. Yep. Because Kenny was scared of my shot. And I beat him high all the time, always over the shoulder.
Gerry Cheevers, I’ll tell you a story. When I was in Boston, I remember going to practice as a rookie and as a rookie you just go all-out, you just shoot it, and I go in there and I put one past Cheevers and I thought, Yeah, I beat him. But Gerry, if you hit him with a puck, he’d chase you down the ice. I hit him one time in his chest, he chased me with his stick, and the guys were all laughing, they didn’t tell me that. Gerry Cheevers would stand, no lie, all he did was stand in net, stand there, wave his stick. Right? And that was his practice. And if you hit him, he’d chase you down the ice.
But goaltenders are really strange. Our thing with Bernie Parent, we’d say, Bernie, you weren’t that goddamn good, you only had 18 shots a game. He was funny. One time in Vancouver he comes in — he always smoked the cigar, right — he’d come in with the cigar and say, Boys, I feel good, give me one goal today, that’s it. And guys would be smiling, great, yeah, we only have to get the one goal. And 99 per cent of the time, that’s all we needed, the one goal. That’s the way he was. And Bernie actually stayed out to practice his angle-shots all the time. I would shoot the puck at him and I’d tell him, Bernie, just move over a bit more, and he’d say, Just shoot the puck, I’ll do the moving. He would have everything all angled out, left-handed shots versus right-handed, he would work on that, the only goaltender I ever saw who worked on something after a practice was Bernie. All the other ones I played with never did.
Born in Sundsvall in Sweden on a Tuesday of this date in 1948, Inge Hammarstrom turns 72 today. Featured here on the cover of a Maple Leafs program from Febraury of 1974, Hammarstrom was 25 when he and his 22-year-old compatriot, Borje Salming, joined Toronto Maple Leafs for the ’73-74 NHL season. Celebrated in Toronto, where Hammarstrom’s speed and left-wing wile made an early impression on a line with Darryl Sittler and Rick Kehoe, the Swedes were not so kindly welcomed in other NHL markets. The Leafs went to Philadelphia to play the unruly Flyers two games into the season, losing by two goals to none. “I don’t think they like Swedish boys,” Salming said after a game in which he was lustily speared by Flyers defenceman Ed Van Impe. “They don’t play hard, they play dirty.” Philadelphia winger Bill Flett told the Daily News that he’d chatted with Hammarstrom early on in the first period. “I told him that the first time he touched the puck, I’d break his arm.”
The Swedes showed no signs of intimidation. Hammarstrom finished his rookie season with a respectable 20 goals and 43 points; Salming, for his part, came in third in voting for the Calder Trophy that New York Islanders’ defenceman Denis Potvin won.
The Leafs fell to Boston’s Bruins in the first round of the playoffs that year. When in the fall of the following season they stumbled out of the gate, winning just five of their first 16 games, Leaf president and 70-year-old miserable curmudgeon Harold Ballard announced that the players should be ashamed to walk the streets of Toronto.
Coach Red Kelly wasn’t driving the team hard enough, Ballard told the Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin, and captain Dave Keon was derelict in his duty as Leafs’ leader. (Asked if he thought any of his Leafs were showing captainly qualities, Ballard singled out a winger the team had acquired in the off-season: Bill Flett.) On went Ballard’s rant, and on. “Things are too damned serene around here,” he griped. “That’s the trouble. I think we’re too fat.” No-one on the team was hitting. It was here that he (famously) picked on one of his second-year Swedes: “You could send Hammarstrom into the corner with six eggs in his pocket,” he sneered, “and he wouldn’t break any of them.”
If Ballard was hoping to jolt his team back to the win column, the bluster didn’t immediately do the job: the Pittsburgh Penguins beat them 8-5 next game out, and it took them five more outings before they eked out a victory. The Leafs did find eventually find their way into the playoffs the following spring, lasting two rounds before they were ousted by Philadelphia, the eventual champions.
Hammarstrom almost matched his rookie numbers that year, scoring 21 goals and 41 points. He’d skate for the Leafs in parts of three further seasons before a trade sent him to St. Louis in 1977. He played two seasons with the Blues before returning to finish his career at home in Sweden.
Born in Winnipeg on a Friday of this date in 1925, Fred Shero was a stout defenceman for the New York Rangers in the late 1940s long before he made his name (and won two Stanley Cups) as coach of the unforgiving Philadelphia Flyers in the early 1970s. Shero, who was inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 2013, later went on to serve as coach and GM of the Rangers. He died at the age of 65 in 1990. “There must be something more to life than hockey,” he told Trent Frayne in 1974. “I look around and I see brainy men, people I went to school with, contributing to society in important ways. A friend of mine is a chest surgeon on the west coast and another is a defence attorney. I was smarter than they were in school and look what they’ve done and what I’m doing. I feel maybe I could have been the same thing, and I wonder sometimes what the hell I’m doing in hockey.”
(Image: Ken Bell)
“I haven’t stopped the puck this well in years,” a 29-year-old John Davidson was saying in the fall of 1982 as he prepared to for his return to the New York Rangers’ crease after months of injury. “It’s a combination of hard work and experience. Starting off again is kind of new to me, and it feels good. It feels good to get out with the guys and contribute.” Davidson lost his first start of the season 3-2 to the New Jersey Devils, but five days later he helped the Rangers beat the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 5-2 at Madison Square Garden. “The Flyers are a back-alley team,” he enthused after that one. “They come to play the game and work hard. This was a good, old-fashioned, hard-fought, knee-crawling hockey game. Whether you play in Philadelphia or here, you know you’re going to be in a battle and you look forward to it — you look forward to just going to war … and it was a war tonight.”
It also happened to be the last game of Davidson’s 10-year NHL career.
A few days after the Flyers’ game, at practice, Rangers’ assistant coach Walt Tkaczuk came in on a breakaway, deked, and — Davidson felt his back go. “When it went, it went,” he said later. “I felt a kind of jolt, like an electric shock.” Disc surgery ended his season before October was out, and though he focussed on making a return to the ice, by the summer of 1983 he was ready to call it quits. For all the trouble his back had given him, it took a knee to force him out, finally — the left one. “It’s full of arthritis and calcium,” he said. “I’m 30 years old and I guess my knee is 45 or 50.”
Davidson went into broadcasting and then, in 2006, hockey management. After six years as president of the St. Louis Blues, he took the helm of the Columbus Blue Jackets, a job he kept until he resigned last week. Now 66, Davidson made his return to the Rangers as the team’s new president. “New York’s special. There’s only one New York,” is what he told reporters who gathered today at MSG. “Once you figure it out, and it gets in your blood, it’s there forever. It’s a special place to win and that’s what we plan on doing.’’
With the Hockey Hall of Fame announcing its 2018 class this afternoon, Martin Brodeur is the name that fans and pundits alike seem to be settling on as a sure bet. Other candidates thought to be up at the front of the pack include Martin St. Louis and Daniel Alfredsson. There’s talk that hockey trailblazer Willie O’Ree, 82, might be in, too — maybe, the word was yesterday at NHL.com, he could be inducted as a builder for his quiet energy and devotion he’s put in as an ambassador for inclusion and diversity with the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative.
For a piece that went up yesterday at The New York Times, I’ve been talking to and writing about Indigenous hockey players recently. Fred Sasakamoose was one of the first to play in the NHL, and I don’t know why he wouldn’t be in the conversation, too. I’m not sure whether Sasakamoose, who’s 84, has even been nominated, but I hope so: given his tireless work with and advocacy for Indigenous youth over the years, he’s as worthy a candidate as O’Ree.
Then there’s Reggie Leach. You’ll recall, maybe, the effort that the great John K. Samson organized to press the case for the Riverton Rifle to be welcomed into the Hall. In 2010, there was the song Samson recorded that doubled as a petition, both of which went by the name http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/.
In 2013, Samson put together a well-argued application supported by a very complete statistical package and accompanied by endorsements from, among others, novelist Joseph Boyden, Ian Campeau (a.k.a. DJ NDN) of A Tribe Called Red, writer Stephen Brunt, and Wab Kinew, who was then Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. Samson and some of his friends would eventually go in person to deliver the whole bundle, song and stats and supplications, to the Hall’s very doors.
That’s worth watching, which you can do below, even if the whole enterprise was in vain: as of this hour, Reggie Leach still isn’t an Honoured Member of hockey’s Hall of Fame.
Talking to Leach, who’s 68 now, this past January, I asked him about that. He said that he was aware of continued efforts by friends and fans of his across the country who are still intent on convincing the Hall that the time is now, but that he doesn’t worry much about whether the call comes or not.
“I don’t get involved with it,” he told me from his home Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, near Little Current, Ontario, on Manitoulin Island. “I’m just happy that there are people who think that I should be in there. To me, that’s a great honour. They’re my Hall of Famers, those people. If I don’t get in, I really don’t care, because I think it’s mainly where you come from and who you played for that matters — stuff like that.”
(Top image: cover of John K. Samson’s 2010 ANTI- EP “Provincial Road 222”)
“Eric Lindros To Be Immortalized By Flyers On Thursday” might be, but isn’t, a headline on a story filed yesterday by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s cryonics bureau; in fact, what they want you to know is that the local hockey team will tonight be retiring the number 88 that the 44-year-old former centreman wore when he led the Flyers for eight seasons in the 1990s. “He was probably the most dominant player during his time in the NHL,” said an old teammate, Rod Brind’Amour, when Lindros was elevated, and properly so, into the Hockey Hall of Fame last fall. Back in 1997 at this time, when Saturday Night put Lindros’ gaze on the cover, you might have had your doubts that it would ever come to this. Brian Hutchinson, who profiled Lindros in the magazine’s pages, seems to have been all doubt, all the scathing way through. Lindros was 23, then. It was a year-and-a-half since he’d won a Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, six months since he’d notched 47 goals and 115 points, wrapping up what would end up being the most bountiful scoring season of his 13-year NHL career. Hutchinson’s profile isn’t what you’d call kindly, wandering through the whole sorry history of the Lindros’ refusal to report to the Quebec Nordiques and on into the story of all the Stanley Cups he’d failed to win as captain of the Flyers. “He has come close to fulfilling his destiny,” Hutchinson writes in the course of detailing the injuries and immaturities, the failures of Flyers management that had kept Lindros from it. “He may be the most well-rounded, physically imposing player in hockey history,” he writes. “Surprisingly quick for his size, with a tremendous reach that lets him gobble up loose pucks, he also, according to Flyers goalie Ron Hextall, has one of the hardest shots in hockey, a snap shot that comes out of nowhere, untelegraphed and accurate. But he’s no innovator. Unlike Orr and Gretzky, he doesn’t change the way the game is played, nor does he have a singular talent — like Mario Lemieux’s stickhandling or Guy Lafleur’s skating — that sets him apart.” Ouch.
Call him the Flower, Mozart, something of a hockey maniac, pride of Thurso: how ever you care to tag him, Guy Lafleur turns 66 today. Most famously, of course, he was a Canadien, but after 14 seasons in Montreal, he did, you’ll recall, retire from retirement in 1988 to play three more seasons, first with the New York Rangers, then in Quebec with the Nordiques, before re-retiring for good in 1991. Lafleur did wear a helmet as a junior scoring sensation, notching 130 goals in 62 games in his final year with the Quebec Remparts. But after a slow start in the NHL, he eventually shed the headgear for good. I wrote a bit about this in Puckstruck, to this effect:
I don’t know whether Guy Lafleur could have taken his place among Canadiens greats wearing the bobbleheaded helmet he sported when he first played in the NHL. In 1974, at training camp, the story goes that he forgot it one day in his hotel room. He’d been a bit of a dud up to then, and the sportswriters were ready to write him off. Without his helmet, blond hair flowing free, he played with joy and with verve. The writers cheered. There, then, he decided he’d never again cover his head.
Biographer Georges-Hébert Germain writes about this in Overtime: The Legend of Guy Lafleur (1990). “As though by magic he had rediscovered the pleasure of playing.” It wasn’t what was on his head, of course, so much as in it. “But the helmet would be banished as a negative fetish for him, a bearer of unhappiness.” This was the age of the Flyer brawn and brutality, of course, and Canadiens’ management wanted Lafleur to put the helmet back on. “He would hear none of it — it was a burden, slowed him down.”
Guy’s dad wasn’t pleased, as noted in his autobiography. “I’ve always been afraid to see Guy play without a helmet,” Réjean Lafleur confided in Guy Lafleur: Mon Fils (1981). He and his wife worried when they saw him bareheaded, “especially when he falls or he’s checked against the boards.” When he asked Guy why, he said he’d damaged his helmet and the team hadn’t got him a new one yet. “I never much believed in the story,” his dad solemnly wrote.
(Image: Guy Lafleur by Serge Chapleau, graphite and watercolour on paper, 43.1 x 35.5 cm, © McCord Museum)