a code of his own: colliding head-on with phiery phil

Phil Watson’s hair was wavy brown, and parted in the middle; his eyes were alert and green. This was in 1947, when Watson was 32 and a prominent right winger and sometime centreman for the New York Rangers, a talented, tireless, and conspicuously belligerent veteran of a dozen NHL seasons. According to Robert Lewis Taylor, Watson was one of the best-looking players in the game in those years — and it is true that he was, a decade earlier, recruited to double for Clark Gable in a hockey movie that was never released. Watson’s smile, Taylor wrote, was “uncommonly pleasant,” if “largely synthetic” — to replace the four top front teeth he’d had knocked out in the line of duty, the Rangers bought him the dental bridge he wore when he wasn’t doing battle on the ice.

Watson was born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1914; he died in 1991 at the age of 76. The man they called Phiery Phil got his name of the Stanley Cup twice — with the Rangers in 1940 and, in 1944, when wartime restrictions kept him home in Canada, as a member of the  Montreal Canadiens. In 13 NHL seasons, he proved himself to be a skilled defensive player as well as a first-class annoyance to his opponents. He also contributed offensively, and led the league in assists in 1941-42.

As a coach, he got two cracks at steering the Rangers during the 1950s and another, in the ’60s, behind the Boston Bruins’ bench. He coached two seasons in the WHA in the ’70s, guiding the Blazers in Philadelphia and subsequently in Vancouver.

For views of Watson’s background, unruly prowess on ice (think Brad Marchand before he reined himself in), and surpassing eccentricity, I recommend the long, droll, eventful profile Robert Lewis Taylor published in The New Yorker in 1947 under the title “Disorder On The Rink.” I count it as a bit of a lost classic of hockey non-fiction, well worth your while, particularly if you’re looking to round out your understanding of just how outlandishly unrestrained the excesses of NHL hockey once were.

It doesn’t extend to Watson’s coaching years, and it bypasses several key episodes in the Watson story. It doesn’t delve into the circumstances under which Watson annoyed his own Ranger goaltender so thoroughly that Chuck Rayner attacked him in the team’s dressing room. Also missing: his brief 1938 brush with Hollywood stardom wherein he served as Clark Gable’s skating and puckhandling stand-in opposite Myrna Loy in an ill-fated feature called The Great Canadian.

A taste of what Taylor does offer up in his portrayal of Watson’s tempestuous tenure in the NHL, in three excerpts:

The two most effective methods of taking a puck away from an advancing opponent are probing for it with a stick, which is known as “poke checking,” and slamming into the man bodily, which is called “body checking.” At these two arts, Watson has no master. A head-on collision with any moving object smaller than a pick-up truck provides him with the sort of comfort that some bankers get from foreclosing on a valuable farm.

Most hockey players consider it bad form to strike a referee with a stick, and the rules are explicit on the subject — the striker is subject to a fine or to suspension from the league. Watson, displaying a kind of instinctive legal ingenuity, has detected loopholes in the code: there is no mention of spitting in a referee’s face. In moments of extreme urgency, he performs this act and generally draws a severe penalty, under whatever rule the referee feels may be stretched to cover the case.

On one occasion, when he was relating an anecdote to Lew Burton, the Journal-American sportswriter, in the Rangers’ dressing room after a game which had featured a really spectacular brawl between him and the Detroit Red Wings, Burton interrupted to ask, “How’d it get started, Phil?” Watson jumped up, cried, “I tell you, Lew, they started it like this!,” and brought a hockey stick crashing down on Burton’s head, benching him for about twenty minutes. “It was the wrong way to tell that story,” Watson frequently says, with a gloomy inflection.

cy op

Cy Op: Marvin Wentworth, better known as Cy, played on Chicago's defence starting in 1927, and he was named team captain in 1931. Traded later to Montreal's Maroons, he won a Stanley Cup in 1935. Andrew Podnieks makes the case that he ought to be in the Hall of Fame for his defensive defencemanship. His adjectives include steady-going, clean, and not-big. "He used timing and the poke check to break up attacks," Podnieks writes, "while his huge partner on the blue line, Taffy Abel, had no problem using his whole, and generous, body to prevent goals."

Cy Op: Marvin Wentworth, better known as Cy, played on Chicago’s defence starting in 1927; he was named team captain in 1931. Traded later to Montreal’s Maroons, he won a Stanley Cup in 1935. Andrew Podnieks makes the case that he ought to be in the Hall of Fame for his defensive defencemanship. In the hockey books, his adjectives include steady-going, clean, and not-big. “He used timing and the poke check to break up attacks,” Podnieks writes, “while his huge partner on the blue line, Taffy Abel, had no problem using his whole, and generous, body to prevent goals.”

falling through the ice: take your skates off, poletti, they’re weighin’ ya down

dangerSometimes in the hockey novels, the pond where the high-school team plays its big game is beautiful, black and smooth and deep, and the sound that skates make on it bespeaks power and gracefulness and cold outdoor air, such that young Jack Taylor, who watches the game, can’t resist heading out onto this same ice a few days later when the weather starts to warm.

I’m speaking here of Lightning On Ice, Philip Harkins’ 1946 novel for young readers, and if you can see where we’re heading, well, yes, obviously. The pond doesn’t have a name, though it’s big enough, apparently, to be called a lake. The boys find a sheltered cove where the ice, soft as it is, seems thick enough. They ignore the signs warning them off. They shed their shoes, pull on skates. It’s older boys, mostly. Jack is younger, meek. At first, there’s no room for him in the game, but then one of the captains says he can tend goal. Poletti. Jack doesn’t want to play in goal but, okay, fine. Schulz is the other captain, and a jerk. It’s his wrist shot that hits Jack in the shin, fells him briefly, despite everybody having agreed to no raising. I’m not going to get into the bad blood that boils between Schulz and Poletti. Poletti pokechecks him — I will say that. And so:

Schulz, chagrined, watched the puck skim over the ice. Then his chagrin vanished as he saw the rubber disc slide serenely out of the cove onto the thin ice of the pond. Watching the puck and realizing what this would mean to its owner, Schulz broke into a laugh. “O.K., wise guy!” he cried. “There’s your pokecheck and there’s your puck. You go get it — and have a good swim!”

Poletti goes. It’s his puck, the only one he’s got. The rest of the players look on. He skates fast, gets to the puck, whacks it to safety, turns back.

Poletti was returning. The ice was sagging dangerously, rising up and down beneath him like a rippling snake. Poletti was skating uphill and downhill over the creaking ice. A boy yelled, “Come on, Poletti. You kin make it.”

No. Not true. He trips, cries out, crashes through the ice. O no.

The boys stood paralyzed. Then they broke into excited cries and skated in excited circles. “He’s up,” someone shouted. Poletti had pulled himself onto a ledge of solid ice and was pushing himself up with his arms. Suddenly the ledge gave way and Poletti dropped back into the icy water. Cakes of ice ground around him, seemed to promise support, and then sank under his weight.

ftti harkins - Version 2

Take off your skates, Schulz counsels from afar: “They’re weighin’ ya down!” No way: those skates cost him ten bucks. Jack’s the one who goes after Poletti, of course: it’s his job as the novel’s hero. Along with his nerve, he’s got a plan.

When he reached the thin ice of the pond, he dropped to one knee and, getting flat on his stomach, wriggled forward with extended hockey stick. He ignored the warnings of the other players.

“Grab my ankle,” he cried to them, and someone followed, lay down, and grabbed Jack’s ankle. Then another joined the human chain and another, and now there were four boys anchored to Schulz, who was kneeling on the thick safe ice of the cove.

Jack slid farther out near Poletti. Poletti thrashed against the heavy ice cakes, pushed them aside, and fought his way to solid ice. Jack stretched, Poletti strained. Then Poletti managed to grasp the end of the hockey stick which Jack extended toward him.

“O.K. Pull,” cried Jack. “Everybody hold on with two hands!”

Slowly painfully, Poletti came up out of the icy water onto ice that held under his weight, over the ice of the pond to the thicker ice of the cove, where he lay at last soaked, dripping, safe.

All’s well that ends & etc. Happy and proud, Jack joins Poletti for hot chocolate and hot dogs. What could be better? “A day that had started miserably,

with an assignment of goal tending and a painful bang on the shin, had turned out extremely well; by express invitation he was walking home with a big boy, a high school boy, a good hockey player.

three bears

Three Bears: Boston stalwarts, left to right, Eddie Shore, George Owen, and Lionel Hitchman pose for the camera during the 1928-29 season. “The Rangers fought like tigers, ripping the Bruins to shreds with their rushes,” The New York Times reported from a 2-1 Bruins’ win that year, “but Hitchman and Shore spoiled every drive by stealing the disk with timely poke-checks.” (Photo: Courtesy of Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection).