maple leaf gardens, 1999: the last waltz

They played in the first NHL game at Toronto’s Maple Leafs Gardens in 1931, and they were there at the last, 68 years later. Red Horner had worked the blueline that opening night for the Leafs, while Mush March was a member of the visiting Chicago Black Hawks, scoring on their behalf the first goal in the history of the rink that Conn Smythe built. On Saturday, February 13, 1999, when the same two teams met for the final game at the Gardens, March and Horner, both 90, were on hand to drop a ceremonial puck. Like them, that was an original, too: March had kept the one he’d scored with in ’31, carrying it with him, back to Toronto, from his home in Illinois.

Also on hand for that final Gardens night were a further hundred or so former Maple Leafs, Gaye Stewart and Fleming Mackell, Ed Litzenberger, Frank Mahovlich, Ron Ellis, Red Kelly among them. (Pointed in their staying away: Dave Keon, still vowing then that he’d never have anything more to do with the team, ever, and Bert Olmstead, miffed that his invitation hadn’t been personalized.)

What else? The 48th Highlanders piped their pipes and drummed their drums. Anne Murray sang “The Maple Leaf(s) Forever,” and Stompin’ Tom Connors struck up with “The Hockey Song.” Michael Burgess took care of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.”

Then, hockey. In 1931, Chicago beat the Leafs 2-1. They did it again in ’99, this time by a score of 6-2.

Toronto artist James Paterson later rendered his vision of the evening’s events, with some added Lordly commentaries. In the fall of 1999, the painting was on display at Toronto’s Wagner Rosenbaum Gallery as part of a Paterson show also called “Hockey All The Time.”

bee-stung

For the cover for the 1960 Official National Hockey Annual, artist (and former NFL lineman) Tex Coulter painted Montreal’s Bill Hicke scoring on Chicago’s Glenn Hall, and while you can’t really see the expression on either man’s face, the sense of their mutual surprise is strong, as though the last thing either man expected to see was that puck find the back of the net. I wrote in my 2014 book about the journalist and pro tem goaltender George Plimpton and his suspicion that his failure as a netminder was largely a problem of acquaintance: he’d never really gotten to know the puck. “One would appear with the abruptness of a bee over a picnic basket,” he wrote in Open Net (1985), “and then hum away, all so quickly that rather than corporeal it could well have been an apparition of some sort. A swarm of them would collect in the back of the net during the shooting drills without my being sure how they got there.”

From the veterans of the crease Plimpton apprenticed with during his stint with the Boston Bruins he learned that you never bother with a puck that ends up behind you in the net. A bee no more, that puck has become your mess and your shame — “like dogshit on a carpet.”

 

undone, again, at the olympics, but not the end of the world as we know it

Second-Best: Members of Canada’s 1936 Olympic take a pause by the lake-rink at Riessersee. From the left, they are: Pud Kitchen, Dinty Moore, Hugh Farquharson, Ken Farmer, Dave Neville, Arnold Deacon, Bill Thomson, Alex Sinclair, and captain Herman Murray.

The world didn’t end that February Friday, a few weeks back, as the Olympics played down and Canada’s men lost their hockey semi-final to upstart Germany, but it shuddered a little. “Eishockey-Sensation” was the early headline from Der Spiegel, and German Twitter trilled will mentions of a “Wunder auf Eis” — a new Miracle on Ice.

In Canada, it was morning, and the nation mourned, briefly. And moaned: about Gary Bettman, whose fault it all was, really, denying us our golden birthright; that the guy who scored Germany’s first goal is from Winnipeg; that (as Don Cherry raved) the linesman who called that stupid early penalty is Russian, i.e. linchpin of a vast conspiracy to see us humiliated.

By Saturday, when we beat the Czech Republic to win bronze, the national mood was brighter.

Weirdly so.

That’s it? Have we really mellowed so much in the years since the almost-calamity of 1972 that no-one’s calling for a royal commission to look into how we failed to finish? Don’t we care any more? Could be, I guess, a matter of faith, one that’s so strong and enduring that we don’t have to speak it let alone achieve it: what matters is not who actually won so much as what would have happened if Crosby and Connor and Carey had been on the job in South Korea.

Whatever the case, we’ve calmed down since our first Olympic hockey undoing, in Germany in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Up to that point, through four Olympic tournaments, Canadians had never lost a game, never come home with a medal that wasn’t golden. Looking back on what happened 82 years ago is like studying the original operating instructions for Canadian hockey humility, and/or the lack thereof.

Winter and summer, the 1936 Olympics were, of course, in Germany, presided over by Adolf Hitler and other odious Nazis. That’s a stain that’s only darkened by what we know, now, about what the next ten years would bring.

In Garmisch, the hockey tournament started with a kerfuffle over the eligibility of several players on the team from Great Britain who’d played previously in Canada. Their hockey paperwork wasn’t in order, Canadian officials maintained. The British disagreed, and almost withdrew, in a snit, but didn’t. When the hockey got going, Canada beat, and breezily, Poland, Latvia, and Austria, before facing off with the British.

They started with a snap, which is to say a speculative slap, from long range, that bamboozled Canadian goaltender Dinty Moore, nesting in the net. The Canadians tied the score, then continued to bombard British goaltender and sort-of Canadian Jimmy Foster. But it was the British who scored again, on a break in the third. The game ended, shockingly, 2-1 not-for-us.

 

Canada’s coach was penning a column for the papers back home, or at least lending his name to one. He assured Canadians that his team (and theirs) had had “easily 80 percent” of the play. “The English,” he continued,” although fast-skating, cannot be considered the equal of the Canucks, but because goals win games we are forced to swallow the bitter pill.”

“Canadian hockey hats are off to England this morning,” one Toronto columnist wrote next morning, but her gracious voice was a lonely one. Most of the newspaper accounts echoed the Star’s European correspondent, Matthew Halton, who’d watched the disaster unfold. “We are feeling pretty sick here today,” he advised.

As if the news from Germany wasn’t dismal enough that day, a local prophet who ran his own church out of his living room was making front-page news with an unsettling forecast: by Friday, the world would be expiring. This was Bible-based, apparently, nothing to do with hockey.

“The tall buildings of Toronto will be destroyed,” pastor Harold Varney calmly promised reporters, “and the world consumed in cleansing fire.”

In Germany, oblivious to the reckoning that was three days away, the Canadians played on. Whupping Hungary 15-0 was a tonic, and got us our groove back, briefly. But it was at this point that Canadian team officials discovered that they didn’t really understand how the tournament was set up. Yes, they would advance to the medal round with the British, the Americans, and the Czechoslovaks; no, they wouldn’t get a chance to play the British again. They would have to live with their loss — and the precious points that Britain would carry over.

Now it was Canada’s turn to threaten to take its pucks and go home. Instead, we attended an emergency meeting of the Ligue International Hockey sur Glace, arguing that that the final four teams should start afresh, play a whole new round-robin, allowing us to take our revenge and restore order to the universe. This was put to a vote.

We lost that, too.

The host team paid an immediate price when we played a subsequent against the Germans. “The Canadian pucksters were seething as they took the ice,” reported The Globe; “In Angry Mood” was a headline from Ottawa. Intent on giving the Germans — their team, populace, and Nazi officials — “a lesson in the art of bodychecking,” we found that they were poor students. The home fans booed the Canadians so strenuously during our 6-2 win that Hitler’s propaganda minister, the ghastly Joseph Goebbels, stood up to command the crowd to quiet. He was, for some reason, “dressed in the costume of Daniel Boone.”

Canada won its final two games fairly tranquilly, but it didn’t matter, the gold belonged to Britain. For the first time in Olympic hockey history, we were a shameful second.

In the blame and bluster that filled newspapers in the days following our silvery shame, all five stages of Canadian hockey grief revealed themselves, starting with Blissful Denial. “No one is worried, no one is upset,” The Winnipeg Tribune’s editorial page declared. “There is something rather pleasing in the fact that other countries like Canada’s game so well that they are taking it up so vigorously.”

Finger-Pointing ensued. Later, in March, when the hockey players finally returned home to Canada, they were quick to reproach Canadian team management for fumbling their responsibilities. In February, there was some question at home of how it could be that  these officials hadn’t known the rules of the very tournament in which they were participating. “It is something hardly creditable to Canadian smartness,” an editorial in The Ottawa Journal sniffed.

Backlash followed: “It wasn’t a great team, measured by any yardstick,” the Journal confessed; never again, said The Star, should we send any but “a real all-star team to carry the red Maple Leafs in future Olympic hockey tournaments.”

Next was Official Uproar: Toronto MP Tommy Church rose in the House of Commons to carp about how poorly the whole affair reflected on us as a people. “I think,” he said, “something should be done.”

Finally, of course, there was Not To Worry, Everything’s Fine, Who Says It Isn’t? This was confirmed by the foreigners whose refreshing views we were only too pleased to publish: that the hockey result (from a Buffalo paper) had “a smell,” and that (from Manchester’s Guardian) “Canada would have won nine times out of ten.” The Globe reported that in a visit to Canada’s dressing room, Hermann Göring, head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, had assured our players that “no matter what was to happen, he always would consider the Canucks the real world champions.”

A.E. Gilroy, head of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, had done his share of railing against tournament organizers and the deceitful British while he was still in Germany. Back home again, he apologized, refusing to waste anybody’s time with excuses, other than to mention that the dastardly Europeans had pulled a fast one on us, plus (also) there was something “peculiar” about the pucks, some of which did “weird tricks,” including on Britain’s first goal. Ask the Americans, Gilroy said: they agreed that the pucks were “not true.”

Lessons learned? I don’t know that there’s any real evidence of that. If you count the extent to which the press emphasized just how many of the British players had learned their hockey in Canada, then, yes, I guess we did kind own the loss. Here was a logic we could live with: Canadians hadn’t failed, they’d just succeeded under someone else’s flag.

Doomsday in Toronto was cold and snowy, and altogether free (it turned out) of hellfire. Friday came and went, and then it was Saturday.

Frisky reporters staking out Harold Varney’s doorstep demanded to know: if he was so sure of imminent Armageddon, why had he put out his bottles for the milkman the night before?

Varney wasn’t fazed. The Lord, he said, had granted an extension. “I am glad that there is yet time for the sinful to repent.”

They should make haste, though: “A few days from now, Toronto people should know, all will be judged.”

In The Olympic Spirit: Adolf Hitler takes in the Olympics alongside the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring (centre, with binoculars), and propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

(I wrote about the 1936 Garmisch Olympics and Harold Varney’s gloomy outlook in Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession, my 2014 book. There’s more on these matters therein, on pages 171—180.)

finn factor

Twenty-six pucks failed to get by Pekka Rinne last night, though of course — probably — likely — what I really mean is that it was one single puck, possibly a couple, or three, that didn’t succeed, 26 times. Not that Rinne doesn’t deserve credit for his preventative part in Nashville’s big 2-0 home win over the Dallas Stars, just saying the puck(s) need to be bearing some of the responsibility here, too. It was, in any case, the seventh instance this season of complete puck futility involving Rinne, the best goaltender ever to have come out of Kempele, which is near Oulu, in Northern Ostrobothnia, in Finland. His record in the last 19 games he’s played is 17-1-1. When Adam Vingan of The Tennessean talked to Rinne post-game, the goaltender reached into the post-game loot-bag of triumphant clichés and extracted this one: “A lot of good things are happening to us right now, so we’ve just got to enjoy it right now.”

The portrait here, from the 2017 playoffs, is Toronto illustrator Dave Murray’s. For more of his work, visit at www.davemurrayillustration.com.

 

can the puck break a bone?

S004

Puckbitten: “Pete Pilote,” the papers sometimes called him, “Hawk captain,” as when in March of 1963 (in Chicago’s final regular-season game) a puck shot by Boston’s Wayne Hicks cut the back of his head for 12 stitches. A.k.(mostly)a. Pierre, he suffered his share of head wounds: in December of 1960, also facing the Bruins, a puck off the boards opened up his forehead. I think that must be the wound that Hawks trainer Nick Garen is studying here, above. In his memoir, Pilote recalled the ’63 incident with a wince. “I’ll never forget that one. Those 12 stitches hurt more than anything I’ve ever known … like somebody was pressing a hot poker into my head. It throbbed so much I couldn’t sleep for a few days afterwards.” When later the sutures opened, the Hawks’ Dr. Myron Tremaine suggested that he might have to add an extra stitch to seal the deal. “No, you don’t Doc,” the superstitious Pilote told him. “Not 13! Find room for one more.”

In December of 1934, Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn American talked to Dr. Henry Clauss, house doctor to the hockey players, boxers, and six-day bicycle racers who plied their trades at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The mention of the Art Ross puck is noteworthy, though it may not be entirely accurate. A new Ross puck did see service in the NHL in the early 1930s, only to be subsequently revoked, but I’ve seen no other reference to its being metal-middled. Following here, an excerpt of Parrot’s profile, edited, and poemized.

Sticks carried high, or swung viciously, (as often happens)
can do more deadly execution than
anything.

“The goalies are the ones that feel the brunt of the attack,”
said Dr. Clauss, wincing visibly. “I find that
the better the goalie, the more he
gets cut up, because
he goes to meet the play —
takes chances, to save goals.
Shrimp Worters, in the Americans’ net,
is always
getting
sliced
up.

“Can the puck break a bone?” I asked.

“It’s more damaging than a baseball
thrown by Mungo or Gomez,” said the Doc,
“and I know! It is heavy enough
to break bones now, although it is not
as bad as a few years ago,
when they used to use that Art Ross puck
with a metal center, and
they used to carry the players off
one after another. But the edge,
the cutting surface on the puck
makes it worse than
a baseball.”

the terrible things the canadiens were doing to our leafs

conn smy

Boiling Over Inside: Conn Smythe circa 1936. (Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Hockey is a quite a game. When I was overseas and the world was in flames, with the destruction of democracy seemingly imminent; the Russians falling back hundreds of miles; the enemy at our doors and threatening any day to engulf us; enemy planes overhead and few of ours to help us; hundreds of thousands of people dying or being killed or starved to death; I would get a letter from home telling me in frenzied tones of the terrible things the Montreal Canadiens were doing to our Leafs.

And I marvelled that anybody could get excited about hockey at a time like that. Then I came home and I saw grown men scooting over a frozen ice surface chasing a little bit of black rubber thing not as big as the palm of your hand, and I wondered even more.

Now I find myself again boiling over inside over that very same little black rubber thing, leaving the game before the finish, as I did Thursday night, because it was too much excitement for me. The fellow that invented that little black rubber thing was quite a guy.

• Conn Smythe, Toronto Daily Star, April 2, 1947