behind the boston blueline: safety first

In the catalogue of hockey-player poses, the First Pass falls somewhere between the static standard we’ve already seen on display in the Tripod and the showy effort of the Maximum Slapper. It’s your all-business, man-at-work option: what we’re looking at here, above, is a single-minded man on a mission to clear that puck from the defensive zone. Head up, eyes on the breaking winger, he won’t be waylaid, not even for a photo shoot.  Can there be any doubt that when Mr. Armstrong makes contact here, stick to puck, his pass will be crisp as Melba toast on its way to where it’s going?

Sorry: Bob. Bob Armstrong. He was a regular on the Bruins’ blueline through the 1950s and into the early ’60s, long before I knew him, in high school, in the 1980s. Lakefield, Ontario is where he settled after his hockey career ended, and it’s where he spent some 25 years as a beloved teacher and housemaster, and as a coach of hockey and football players. His First Hockey teams were very good in those years, which meant that I never quite cracked any of his line-ups — I was only ever a Second. In the classroom, where he taught history and economics, he did his best to guide my Grade 12 studies of Schlieffen plans and Keynesian multipliers. Big Bob we called him, too, though not, if we could help it, within his hearing. He was much mourned when he died at the age of 59 in 1990, much too soon.

Back in Boston, he’d worn number 4 for five years before Bobby Orr arrived on the scene. A dozen seasons he skated in the NHL, 542 games, a big, solid, no-nonsense, front-porch defender, which is to say (as I wrote in a book called Puckstruck) stay-at-home. On the Boston blueline his partners over the years included Hal Laycoe, Ray Gariepy, Fernie Flaman, and Leo Boivin, though mostly he paired with peaceable Bill Quackenbush. In 1952, Boston coach Lynn Patrick sometimes deployed a powerplay featuring forwards Real Chrevefils, Leo Lebine, and Jerry Toppazzini with winger Woody Dumart manning the point with Mr. Armstrong. He scored but rarely: in his twelve NHL seasons, he collected just 14 goals.

Bruising is the word that’s often attached to Mr. Armstrong’s name as it appears in old dispatches from the NHL front, which sounds like it could be a reference to his own sensitive skin, though mostly it refers to the welts he raised on that belonging to opponents. He didn’t only batter members of the Montreal Canadiens, but they do figure often in the archive of Mr. Armstrong’s antagonism, cf. his tussle with Goose McCormack (1952); that time he and Tom Johnson were thumbed off for roughing soon after the game started (1954); the other one where he and Bert Olmstead were observed roughing up each other (1955); and/or the night he and Andre Pronovost were sentenced to penalties for fighting but subsequently left the penalty bench to join in a disagreement Labine was having with Maurice Richard (1958), leaving Mr. Armstrong when it was all over with a large purple swollen area around his left eye.

Players who rarely found themselves fighting — Jean Béliveau, Max Bentley — somehow ended up throwing punches at Mr. Armstrong.

“A big fellow, he liked to dish it out,” the Boston Globe’s Herb Ralby wrote in 1953, looking back on Mr. Armstrong’s rookie season. If there was a fault to find in his game then, it might have been his hurry to rid himself of the puck — he was, Ralby wrote, “afraid of making moves that might prove costly.”

Playing alongside Hal Laycoe cured him of that: “a patient, painstaking tutor,” the six-year veteran helped turn his rookie partner into such a polished performer that by 1953 Bruins’ coach Lynn Patrick was ready to rate a 21-year-old Mr. Armstrong the third-best defenceman in the NHL, after Detroit’s Red Kelly and Bill Gadsby of Chicago.

He played in a single All-Star Game, in 1960, when the best-of-the-rest took on the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens at the Forum and beat them 2-1. “The best safety-first defenceman in the league,” Leafs’ assistant manager King Clancy called Mr. A that season. “He doesn’t fool around with that puck behind his own blueline. He gets it out of there in a hurry.”

Gadsby and Kelly were part of the All-Stars’ defensive corps, too, that night, along with Marcel Pronovost, Allan Stanley, and Pierre Pilote. Pronovost was roundly cheered by the Montreal crowd on the night, the local Gazette noted; Mr. Armstrong and Bruins’ teammate Bronco Horvath suffered “distinct booing.”

willie o’ree, 1961: scored that one for the whole town of fredericton

Like Bronco Advised: With Montreal defenceman Jean-Guy-Talbot looking on, Willie O’Ree scores his first NHL goal, a game-winner, on Charlie Hodge, January 1, 1961.

Sixty years ago today, Montreal was minus-nine and snowed under, cloudy overhead, with light flurries expected and a risk of freezing drizzle. Normal, then, for a Saturday in January. Marlon Brando’s new movie, Sayonara, was playing at Loew’s downtown. In Ottawa, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was feeling better. Having spent the week confined to his bed with a strained back, he was up and out for a short walk. All was well in the local hockey cosmos: the Montreal Canadiens, Stanley Cup champions for two years running, were once again a top the NHL standings. Coming off a 5-2 Thursday-night win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs were preparing to host the Boston Bruins and their newly promoted winger, 22-year-old Fredericton, New Brunswick-born Willie O’Ree.

This week, the NHL is remembering that 1958 night, the first to see a black player play in the league. O’Ree, who’s 82 now, was honoured last night and roundly cheered at Boston’s TD Garden when the modern-day Canadiens played (and lost to) the Bruins. Earlier in the day, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had proclaimed today Willie O’Ree Day across the city. That was at a press conference dedicating a new street hockey rink in O’Ree’s honour.

Called up in a manpower emergency, O’Ree played only a pair of games during his first NHL stay. It would be three more years before he returned to score his first goal.

Back in ’58, the Bruins and Canadiens were spending all weekend together. Following Saturday’s game, they’d meet again Sunday in Boston. The then-dominant Canadiens were, as mentioned, cruising atop the six-team NHL, 18 points ahead of second-place Detroit, 24 clear of the languishing fifth-place Bruins.

With Leo Labine out with the flu, Boston GM Lynn Patrick summoned 22-year-old O’Ree from the Quebec Aces of the minor-league QHL. In 32 games there, he’d scored 7 goals and 18 points.

“It is believed that O’Ree is the first Negro to ever perform in the National Hockey League,” Montreal’s Gazette ventured, with nods to other black hockey talents, including Herb and Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre, star Aces of the early 1950s, as well as to O’Ree’s teammate in Quebec, centre Stan Maxwell.

Elsewhere, across North America, the headlines were bolder. “Young Negro Star Makes NHL History,” a California paper headlined a United Press story in its pages, noting “the lowering of the last color line among major sports” while also deferring to “most hockey observers” who were said to agree that the only reason there had been such a line was “the fact that there hasn’t been a Negro player qualified to make” the NHL.

O’Ree wore number 25 playing the left wing on Boston’s third line alongside Don McKenney and Jerry Toppazzini.

“His debut was undistinguished as Boston coach Milt Schmidt played him only half a turn at a time,” The Boston Globe recounted, “alternating him with veteran Johnny Pierson.” The thinking there? GM Patrick explained that Schmidt wanted to “ease the pressure” on O’Ree and “reduce the margin of errors for the youngster.”

Dink Carroll of Montreal’s Gazette paid most of his attention on the night to Boston’s new signing, the veteran Harry Lumley, “chubby goalkeeper who looks like a chipmunk with a nut in each cheek.” O’Ree he recognized as “a fleet skater” who had one good scoring chance in the third period in combination with Toppazzini. “He lost it when he was hooked from behind by Tom Johnson.”

Lumley’s revenge was registered in a 3-0 Bruins’ win. “I was really nervous in the first period,” O’Ree said, “but it was much better as the game went on.”

“It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. It’s the greatest thrill of my life.”

Also making an NHL debut at the Forum that night: Prince Souvanna Phouma, the prime minister of Laos, was on hand to see the hockey sights at the end of a North American visit.

Sunday night at the Garden, O’Ree got one opening, early on, when Don McKenney fed him a leading pass. This time, O’Ree shot into Jacques Plante’s pads. With Canadiens re-asserting themselves as league-leaders with a 6-2 win, O’Ree didn’t play much in the game’s latter stages.

So that was that. Afterwards, O’Ree was reported to be grinning, sitting amid a stack of telegrams from well-wishers back home. He described himself as a “little shaky.” “I’m just happy to get a chance up here, that’s about all I can say.” Leo Labine was back at practice next day, along with another forward who’d been injured, Real Chevrefils, so after another practice or two, O’Ree returned to Quebec.

As a Hull-Ottawa Canadian, 1960.

It was three years before he got back the NHL and scored his first goal. Canadiens figured prominently again, starting in the summer of 1960, when the Bruins agreed to loan the winger to Montreal. O’Ree was duly assigned to the Hull-Ottawa edition of the Canadiens, in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, where Glen Skov was the coach. The team had a good autumn, but as happens with farm teams, they paid the price in having their best talents stripped away. In November, Canadiens called up Bobby Rousseau and Gilles Tremblay while Boston beckoned O’Ree, now 25, back to the fold. The Bruins were still down at the wrong end of the standings, just a point out of last place, while also suffering adjectivally in the papers where, if they weren’t “listless” they were “punchless.”

Starting off his second stint as a Bruin, he was numbered 22, assigned to a line with Charlie Burns and Gerry Ouellette. As in 1958, newspapers (like Pittsburgh’s Courier) took due note that the “fast, aggressive forward” was “the first of his race to play in the National Hockey League.”

“The Speedy O’Ree” The New York Times annotated him when he made his Garden debut; in Chicago, the Tribune’s Ted Damata was particularly attentive. “The first Negro” was “on the ice four times, three times as a left winger and once as a right winger. He touched the puck twice, losing it each time, once on a hefty body check by Jack Evans of the Hawks.” Continue reading