noshing (no more) with 99

Say your so longs to Grandma Gretzky’s Perogies, get your goodbyes in for WGS Plant Based Vegan Caesar Salad: after 27 years, Wayne Gretzky’s own Toronto flagship restaurant is closing today for good. A condo development (of course) will rise in its downtown stead.

I was only ever there once, in — wait, now — 1994? Wayne was on hand himself, I wish I could say he was manning the stoves, but no, it was a book launch, for Jim Taylor’s Wayne Gretzky: The Authorized Pictorial Biography. I talked to Taylor, who was friendly, and to Wayne’s dad, Walter, who was friendlier. There was no getting near the then-Great One: like the appetizers, he was besieged as soon as he appeared.

The restaurant had opened a year earlier, down on what used to be Peter Street, just north of the used-to-be-SkyDome, in the year-of-our-Lord-the-Blue-Jays-won-a-second-straight-World Series. Back then, of course, the local hockey team was still at home uptown, at Maple Leaf Gardens. The restaurant debuted in July of 1993 with the intent (as WG’s website explained right up to the end) of striving “to honour this Canadian Hockey Hall of Famer by creating a dining experience with Gretzky’s greatness in mind.”

The gall. That same spring, Gretzky had taken a break as a fine-dining impresario to join the Los Angeles Kings in their quest for the Stanley Cup. Against Toronto in the Campbell Conference Final, Gretzky escaped justice in the sixth game of the series when he high-sticked Leaf captain Doug Gilmour and failed to surrender himself after referee Kerry Fraser missed the call. Maybe you don’t remember; Toronto will never forget.

The Kings won that game, in overtime, on a goal of Gretzky’s. He had a say in the deciding game, too, scoring a hattrick as the Kings dismissed the Leafs 5-4 to win the series and advance to their first Stanley Cup Final.

How did Toronto forgive #99 his trespass? It’s hard to remember. Somehow. Gretzky’s opened a month after the Kings ceded the Cup to the Montreal Canadiens over the course of five games, so I guess there’s that.

It wasn’t just Gretzky, of course, who made the restaurant happen, he was just a partner, and the brand. The Bitoves were the majority owners; there was talk, too, that they were after an NBA franchise. In August, not long after the restaurant opened, Globe and Mail sportswriter William Houston dropped by.  He came out unimpressed. “The food was mediocre and the service slow,” he griped in the paper. “It took 35 minutes to get a ‘King’s Clubhouse.’ When it arrived the French fries were soggy and cold — not even tepid, but chilly.”

Houston was all over the story of the restaurant that month: he also broke the news that the first question prospective WG’s employees were asked when they came in for an interview was, “What does Wayne Gretzky mean to you?”

Wayne and his wife Janet were on hand for the grand opening in September, and so too was a forgiving Gilmour. His Toronto teammate Wendel Clark showed up, too, as did Gretzky’s old Oilers pal Paul Coffey, a Detroit Red Wing by then, along with future Leaf president Brendan Shanahan, still toiling on the ice in those years as a winger with the St. Louis Blues. Vladislav Tretiak came, and Alanis Morissette, and Toronto’s mayor, June Rowlands.

What else?

It’s worth noting, maybe, that Gilmour opened his own restaurant that same fall, Gardoonies, not far from the rink where he worked his day job.  I’m pretty sure it’s no longer around, though I should probably check on that, just to be sure.

What I can report is that #93’s new digs didn’t make quite the immediate impression that Gretzky’s did — not, at least, if the December, 1993 issue of Toronto Life is your source, as it is mine. Consulting the magazine’s year-end awards issue, I find that while Gardoonies figured not at all,  #99’s place had endeared itself so thoroughly to its host city that it featured twice, winning recognition as the city’s

NOISIEST RESTAURANT

Wayne Gretzky’s on Peter Street; take earplugs.

and for the year’s

MOST AUDACIOUS ATTEMPT AT STICKHANDLING THROUGH CITY COUNCIL

By Wayne Gretzky, who tried to get 41 Peter Street (the location of his jock – stop/restaurant) changed to 99 Blue Jay Way. The Great One’s request is tied up in city council.

Councillor Howard Levine was chairman of the committee considering the application, and he said the city was being seen as “pliant and lacking in principles” for even contemplating allowing the change.

Another councillor, Robert Maxwell, said that letting Gretzky have his Way would give the impression that anybody could have a street name changed.

“You just don’t play with history like that,” said Councillor Michael Walker, though I guess in the end the lesson we all learned is that you do, if you can, and Gretzky did, eventually. But then, like the restaurant at 99 Blue Jays Way itself (as of tonight), that’s also, well, history.

supper body injury

The NHL’s inaugural season, 1917-18, was, unavoidably, a year of firsts.

Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers scored the league’s very first goal, and his teammate Harry Hyland notched its original hattrick while suffering (possibly) its earliest maiden concussion. The Wanderers’ coach and captain was Art Ross, and he took the NHL’s earliest penalty, though nobody seems to have noted down, officially or otherwise, just how he transgressed.

For all their trailblazing, the Wanderers didn’t survive, of course: in early January of 1918, they made their mark even as they erased it, becoming the first NHL franchise to fold.

That left the infant league with just three teams: Torontos, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens. Later in January, the storied Canadiens made history as the first NHL club to fall sick on an eastbound train as a result of supping on a bad batch of broth in Canada’s capital.

There’s not much more we know. How did the sickness manifest itself? Where on the line between Ottawa and Montreal did it strike? Which early Habs suffered? What was the name of the restaurant that served the quease-causing potage? What kind of soup was it?

That we do know, actually: the soup was a tomato soup.

For its opening act in 1917-18, the NHL divided its 22-game regular season schedule into two. As the end of January approached, Montreal stood atop the standings with 14 points ahead of Toronto (12) and Ottawa (six). On the Monday night of January 21, Canadiens visited Ottawa for an 8.30 date with the Senators.

The 6,000 fans who packed Dey’s Arena that night saw a bevy of future of Hall of Famers. Ottawa’s line-up featured Clint Benedict in goal in back of Eddie Gerard, Jack Darragh, and Cy Denneny. Georges Vézina guarded the Montreal goal, with Joes Hall and Malone working in front of him alongside Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre. Paced by a hattrick from defenceman Hall, Canadiens solidified their lead by beating the home team by a score of 5-3. The game was mostly without incident, which is to say none of the notorious malefactors involved, including Hall and his Montreal teammates Billy Coutu and Bert Corbeau, were caught swinging their sticks at their rivals, or butt-ending them, as they tended to do, to fearful extent. “The cleanliness of the hockey appeared to tickle the big crowd,” the Ottawa Citizen was pleased to report the next morning.

It’s thanks to the report, above, from the Canadian Press that we know that the winners went for a post-game feed that included the fateful soup. If only we knew more. Where did they eat? What else was on the menu? Did all nine players eat the soup or just the six reported to have been indisposed? Who were the unfortunates, and who was spared?

Joe Malone: Sidelined by a soup?

Dey’s Arena was on Laurier Avenue in those years, facing the canal, occupying the southwest corner near the modern-day Confederation Park. Is it fair to surmise that they bunked nearby, taking their late supper in their hotel’s restaurant? Probably, though that doesn’t really help us much. Then, as now, there are plenty of hotels in that area of downtown Ottawa. Did the 1918 Canadiens alight at the Chateau Laurier? That wasn’t far from the rink, though the Windsor Hotel at Metcalfe and Queen would have been closer. Or what about the Russell House Hotel that still then occupied the corner of Sparks and Elgin? From a hockey history perspective, that would be satisfying: it was at a banquet at the Russell House, of course, that the Lord Stanley’s donation of a challenge cup was first announced in 1892. Then again, the Canadiens may have been lodged at an entirely different hotel. And indeed, on their way back there after the game, it’s true too that they could have stopped in at any local restaurant along the way. The New Idea, for instance, located at the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe, ads for which appear in the pages of Ottawa newspapers around this very time, featuring the slogan “For Quality, Quantity, and Quick Service.”

Not that I’d want to impugn their soup, even retroactively, without further evidence. What I can say is that this was wartime, remember. The First World War had been seething for more than three years, and November’s armistice was still, at this point, ten months away. While the Canadian government didn’t impose food rationing on the general population in aid of the nation’s war effort, the federal Food Board was, by early 1918, limiting hotel and restaurant menus.

An article in the Citizen a week before the Canadiens fell ill explained the lengths that local eateries were cutting back. “The purpose of the food controller in laying restrictions on hotels and restaurants,” it reported, “was to effect a saving in the three commodities most needed by the men at the front and by the Allied people — beef, bacon, and wheat, and to awaken the public conscience to the need of the hour.”

For at least three months, it seems, restaurants in the nation’s capital had been going beefless and bacon-free on Tuesdays and Fridays. At the Chateau Laurier, to conserve flour, no bread was being served at breakfast “except rolls and corn muffins,” while at lunch and supper, patrons were allowed nothing but “rolls and perhaps a couple of slices of brown bread.”

People didn’t mind, said the manager of the Russell House, where bread cutbacks were also in effect. “Bread is by no means a necessity in the hotel meal,” he confided. “I find that it is only eaten when people are waiting for the next course.”

Soupwise? All I can tell you is that the Chateau in earliest 1918, white flour was no longer being used to thicken soups and sauces: “cornstarch and arrowroot are taking its place,” the Citizen says.

Impossible to say whether this had any effect on the Canadiens. How did they know it was the soup that turned their stomachs? That, to me, is the nub of the whole thing. Did Jack Laviolette look over his spoon and wince his suspicion at Louis Berlinguette that something was up with the bisque? Could it be, perhaps, that club captain Newsy Lalonde, going on instinct, tried and failed to wield his authority with a plea for the team to order the untainted cream of mushroom instead of the tomato?

We just don’t know. Tuesday morning, the players boarded the train, whereon some of them sickened. They would have been home in about two hours. Montreal newspapers don’t seem to have noted their plight.

On Wednesday, Canadiens played a return date against Ottawa at the Jubilee Arena on St. Catherine Street East. Only Lalonde was missing from the Montreal line-up, though the reason for his absence doesn’t seem to have been soup-related: he had what the Citizen (painfully) refers to as “a spiked foot.”

Ottawa dominated this time out, prevailing by a score of 4-3. “The result came as a surprise,” reported the hometown Gazette; Canadiens were “listless.” The Ottawa papers took a slightly different view, crediting the victory to the stalwart work of captain Eddie Gerard, who played almost the entire game, and goaltender Benedict, who withstood an unrelenting Montreal barrage in the third period. “Canadiens set a smashing pace,” the Journal reported. “Canadiens piled in with everybody but Vézina and it looked as if they might batter in a goal by sheer weight.”

Joe Malone did score a pair in the final frame to tie the score, but Harry Hyland, who’d joined Ottawa after the demise of the Wanderers, got one back to make the difference. It as the fifth time the two teams had met in the history of the NHL, and Ottawa’s very first victory over Montreal.

l’apiculteur (ii)

For The Defence: Canadiens blueliners Roger Léger, Léo Lamoureux, and Hal Laycoe, with Butch Bouchard on his sled, circa 1946-47.

1. Bill Durnan said he was a sweet guy. His jokes were God-awful, the goaltender told Stan Fischler in Those Were The Days (1976). Bouchard’s answer: “It just doesn’t sound as good in English as it does in French.”

2. He was very sociable.

3. He loved to play Monopoly. That’s what his wife said. “He loves to Monopolize. It’s always him who wins.”

4. Gordie Howe said he wasn’t a villain.

5. “He was never a bully,” says Mike Leonetti in Canadiens Legends: Montreal Hockey Heroes (2009). “Bouchard maintained control and had to be seriously provoked to drop his gloves.”

6. This is a bit of a refrain, dating back at least to 1944, when Le Petit Journal observed that he had proved himself so able with his fists that he was no longer obliged to fight.

The Hockey Hall of Fame captions his profile this way:

To his credit, he never abused his powerful attributes and most opponents wisely avoided provoking him. In turn, he rarely fought.

Here’s what it says at ourhistory.canadiens.com:

The strongest man in the league, Bouchard played a robust brand of hockey. While other defensemen around the league resorted to more underhanded tactics, Butch hit with his hip rather than his fists. After a short period of introduction, he was rarely invited to engage in fisticuffs and probably stopped more fights that he took part in, often seizing both combatants and keeping them at arm’s length until they cooled off.

7. All of this filtered its way into the obituaries and tributes that have appeared over the last couple of weeks. Peaceful Pro, Ken Campbell’s column is headlined in the latest Hockey News. Didn’t fight much. Refused to use his physical advantage to be anything more than a peacekeeper.

8. His penalty minutes, it’s true, were relatively few. Or at least spread out: never in a season did he chalk up more than 100. You can’t say that about Wild Bill Ezinicki or Leapin’ Lou Fontinato, to name a boistering couple of names from the era. Among teammates, Ken Reardon and Murph Chamberlain spent more time on the penalty bench.

9. Dick Irvin called Chamberlain a stirrer-upper.

10. Irvin, talking about Maurice Richard: “His looks are deceiving. He’s the strongest man on the club. In dressing room wrestling matches he will beat even Émile Bouchard.”

11. Ivan Irwin was one of the more fearsome of New York Rangers in his time. He told Brian McFarlane that it might have been the fire in Richard’s eyes that deterred fellows from fighting him. “A much tougher guy was Butch Bouchard,” Irwin said.

One night Lou Fontinato was roughing up some of the smaller Montreal forwards when Butch, normally a quiet, easygoing fellow, got mad. He took Fontinato by the scruff of the neck, held him up, gave him about five good ones — pow! Then he pushed him away. Butch never bothered too many of us but we all knew he was the wrong guy to pick on.

12. “He was never an underhanded player,” noted Montreal-Matin in 1956: “he always hit from the front, and with confidence. He never attempted to injure or destroy his opponent.”

13. Why not? He was asked that. “I do realize,” he said, “that if I used my physical power to annihilate my opponents, I might hurt them seriously. I think they too play hockey for a living and they are professional athletes. I never thought of destroying anyone, though sometimes the temptation has been very strong.”

14. And yet. He did fight. Un batailleur de premier ordre, La Patrie reported in 1942. By then, he’d already made a name for himself against Chicago’s Johnny Mariucci and Bryan Hextall of the Rangers. Then, against Detroit one night, in the last seconds of the game, he clashed with defenceman Eddie Wares and

dealt him a direct blow almost crushing his nose and contradicting the illusion that if you keep your stick in your hands nothing can happen to you.

Sid Abel jumped Bouchard after that, causing a larger kerfuffle, which took time to play out, whereupon everybody picked up their sticks and their gloves just in time for Abel and Bouchard to start all over again. The Detroit News reported that referee Bill Chadwick had already decided he was in the wrong sport. “I should have been a boxing referee,” he said. Continue reading