the steaks of ’72: everybody suspected sabotage

 If a Canadian hockey player could be said to have a security blanket, that’s what it would look like: his wife, a thick steak, and a cold Canadian beer.

• John U. Bacon, The Greatest Comeback: How Team Canada Fought Back, Took the Summit Series, and Reinvented Hockey (2022)

In Canada, all that matters is this: we won.

It was 50 years ago this September gone by that the best of our hockey best beat the Soviets in Moscow in the final and deciding game of the 1972 Summit Series. It could have gone either way, as the sportscasters say: a last-minute goal by Paul Henderson was the difference. No-one could call it a glorious goal. It was more of a desperate shunting of the puck over the line, after which a snow-shovel raised high in celebration might have been more appropriate than the stick that Henderson actually brandished.

Doesn’t matter. Canadians know now, as they always have, why their team won: hockey is ours + Canadian heart (almost) always trumps foreign guile and/or finesse + in the battle between our way of life versus theirs, no contest + Henderson, in Moscow that week, nobody was going to stop that guy.

And yet. In the flurry of last month’s 50th-anniversary commemorations, are we forgetting a fundamental fuel of Team Canada’s Moscow fire? Isn’t it time, now, to acknowledge that the greatest of Canadian hockey triumphs boils down to this: the Soviets never should have messed with our chow.

The facts are … well, as we’ll discuss, they’re not easy to piece together. The gist: travelling to Moscow for the latter half of the Summit Series, along with sticks and skates, Team Canada shipped in a supply of steaks and beers to sustain its effort. The Soviets, cruelly, looted the lot — or a lot of the lot. The whole caper was quickly filed into the annals of Cold War history, to the extent that in a 1974 history, KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents, it huddles under the umbrella of intelligence operations that are “so petty and crude that they require no elaborate preparation.”

“The KGB harassed Canadian team members,” John Barron writes there, “by disrupting their pregame naps with anonymous phone calls and  absconding with most of the 300 pounds of steaks they brought along.”

In Canada over the years — this year, too — the story the steaks (and beers) of ’72 has mostly faded into the fabric. It hasn’t been forgotten, exactly: it remains well woven into the legend of that momentous September, a prandial whodunit that’s been standard fare in the many histories and memoirs that have been published over the years, including the several new books out this fall. Mostly now, though, it’s referenced in passing, as shorthand for the odds that were stacked against Team Canada and all the adversity that they heroically overcame.

It’s been a decade since I first wrote about the alimentary aspects of the ’72 Summit Series, with a special focus on the beef and the beer that Team Canada shipped over to the Soviet Union that long-ago September, along with the mystery surrounding the supposed theft/illicit butchery/black marketeering of said provisions. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed investigating the alleged scandal by way of newspaper archives and player memoirs. Taking the temperature therein, it wasn’t hard to piece together something like a hypothesis proposing that Canada’s heroic on-ice triumph in Moscow was as much a product of hungry outrage as it was hockey prowess.

I was, in this, mostly poking fun. Ten years on, I still am, and it’s in that spirit that I’m here to report further findings on the steaks of ’72. I will just add, as a not entirely fun aside, that in all this it’s also possible to perceive a pattern writ in Canadian paranoia and xenophobia. There was no shortage of that on offer all those years ago, whether or not we in Canada choose to recall it now.

We don’t, mostly. With an exception or two, the sour sides of the Summit haven’t really featured in the month-long anniversary retrospective we’re just coming out of in Canada. That’s not surprising. Who wants to talk about those bad-tempered in-between exhibition games in Sweden or the slash that Bobby Clarke laid on Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle when you can celebrate the way that Vancouver’s derision cemented Team Canada’s resolve or the Moscow concussion that Paul Henderson played through on his way to scoring all those decisive goals? What counts, in Canada, still: we won.

•••

For as long as Canadian hockey teams have been going overseas, they’ve lugged along their own personal meat supply. I don’t actually know whether that’s true; it sounds like it should be. I can say that when the East York Lyndhursts went to Sweden to contest the 1954 world championships, they were (per The Ottawa Citizen) “armed with a fighting spirit and a supply of vitamin pills.” That was the year that the USSR announced itself on hockey’s international stage, grabbing gold from Canada’s clutches. The captain of that team, of course, was Vsevolod Bobrov, coach of the ’72 Summit Soviets.

When, the following year in West Germany, the Penticton Vs reclaimed the world title on Canada’s behalf, they did so with an infusion of B.C. milk: when the Okanagan dairy cooperative learned that the Vs were losing weight abroad because they wouldn’t drink unpasteurized German milk, they arranged to fly in a daily supply to nurture the players.

Canadian teams would continue to brave their way into Europe, despite the hazards of foreign supper tables. The Trail Smoke Eaters may have navigated to gold in 1961 in Switzerland, but on the way there they were also severely flustered in Czechoslovakia to find eggs floating in their otherwise delicious asparagus soup.

Steaks of ’58: The Whitby Dunlops powered to gold in Oslo with the help of homegrown steaks.

Like Penticton before them, the 1958 Whitby Dunlops had a plan to avoid the uncertainties of unfamiliar menus, one that formed the foundation of what Team Canada did when it went to Moscow 14 years later. Frank Bonello was the key figure in both cases.

In ’58, he was a centreman for the Dunlops. His day-job, outside of hockey, was as a salesman for Canada Packers, the Toronto-based meat-packing and processing company. The Dunlops spent nine weeks touring Europe that year before they got to Oslo for the world tournament, and by the time they did, Bonello had arranged to augment the Norwegian menu available to the players — lots of “fish and meatballs with rich sauces,” as he later recalled it. “Nice food, you know, except it wasn’t the type of thing which an athlete wants the day of a game.”

He made some calls and Canada Packers answered them, flying in 150 steaks to aid in the team’s effort, enough to feed the players before each game, including the gold-medal final in which they beat the Soviets 4-2. “Everybody,” Bonello said, “felt more at home.”

In 1972, Bonello was still in hockey, as GM of the OHA’s Toronto Marlboros (he went on to become the NHL’s Director of Central Scouting). He was still in, well, meat, too, at Canada Packers. That August, as Team Canada prepared to launch into the Summit Series, he read that organizer Alan Eagleson had concerns about the food that the players would be getting in Moscow. Bonello had a connection, and didn’t hesitate to call in: Canadian coach Harry Sinden had been a Whitby teammate — captain of the team, in fact — back when Canadian protein had yielded gold in Oslo.

So it was that Team Canada ordered up 300 New York-cut steaks for delivery to Moscow. In Toronto that August, Sinden and assistant coach John Ferguson stopped in to Canada Packers for a visit. “I was going to call Frank anyway,” Sinden said, “but he called me first. I remembered those great steaks we had in Oslo. They were beautiful.”

Meat ‘N’ Greet: In August of 1972, Team Canada coaches Harry Sinden (right) and John Ferguson stopped by Canada Packers in Toronto to visit with Sinden’s old Whitby Dunlop teammate, Frank Bonello (left).

And so a small corner of a foreign kitchen would feature, temporarily at least, familiar fare, grain-fed-in-Canada. But it wasn’t only steaks heading for Moscow. To wash them down, Hockey Canada secured a consignment of Labatt’s beer as well as, from Finland, a supply of milk.

Team Canada even lugged its own drinking water to Moscow, for use “in both hotel rooms and on the bench,” Montreal’s Gazette reported. “It’s natural spring water supplied by Canada Dry, and it comes from Caledon Hills, north of Toronto.”

Faithful Frank Bonello also chipped in three cases of Dial soap. “I understand their soap isn’t so good,” he said that August. “They use rough-type fats in making it, and it hasn’t a pleasant odor.”

The steaks were, we know, to be packed in dry ice and flown in for a September 20 Moscow arrival. That was a Wednesday, the same day Team Canada would be getting in from Sweden and checking into the Intourist Hotel; the Summit would resume Friday with Game 5. This timing is laid out in an External Affairs cable from Ottawa sent by Patrick Reid, the External Affairs official drafted in to oversee many of the diplomatic, political, logistical, and PR aspects of the series. It’s from this document (reproduced below) that we have a measure of the meat in question.

When it comes to trying to audit the foodstuffs of ’72, this is the only official documentation that I’ve come across. Everything else — and there’s almost as much on the steaks of ‘’72 as on the stakes — is anecdotal. Memories have faded, over the years, hearsay and impression have congealed into accepted truth. That means it’s impossible to determine, at this distance, just how much pilfering of Canadian supplies took place in Moscow, if any.

Even while we know that Team Canada was brimming with groceries when it arrived in Moscow, we don’t really have a good grip on specific quantities — beyond “total meat weight of 270 lbs,” I mean. That’s fairly straightforward.

In 2012, talking to Patrick White of the Globe and Mail, Alan Eagleson inflates the count to “800 to 900 steaks.” Usually, though, going back to Frank Bonello and the original press reports of August, ’72, the number cited is 300. If that was the guess, that would mean … a whole mess of hefty 14-ounce steaks.

Possible, I guess. Liquidly, lacking anything like an official bill of lading, we can look to a dispatch from Colin McCullough, the Globe and Mail’s correspondent in the Soviet capital, who on September 20 wrote about the Intourist’s manager (“a short dark man with a gold tooth”), learning that the hotel’s refrigerators had plenty of room “for the steaks and 200 litres of Finnish milk” that would be arriving with Team Canada.

Also in 2012, Eagleson offered up a bar tab: “We brought over our own beer — 500 cases.”  Phil Esposito’s 2003 autobiography, Thunder and Lightning, has Team Canada arriving in Moscow with “350 cases of beer, 350 cases of milk, and 350 cases of soda.”

The beer was Labatt’s, who happened to be a big-time sponsor of the tournament. Company president W.F. Read said he was only too happy to support the team “by making Canadian beer available in Russia for use on the dining table.”

“It will also come in handy,” he added, “for the toasts at the conclusion of what has been one of the most exciting series ever played.”

If we err on the side of Esposito’s 350 cases, that’s — hold on: Team Canada had 8,400 beers for nine days in Moscow?

We’re talking here about a contingent of, say, 50 guys, players, staff, officials. That’s an allowance of 168 bottles for every man, or about 18.6 for each of the nine days they were in Moscow.

A few extenuating circumstances to consider: on September 20th, for instance, we know that the team didn’t land until 8 p.m., which doesn’t leave a lot of time to down 18.6 beers. And what about the four disgruntled players who decided in the first few days that they were heading back home? I’m going to assume that Vic Hadfield, Gilbert Perreault, and the others who quit the team in Moscow didn’t take their fair share of beers or steaks back home with them — as much fun as it is to imagine that they might have.

In 1973, Paul Henderson told a magazine interviewer that the beer “disappeared.” After the fifth game, testified Rod Gilbert. About 100 cases, Brad Park swore. Assuming that the players downed half their daily ration before this heist, the quick math —

8,400 total bottles of beer to begin
minus 930 (consumed September 20)
minus 930 (consumed September 21)
minus 465 (consumed pre-game September 22)
minus 2,400 (stolen by Soviets September 22)
= 3,675 surviving beers

— means that with 6 days left to go in Moscow, the team was down to 73.5 beers per man, which translates to an austerity ration of no more than 12.25 bottles each per day.

You can see how that would upset a man.

As for the investigation, I don’t know that it was all that thorough.

Patrick Reid looked back on his long diplomatic career in a 1995 memoir, Wild Colonial Boy, but his Summit memories include no Moscow heists.

Gary Smith was second secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow in 1972 and as such, a key cog in the organization of the Summit. He has a memoir of all that out this fall, Ice War Diplomat, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of insight into the fate of Canada’s beer. “No one knows for sure what happened to it,” he writes. “The embassy had lots of backups, though — just not Labatt’s.”

The players, certainly, were in no doubt that they’d been robbed. Year after year, in interviews and autobiographies, they’ve pointed the finger again and again.

Vic Hadfield, diarizing in 1974: “There must be a lot of thieves in Moscow. We brought our own beef with us — a lot of steaks — and they’ve been stolen. So has the Canadian beer, which we had shipped here. Everybody suspects sabotage.”

“They can have our steaks,” Peter Mahovlich said, slipping into the historical present in in 1992, “but they can’t take away our beer.”

Don Awrey, in 2000: “They stole our steaks and our beer.”

Rod Gilbert, in 2002: “They stole our food and our beer. Can you beat that? Stealing our beer!”

Wayne Cashman, also in 2002: “When someone stole our beer, that really pissed us off.”

To read the 1972 memoirs is to feel a remarkable heat of angry disgust, not just at the harassment to which the players felt they were subjected, but to the general Moscowness of the place.

The buses were late, is what Ron Ellis remembers in Over The Boards (2002). Vic Hadfield formed his impression before he bailed out (and I quote, from Vic Hadfield’s Diary From Moscow To The Play-offs, published in 1974): “Uuggh.”

A gray place, said Frank Mahovlich. The only good thing about the whole entire country, according to Paul Henderson, was the circus. Otherwise? “Just terrible,” he thought. “Everything’s so dull — even the people. There’s no life to it.”

Fiery Phil Esposito felt that, given a gun, he would have had no problem shooting the KGB minders who kept watch on the Canadians as they commuted between hotel and the rink. “I hated Russian society … so much,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I would have killed those sons of bitches on the bus.”

All this from the victors. Can you imagine how dark things might have gotten if these guys had lost?

A month after Team Canada returned from Moscow, Henderson was still hot about — well, several things, including Soviet vanity and the heist of Canada’s victuals. “If you listen to them, they invented wine, rum, and vodka,” he told a reporter in October. “They have the world’s best beef, the tallest buildings, and the freshest vegetables. If they have the best beef, how come they stole the 300 steaks we brought with us? We brought over our own beer and that disappeared, too. And we took for granted our rooms were bugged.”

Goaltender Ed Johnston later revealed that “a lot” of the steaks “never made it through customs.”

Esposito also seemed to think that the thieving happened either at the airport or on the way to the hotel: according to him, only “half” of the beer + milk + soda + “steaks and other food” made it to the Intourist. He was also hearing rumours that the Canadian embassy might have been in on the filching. “But I can’t believe that. I believe the Russians stole it. They had nothing over there. And besides, what could we do about it? Nothing.”

Esposito remembered well the regular Intourist menu. “One time,” he wrote, “they served us crow. Blackbird, they called it.” Also: bear steaks. “They were tough but they weren’t bad. We ate horse steaks. Wasn’t bad. It was lean. We didn’t tell the girls [i.e. their wives] what we were eating.”

Paul Henderson believed that the hotel kitchen was the scene of the crime. “The Russian chefs soon ended up selling them,” he wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012).

In an earlier memoir, Shooting For Glory (1997), he was more specific: “The Russian cooks sold the steaks to others in search of a decent meal, many of whom turned out to be our zany Canadian fans. For about ten dollars U.S. you could get just about anything you wanted, including those precious steaks! The only two Russian dishes that were acceptable to me were borscht and chicken Kiev. The rest was just terrible.”

Scott Morrison has a new history, 1972: The Series That Changed Hockey Forever, and in it he quotes Rod Seiling.

“I was back to Moscow a number of years ago,” said Seiling. “I was sitting at table and we got talking about 1972 and our beer disappearing, our steaks being cut in half, and I’m sitting at a table with this gentleman and he says, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s all true — I was selling it on the black market.’”

Morrison talked to some of the former Soviet players, too, including Alexander Yakushev and Vladislav Tretiak, and got their take on the alleged “provocations,” which included theories that someone Soviet was bugging Canadian rooms at the Intourist and (as Yakushev puts it) that “someone ate their meat and drank their beer.”

“Well,” Tretiak offered, “the meat part might be true, but not bugging through chandeliers. Who would listen? And for what purpose?”

I should say that we do have sightings in the wild (as it were) of Canada’s (allegedly) purloined steaks.

The Toronto Star’s Trent Frayne traveled with the team from Stockholm on Wednesday the 20th, and he was in on the “surprise” awaiting players, team officials, and newspapermen when they got to the Intourist:

An area of the main dining room had been set aside where dinner consisted of steak, French-fried potatoes, canned peas and a lettuce-and-tomato salad.

And a Russian combo, including two trombones, a trumpet and an electric guitar, played such haunting old favourites as the theme from Love Story and Moon River.

Those could have been local equine or ursine cuts, I suppose. If so, Ken Dryden had no qualms about them, writing inFace-Off At The Summit (1973) that the steaks the team enjoyed that first night were excellent. Coach Sinden: “They were prepared well.”

Thursday night Dryden was back to tell his diary: “After dinner — another steak — we went to see the Moscow Circus.”

Friday, Ted Blackman of the Gazette caught Canada’s players at unhappy post-game repose after their 5-4 Game 5 loss.

“Those bastards should have been in Siberia at the end of the second period,” [Paul] Henderson was saying back at the Intourist Hotel where Team Canada’s puzzled personnel sat sullenly over post-game steaks with wives who dared not speak. “We had them beaten, had them off stride, and we were pulling away. Siberia, that’s where they were headed. Then we let ’em off the hook.”

According to Dryden, the real problem was that after a few days — “the great initial burst of big steaks” — the cuts began to shrink. Also, incidentally, Team Canada’s cola was missing, causing the goalie to suffer a “Coke fit” one day after practice.

“If I had been smart,” Dryden wrote in that Moscow diary of his, on which Mark Mulvoy from Sports Illustrated earned a primary assist, “I would have done what all the other guys did: they bought extra luggage packs at the Stockholm airport and filled them with six-packs of Coke and something called Joly Cola from Denmark.”

There was supposed be an entire suite at the hotel filled with Cokes — room 1774 — but as Dryden learned, that was just a rumour. “There will be Cokes for the players after the game tonight, though,” he noted on September 22. “Come to think of it, that’s a heck of an incentive to get into the starting line-up.”

For all their suffering, the players’ lot was better than what their wives had to endure. Eggs that were black and green! Fish-eyes soup! “I guess what we’re getting to eat is better than what our wives are being served,” Dryden wrote in his original Moscow memoir. “In fact, Lynda and some other wives came to the door at lunch and asked for handouts.”

According to Brad Park, this was where the Soviets really screwed up: “they pissed off our wives” with disrespect and “disgusting food.”

“The last thing you ever want to do is shit on the wife of a Canadian hockey player,” Park disclosed in his 2012 memoir, Straight Shooter, “because she is going to make sure that her man is pissed off when he plays.”

Alan Eagleson had yet another version, one that he laid out for Jim Prime in his 2012 book How Hockey Explains Canada.

“We brought steaks over from Canada and they were confiscated,” Eagleson charged, “but not until we won a game, which goes to show how the heat was turned up as the series went on.”

Games 6 was Sunday, September 24. “Ken Dryden had a great game,” Eagleson recalled. “We won 3-2 after having lost the first 5-4 in Moscow. We got there in a roundabout way, but they confiscated our steaks. At that point the Russians thought, Geez, maybe this is not a shoe-in They still thought they’d win, but they made life miserable, starting right then.”

The veins of confusion about the fate of the Canadian meat continue to marble the Summit narratives: they’d do a choice cut of Wagyu proud.

It’s not as though the passage of years has clarified things, either.

Despite what Harry Sinden jotted down in the moment for Hockey Showdown, by 2016 he had a new version of events. The coach was on a nostalgia tour that year with a handful of his players, talking ’72 again to audiences across Canada. I caught the show in Toronto and in the Q&A session stood up to ask the question that was on everybody’s mind: what happened to the meat?

“Well,” the coach was quick to explain, 44 years later, “I don’t think you can outright say it was stolen, it just never showed up. We had it shipped from Canada to Finland, then from there, over to Moscow. That’s how we did it. And the shipments — especially the steak, because in those days, players were eating steak, prior to a game — the steaks never made it. They — for some reason, they were shipped, supposed to be delivered to our hotel. When the time came, they didn’t have them. So, obviously that story grows and grows and grows. That, you know, the kitchen staff stole them, and they made hamburger out of them. It didn’t happen. We were fine. We survived.”

Six years later, Sinden had come up with a new new angle.

Writing The Greatest Comeback, a thorough accounting of the Summit out this month, John U. Bacon had the support and cooperation of many of the veterans of Team Canada, though he goes out of his way to make clear that it’s not an “official” history: he maintained his independence. His foodie findings are presented with authority, if not detailed sources. “At least 100 of their 300 steaks, and the entire supply of Labatt’s were gone,” he writes, “probably sold on the black market, where it would fetch good money.”

“Somehow half our steaks disappeared,” was Sinden’s revised take, according to Bacon. “The hotel staff probably had a feast and made a fortune. The food we ate was horrible. They gave us peaches that were about as big as a marble. It was no way to get ready for some of the biggest games ever played.”

In Ken Dryden’s new book, The Series: What I Remember, What It Felt Like, What It Feels Like Now, he basically repudiates what he and Mark Mulvoy committed to the page, steakwise, 49 years ago.

Now, as part of a cataloguing of the many distractions and discombobulating strangenesses Team Canada encountered in Moscow, there’s this:

Our breakfasts were buffets of cold cuts, smoked fish, white cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and chocolate-coloured bread that was hard and not chocolate. Our pre-game meals, our steaks that had been brought from home and had somehow “disappeared” into Moscow air, steaks that had always made us feel strong and ready, instead were tough, random-sized, random-shaped hunks of meat.

1973-Ken Dryden, let’s recall, is on the record as having quite enjoyed the steaks Team Canada were served early on. The problem, as detailed in an entry from the diary he (and/or Mulvoy) jotted down for September 24, was one of diminishment rather than disappearance:

The quality of our meals has gone down. The great initial burst of big steaks has become a retreat to mini-steaks. We never get Cokes, though they are talked about all the time. But I guess what we’re getting to eat is better than what our wives are being served. In fact, Lynda and some of the other wives came to the door at lunch and asked for handouts.

That jibes with what Frank Mahovlich has recalled, pretty well annually, including in Andrew Podnieks’ Team Canada 1972: The Official 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Summit Series (2012), in which he rounded on the chefs working the Intourist kitchen. “They cut them in half, so we only had half a steak. So we complained. Before the third game, they cut the thickness in half. We complained again. It wasn’t until the last game that we finally got a whole steak.”

Now we may be getting somewhere —  which is to say, as close to the truth of the matter as we may ever get. Could it be that the steaks were bureaucratically butchered rather than actually stolen?

Back to Gary Smith from the embassy. In 2012, he said that he was on the case in ’72. I had to look into the case of the stolen steaks,” he told Patrick White. “I think it was likely some guy involved with the hotel, rather than someone thinking the Canadians wouldn’t be able to play without their steaks.”

In Ice War Diplomat, his updated view combines a reasonable explanation with an unexpectedly specific indictment of the hospitality industry worldwide:

After the first night’s steak dinner for the Canadian players in their hotel, some extremely large steaks disappeared from the refrigerators and were replaced by cuts half their size. Apparently, this wasn’t part of a nefarious Soviet plot but the result of a Canadian staffer telling the hotel chefs that portions had to be reduced to ensure the supply lasted until the end of the series. After some hungry players complained, the full-size steaks returned. No doubt there may also have been some pilfering of quality meat, as often happens in hotels around the world.

Whatever actually happened, I guess maybe the bottom line — and the final word? — is that Team Canada believed that they and their appetites were wronged. Did that motivate them more than they would have been otherwise motivated? Impossible to say.

I’ll leave the last word to Harry Sinden, in Hockey Showdown. He knew what it was to win a well-fed world championship with Whitby in Oslo, after all, and he was convinced he and his team went without in ’72.

On September 28, ahead of the Summit’s last and decisive game, he convened a team meeting to talk about the power play. Or — no: he and his assistant John Ferguson just wanted to make sure that everybody understood just how quickly the team planned to get the hell out of town after the game. Then the players went for their naps. Then, with victory waiting just a few hours in the future, suppertime.

“We should have had 100 steaks left for our pre-game meal,” Sinden writes, “but the Russians somehow misplaced them. They claim it was poor Canadian arithmetic. In this country four times 50 is 300. We thought it was 200. So the kitchen staff here at the Intourist Hotel will have a few steak dinners on us in the next few weeks. I hope they choke on it like their team did on the ice tonight.”

rod gilbert’s number 7: like a cardinal’s hat at st. patrick’s cathedral

Amid New York Rafters: This LeRoy Neiman portrait of the late Ranger great Rod Gilbert dates to 1976, near the end of Gilbert’s distinguished career with New York. In October of 1979, the Rangers retired Gilbert’s number 7 where (as per this subsequent caption of Neiman’s) it hung “like a Cardinal’s hat at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” It was no fault of Gilbert’s then — and it’s no disrespect to his legacy now — to mention that the Rangers somehow forgot to honour that same 7 for the first Ranger to don it (in 1927), the inimitable (and possibly best-ever Ranger) Frank Boucher. Then again, the team has made a strange tradition of overlooking its earlier stalwarts, and any time the Rangers get around to retiring Bill Cook’s number 5 and his brother Bun’s 6 wouldn’t be too soon. Recognitions for Murray Murdoch, who wore 9 before Andy Bathgate and Adam Graves, and Ching Johnson, a long-serving 3 before Harry Howell, wouldn’t be out of place, either.  

rod gilbert, 1941—2021

So sorry to hear the news this evening of the death of Rod Gilbert at the age of 80. Born in Montreal in 1941, he only ever skated in the NHL as a New York Ranger. He was a speedy right winger who scored profusely for the Blueshirts: the 406 regular-season goals and 1,021 points he collected in his 18 seasons with New York are still tops among Rangers. In 1979, a year after his retirement, the seven Gilbert wore on his sweater became the first number to be retired by the Rangers. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1982.  

  

ranger rollick

Net Gain: The current edition of the New York Rangers ran up a 9-0 romp last night at Madison Square Garden at the expense of the visiting the Philadelphia Flyers, but this isn’t that: from 1967, here’s LeRoy Neiman’s impression of Ranger Rod Gilbert (#7) buzzing Glenn Hall’s Chicago net, with Vic Hadfield (#11) and Jean Ratelle (#19) in attendance. Not a Black Hawk defenceman in sight, shamefully, though Bobby Hull (#9) is on hand to witness the goal.

moscow mauling

Incoming: It was on a Friday of yesterday’s date — September 22, 1972 — that the Summit Series resumed at Moscow’s Luzhniki Ice Palace with the Soviets picking up where they’d left off in Vancouver on September 8 by upending Team Canada 5-4. Down 3-0 going into the third period, the home team scored five goals in the third for the win. With three games remaining, that left the Soviets with a commanding 3-1-1 lead in the eight-game series. Seen on the puck here is Canada’s Dennis Hull, flanked on his left by Jean Ratelle, Gary Bergman, and Gil Perreault, with Rod Gilbert swinging wide to his right. Backing up is Gennady Tsygankov. (Image: Frank Lennon. Library and Archives Canada, e010933350)

can’t beat a canadian bulky for style, said henri richard

You can argue, go ahead, that the 1970s marked the golden age of hockey players styling handsome sweaters: you’ve got Bobby Hull, after all, to stand up and make your case, and John Ferguson, too. For me, though, I’m stuck in the ’60s, which is when Montreal’s Highland Knitting Mills were spinning their own marvels (below), even as (above) Henri Richard joined with Portland, Oregon’s own Jantzen International Sports Club to tout their newest wool cardigan in colours spanning the … “masculine range.” Can you see that the “stripes are newly designed in richer, muted tones,” or maybe not so much? No, me neither. Do real pros (and good amateurs, too), leave their flashiness on the ice, but never their flair? So many questions. All I know is that when it comes to sweaters, necklines rise and fall as knits and patterns adjust for tastes and times. I get that: styles shift. But can we agree that it’s just plain wrong that in the year 2020 we all can’t go out and get fitted for our very own Canadian Bulky?

frank boucher: his noodle is packed with hockey savvy

Breadliners: Frank Boucher between his long-time Ranger wingers, brother Bill (right) and Bun Cook.

Here’s to Frank Boucher, born in Ottawa, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1901, one of the greatest centres the NHL has ever seen, even if — outrageously — the league forgot him when it dreamed up an anniversary list of its 100 best players in 2017, and despite the fact — are you kidding me? — that the Rangers have only seen fit to recognize the number Boucher wore in New York, 7, in Rod Gilbert’s honour.

Frank was one of four Boucher brothers to play major-league hockey: in 1923, while he was starring for the PCHA’s Vancouver Maroons, his elder brother Buck was anchoring the Ottawa Senators’ defence while two other siblings, Billy and Bobby, were forwards for the Montreal Canadiens. Following a two-year career as a constable with the Northwest Mounted Police, Frank had made his professional debut with Ottawa before making his way west to Vancouver. When the western league dissolved in 1926, Boucher’s rights were sold to Boston. It was on Conn Smythe’s short-lived Ranger watch that Boucher came to the Rangers before playing a single game for the Bruins. Having made his debut in New York in 1926, he soon found himself skating between brothers Bill and Bun Cook on the famous “Bread Line.”

With their help, New York raised two Stanley Cups, in 1928 and 1933. Seven times he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, and by the time he retired (for the first time) as a player in 1938, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in assists. Succeeding Lester Patrick as coach of the Rangers in 1939, he steered the team to another Stanley Cup in 1940. He wasn’t quite finished playing: in 1943, aged 42, he returned to the Rangers’ line-up for 15 games. Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1958, Frank Boucher died in December of 1977 at the age of 76.

Arranging a Boucher miscellany, I’d make sure to mention:

• His adjectives. If you look him up in old newspapers, you’ll find that these included scintillant (1925) and burglarious (1923). The latter refers to his skill in stealing pucks from opponents, the art of which he studied playing alongside the master himself, Frank Nighbor, when they were teammates in Ottawa. Hence Boucher’s nickname, Raffles, borrowed from the novels of E.W. Hornung, and most eagerly applied by newspapermen when Boucher was playing in Vancouver. As the local Sun explained in 1924, “The original ‘Raffles’ was the most gentlemanly burglar known to fiction and Vancouver’s ‘Raffles’ is the most picturesque and polite puck thief in hockey.”

Here’s Ed Sullivan hymning his praises in a 1931 syndicated column — yes, that Ed Sullivan, back in his New York Daily News days:

Boucher has been up in the big leagues of hockey for ten years now. He could stay up in the top flight for ten additional years. Even if his speed were to desert him, Boucher could get by on his smartness. His noodle is packed with hockey savvy.

• Boucher’s recollection that the contract that manager Tommy Gorman of Ottawa’s (original) Senators signed him to in 1921 paid C$1,200 for the season — about C$17,000 in today’s money. “I leaped at the chance,” he later recollected, “little knowing what a terrible year was in store for me. I spent practically the whole season on the bench.”

The problem was the Ottawa line-up. In front of Clint Benedict’s goal, the Senators lined up Frank Nighbor, Punch Broadbent, Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, and Frank’s brother Buck. “They were all 60-minute men. In those days you didn’t come off the ice unless you were carried off.”

Dey’s Arena in Ottawa was, in those years, unheated, so along with fellow spares Billy Bell and King Clancy, Boucher petitioned Gorman and coach Pete Green to allow them to wait in the warmth of the Ottawa dressing room until they were needed. Management wasn’t keen on that, but they did finally relent, installing a buzzer system by which the bench could call forth replacements as needed. Boucher:

One buzz meant Clancy, two buzzes meant Bell and so on. So, for the balance of the season we sat in the dressing room, in full uniform, playing cards, with the roar of the crowd and the stamping of feet over our heads.

• The circumstances under which Boucher came to own the original Lady Byng Trophy in 1935. Nighbor was the first to win it, in 1925 and again in ’26, followed by Billy Burch in ’27. Boucher was next, and next, and next, and … next. Joe Primeau relieved him of his crown in 1932, but the following year Boucher was back for another winning run, this one lasting three consecutive years.

After Boucher won his seventh Lady Byng in 1935, Ottawa Journal columnist Walter Gilhooly wrote an open letter to the trophy’s donor patron respectfully suggesting, well, “that the cup be withdrawn and your trustees be instructed to turn it over to Frank Boucher to become his permanent possession” as a “well-earned keepsake of his time and his achievements in the National League.”

And so it happened. Within a week, the wife of Canada’s erstwhile governor-general had written from England to express her desire to see it done. NHL President Frank Calder saw to it. That’s how a new Byng came to be born in 1936, when Doc Romnes of the Chicago Black Hawks was voted the winner. We’ll never know whether, on merit, Boucher’s reign should have continued: having collected the original trophy for his mantelpiece, Boucher voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration for future Byngs.

• A partial inventory of the swag presented on “Frank Boucher Night” in February of 1951, when the Rangers celebrated the man and his service to the club at Madison Square Garden.

“Boucher had enough gifts to make a jackpot on a radio quiz program,” the Globe and Mail reported. “The fans gave him a 1951 Studebaker, the team a television set. The hockey writers presented him with a typewriter. His hometown friends at Mountain, Ont., contributed an oil burner for his farm.”

• A coda: in 1962, February, fire swept through the farmhouse, burning it to the ground. Boucher was in Regina, where he was serving as commissioner of the Saskatchewan Junior League; his son Earl and family escaped the flames. Not so Boucher’s hockey mementoes, most of which were destroyed, including the original Lady Byng Trophy.

The cause of the fire was thought to be mice chewing through electrical wires.

Bench Boss: Frank Boucher, hatted at left, coaches the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship in April of 1940 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. On the bench before him, that’s Neil Colville (6), Muzz Patrick (15), and Alex Shibicky (4).

the right way to rout: do not purposely avoid scoring against a team that has already lost

While much of Canada slept Sunday morning, the team battling in our name at this year’s IIHF World Championships in Denmark swept past South Korea by a score of 10-0. Maybe you woke up to watch the TV broadcast, but if not, and you relied on tidings from the internet, then it’s possible that you saw the victory framed as a kind of gratis Royal Caribbean vacation on the IIHF’s news-feed, where the headline over Andrew Podnieks’ report read: Canada Cruises At Korea’s Expense. A Team Canada “made up of NHLers started gently but poured it on,” he wrote. On Twitter it was deemed both a convincing and a dominant win; the Koreans were duly thrashed (Sportsnet.ca) and demolished (Hockey Night in Canada).

Was that really necessary, though? It’s the question that comes up after lopsided wins against lesser opponents, if not for those players on the ice perpetrating the lopsiding, then for some certain observers at home with an interest in sportsmanship and mercy. Could the Canadians have let up a bit yesterday — after, say, Pierre-Luc Dubois scored in the second period to make it 5-0? Or what about closing it down for the third, at the start of which Canada, ranked first among hockey nations, was leading the Southern Koreans, 18th in the world, by a score of 8-0? Wouldn’t that be a kinder way of administering a whomping?

There’s no easy answer, of course. You can’t really expect a parcel of NHL players notto do what they’re trained to do, i.e. skate and score right to the end. And in a round-robin tournament, wherein goal-difference can be a deciding factor, there’s no such thing as an excess of goals.

If you want the original written ruling on the matter, well, in fact the book that’s considered to be hockey’s very first has something to say. Arthur Farrell, a Hall-of-Fame forward, published Hockey: Canada’s Royal Winter Game in 1899, the same year he helped the Montreal Shamrocks to the first of their two successive Stanley Cup championships. Over the course of 122 pages, Farrell waxes long and eloquent on everything from history and equipment to conditioning and tactics.

Hockey, he’ll tell you, is as salubrious an occupation as you’re going to find anywhere. “The very adhering to the rules,” he advises, “the spirit of fair play that characterizes a manly game, the overcoming of all fears and all difficulties, the modest victory, the frank acknowledgement of defeat, all tend to build up, to educate, the mental faculties, just as the long practice, the swift race, and the hard check help to develope [sic] the physical man.”

Keep fighting is advice that features, too, as in never give up. “It is a mistake,” he counsels, “to lose courage because your opponents score the first three or four goals.” Don’t start fighting, though, as in punch somebody: “Do not begin to play roughly because you are losing.”

And if you’re winning? Pour it on, Farrell counsels. “Do not purposely and ostentatiously avoid scoring against a team that has already lost, because even if a bad beating does discourage them they would rather suffer it than be humiliated by any such show of pity.”

Sound advice, I guess, though I’d maybe prefer to hear it direct from the badly beaten and downright discouraged themselves.

Were the Swedes glad to go unpitied to the tune of 12-1 when the met the Canadians at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920? What about the team they sent at Chamonix in 1924, losers to that year’s Canada by 22-0?

W.A. Hewitt was the manager of those Canadian teams, Foster’s father, and he was at the helm again in 1928 in St. Moritz when the University of Toronto Grads wore the maple leaf. Canada opened the tournament against Sweden, surging to a 4-0 first-period lead that … displeased Hewitt. The newspapers back home reported it next day: the boss “became impatient at the slow rolling up of the score.” The players calmed him down, apparently: they thought it best “to let nature take its course.”

Final score: 11-0.

Some of the Grads were still talking about the propriety of running up scores when Canada went to the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy and rolled over Austria by a score of 23-0. “It’s no credit to Canada,” opined Dr. Joe Sullivan, Grad goalie in ’28. “They shouldn’t beat these weak teams by more than ten goals.”

A teammate, centreman Hugh Plaxton, agreed. “I don’t think it does hockey any good.”

One last case study might be worth considering. Austria hosted the IIHF’s 1977 World Championships in Vienna, though they didn’t have a team in the tournament, and so didn’t have to worry about humiliations on the ice. Not so Canada. Here was a rare of instance of one of our teams finding itself at the suffering end of a rout and, with it, a chance to see how we’d react.

Canada was back at the Worlds for the first time in seven years, and this time they’d be icing a team of professionals. Not quite the front-line accumulation that had won the 1976 Canada Cup, of course: this one would be staffed by NHLers from teams that hadn’t made the playoffs, or hadn’t lasted far into them. GM Derek Holmes had marshalled Jim Rutherford and Tony Esposito for the Canadian goal, Dallas Smith and Carol Vadnais on defence. Pierre Larouche, Ron Ellis, and Rod Gilbert were up at forward along with captain Phil Esposito, who was also named as a playing assistant to coach Jimmy Wilson of the Colorado Rockies.

Phil E. stressed the need for team unity. He’d seen in 1972 what effect dissension could have on a venture like this. “We must have complete harmony if we expect to do well,” he said. The team was young and the players didn’t know one another. “The results in the first exhibition games might give some people in Canada cause for alarm, but overall, we will be all right.”

By The Banks Of The Not-So-Blue Danube: Wilf Paiement’s 1977 World Championships sweater, and the team in happier, pre-rout formation. (Image: Classic Auctions)

Things did not, shall we say, get off to an auspicious start in Europe. After a pre-tournament stop in Sweden, the Canadian played West Germany in Dusseldorf, where they won, 8-1, in a penalty-filled game, and were jeered by 10,000 fans, many of whom threw their seat-cushions on the ice when it was all over.

A report in The Globe and Mail insisted that the barrage was ironic, “mock rage that actually was a favorable reaction to the hard hitting and sometimes cheap penalties the Canadians received.” As for the German press, they reported that Phil Esposito might have been drunk.

“There they go, mistaking me for my brother Tony again,” Phil said, laughing, when he heard that. “Actually, if I had been drinking, it doesn’t say much for their hockey club.”

Of his refusal to shake hands after the game with one of the Germans, Esposito said, “I guess I do not like him. He speared me in the private parts on the first shift and it got worse from then on.”

The Canadians did peaceably dine with the Germans, post-game, I should report. Then they left for more exhibitions in Prague. “That is when it is down to serious business,” Esposito confided.

The Canadians lost both of the exhibitions they played against Czechoslovakia, 7-2 and 4-1. The Czechs paid a price, losing one of their players in the first game to a bad knee injury and another to a broken arm. “If ice hockey follows the path shown by Canadians on Saturday,” one local newspaper warned, “one can only wonder if it will survive beyond this century.”

In Austria, there was a kerfuffle regarding the IIHF’s insistence that all players wear helmets. Several Canadians complained, saying headgear gave them headaches, and the team doctor gave them medical certificates to that effect. But the IIHF wouldn’t relent. Unhappy, the Canadians still fared well enough in their opening game, beating the US 4-1. The next game didn’t go so well: the Swedes we took such care to whup through the 1920s now prevailed 4-2.

Next up, the powerful Soviet Union, winners of the two most recent Olympics as well as eight of the previous ten world championships. They had Vladislav Tretiak in the crease, and ahead of him, the likes of Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, and Helmut Balderis.

Final score: USSR 11, Canada 1.

And how did Canada respond to finding itself thrashed and demolished and paying for Soviet cruising?

Larouche called the winners the best team he’d ever seen. Phil Esposito was quoted calling them “a helluva hockey club.”

That’s as gracious as we got. On to self-doubt and recrimination.

“It was humiliating,” coach Wilson said.

GM Derek Holmes announced his disappointment, which was bitter.

Montreal’s Gazette topped its front page the next morning with the bad news, leading with a story that included the words worst drubbing, romped, embarrassingly easypoor sportsmanship and shoddy play in the opening two paragraphs.

“The prestige and credibility of Canadian hockey was destroyed on the banks of the not-so-blue Danube,” George Gross wrote in The Toronto Sun. In the hours that followed, politicians in Ottawa took up the cry, with Ontario NDP MP Arnold Peters calling for Canadian hockey officials to be called to face a House of Commons committee to explain why we’d sent “second-rate players” to represent us.

The Minister of State for Fitness and Amateur Sport was in Vienna, Iona Campagnolo, and she said this wasn’t something the government would get involved in. She was concerned about the conduct of our players. “I really don’t care whether we lose 20-1 or 2-1,” she said, “as long as we do it in a fashion that portrays us as true sportsmen.”

She did think that the Austrian press was making too much fuss, and the wrong kind. “It almost looked exultant,” she said. “One of the headlines I read was Canada Executed.”

Günter Sabetzki, president of the IIHF was concerned. He suggested that plans for a 1980 Canada Cup might now have to be reviewed. “We are not at all happy with the team representing the country we all considered to be the father of hockey.”

Had they learned nothing from history? “In 1954,” he said, “when the Canadians went to Stockholm, they thought they couldn’t be beaten and they ended up losing to the Russians. They were drinking too much whisky. This Canadian representative is also lacking in conditioning. I do not know whether they are drinking too much whisky, but I have heard the reports.”

Canada did go on to post a 3-3 with the Czechs, the eventual champions. We finished fourth in the end, just behind the Soviets.

Back at the rout, Al Strachan of The Gazette was on hand to document Canada’s failure to heed Arthur Farrell’s 1899 guidance on going goon in a losing effort. Rod Gilbert “swung himself off his feet” taking a “a vicious two-handed swipe” of his stick at a passing Soviet, while Wilf Paiement “acted like a malicious buffoon” swinging his stick at, and connecting with, the head of another Soviet player. “I figured I might as well hit somebody,” he said, later, “maybe hurt somebody. I don’t know. I wanted to do anything to win.” Canada was down at the time by 8-0.

You’d think those Soviets would have shown show respect, but no, they kept on with the scoring. Having argued to avoid putting helmets on, some of the Canadian players now refused to remove them once the game was all over and the teams lined up to hear the victor’s national anthem.

Centre Walt McKechnie of the Detroit Red Wings was one such, and he later shared his reasoning. “I didn’t want to look at them,” he said. “I hate them. I don’t like their way of life. I don’t like anything about them. They stink. They’re great hockey players, you’ve got to give them that, but I hate everything about them. Am I supposed to stand there at attention when their flag is flying? Never in a million years. I’m no hypocrite.”

jean ratelle: among stooges and pirates and marx brothers madness, a stylist supreme

The New York Rangers stowed away Rick Nash’s sweater today, numbered 61, when they traded him to the Boston Bruins ahead of tomorrow’s NHL trade deadline. Jean Ratelle knows what that’s like. It was November of 1975 when the Rangers shipped him and Brad Park to the Bruins in a seismic exchange that brought Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais back the other way. Tonight, Ratelle, who’s 77 now, is back in New York to see the Rangers retire the number he wore for most of the 14 New York seasons he played before that. Ratelle’s number 19 will rise to the rafters of Madison Square Garden in a ceremony ahead of the game in which the modern-day Rangers go Nashless against the Detroit Red Wings.

“The trade began a seven-season seminar in poise and determination.” That’s from a 1980 editorial in The Boston Globe just after Ratelle announced his retirement at the age of 40 to move back of the Boston bench as an assistant coach. That’s right: the Globe saluted him with an editorial when he finally ended his playing days. As revered as he was in New York, Ratelle was, very quickly, beloved in Boston. In both cities the affection had to do with his skill and scoring prowess, and the trophies he won — a Masterton in 1971 along with two Lady Byngs (’72 and ’76) — but there was more to it than that.

Everybody knew how good he was, Globe columnist Leigh Montville effused on another page in 1980. “Not so much how good he was as a player — though he was very good indeed — but how good he was as a person.” He continued:

In the arms-and-elbow game in which the best disposition might be that of a pirate, Jean Ratelle was able to play 20 years on top of a pedestal. He was religious. He was a family man. He was a gentleman. He scored 491 goals and collected 776 assists and totaled 1267 points. He was a hell of a player.

On an ice surface filled with Marx Brothers madness and Three Stooges shenanigans, he was Fred Astaire in full glide. He was the maitre’d of hockey, the stylist supreme, top and tails and ease. The ragged and well-publicized fringes of the game never interested him or bothered him. He worked its heart, goal to goal, back and forth, follow the puck. He was a purist, an artist, a painter of perfect miniatures doing his job on a street filled with car horns and busy shoppers.

Rod Gilbert was a childhood friend of Ratelle’s in Montreal long before they ever played together in New York. He thought he could have been an actual artist. “He would really have excelled in any area of his life,” Gilbert said in 1981. “He showed beauty. If he was a writer or a painter, he would have done well.”

Also: “In all the time I’ve known him, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Jean Ratelle swear. Not once. Never.”

“It’s amazing, really, that he was able to play the game,” Brad Park said. “That might be the most amazing thing of Jean Ratelle’s career. That such a tranquil man could play such an aggressive game and survive.”

Not that he was fragile. Back in that editorial-page endorsement, the Globe maintained that for all his Astaire-ness, Ratelle was also “as tough as John Wayne,” as “eager young defencemen found out after bouncing off Ratelle’s strong forearms intent on guiding the puck to a teammate.”

“Others skate,” the Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote in 1976, “but Ratelle glides.” His passes? “Feather-soft, accurate, and there’s only one thing to do if you’re playing on a line with him: keep your stick on the ice because he’s going to put the puck on it.”

A year before he hung up his skates, Steve Marantz from the Globe was marveling how good he still was at the age of 39: “no slippage, no coughing an sputtering, no sudden gasp and wheeze.” Bruins’ coach Fred Creighton: “He does things with the puck that young players coming up don’t even know about.”

The highest praise you’ll come across in all the annals of Ratelle-related enthusiasm? I’m going to go with Bobby Rousseau’s ode from 1973. He’d skated the Montreal Canadiens’ wing for ten years in the 1960s, of course, before joining the Rangers in 1971.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career to play with two of the greatest centreman in the National Hockey,” Rousseau said, “Jean Béliveau at Montreal and Jean Ratelle with the Rangers.”

I’ve played against Jean Ratelle, I’ve played on a team with him the past two years, and for the past few games I’ve played on a line with him. He’s the same height, same personality, same temperament, same talent as Jean Béliveau. Because of the way he is, Ratty will probably be annoyed with me for saying these things. I don’t think Jean Ratelle has ever been given the credit he’s deserved.

(Image: Library and Archives Canada / PA-057285)

enemy bombers arriving in howell’s territory are rarely shot down

Baseball’s Opening Day yesterday, which is all the reason as I need to invoke the venerable name and prose virtues of Roger Angell who, at 96, remains the finest, most exacting of the game’s expressionists. I trust he watched the New York Yankees succumb on Sunday, 7-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays, and that he’ll be soon be weighing in at The New Yorker on Masahiro Tanaka and the flaws in his fastball.

Baseball, it’s true, has been Angell’s bread and … batter. But he knows his hockey, too. He’d tell you so himself, and there’s plenty of evidence in The New Yorker’s archives. Around this time of year in 1967, for instance, he penned a long “Sporting Scene” review of the up-and- down season of the New York Rangers as the team prepared to depart the third Madison Square Garden in favour of the brand-new fourth. “The Last Flowers in the Garden” finds Angell in a mood for nostalgia, recalling the heroes of good old days (Don Raleigh + the Gumper), even as he coddles hopes for the future (maybe they can hang on to second place as the playoffs loomed).

In the here-and-now of late-season ’67, Angell likes the team that GM Emile Francis has wrought, muscled as it is with Reg Fleming and Orland Kurtenbach, sped by forwards Rod Gilbert, Bob Nevin, and Phil Goyette, veteran’d with a 36-year-old Boom-Boom Geoffrion. Maybe the Rangers’ recent history has been one of failing at the finish, but Angell is feeling good: Francis, he feels, has “rebuilt their quaint, four-cylinder interior engine that used to poop out on every winter hillock.” The Rangers have been healthy and playing well: who knows what might happen once the Stanley Cup is in play?

It’s in this spirit that Angell keys in on another veteran, a 34-year-old son of Hamilton, Ontario, pictured here above. “The sudden and absolute apotheosis of Harry Howell, the handsome gray-haired defenseman who has been with the team since 1952 and has played in more Ranger games than anyone else in club history” is, in Angell’s eye, one of the best stories of the season. As he says, memorably:

Over the years, Harry’s sincere, fatherly competence had won him more admiration from the ladies at the Garden than from the sportswriters, but early this season it became apparent to everybody that at last, at the age of thirty-four, he had developed into the best defenceman in the league. Enemy bombers arriving in Howell’s territory are rarely shot down; they seem, rather, to fly into a wall of wet Kleenex and stick there, kicking. When carrying the puck through a cloud of opposing forecheckers and up to the safety of center ice, Howell has the reassuring, mistake-proof elegance of a veteran waiter managing a loaded tray in heavy dinner traffic. This year, relieved by better defense and goaltending, he is no longer burdened with the notion that he must hurry back instantly, and help out at the steam tables, and his low, accurate shots from the blue line have brought him more goals and assists than most of the team’s forwards. In the midseason balloting, Howell was a unanimous choice for the league’s all-star team.

newsy’s freak stick is to be examined

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Idolized: A cousin of Newsy Lalonde’s painted this portrait of Canadiens’ Hall-of-Fame centreman, the story goes. Montreal’s Classic Auctions sold it for just over C$200 in 2007.

The slap that Shea Weber puts into his shot has a history of wreckage. Pucks he’s propelled have torn through nets at the Vancouver Olympics and busted out endboards in Nashville. He’s broken Chris Osgood’s mask. Bones, too, several of which have belonged to teammates whose dangerous duty it was to stand in front of a net Weber was aiming at. Martin Erat broke a leg that way when Weber played for Nashville, and Jordin Tootoo a foot. Weber is in Montreal now, and the breakages continue. Last week, his slapshot smashed Brendan Gallagher’s hand. He’s out for eight weeks.

Investigating Weber’s assets earlier this month, The Globe and Mail’s Sean Gordon described his on-ice demeanor as “Mars, the god of war, maybe, only with a migraine.” Heavy and high-flying, Weber’s shot, Gordon wrote, is “terrifying” and a “demoralizer.” He asked Carey Price about it. “So fluid and smooth,” the Montreal goaltender said, “and just so, so hard.”

Rod Gilbert once noted that Boom-Boom Geoffrion and Rocket Richard would sometimes bash pucks off the boards so hard that you’d have to cover your ears. Weber’s shot, Gordon writes, has a similar quality — “it sounds different than other players’ hitting the boards on the occasions his rangefinder is off.”

What is it that makes the Weber shot so powerful? Size (6’4” and 230 pounds) matters, and muscle. Montreal captain Max Pacioretty told Gordon that you have to be a very fast skater to have a shot like that, and also mentions “body control.”

Weber himself isn’t much help. He can’t really say how he acquired the shot. “Just repetition, I guess,” he told Gordon.

His stick is a factor, its stiffness in particular. Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel, famously, uses a customized Easton that’s believed to have a flex rating down around 70, which gives the shaft the pliability of a whip and makes his shot (as James Mirtle has written) one of the hardest-to-stop in the world. Winnipeg’s exceptional rookie Patrick Laine uses an 87 flex.

Many NHLers tend toward a stick in the 100 flex range. Weber’s is well beyond that. In a game this month against Toronto, Weber broke a stick with a flex of 122 cross-checking a trespasser Leaf in the Montreal slot. “You need to be a strong man to use that thing,” Carey Price told Sean Gordon.

There are heavier sticks in the NHL, but not many. Zdeno Chara’s, for one. His, as you might guess, is longer than anyone else’s in the league. On skates Chara towers almost seven feet over the ice, which is why he gets an exemption from the NHL’s limit on stick-length. Fifty-three inches is the rulebook maximum; Chara’s Warrior is said to wander on for 65.

On the ice, that means it’s ubiquitous, as Jonathan Toews told Nicholas Cotsonika of Yahoo! in 2013. “I don’t know what to compare his reach to,” the Chicago captain said. “It’s tough to get away from him. On his half of the rink, he’s going to get a piece of you somehow.”

At that length, Chara’s sticks have to be exceptionally stiff. According to Boston’s equipment manager, Keith Robinson, they’re typically 150 to 155 flex. If Weber’s stick is unyielding, Chara’s (as Justin Bourne has written for The Score) “is basically a gigantic piece of rebar.”

All of which leads, inevitably, to a headline from The Vancouver Daily World in December of 1921:

lead-in-his-stick

Sounds like a salacious euphemism. Maybe that’s as the sub-editor intended. In fact, it’s a faithful description of the story it tops. As is this one, from The Ottawa Journal, across the country:

newsys-stick

Newsy Lalonde was 34 that year, and pretty much at the end of his playing days. He’d been a superstar in both hockey and lacrosse for years by then. On the ice, he was Montreal’s almost-everything: coach, captain, primary offensive weapon. If he was slowing down as an NHL force, it wasn’t obvious: when the 1920-21 season came to an end, he led the league in scoring.

Senators’ manager Tommy Gorman tried to pry him from Montreal in the fall of ’21, bring him west to play for Ottawa, but that didn’t work out. The news of his newfangled stick surfaced, if only briefly, just as the new season was about to get underway. Just how it all worked out, and whether he was permitted to use it, isn’t clear: I can’t find any follow-ups to these original articles.

What they say is that Lalonde had designed and built his own stout stick. The description isn’t much: “Lead is filtered in,” the papers tell us, “and it is balanced to an ounce when held from the centre.” With no evidence to the contrary, I say we have to accept that this was all about improving his puckhandling. Lalonde does sound like he wishes the news had never leaked: he wouldn’t say, The Globe mirthlessly reported, “what this stick would do in a game.”

Last we know, the league was studying the case. I’d surmise they nixed Lalonde’s bespoke stick, but I don’t know for certain.

Canadiens opened their season a few nights later in Toronto against the St. Patricks, a.k.a. the Irish. They lost, 5-2. The goal Newsy Lalonde scored in the third period on a pass from Didier Pitre was the least of the news he made, whatever stick he had in hand.

In a game that featured (said The Globe) “much ill-feeling and rough play,” Lalonde was “the storm centre.” Lou Marsh told the tale for The Toronto Daily Star and in his lively narrative next morning, Lalonde was both “wily” and a “human pest.” Early on, he clashed with Toronto defenceman Harry Cameron. There was an encounter, too, with centreman Reg Noble, in which the two men “sassed each other with the good old ash.”

In the second period, Toronto winger Corb Denneny cross-checked Lalonde across the stomach, which provoked the Montreal captain, a few minutes later, to charge Denneny from behind. Marsh’s description is the vivider:

In an Irish rush on goal [Bert] Corbeau knocked Denneny kiting and the Toronto lad spilled Lalonde. Both went sliding into the nets like a varicolored avalanche, with Lalonde riding the prostrate Denneny. In the melee Lalonde’s stick lovingly caressed Denneny’s neck, and Denny did the possum act in the corner. Lalonde was booted for a major penalty despite his protests that it was all an accident. Lalonde shouldn’t have accidents with his truncheon caressing the vicinity of the other fellow’s collar button. It doesn’t seem reasonable.

In the third, before Lalonde scored his goal, he ran into Toronto’s Babe Dye. I’ll let Lou Marsh take it out:

Lalonde spilled Dye and Dye gave a correct imitation of a corpse. While the first aiders were doing resuscitation business and Lalonde was standing around weeping crocodile tears, Denneny sailed across the pond and pucked the famous Canadien one in the famous puss. Lalonde looked as surprised as a bulldog bitten by a gold fish.