snub club

Contentious D: J.C. Tremblay takes a stand for his 1970-71 hockey card.

With the Hockey Hall of Fame set to announce its 2109 class today, the hour is now for all those with an impassioned plea or petition for a player who might have been, to date, overlooked or grievously slighted. Who have you got? Jennifer Botterill or maybe Kim St. Pierre? Sven Tumba, Alexander Maltsev? You could make a reasonable argument for Herb Cain or Lorne Chabot, even if the Hall probably won’t any time soon. What about Kevin Lowe? Theo Fleury? Paul Henderson’s name comes up annually; this year, on the January day he turned 76, he even got a birthday boost from Canada’s House of Commons when MPs unanimously resolved to “encourage” the Hall to induct him ASAP “in recognition of his incredible contribution to Canadian hockey and its history.”

One cold night last November a distinguished panel of hockey pundits played the Hockey Hall parlour game at a rink of renown in midtown Toronto. In front of a small audience not far from the ice of St. Michael’s College School’s Arena the panel parleying who should be in the Hall of hockey’s Fame but isn’t featured historian Todd Denault; Ken Campbell, senior writer for The Hockey News; Steve Dryden, senior managing hockey editor for TSN and TSN.ca; and Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons.

While there was some due given builders who deserve the Hall’s attention — Cecil Hart, Claude Ruel, and Bill Tobin got mentions — most of the talk was of players. Male players — arguments for outstanding women candidates like Maria Rooth or Kim Martin weren’t on the table.

There was plenty of discussion of just how measure greatness and of what constitutes a Hall-of-Fame career. It’s particularly difficult, the panelists agreed, to evaluate players from the distant past — “guys,” as Steve Dryden put it, “you haven’t seen.” Does Sid Smith deserve a place, with his three Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1940s and ’50s, two Lady Byngs, and a First Team All-Star selection? What about Herb Cain of the wartime Boston Bruins, the only player in history to have led the NHL in scoring not to have been elevated to the Hall?

Statistics tell a certain tale but not a complete one: how, for instance, do you properly appraise the career contributions of defensive defenceman (cf. the unrecognized likes of Lionel Hitchman, Bob Goldham, and Kevin Lowe) or of forwards who made a name as tenacious checkers and penalty-killers (hello, Claude Provost and Guy Carbonneau).

And what about Henderson? When his name came up, as it always does, the hero of the Luzhniki got both a hard nay and a robust yay. He was, Steve Simmons said, no more than a very good NHLer who had a great week in Moscow in September of 1972. Maybe so, but to historian Paul Patskou’s way of thinking, the cultural significance and legacy of his Summit Series performance is more than enough to earn him a place.

As the evening went on and the panelists made their presentations favouring particular players whom the Hall has (so far) failed to call up, the names of the missing kept coming: Lorne Chabot, Bernie Nicholls, Theo Fleury. Steve Dryden argued Keith Tkachuk’s cause while Simmons flew the flag for Rick Middleton.

Todd Denault made a compelling case for J.C. Tremblay, Montreal’s stellar defenceman who was a First Team All-Star in 1971 and helped Canadiens win five Stanley Cups. Asked once by Denault for the name of the one player he thought deserved a place in the Hall, Jean Béliveau didn’t hesitate to name Tremblay. Béliveau did, of course, serve on the Hall’s Selection Committee from 1981 to 1995, so it may well be that he did his best to make it happen. Tremblay jumped to the Quebec Nordiques of the WHA in 1972, and was one of the players dropped from the original roster of the Canada’s Summit Series team for that reason. At the confab at St. Mike’s, there was speculation that maybe the politics of a lingering bias against the WHA may have affected Tremblay’s chances for getting the Hall’s call.

But maybe not. What we do know is that deliberations by members of the Selection Committee are more or less opaque, and for all the clamouring we do here beyond the confines of their consultations, clamour is mostly what it amounts to. Still, once you’re committed to reading the runes, it’s hard to stop. Along with your Cains and Chabots and Provosts, the recognition that J.C. Tremblay fails to get may just be a matter of time: it’s 40 years now since he retired.

Starting in 1998, the Hockey Hall of Fame did have a category for Veteran Players that saw the likes of Buddy O’Connor, Fern Flaman, Clint Smith, Lionel Conacher, and Woody Dumart plucked from the far past. But since that was curtailed in 2000, the Hall’s view of the past has dimmed. Willie O’Ree’s induction last year came 57 years after he played in the NHL, but he’s something of a special case, and thereby an outlier. Beyond him, only twice in the past 19 years have players who’ve been retired more than 30 years been inducted. In 2006, Dick Duff was recognized 34 years after he’d stowed his skates, and the gap was the same in 2016 when Rogie Vachon finally got the call.

Hallworthy? Seen here in 1977-79, Rick Middleton is often mentioned by those of us who aren’t on the Selection Committee, which probably means he won’t be called.

 

(Images: Hockey Media & The Want List)

tony o in the soo: of sock-hockey, smelts, and dandelion greens

Tony Esposito got his first pair of skates, used, from a cousin, when he was five years old. “I really thought they were something,” he would later recall, as a tender of nets for the Chicago Black Hawks. Older by a year, brother Phil had started off tying double-runner skates strapped to his boots. Phil’s first proper skates were several sizes too big — he’d remember, with chagrin, having to wear three pairs of woolen socks to find a fit.

This was in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, decades before the Espositos got to the NHL to launch their respective Hall-of-Fame careers. Tony, younger by a year than Phil, turns 76 today. Born on a Friday of this date in 1943, he would start his big-league career as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. Understudying Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley, Esposito got first start in December of 1968 against his brother’s Boston Bruins. Phil scored twice in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie; Tony made 33 saves. Backing up Vachon, he didn’t play a game in the playoffs that year, though he did get his name on the Stanley Cup when Montreal beat the St. Louis Blues in four games in the spring of ’69.

Chicago claimed him on waivers that same year, and while the Stanley Cup would elude his grasp in his 15 seasons there, his personal excellence was rewarded over the years. Starting his Black Hawks’ career in style, he won the Calder Trophy in 1969-70 as the NHL’s best rookie, along with the Vézina Trophy and a place on the First All-Star team. He’d claim two more Vézinas, in ’72 and ’74, and he was an All-Star again in ’74 and 1980.

In 1971, Tony and Phil collaborated with writer Tim Moriarty to publish a memoir, The Brothers Esposito, that offers first-person glimpses of their early years, indiscretions, and hockey formation. To kick off chapter three (“Mother Plays Goalie”), Phil recalls that he ran a little wild in the early 1950s as a teenager in the Soo. Nothing too serious, he says — mostly staying out late, stealing his father’s car, getting “nailed by the police” for “minor violations like disturbing the peace.”

Domestically, Phil summons up the family’s move from the city’s west end to a somewhat fancier eastern neighbourhood. The new house, he remembers, “had everything — an inter-com system, stereo and hi-fi, and large rooms, including a recreation room that must have measured 30 by 40 feet.” He goes on:

We used to hold some great practice sessions in that rec room. Instead of using a puck, we’d get an old sock, a big one, and roll it up and tie it with a ribbon. Then Tony and I would take turns shooting with the sock, which would slide very easily across the floor.

Most of the time, Tony was the goaltender. But I remember my mother [Frances] coming downstairs to check on us and we’d put her in goal. She’d get down on her hands and knees and we’d shoot at her. After beating her a couple of times, she would say, “Okay, boys, that’s enough. You’re taking advantage of your poor mother.” Then she would return to her kitchen and prepare our next meal.

My mother couldn’t play goal too well, but she was a great cook. One meal I loved then, which I haven’t had since I was a kid, was a special dish consisting of smelts and dandelion greens. We’d have them with fresh Italian bread from the bakery. Man, than was a feast. Tony, though, didn’t like the greens. He said they tickled his throat.

 

 

you really have to enjoy it, to play goal for long

Inside Edition: Rogie Vachon went maskless in junior and on through his early years with the Montreal Canadiens. He paid a price in stitches (100 or so) and broken noses (two), but never lost a tooth in those years, or had to be evacuated to hospital. It was 1969 when he opted to change his ways. “It was a shot on the head from Stan Mikita that got me thinking,” he said. “These days I am older, I want more protection.” Ernie Higgins designed the fiberglass mask that would become Vachon’s trademark. Blank at first, it would in Los Angeles take on coats of purple paint and crowns at the temples. The one pictured here from within dates to the late 1970s, and bears the paint and the crowns, along with the marks of many pucks. In 2011, it sold at auction for more than $C22,000. (Image: Classic Auctions)

In Peterborough, Ontario, where I grew up in the 1970s and played a lot of road hockey in so doing, we took turns in the nets. David Bodrug had actual goalie pads, trapper and blocker, and the gearing up was the main attraction when the time came for me to be tending goal. That and the chance for nonchalant posing, Ken-Drydenate, with arms resting atop pillared stick while the tennis ball was down at the other end. As the action drew closer, you’d hunker back down at the top of the crease that wasn’t really there, wait for the shot. If it was the right one, you might kick out a leg while snagging the ball in your outstretched glove as ostentatiously as possible. For full effect, you’d hold the pose, as for a beat or three. Flashing the leather, the play-by-play men sometimes call this on hockey broadcasts, though on Roper Drive we had our own term: pulling a Rogie.

Born on this date in 1945 in Palmarolle, Quebec, Rogatien Vachon turns 73 today. He got his start in the NHL under that same name, distinguishing himself in the playoffs when starter Gump Worsley. By the time we were watching him in the ’70s, he was just Rogie, a King now, in Los Angeles. It was there that he spent the best years of his Hall-of-Fame career, wearing the number 30 that the Kings would later retire, and that tiny grin on his plum-purple mask. According to a 1972 profile by David Cobb in The Canadian Magazine, Vachon ended up in goal because, as a boy on the wintertime rink, he was small among bigger brothers and cousins. “A doctoral thesis might be prepared one day,” Cobb writes, “to assess the effect of childhood puniness on the formation of NHL goalies.” He could have strayed, in time, of course, but he chose to stay on. “You really have to enjoy it,” Vachon said, “to play goal for long.”

Embed from Getty Images

 

my first hockey game: dave stubbs

Bowerbeater: Canadiens winger Bobby Rousseau in 1966, a year before he notched a goal and three assists in Dave Stubbs’ Montreal Fourm debut. (Image: Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada/e002343749)

Dave Stubbs tells this story: as a nine-year-old in 1967 in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, he went to bed before the end of the hockey game filling the family TV. Don’t worry, his father told him, we’ll watch the next one. It was Stubbs’ birthday next day, and when he woke up in the morning the news could hardly have been crueller: the Toronto Maple Leafs had beaten his cherished Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup.

Canadiens recovered, of course. Stubbs bounced back, too, going on to a 40-year career as a sports journalist, much of it spent as a distinguished editor and writer at the Montreal Gazette. Early in 2016, he found himself with a new gig, as columnist and historian for NHL.com, the league’s website. “If there’s such a thing as a dream job,” he said at the time, “I’ve found it.”

For his deep knowledge of hockey history and his skill as a storyteller, for his contacts, his curiosity, and his respect for the people who live their lives in and around the rink, Stubbs has long been a must-read chronicler of the game. If somehow you haven’t found him already, do that at NHL.com and on Twitter @Dave_Stubbs.

Last week, writer Kirstie McLellan Day launched Puckstruck’s ongoing series of recollections of first encounters with NHL hockey — that’s here. Today, Dave Stubbs takes a turn.

In a recent e-mail, Stubbs told this story: last year, at a dinner celebrating the announcement of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players, he sat with legendary Maple Leafs’ centre Dave Keon. Stubbs:

I said to him, “I’ve had this inside me for 50 years. How does it feel to know that you broke the heart of a 10-year-old kid on his birthday by winning the Stanley Cup in 1967?”

He looked at me almost sympathetically for a moment then grinned and said, “Pretty good, actually.”

It was the perfect answer.

It’s almost 50 years to the day that Stubbs first went to the Montreal Forum with his dad, mere months after that birthday calamity. His account:

It was the brilliant white of the Montreal Forum ice and the clean, bright boards that took this 10-year-old’s breath away. That, and the noise of the crowd and the smell of the hot dogs, whose legendary status — the dogs, I mean — I would learn of in the decades to come.

I had followed my beloved hometown Montreal Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada and in the stories I read and clipped from the daily Montreal Gazette and Montreal Star, The Hockey News once a week and the monthly magazines on which I invested my allowance.

But until December 20, 1967, when my dad scored a pair of coveted Forum reds between the blue line and the net the Canadiens would attack for two periods, I had never seen the team in person.

As luck, or fate, would have it, the Toronto Maple Leafs were the opponent that school night. The same Maple Leafs who had beaten my Canadiens on the eve of my 10th birthday to win the 1967 Stanley Cup.

I was filled with excitement and dread on our drive to the Forum, overwhelmed by the anticipation of seeing my first live NHL game, terrified that the Leafs might beat my Habs before my eyes.

I remember this:

The Canadiens won 5-0 on Dick Duff’s hat trick. The first NHL goal I saw live came early in the first period, Duff banging a shot past Toronto goaler Johnny Bower;

Three of the Canadiens’ goals were scored in “my” end of the ice, two by Duff, one by Bobby Rousseau;

Bower was replaced for the third period by Bruce Gamble;

Gump Worsley was perfect in the Montreal net, which almost made up for the fact that my first boyhood hockey hero, Rogie Vachon, was his backup that night;

And I had two hot dogs. “Tell your mother you had one,” my father counselled me on the drive home.

I barely slept that night, stirred more by nerves than nitrates, and as I lay restlessly in bed, I remembered that a few months earlier I had said I hoped the Leafs would never win another Stanley Cup for having ruined my 10th birthday.

The Canadiens won the Cup in 1968 and 1969, and eight more times since then. The Maple Leafs? Call it karma.

Heartbreaker: Dave Keon, circa 1961. (Image: Louis Jaques/Library and Archives Canada/e002343743)

 

 

 

more a fond memory than a thrill

Bobby Hull couldn’t wait for the Canada Cup to be over in September of 1976. Hull didn’t play in the Summit Series in 1972 — wanted to, was disinvited, complained bitterly, fought to go, failed — but he was there in ’76, starring in Canada’s victory in the tournament that ran ahead of the NHL and WHA seasons. On a team that included Bobbys Orr and Clarke, Guy Lafleur, Phil Esposito, Rogie Vachon, and Bob Gainey, Hull would be a dominant force, scoring three game-winning goals in Canada’s seven games and assisting on two decisive others.

Still, by the time Canada got to the best-of-three final against Czechoslovakia in mid-September, he was sounding more than a little jaded. Canada won the first game in Toronto by a score of 6-0. “I think everybody’s had enough of this series,” Hull moped ahead of the second game, “as far as wanting to get it over with in a hurry.”

In Montreal, the Czechs took Canada to overtime in the second game, where Darryl Sittler scored the game and tournament winner.

“This is the greatest team in the world,” he told a Canadian Press reporter later in the dressing room. His teammates concurred, mostly.

“I don’t think you’re ever gong to see a team as great as this again,” Marcel Dionne warned.

Hull: “How can I forget playing with such a great bunch of guys and for such a great country? I have never played with a better team. I know my family enjoyed me participating, even though I was away for so long. It is always worth the effort when it means so much to so many people.”

The Brandon Sun was one paper that ran the CP story containing that generous thought. Right next to it on the page was a fuller account of Hull’s contribution to Canada’s success. In that one, he was sipping a beer when he was asked: how big a thrill is this all?

“I’m too old to get any more thrills in hockey,” the 37-year-old winger confided. “Maybe if I were a little younger it would be a thrill. It’s more a fond memory than a thrill. Being a part of this team is something. Playing on the same team with a lot of guys like Bobby Orr, Bobby Clarke, Vachon, and the whole bunch. I get my thrills out of watching my kids.”

Clarke was on the same page, apparently. Yes, he was thrilled, he admitted — but also happy to be heading home to his family. His children had just started school. “This running around and skating and stuff doesn’t mean anything to them,” he said in the Team Canada dressing room. “They want to know when I’m coming home.”

Phil Esposito was nearby, explaining how this victory differed from the feeling of winning a Stanley Cup. “For one thing,” he said, “we have to start playing again all over again in training camp on Saturday. If you win the Stanley Cup, you get four months off to relax.”

(Image: Two Hockey Players, Aislin alias Terry Mosher, 1976, felt pen and ink on paper, 25.5 x 30.9 cm, M988.176.289, © McCord Museum)

maybe some goalies don’t think of shutouts

As Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price prepares to play the 500th regular-season game of his NHL career tonight, is it worth recalling Ken Dryden’s debut, on this  day in 1971? Of course it is. Dryden, who’d end up playing 397 regular-season games for Montreal along with another 112 in the playoffs, started with a 5-1 win in Pittsburgh. He’d play five more games that year before the regular season ended,  and he won them all, including an impressive 2-1 victory in Chicago over the Black Hawks after which Canadiens’ coach Al McNeil said he rated “no lower or higher” in the pecking order than the team’s other two goaltenders, Phil Myre and Rogatien Vachon. But it was Dryden, 23, who played every game once the Canadiens started their playoff campaign two weeks later. By the middle of May, he had a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy to his name. (He’d have to wait another year to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.)

In the Pittsburgh win he made 35 stops. “They had very few real good shots,” he told Pat Curran of The Gazette. “Sure I made a couple of reasonably difficult saves but I was warmed up to them after easier ones on the same shifts.”

Was he nervous before the game? He was.

“Sometimes you feel it in your stomach, other times in your legs. Tonight it was in the legs but certainly not as much as those games in training camp.”

A rookie Pittsburgh winger named John Stewart took the only shot that beat him on the night. “Maybe some goalies don’t think of shutouts but I do,” Dryden said. “Trouble is it’s just when you start patting yourself on the back that you get beaten.”

(Image: Ken Dryden, A-1 Goalie by Aislin, alias Terry Mosher, December 6, 1975;
ink, felt pen, marker, film on paper; © McCord Museum)

gump agonistes

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They’re just a few of them, Canadians we feel we know so well (and maybe even revere) that just the one name will do. Most of them are singers, Drake and Shania, Joni, Neil, Leonard, though we also have a prime minister now, Justin, with whom we’re first-name familiar. Hockey has Gordie, Wayne, Mario, Sid — and now I guess Connor, too.

Also? Gump.

That one is an older vintage, and maybe doesn’t have the currency it once did. Still, it does retain a certain power, as a byword for the audacity and sheer foolery of old-time NHL goaltenders, one that conveys not only the awkward dignity of the man himself but also the fall-down, scrambling valor of a whole nervy puckstopping generation of maskless men, long before Tom Hanks was cast in the role of a slow-wit hero from Alabama.

Not that the surname isn’t just as good as the first: Worsley is Dickensian in its perfection, up there with Gradgrind, Cheeryble, Pickwick, Pecksniff. Paired, Gump Worsley not only sounds like a character from a story, one from whom you could figure out the gist of the plot just by looking at the man: oh, yes, right, so this is the one about the kind-hearted London orphan, bit of a sad case, all alone in the world, at the behest of his anonymous benefactor, without any training or apparent aptitude, has to take up goaltending in the six-team National Hockey League in order to prove himself and find his destiny.

John K. Samson once told me he carried a glorious old Gump-faced hockey card with him wherever he went. We were talking at the time about Reggie Leach, Riverton’s own Rifle, but then the talk turned as the Winnipeg singer explained that a lot of his admiration for Gump was based, like mine, on just how unlikely a goaltender he seemed, accidental, almost, and how amiably he seemed to bearing up in the situation into which he’d been thrust.

That’s in the song Samson wrote, of course, “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” that he sang with his erstwhile band, The Weakerthans. The words go like this:

He looked more like our fathers, not a goalie, player, athlete period. Smoke, half ash, stuck in that permanent smirk, tugging jersey around the beergut, “I’m strictly a whiskey man” was one of the sticks he taped up and gave to a nation of pudgy boys in beverage rooms. Favourites from Plimpton’s list of objects thrown by Rangers fans: soup cans, a persimmon, eggs, a folding chair and a dead rabbit. The nervous breakdown of ’68-’69 after pant-crap flights from LA, the expansion, “the shrink told me to change occupations. I had to forget it.” He swore he was never afraid of the puck. We believe him. If anyone asks, the inscription should read, “My face was my mask.”

He played 21 years in the NHL, mostly for the New York Rangers, most successfully for Montreal, finally for the Minnesota North Stars. He died at the age of 77 in 2007.

It’s possible that I saw him play, later on in his career, staying up late to watch Hockey Night In Canada in the early ’70s. If so, I don’t remember. I loved his memoir, They Call Me Gump (1975), which he wrote with Tim Moriarty’s aid, and not just because he devotes Chapter 21 to his recipe for pineapple squares. Okay, well, yes, that’s where a lot of the love is centred. Also with his affable way of looking at the world, and that if there’s a joke in his playing NHL goal, then it’s a joke he’s very much in on, and enjoying as much as the rest of us.

If Gump looked helpless, if he seemed hapless, well, of course, he was anything but. You don’t need to go and stand in front of his plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame (elected in 1980) to know that he was one of the best of his era. Traded to Montreal for Jacques Plante, he went on to play his part in four Stanley Cup championships. He was a First All-Star Team and twice had a share (with Charlie Hodge and Rogie Vachon, respectively) in a Vézina Trophy. Of all the goaltenders to have defended NHL nets, he stands 22nd when it comes to regular-season wins (335). He had 40 more in the playoffs, which is more than Johnny Bower and Bernie Parent and lots of other Brahmins of the crease.

I don’t know where he slots in when it comes to the all-time index of pain and suffering. In his book, he mostly makes light of the wear and tear of being worn and torn. “The main occupational hazard is trying to stay alive while facing up to 40 and 50 shots a game,” he writes. “We’re not well, you know,” he says elsewhere, “or we wouldn’t be playing the position.” And: “It helps to be nuts.” If he were in the business of hiring goaltenders, his prerequisites would include “a hard skull to deflect flying pucks, plus a thick skin to absorb the abuse of coaches and fans.”

Like a lot of hockey memoirs, They Call Me Gump reads like a medical file. It’s longtime Ranger physician Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa attending, mostly, dropping in every few pages to consult on the tendons in Gump’s hand that Bobby Hull’s skate severed, or to remove cartilage from his knee. Gump pulls hamstrings, tears thigh muscles, sprains knees. He devotes another entire chapter (without going too deep) to the stress and fear of flying that fuelled the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1968.

The injuries would have contributed to that, too, though Gump doesn’t really make much of the connection. For all the damage he chronicles, there’s relatively little mention of concussions. One that features is famous in its way — a “mild” one that knocked him out of a 1967 game at Madison Square Garden when he was back in playing for Montreal. Others he leaves out entirely or tosses in with what passes for trouperly bravado:

[Boom-Boom] Geoffrion hit me right between the eyes with a slapshot in the Forum one night, and the puck ricocheted 40 rows into the stands.

Gump finally put on a mask in 1974, but only for the last six games of his career. “Hated it,” he said in 1984, looking back. “Sure I got knocked out a lot. I got knocked out oftener than Joe Palooka. But there was only one goalie to a team at that time, so they’d revive you and sew you up and you went back on.”

That’s all in keeping, I guess, with hockey’s historical nonchalance when it comes to head injuries. Getting your bell proverbially rung was just part of the game; you shook it off, headed back out on the ice. Knowing what we know now about head trauma and the long-time devastation of CTE casts a grim shade on those old attitudes, even as the modern-day NHL refuses to acknowledge the connections.

gump-ko-pkstrk

Worsley Out: Montreal teammates Ted Harris and Bob Rousseau aid training staff in getting Gump off the ice in Chicago in April of 1968 after he hit his head on a goalpost.

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