in the crease, behind the bench: ken dryden on scotty bowman

Habs Helmsman: Scotty Bowman patrols the Canadiens bench, circa the early 1970s.

A version of this post appeared in the Books pages of The Globe and Mail on Saturday, January 4, 2020.

In 1983, Ken Dryden wrote a bit of a ballad, if not quite an ode, about a former coach of his.

“Scotty Bowman is not someone who is easy to like,” Dryden confided in The Game, the memoir he published after retiring from his NHL career, a book that’s still roundly recognized as the most insightful reflection on hockey ever written. “He is shy and not very friendly. … Abrupt, straightforward, without flair or charm, he seems cold and abrasive, sometimes obnoxious, controversial, but never colourful. … He is complex, confusing, misunderstood, unclear in every way but one. He is a brilliant coach, the best of his time.”

Together, as younger men in the employ of the Montreal’s then-mighty Canadiens, Dryden and Bowman reached hockey’s heights during the 1970s, when they coincided on five of the six Stanley Cups the team won in nine years. There were other key players you could name from the Canadiens’ decade of dominance, but none who played a more important role than the coach or his first-choice goaltender.

Both men departed Montreal in 1979, Dryden for retirement, Bowman to continue coaching in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Dryden’s post-playing career has included stints as a teacher, a TV commentator, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a federal MP and cabinet minister. By the time Bowman retired from the bench in 2002, he was hockey’s (in sports parlance) winningest coach, with more victories to his name, regular season and playoffs, than anyone else in NHL history. All told, he’s been involved in the winning of 14 Stanley Cups in his career — second only to Jean Béliveau’s 17.

The most plentiful Cup years came in the ’70s, when the coach and his goaltender helped propel Montreal to six championships in nine years. Now, 40 years later, Dryden and Bowman have collaborated on Dryden’s seventh book, Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other.

It’s a singular work in its own right: a biography, yes, but an unconventional one that also folds in a lively fantasy hockey playoff series. It’s a contrivance that allows Dryden to frame in the hockey history around Bowman by challenging him to choose the best eight NHL teams of all time, to explore how it might go if they were to face-off across time.

For Dryden, the relationship the men have shared since they first met at the Canadiens’ training camp in 1971 has remained consistent. “I think it’s essentially never changed,” he said in an interview. “I think we always got along. I think he sensed that I thought that he was absolutely the right guy to be the coach of our team and I think he felt sort of similarly about me. And we trusted each other.”

How the relationship expressed itself has, Dryden allows, been different at different times. In Montreal, in the ’70s, “Scotty was somebody who was never comfortable with a conversation that lasted more than 30 seconds.” Later, in the ’80s, working on his first book, Dryden sought Bowman out in Buffalo. “I thought we would be an hour or so — we talked for four hours.”

Dryden thought about writing about his former coach for a decade before he asked Bowman in 2015 whether he’d be interested. He was. Two things that Dryden understood about Bowman: he has a prodigious memory, but he’s no storyteller. That’s where the historical fantasy came in: Dryden had to find a way of allowing the coach to look over the players on a roster, understand what each one could or couldn’t do  — he had to find a way to let him coach.

So two of the great hockey minds came up with a list of the teams they considered to be the greatest in NHL history, including the 1951-52 Detroit Red Wings and the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers along with their own 1976-77 Canadiens.

Armed with with contemporary accounts and statistics, this was how they immersed themselves in the hockey past that Bowman had lived and helped to shape. The talking went on for a year, mostly over the phone, Dryden in Toronto, Bowman at home in Buffalo or else in Florida, where he and his wife, Suella, spend their winters.

As the book makes clear, Bowman, who’s 86, is very much still in the game. Working asan advisor to the Chicago Blackhawks, the team his son Stan manages, he studies the NHL as attentively as he ever did, players and analytics, systems and tactics, what works, what doesn’t.

“The conversations were easy,” Dryden said. “I think they would have grown tired for both of us if it was just recollections. At a certain point, it’s not enough. It’s not interesting enough.” Bowman’s voluminous memory, Dryden realized, is more of a thriving depot than a dormant repository. “He remembers everything, but it comes to be in the service of whatever he’s doing now and whatever he might be doing in the future.”

For the coach who’s never really quit coaching, memory isn’t about nostalgia. “It’s an exercise of having learned and of continuing to learn and of fitting even more pieces together to learn even more.”

•••

I arranged to meet Dryden one morning last fall near his home in midtown Toronto. Early to the rendezvous, I watched a passerby recognize and intercept him, shake his hand. At 72, the erstwhile goalie doesn’t look like he’s lost any of his playing trim, or the 6’4” stature with which he made a career of fending off pucks, and it’s just possible to imagine him stepping in to relieve Carey Price in a crisis. In fact, the only time he’s suited in goaltending gear since he retired 40 years ago was in pads he borrowed from Price for a Bell Centre celebration of the team’s centennial in 2009. The incumbent Canadiens goaltender has otherwise superseded him: Dryden notes that both of his young goaltending grandsons wear Price’s number 31 on their sweaters rather than the famous familial 29.

Ken Dryden (Image: Sergey Smirnov)

Don Cherry spent three decades broadcasting hockey’s blustering id. Through most of those same years, Dryden has approached the game more, shall we say, methodically and coherently. He’s celebrated its variety and beauty; he’s attended it with a restless curiosity and a public intellectual’s broadness of perspective and willingness to engage. In no-one else’s biography do the adjectives erudite and Conn-Smythe-Trophy-winningcoincide. He published The Game the same year he was ushered into hockey’s Hall of Fame. (Bowman joined him there in 1991.)

As Rick Salutin once pointed out, questioning and self-doubt come naturally to goaltenders, and in classrooms and lecture halls as well as on the pages of books and newspapers, Dryden has never stopped pondering the game’s finer points, riddling its riddles, questioning its verities, calling out its contradictions, trying to plumb — and, from time to time, restore — the game’s conscience.

 In 2017’s Game Change, Dryden fixed his focus on hockey’s response to the concussion crisis, positing a comprehensive plan to re-imagine the culture of the game in order to eliminate hits to the head. Appealing directly to the man who has the power to lead the way, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Dryden was, as he’s said, trying to  — create the conditions “by which he and hockey might make better decisions.”

Two years have passed since he personally presented a copy of the book to Bettman over lunch in New York. He’s still waiting for a response.

•••

If in Scotty Dryden shifts from Game Change’s pointed advocacy, it’s no less passionate in its embrace of the game. With Bowman as his prompt and guide, he unpacks more than 70 years of hockey history, delving deeply into Bowman’s early years in Verdun, exploring the legacies of his mentors in Montreal, legendary Canadiens coach Toe Blake and Sam Pollock, who’s widely acknowledged as the greatest GM in NHL history.

Growing up on the southern verge of the island of Montreal, Bowman was a fan of the Boston Bruins. He was a good player, not a great one. He was skating for the Junior Canadiens in 1952 when a rival defenceman swung his stick and fractured Bowman’s skull. He recovered and continued to play, but as he told Dryden, “I was no longer a prospect.” Continue reading

going nowhere: twelve blockbusting nhl deals that almost were (but not quite)

Here’s Your Hat:  With 23-year-old rookie Frank Brimsek having made the Boston net his own in October of 1938, the Bruins were looking to move their 35-year-old veteran Tiny Thompson. The buzz was that Toronto might swap him for defenceman Red Horner, though both teams denied it. In November, Thompson did pack his suitcase and bid Boston bye-bye, headed for Detroit in a deal that brought back from the Red Wings goaltender Normie Smith and US$15,000 cash.

Was Bobby Hull almost a Leaf? What about Rocket Richard? What would he have looked like in blue-and-white? As the rumours wax and wane on this day of the latest NHL trade deadline, what if we ticked off some time ahead of the 3 p.m. EST finish line exploring some potentially epic NHL deals that might have been (though, in the end, weren’t). Some of these unrealized trades and transactions, to be sure, were wishful wisps in the minds of newspapermen; some others, no doubt, were actually entertained by managers with the desire (if not, maybe, the wherewithal) to get a deal done. Either way, they involve some of the biggest names and talents in NHL history.  

October, 1983

It was the Montreal Gazette’s well-connected Red Fisher who heard the word, and shared it, that Montreal was in talks to acquire Paul Coffey from the Edmonton Oilers. The All-Star defenceman was coming off a stellar season in which he’d scored 29 goals and 96 points, but Fisher had it on good, anonymous authority that Oilers’ GM Glen Sather might be interest in taking defenceman Gilbert Delorme and centre Doug Wickenheiser in a swap. Sather was determined, Fisher said, to cut back on his team’s goals against. “His long-time view has been that Coffey is too concerned with offence and not sufficiently with defence.”

Coffey stayed in Edmonton, of course, celebrating by finishing the regular season with 40 goals and 126 points, good enough to stand him second in NHL scoring, behind teammate Wayne Gretzky. Also, that spring: Coffey and the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. He won two more with Edmonton before he was finally traded, in 1987, to Pittsburgh, where he won a fourth, in 1991.

August, 1980

The fact that no-one had scored more points as a Toronto Maple Leafs than Darryl Sittler didn’t matter much to the team’s owner, Harold Ballard, in 1979, as he did his best to make his star centre miserable. Trading away Sittler’s winger and good friend Lanny McDonald was part of the program. By the end of a season that saw Sittler tear his captain’s C from his sweater, Ballard was vowing that Sittler would never again wear the blue-and-white.

In August of 1980, Ballard told reporters that he’d phoned Calgary Flames’ owner Nelson Skalbania to tell him that he could have Sittler in exchange for a pair of centres, Bob MacMillan and Kent Nilsson. “So far Skalbania has not replied,” Canadian Press noted, “and Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Flames, says he knows nothing about it.”

Sittler and Ballard did subsequently broker a peace that saw the former return to the captaincy and play on in Toronto, until … the next breakdown. Early in January of 1982 he walked out on the Leafs hoping to prompt a trade, which duly came mid-month. Sittler went to Philadelphia in exchange for centre Rich Costello, a draft pick (that eventually hooked Peter Ihnacak), and future considerations (that, in time, resolved into left winger Ken Strong).

May, 1973

Defenceman Denis Potvin of the Ottawa 67s was the consensus first pick ahead of the 1973 NHL Draft in Montreal, and nobody doubted the GM Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders would select him when he got the chance.

Well, nobody but Montreal GM Sam Pollock, who held the second pick in the draft. Rumour had it that Pollock was offering the Islanders two prospects, wingers Dave Gardner and Steve Shutt, if they bypassed Potvin, leaving him for Canadiens. “I’ve spoken to every general manager in the National Hockey League here this week,” Torrey said, “trying to improve my hockey team in any way I can and what a lot of people forget is that I could conceivably draft Denis Tuesday and then trade him to Rangers or Boston, and yes, even Montreal, on Wednesday, if I wanted to.”

Draft Denis is what Torrey did, while Montreal had to settle for dropping down to select Bob Gainey, eighth overall. Pollock pushed hard for that Wednesday trade, reportedly upping his pre-draft offer for Potvin to five prospects, including Shutt and Gardner. Torrey’s answer was the same: no go.

April, 1970

Chicago’s playoffs came to a skidding halt that year: the Black Hawks lost in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, falling in four straight to the eventual champions from Boston. The Black Hawks had barely packed up their sticks for the year when Bill Gleason of Chicago’s Sun-Times broke the story that the team’s management was intent on shipping out one of the team’s — well, Gleason’s word was superplayers, which is to say left winger Bobby Hull or centre Stan Mikita.

This had been decided before the playoffs, Gleason said. Hull was the likelier to go, he maintained: he was not only the more marketable, but “had given management more trouble.” Gleason and his Chicago hockeywriting brethren agreed: Hull was headed to Toronto. “That’s a natural trade,” Gleason felt. “Bobby is an Ontarioan and he would restore the glamour that has been missing from Maple Leaf Gardens.

Speculative or not, this news caused something of a stir thereabout. At 31, Hull had been a Black Hawk for 13 seasons. In four of those, he’d scored 50 goals or more. He’d won a Stanley Cup, three Art Ross Trophies, two Harts, and a Lady Byng. Nine times he’d been voted to the NHL’s 1st Team All-Star.

Toronto Daily Star columnist Milt Dunnell couldn’t confirm or deny the rumour, but he thought a trade for Hull made sense. Hull was a superstar, and popular in Toronto, and the Leafs were interested in shaking up their roster. Centre Mike Walton was available. The Leafs might even be willing to deal their star, Davey Keon, who was in line for a big pay raise, and didn’t get along with coach John McLellan.

And Chicago GM Tommy Ivan wasn’t exactly denying … well, anything. “I can’t make any comment now on trades,” he said. “Is the report about Bobby far-fetched? Well, nothing is far-fetched these days.”

A reporter who tracked Hull down heard this: “I’ll play hockey as long as I can and it doesn’t much matter where. After 13 years, if they want to jack me around like this, it’s their prerogative.”

Subsequent dispatches from Chicago described a conversation between the GM and his star. “Should I pack my bags,” Hull asked Ivan. Answer: “Don’t be silly.”

And so Hull remained a Hawk: he played two more seasons in Chicago before making his million-dollar leap to the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets. As a writer wrote in 1970: “His hatchet with the Chicago management was buried, perhaps in a shallow, well-marked grave.”

May, 1963

It was a near run thing in 1963 when Kent Douglas of the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Calder Trophy to become the first ever defenceman to win the award for the NHL’s best rookie. When the balloting showed that Douglas had pipped Detroit blueliner Doug Barkley by 100 points to 99, the Red Wings asked for a recount. The verdict the second time around? The NHL found that though Douglas’ victory was slimmer than originally thought — 99.4 points to 99.2 — he’d still won.

That same off-season May, Douglas found his way back into the news when, talking to a reporter about rumours that Montreal’s 32-year-old star left winger Boom-Boom Geoffrion was on the trading block, he spilled what seemed like surprising beans. “It looks like he’ll be joining us,” Douglas said. Montreal was interested in several Leafs, Douglas added, though he wouldn’t which of his teammates he thought might soon be Canadiens.

For his part, Geoffrion was on what was being touted as a “goodwill tour” of Canada. He’d already addressed the trade rumours in Saskatoon, before Douglas spoke up, saying that, yes, he was aware that he was supposed to be upping stakes for Boston or Toronto but, no, he hadn’t heard anything from Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke. Geoffrion seemed to think that it might be Montreal’s management spreading the gossip.

“Maybe they are trying to needle me to try to get back into form,” Geoffrion told Eric Wesselby from the local Star-Phoenix. “I fell off in production after the 50-goal season of 1960-61, but 23 goals a season isn’t a bad record. I think that scoring 20 goals in an NHL season is equivalent to batting .300 in the majors. And how many players hit .300 for a season?”

Geoffrion had reached British Columbia by the time he heard what Kent Douglas was saying back on the east coast. “I’ll believe it when I hear it,” he said in Vancouver, “— from the Montreal officials.” Of Douglas, he had this to say, in Victoria: “He’s only been in the league one year and he knows more than I do.”

At the NHL’s summer meetings in June, Canadiens’ personnel director Sam Pollock didn’t deny that Geoffrion might be on the move. Maybe he would have been, too, if the right deal had come along. As it was, Geoffrion played one more season with Montreal, scoring 21 goals, before retiring in 1964. When he unretired, in 1966, it was with the New York Rangers, for whom he played a further two seasons.

February, 1952

Toronto won the 1950-51 Stanley Cup with Al Rollins and Turk Broda sharing the net, but by early 1952 Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe, unhappy with that pair, was pursuing Harry Lumley of the Chicago Black Hawks. His first offer to Hawks’ GM Bill Tobin: Rollins, centre Cal Gardner, and defenceman Bill Juzda. When that didn’t take, he proffered a couple of defencemen, Gus Mortson and Hugh Bolton, along with minor-league goaltender Gil Mayer.

That didn’t work, either. Smythe did eventually get his man, in September of ’52, with Lumley heading to Toronto in trade for Rollins, Mortson, Gardner, and right winger Ray Hannigan. Lumley couldn’t help the Leafs win a Stanley Cup, but he did earn a Vézina Trophy in 1954, along with a pair of selections to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team, in 1953-54 and 1954-55.

January, 1950

Toronto coach (and assistant GM) Hap Day was categorical in quashing a rumoured deal by which the Stanley Cup champions would have sent wingers Howie Meeker and Bill Ezinicki to Chicago for left winger Doug Bentley: no. Two years earlier, in 1948, Montreal coach Dick Irvin went out of this way to deny that his team was trying to send defenceman Kenny Reardon to Chicago for Bentley.

February, 1949

Conn Smythe was in Florida for a winter’s respite when the rumour reached him — just how it travelled, or with whom it originated, I can’t say. At the time, reporters on the Leafs beat didn’t seem to know, either. What mattered was that the chief Leaf believed that Montreal might just be willing to sell the great Maurice Richard and that if so, Toronto needed to be at the front of the line. With Toronto headed to Montreal for an early February meeting with the Canadiens, Smythe told his coach, Hap Day, to take his cheque-book and wave it at Frank Selke.

Sounds incredible, not to mention implausible, but the Leafs were all in. “Maple Leaf Gardens has never been close with a buck,” Day told The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond, “and I have explicit instructions to meet any price mentioned for Richard’s hockey services. We consider Richard the greatest right winger in the major league, if not the greatest player.”

Dream On: While it lasted, Toronto newspapers enjoyed the idea that Richard might be lured to the blue-and-white.

He’d called Selke to set up a meeting. His last word before he climbed the train for Montreal: “I hear that Selke told Montreal newsmen he would not consider any kind of deal for Richard, yet he has not barred the door to further discussions with me.”

Toronto’s interest in Richard met with nothing but derision in Montreal. “Toronto’s retarded bid,” Gazette columnist Dink Carroll called it in the not-so-sensitive parlance of the day. “All the money in Toronto wouldn’t buy him,” Selke scoffed, in unwitting echo of other scorn, in another time — you’ll get to it, if you keep going to the end. “In other words, no matter what Leafs offered, he’s not for sale.” If, on the other hand, Toronto was interested in selling, Selke announced a spoofing interest in buying Max Bentley, Bill Ezinicki, Harry Watson, and Garth Boesch.

“Propaganda,” Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin proclaimed. “All this is merely an attempt to upset my boys on the eve of a game.”

The Leafs ended up winning that one, 4-1 — so maybe it worked. Montreal management continued to ridicule the Leafs’ presumption. The following week, after the teams tied 2-2 in Toronto, the Gazette was only too pleased to report a phone conversation between Irvin and Selke. Richard had played an outstanding game, the coach reported. “The Rocket got two goals last night. Ask Conn Smythe how much he’ll pay for him now.”

Selke’s reply: “Don Metz got two goals, too. Ask Smythe how much he wants for Metz.”

November, 1947

The deal that sent centre Max Bentley and winger Cy Thomas to Toronto was the biggest in NHL history at the time, with Chicago getting back a full forward line in Gus Bodnar, Bud Poile, and Gaye Stewart along with defencemen Ernie Dickens and Bob Goldham. Later, Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe confided that just before getting Bentley, he’d been trying to pry defenceman Doug Harvey away from Montreal, offering Stewart straight up in a one-for-one deal.

October, 1933

The Boston Globe reported that there was nothing to the rumour that GM Art Ross was angling to trade swap right wingers and send captain Dit Clapper to Toronto for Charlie Conacher. Victor Jones was on the case: “Charlie, a great athlete, has a stomach ailment which doesn’t make him an A-1 risk.”

April, 1929

Reports had Montreal’s superstar centre Howie Morenz heading to Boston, with defenceman Lionel Hitchman and US$50,000 coming north; Canadiens’ GM Cecil Hart sharply denied it. “It looks like a deliberate effort to create discord in the team,” Hart said. “Put this down: Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.”

He was right, though Morenz did go on a bit of an odyssey in the mid-1930s, returning to Montreal for one last season before his career came to its sudden end in 1937.

A rumour in 1933 had Morenz going to Chicago for goaltender Charlie Gardiner, whom Canadiens’ GM Leo Dandurand admitted to coveting in a bad way. Like Hart before him, Dandurand vowed that Morenz (and teammate Aurèle Joliat, too) would never play for any team but Montreal. The following year, Montreal’s Gazettelearned from “a reliable source” that Morenz was Chicago-bound in exchange for right wingers Mush March and Lolo Couture. The actual deal took a few more months to consummate saw Morenz go to Chicago with goaltender Lorne Chabot and defenceman Marty Burke for right wing Leroy Goldsworthy, and defencemen Lionel Conacher and Roger Jenkins.

January, 1929

Howie Morenz had a bad knee, and Eddie Shore an ailing ankle, so when Canadiens visited Boston early in 1929, both teams had to do without their marquee players. The game ended in an underwhelming 0-0 tie with press reports noting that Montreal appeared “weakened” while the Bruins lacked “their usual dash.” The crowd of 15,000 did get some good news on the night, which they seem to have received, extraordinarily, via the Garden PA announcer. We’ll leave to John Hallahan of the Globe to pass it on:

It was announced that a rumour had been spread about that Eddie Shore had been sold to the New York Rangers. The management declared such a report ridiculous, adding there was not enough money in New York to buy him.

A great cheer went up at this statement.

It was also announced if the fans in the upper balcony did not stop throwing paper on the ice that means would be taken to screen the sections.

born with a black eye: one more requiem for reggie fleming

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Hat Trick: A hospitalized Reggie Fleming poses with Chicago policemen in his Hawk days in the early 1960s. In all his 14 years as a hockey professional, he never wore a helmet on the ice. (Image: Chris Fleming)

A version of this post appeared on page 132 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

Reggie Fleming’s brain made its NHL debut somewhere in the middle of January of 1967.  That, at least, is how the newspapers framed it.

By then, at age 30, six full seasons into his professional hockey career, Fleming knew the league’s penalty boxes better than its nets. He was a policeman, in the parlance, valued for his strength, bravado and professional surliness. Born with a black eye, a wag in the press wrote in 1961. He was a knuckleman, a bulldozer, a wild bucko. Reviews of his work are filled with references to his truculence and fistic prowess, his battle-scarred face.

But here was Emile Francis telling reporters that Fleming’s brain had caught up with his brawn. He wasn’t taking foolish penalties, only wise ones; he was scoring goals. “He’s playing it real smart,” said the coach of Fleming’s New York Rangers.

The truth is, Fleming could always play. He was just very, very good at being (as another chronicler put it) “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players.” Like hockey fighters before and since, Fleming was a beloved figure to teammates and fans alike, and much nicknamed: Reg The Ruffian, The Horse, Mr. Clean, Hardrock.

“He had a ferocious left hook, a decent right and a beautiful head butt,” Earl McRae would write in a famous profile that’s still known as one of the most penetrating pieces of hockey prose. “He fought all the tough ones: Howe, Fontinato, Lindsay, Harris, Ferguson — and seldom lost. His only clear defeats came in the last few years; he lost to age.”

Once he retired from the game, Fleming and his wild years might have lapsed into the background, the way the careers of workaday players do, enshrined on hockey cards and in the fond dimming memories of those who saw him play.

Something else happened. When he died in 2009, his family donated his brain for study by pathologists in Boston. What they discovered was a shock to both those who loved him and to the hockey world he’d inhabited for all his skating years. It not only shifted Fleming’s legacy, but it transformed — and continues to transform — the conversation about the calamitous toll hockey can take on those who play.

•••

If for some sinister reason you had to invent from scratch a comprehensive system for putting the human brain at risk, hockey might be what you’d conjure. The speed of the game, its accelerations and sudden stops, the potential for impacts in unyielding ice and boards, all those weaponized sticks and fists and elbows — just how is an innocent mass of neural tissue afloat in cerebrospinal fluid supposed to protect itself?

For much of the game’s history, guarding the head wasn’t exactly a priority. Toronto Maple Leafs’ star winger Ace Bailey underwent two brain surgeries in 1933 when he was knocked to the ice in Boston; he survived, though he never played again. Scared, many of his fellow NHLers donned helmets after that. Most of them soon vanished: they were cumbersome, hot. Even when they started to make a comeback in the late 1960s, hockey’s protocol for concussion cases remained simple: Got your bell rung? Shake it off, get back out there.

Not long before the Bailey incident, a pathologist in Newark, New Jersey by the name of Dr. Harrison Martland was studying boxers. In a landmark paper he published in 1928, he wrote about what every fan of the sweet science had witnessed, a fighter staggered by a blow to the head that didn’t knock him out acting “cuckoo,” “goofy,” “sluggy nutty” — “punch drunk.”

Dr. Martland was the first to propose that repeated blows to the head were doing deeper damages within fighter’s heads, and that it was cumulative, causing “multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.” His conclusions on “punch drunk” syndrome were limited — he may have been circumscribed, too, by the outrage he stirred among fight fans annoyed by his medical meddling in a sport they loved so well.

If Dr. Martland conceived that hockey players might be suffering similar injuries, he never wrote about it. Why wasn’t anyone making the connection between hockey and head trauma earlier? “I think because it’s an invisible injury,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a leading pathologist who heads Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “Because players aren’t getting pounded in the head like they are in boxing. You see a hook to the jaw, you think, ah. It’s not a big jump for the layperson to say that might be hurting their brain.”

But hockey players? “They look invincible. There’s no blood, no pain, usually, so I think it was just — I think even the field of medicine didn’t recognize that these low-level hits, the ones that aren’t even causing concussions or any symptoms — just the repetitive impact injuries are leading to long-term loss of quality. We were all sort of oblivious.”

•••

Reggie Fleming didn’t mind talking about the role he played on the ice. He was open, affable — “a soft-spoken, mild-mannered quipster,” one interviewer wrote. Born in 1936 into a large Catholic family in east-end Montreal, he first stirred tempers as a star for the Junior Canadiens. His mother hated to watch. Seeing his cuts, the blood he wore home from games, she wanted to talk to coach Sam Pollock. Her son told her no. That’s my job, he told her, the only way I’ll make it.

Pollock went on to a management job with the big-league Canadiens, and Fleming eventually followed him there, first as a fill-in defenceman, always as a willing warrior when a teammate wanted revenging, or Canadiens felt a need to send one of hockey’s proverbial messages to their opponents. Although I guess there’s such a thing as message overload — as the story goes, Pollock traded Fleming to Chicago in the summer of 1960 after he roughed up a couple of teammates in practice.

Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s

Got To Knock Them Down: Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s.

Rudy Pilous was the coach of the Black Hawks when Fleming arrived in the early 1960s. “We can’t skate with most teams,” he was explaining around that time, “we’ve got to knock them down.” Fleming remembered his first game with his new team for the brawl he viewed from the bench. Unacceptable, Pilous told him: he should have been out there in the middle of the messing. “So I went out and fought,” Fleming recalled later. “I didn’t do it to be cruel, I was just following orders.”

His time in penalty boxes would eventually tick up to total 1,468 career minutes, or just over 24 hours. The websites that archive and revel in hockey’s fights don’t have a good fix on just how many he fought: at least 69, but maybe 96, almost certainly many more. Still, he was relatively restrained compared to some of his heirs, the fearsome likes of Tie Domi (338 fights in 1,020 games) or Bob Probert (302 in 935).

A ledger of the punishments he dispensed and received during his career isn’t hard to coax out of the newspaper archives. There’s a whole angry thesaurus of NHL violence in there: Fleming struck Jack McCartan with a vicious right (1960), slugged Wally Boyer (1969). The NHL fined him $175 for charging a referee (1964). Other uproars he sparked by swiping a goalie (1967) and trying to cross-check Bobby Hull’s face (1972). Eddie Shack clotheslined Fleming with his stick (1964), sending him to hospital with a concussion and cuts that needed 21 stitches to close. He was incoherent when he left the rink, the papers reported.

Fleming was a proficient penalty-killer, too, and he was a key asset of Chicago’s when they won the 1961 Stanley Cup. One year, in Boston, he found the net 18 times.

“I would rather have been recognized as a guy who scored a lot of goals like a Bobby Hull or a Stan Mikita,” he’d say in 1979, aged 43. “But I did something I loved: played hockey. If it meant I had to be a tough guy, then I was a tough guy. I was brought up in an area where you had to fight to survive. I worked my butt off to get to the top in hockey, and I had to work twice as hard to stay there.”

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Fry Guy: Reggie Fleming serves up breakfast to Chicago teammates (left) Stan Mikita and (possibly) Murray Balfour in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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canada’s cup 1976: the greatest aggregation of hockey talent ever assembled

cccp76

The Olympics go out, as they tend to do, in a salvo of light and colour and national pride. The stadium, one observer writes, is filled with the overwhelming goodwill of youth. A streaker who takes the field cavorts near dancing girls. spectacle and the striving Was it worth all that money? The questions float up and flutter among the flags. One flame goes out, a new one flickers its fingers. Leave it, maybe, to the novelist Morley Callaghan to pronounce: the Olympics are madness, he says, “and madness is beautiful regardless of price.”

Time, when it’s all over, for the hockey players to stand to the fore.

This year, it was Rio’s Olympics that’s giving way to the end of summer and a hockey World Cup pitting nation against nation against — well, of course, there’s a pair of continental teams, too, one of which is U23, so it’s a strangely asymmetrical tournament, a format that we’re still getting used to. Maybe we’ll even learn to love it.

Forty years ago, it was the Montreal Olympics that a great Canadian novelist lauded as they ended in August. The hockey players in question that year were participants in a more traditional international tournament spread among six old-fashioned national teams in the inaugural Canada Cup.

With all due respect to this year’s edition, Canada ’76 was loaded with talent and savvy and experience — and that’s just the braintrust. Montreal’s genius GM Sam Pollock was in charge of the whole operation, with Keith Allen as a principal aide and Toe Blake standing by as counsel. Then there was Pollock’s advisory committee of wise men: Jean Béliveau, Gordie Howe, and Syl Apps. Scotty Bowman was the first choice to coach, but he said no, at first: his Montreal Canadiens had just completed a successful Stanley Cup campaign, and his wife was pregnant with twins.

There was a rumour that Fred Shero had agreed to the step up, but Pollock said he hadn’t, in fact, spoken to the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.

In the end, Pollock decided four heads were better than one. Bowman was back in, joining with Boston’s Don Cherry, Bobby Kromm of the Winnipeg Jets, Al MacNeil, coach of Montreal’s AHL farm team, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs. There was so much enthusiasm to generate, Bowman said. “I used up much of my adrenalin during the past season and have another season ahead. Having four coaches spreads it around a little and eases the pressure.”

“This will be the coaching style of the future,” was Cherry’s take on it. “Each of us will contribute something. We’ll work in harmony. There won’t be any friction. We all want to win. We’re going to be the favourites and there’s going to be nothing but pressure on us. It would be too much for one man.”

Picking a preliminary 31-man roster in June, Pollock selected 29 players from the NHL with three more drawn from WHA clubs. The coaches would trim the squad in August to 25, 20 of whom would dress for each tournament game. Injuries ruled out several significant players, including goaltenders Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent and defencemen Brad Park and Jim Schoenfeld.

There was uncertainty about Bobby Orr, too, coming off two 1975 surgeries on that troublesome left knee of his. He’d gone in for an arthroscopic exam in June, and his lawyer, at least, was hopeful. “Bobby is in A-1 condition,” reported Alan Eagleson, who also happened to be running the tournament as director, “and he’ll probably play in the Canada Cup.”

Even without the poorly, it was hard to see the Canadian roster as diminished, exactly.

Gerry Cheevers, Glenn Resch, and Rogie Vachon were among the goaltenders summoned to report to a 23-day training camp in Montreal in August. Defencemen included Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Denis Potvin, and Guy Lapointe. Guy Lafleur, Bob Gainey, and Reggie Leach were competing were jobs on the right wing, with Bill Barber, Bobby Hull, Bob Gainey, and Steve Shutt over on the left. At centre: Bobby Clarke, Darryl Sittler, Phil Esposito, Gil Perreault, Marcel Dionne, and Pete Mahovlich.

In Montreal, the players moved into the Bonaventure Hotel. August 10 they headed for the ice for the first time at the Forum. Morning drills led to an afternoon scrimmage. In the evening, the team headed to Jarry Park to watch the Montreal Expos play ball with the San Francisco Giants. The next day, and for the rest of the camp, they started the morning with a three-mile run up Mount Royal.

“It was easily the toughest training camp I’ve ever attended,” Dionne was saying by the time it was over.

Bobby Orr stayed at his summer place, in Orillia, Ontario, working on his own — and making progress. “Two months ago there was no way I thought I could play but in the last month the knee has felt just super,” he updated. “I will skating hard and if there isn’t a bad reaction I will be going to Montreal.”

Bobby Hull was 37. Shut out of the Summit Series in 1972, he was thrilled to be aboard this time out. He was pleased, too, to be playing in a tournament where the hockey had evolved beyond the intimidation inherent in his home and native WHA. “It will be a pleasure to play without the worry about being stabbed in the back. Everyone will be back to hockey’s basics, the way hockey should be played and was played before the goons took over.”

Phil Esposito was feeling renewed after the shock of the trade that had taken him from Boston to New York the previous November. “It affected me mentally,” he was saying, “and because of it I couldn’t function properly. It just devastated me.” But: he was ready now, he said. Don Cherry, for one, thought it showed. “Espo was showing the snap I hadn’t seen for a couple of years,” his former coach said after the team’s first workout.

He was one of the vets from ’72, Espo. Savard, Lapointe, Clarke, and Mahovlich had played in the Summit Series, . That epic series was even fresher in the national mind, of course, than it is today, with coaches and players vowing that they wouldn’t be making the same mistakes they’d made back then. Arrogance wasn’t a word they were using: mostly what they mentioned were matters of conditioning and team unity.

They wasn’t much joy, looking back. There was wariness, weariness , grim memories tinged at the edges by the unshakeable sense of just how near run a thing it had been. Even as he and his team readied this new challenge, Serge Savard talked to Montreal Gazette columnist Tim Burke about how very, very exhausted the Canadians were, four years earlier, how disarrayed, how downspirited, who knows what might have happened if they’d hadn’t left the country after the first four games.

Lessons had been learned. Exhibition games would help, this time around. “Mental preparation is also important,” said Harry Sinden, the coach in ’72. “We went into that series saying to ourselves we couldn’t lose. We now know what we’re up against and that’s in our favour.”

Not that we weren’t still having problems imagining anything other than victory. What else was there? Our game, our tournament. “If ever a team appeared to be invincible,” Tim Burke effused in that same Savard-quoting column, “I’d put my dough on this lot.” What we had here, he’d decided, no doubts, was “the greatest aggregation of hockey talent ever assembled.”

The Soviets, if they showed up, would be lacking in their line-up. Valeri Kharlamov was recovering for a summer car accident, Alexander Yakushev had a bad knee. Veteran Vladimirs, Petrov and Shadrin, weren’t coming, and nor was Boris Mikhailov. Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak was supposed to be staying home, too — to study for military exams, the word was.

Esposito, for one, wasn’t fooled. “A psyche job,” he warned in August.

“The Russians are clever. They’re leaking these stories in hopes it will throw us off our game. When they arrive, they will be tough.”

Team Canada sent Tom Watt, coach of the University of Toronto, across the Atlantic to scout the Soviets and Swedes. “Objectively,” he said on his return, “I think Team Canada has the talent to win. But sometimes you find a kid with a high IQ doesn’t do very well in math. Performance and talent are always two different things.

But maybe the Russians wouldn’t come at all — that was a possibility, for a while. As the Olympics drew to a close in early August, the Soviet Olympic Committee was threatening both to pull out of the Game’s remaining events, and there was talk that the hockey team would stay home, too. A 17-year-old diver, Sergei Nemtsanov, had asked for and been granted asylum in Canada — defected — and the Soviets were livid.

He’d been abducted, they said, maybe drugged, certainly brainwashed. There was a meeting involving the diver, his lawyers, and Soviet and Canadian officials that proved, to the Soviets, that he was not in his right mind. Why was his face so pale, his look so absent? Why did he repeat, “like a parrot,” “I want freedom, I want freedom.”

A Russian official charged that “a group of terrorists” had been roaming the Olympic Village, preying on Soviet athletes.

Other press reports noted that young Sergei had an American diver as his girlfriend, and that this was all about her, though the girlfriend’s family released a statement to say firmly that she wasn’t Sergei’s girlfriend.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau weighed in: he said it was up to the diver to decide what he wanted to do. Which he did: after a week or two in Toronto, concerned for his “aged and ailing grandmother,” he elected to go home. Continue reading

the gump’s tale

gump

In January of 1957, Boston goaltender Terry Sawchuk announced he was quitting the NHL, for a bit, or maybe for always. He ending up coming back, of course, but at the time that was very much in doubt. “My nerves are shot,” he said, “and I’m just edgy and nervous all the time.”

So that’s what Gump Worsley was talking about, in April, when the New York Rangers’ goaltender was coverboy (along with his eldest son, Lorne Jr.) for Hockey Blueline. Inside, as told to Dave Anderson, he got right down to business: people thought it was funny, now, to wonder about his nerves.

“When are you going to crack up?” they say. First of all, it’s not funny because Sawchuk is a sick guy. Second of all, I’ll never crack up.

I don’t believe all this talk about “nerves” because a goalkeeper is under fire all the time. If that’s the case, I should be the first one to crack. They shoot more at me than any goalkeeper in the National Hockey League.

If the number of shots at a goalkeeper is so important, then why hasn’t Al Rollins cracked up? Or Harry Lumley? They’ve been around longer than me and had a lot of shots taken at them. But they’re all right. Maybe they’re like me. They don’t worry about something they can’t do anything about … a goal.

Worsley, 29, had been in the NHL for three-and-a-half seasons at this point. That was the key to keeping cool as a netminder, he found — failing to worry. “My wife, Doreen,” he confided, “tells me nothing bothers me.” He made a study of this, and always had. Never looked up his goals-against average, paid no attention to rumours that he was destined for the minors.

Some goaltenders worked themselves into such a state that they couldn’t sleep, or eat. Not Gump:

My wife will tell you how I eat before a game. And how I sleep two-and-a-half, three hours. I usually eat a real big meal — two filet mignons, baked potato, green vegetable, salad, toast and tea. And then I take my nap. Sometimes she has trouble waking me.

After a game — win, lose or tie — I come home and eat another big meal. Not a sandwich, a meal.

That’s what worked for him. But while he may have maintained the same appetite at a steady level as his hockey career went on, his worrying evolved. Ten years later, playing for Montreal now, he may have had occasion to recall that old vow. As detailed in They Call Me Gump, his 1975 Tim Moriarty-assisted autobiography, things had changed. “I finally wound up with the goaltender’s occupational disease during the 1968-69 season with the Canadiens,” he’d write. “I suffered a nervous breakdown.”

At the age of 39, he was playing well in the Montreal net, but he was suffering emotionally. He didn’t like flying. That was a big part of it. Also, the Canadiens had changed coaches: Toe Blake was out, replaced by Claude Ruel. The new boss thought Worsley didn’t practice properly, just went through the motions. Blake had tolerated Worsley’s reluctance to extend himself on the understanding that he’d stay in shape and be ready when the games came around. Ruel was different: he liked to “blow his damn whistle and bark orders. … This got under my skin, and by the time the season was a month old we weren’t speaking.”

Fans, too, were taunting the Gump. That was something else. On November 26, 1968, the Canadiens were en route to Los Angeles by way of Chicago. The first leg of the flight was turbulent, and that was enough for Worsley, which is to say too much. At O’Hare Airport, he left the plane, telling Jean Béliveau that he was retiring. He took a train back to Montreal.

As Worsley recounts it, the breakdown wasn’t severe: “I got over it quickly.” Montreal GM Sam Pollock arranged for him to see a psychiatrist, and he did, and they talked about “everything.” Late in December he started skating on his own at the Forum. By January, he was back in the Canadiens goal.

The Globe and Mail reported that he’d conquered his fear of flying. The pudgy goalie, they called him. “There were a lot of things,” he said. “My nerves were gone. “I had a lot of problems, personal things.”

“I didn’t say anything to the guys. I kept it all inside. I guess you could say I was carrying a lot of worries on my shoulder. Perhaps unnecessarily, but that’s the way it was.”

a manly knit

fergie collection

John Ferguson was 32 in 1970 when he decided the time had come to hang up his skates after seven hard-fought NHL seasons. His Montreal Canadiens had finished out of the playoffs that spring and he’d gone through the summer wondering whether it was time to go. Things had changed in the league, and Fergie was troubled.

He writes about this in Thunder and Lightning, the memoir he published with Stan and Shirley Fischler in 1989. “Expansion and the new breed of hockey player had combined to slowly, but surely, change the game’s values for the worse, I thought. More and more, the accent was on big bucks and selfishness. Agents were becoming as important in the lives of young players as their coaches. Respect for older players, team loyalty, toughness and discipline were values that gradually were being eroded.”

Maybe he’d play one more year. Would he? He went to training camp in the fall of 1970, played some exhibition games, hurt his arm. That was it. His mind was made up.

“At a press conference in Montreal,” he writes, “I told the media that I had decided to retire from hockey. … Naturally, the reporters grilled me. They wanted to know about specifics. Was it [GM Sam] Pollock? Who? I told them I had no beef with hockey or the Canadiens or Pollock or the club owners. I told them that, when I decided I couldn’t give one hundred per cent to hockey, it was time to give up.”

Knitwear played its part, along with horses. When he wasn’t playing hockey, Ferguson was in business with both. He was already president of Butternut Enterprises, a company owned by friends, that not only manufactured fine shirts, dresses, pants, and sweaters, but owned a bevy of racehorses: two trotters and seven thoroughbreds.

“Horses were in my blood,” Ferguson writes. But the threads meant something, too. He writes about that, too. “Some of my hockey friends thought it was paradoxical for a tough guy like me to be making a fashion statement with knitwear, but nobody ever teased me about it. I matched my colours and was never outlandish with my colour schemes.”

No, you wouldn’t tease John Ferguson about his fashion choices, would you? Above, he shows his stuff in ad from a November, 1970 Canadiens’ game program. Earlier that year, posing for another campaign in Montreal’s Gazette, the John Ferguson Collection promised “brave designs … masculine and bold. Styled with clean lines … powerful stripes … decisive trims. A manly knit in textured Cel-Cil Fortel®.”

The knitly man made a return to the ice the following year, of course. Habs’ captain Jean Béliveau called him up the following season, invited him to supper. They went to Ruby Foo’s, and Béliveau told him: “The Canadiens need you. Think about coming back.”

Ferguson was out of knitwear by then — so to speak: he’d sold his interest. After meeting Sam Pollock to talk contract, he rejoined the team for one final season. It was a good one, too, the last one also of Béliveau’s illustrious career, and the first for a young goaltender named Ken Dryden. The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.

claude ruel: he speaks the language of hockey

ruelClaude Ruel died on Monday at the age of 76. He was a promising young defenceman in the Montreal Canadiens’ system when an eye injury stopped his playing career in 1958. As a coach, he succeeded Toe Blake behind the Habs’ bench in 1968, winning a Stanley Cup in his first year and then, halfway through his third, resigning when the team foundered. He stayed with the team, working with Scotty Bowman during his years in charge. During the 1979-80 season, he replaced Bernie Geoffrion as coach, steering the Canadiens to first-place Norris-Division finishes in consecutive campaigns. Playoff success didn’t follow and in 1981 he gave way to Bob Berry.

For fuller appreciations of Ruel’s life and hockey times, I direct you to Dave Stubbs at the Montreal Gazette and to Tom Hawthorn’s obituary at Benched. Herewith, a short anthology of Rueliana made up of sentences culled verbatim from various contemporary newspapers from 1968 through the late 1980s and presented in no special order.

You don’t need a program to identify Claude Ruel, whether he’s on the ice or wearing civvies. At 5’5”, 220 pounds, give or take a few ounces, Claude Ruel is hard to miss.

Anyone taking over the Canadiens’ coaching reins from Toe Blake is stepping into big shoes since Toe guided the club to eight Stanley Cup crowns and nine league titles in 13 years. But Claude Ruel has a theory that when a man tries his best at anything he’s bound to succeed.

As trite and repetitive as it may sound, the two words that typify Ruel’s outlook on life in general and hockey in particular are work and dedication.

“I came from a big family and I had to go to work very young. Nothing came easy. I was filling potato sacks and setting pins in a bowling alley when I was 11 and 12.”

It is difficult to see the Canadiens functioning without Ruel.

Occasionally Ruel would punctuate his running commentary with: “C’est ca! C’est ca!”

An indefatigable worker, he spends time helping people such as Engblom, Langway, Mark Napier and Rick Chartraw improve their skills long after the team’s superstars have left the ice.

While there is no substantial proof, the word is that Ruel bleeds red, white, and blue.

Claude Ruel, chubby 32-year-old coach of the Montreal Canadiens, resigned Thursday.

Ruel, who coached Montreal to its last Cup title in 1969, constantly complained of the pressure connected with the job.

“Claude didn’t like the pressure,” says former Canadiens’ coach Scotty Bowman. “His first year, his layers really performed for him. The second year, they didn’t respond.” And what about this time? “The biggest thing is he won’t have Claude Ruel to help him like I did,” Bowman said.

Ruel is considered by hockey people to be one of the best talent evaluators in the world and he is also excellent at [sic] bring out the best in young players who are willing to work at their craft.

Since Ruel came out of Sherbrooke, Que., to play organized hockey at the age of 15, his command of English was limited and he had a unique way of fracturing the language that brought laughter — and even ridicule — from both French- and English-speaking players.

“I’ll tell you how good he was,” said Pollock, “though you probably shouldn’t write it because it just won’t sound right. But Claude Ruel was a lot like Bobby Orr. He couldn’t skate like Bobby but he had something Orr does that so few others don’t have and that’s great hockey sense and great anticipation.”

Ruel too played right defence and what was considered a very bright hockey future was cut down suddenly Nov. 17 in Belleville, Ont.

“I was getting set to take a shot from the point and the guy who was checking me hit my stick and it came right up and caught me in the eye.” He spent almost three months in hospital as doctors tried vainly to save his sight in the injured eye.

“That Lafleur, he has good hockey sense,” said Claude Ruel, chief scout for the Canadiens. “He’s big, he can shoot, can play offensively and defensively. He’s just a great hockey player.”

“There’s no use just blaming it on the defence and the goalkeeping,” adds Ruel. “It’s just a lack of work and the only way to get on a real winning streak is for everyone to put their minds to work.” What’s the solution? “Don’t ask me,” replied Ruel. “I’m not Superman.”

What had been good-natured ribbing of Ruel’s sayings in the championship run the year before — “Two eggs side by side,” “A daily double” (for a big hotel room), “Two-on-one, each take a man” — became a way of blaming the coach when things didn’t go well on the ice.

His problem has always been discipline. For instance, a couple of years ago, Bowman took a day off and when the players decided they’d had enough, they set upon Ruel and pulled his pants off. Continue reading