gunk’d

They called it the plague and the creeping crud, but mostly it was known, and feared, as the gunk: a virulent and strange oozing rash that afflicted players across professional hockey in the late 1970s and into the ’80s, forcing several of them out of the game altogether. With today’s news that Chicago Black Hawks’ winger Marian Hossa will be forced to sit out the 2017-18 NHL season due to “a progressive skin disorder,” a look back at a pestilence past.

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Outer-Body Injury: Minnesota North Stars defenceman Tom Reid — seen here defending goaltender Gump Worsley — retired from the NHL to escape the notorious gunk.

“It’s a mystery,” was the diagnosis of Montreal Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman. Doctors called it contact dermatitis, but even they were largely baffled by what exactly it was they were dealing with. “We don’t know what’s going on completely,” a lead investigator, dermatologist Dr. William Schorr, confessed in 1976. By then, an estimated 70 NHL players were suffering, along with uncounted others in junior and minor leagues.

The NHL decided it wasn’t concerned enough by the outbreak to mount its own investigation. “It’s the type of thing the individual clubs themselves would have to be involved in,” executive director Brian O’Neill told The New York Times while Dr. Schorr puzzled over symptoms. By 1979, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta was getting ready to start a study of the rash.

No word on where that went. Back in the rinks, most cases of the rash resembled psoriasis, sometimes in its later stages oozing a yellow pus. Often it started on the hands before spreading (or “erupting,” as The Times put it) wherever the player’s body came in contact with his equipment. Was dirty old gear to blame, dyes, detergents, tanning agents from leather? Theories abounded. Was it a nervous condition related to the anxiety of scoring droughts and playoff pressures? A reaction to Zamboni fumes? Fibreglas from sticks? As dermatologists treating players agreed that the rash wasn’t communicable, team trainers struggled to curb it while doing their best to minister to gunk victims with cortisone-based ointments.

Guy Lapointe, Lou Nanne, Bill Clement, Rick Vaive, and Dennis Polonich. Players from across the league were afflicted, using all different brands of equipment.

Canadiens centreman Jacques Lemaire ended up spending a week in hospital in the early ’70s. “They had me bathing in lotion,” he told the Times. “They had to put me on sleeping pills every night, the itching was so bad.”

A dermatologist was able to help Clark Gillies of the New York Islanders clear up his rash. “He said it was something to do with bleach and detergent and the nylon in the equipment,” he said. Meditation helped another Islander, defenceman Jean Potvin, when nothing else would. “I know I was a lot more relaxed and I never had any of I again. I have to think it’s a nerve symptom.”

None had it worse than Tom Reid. A defenceman who started his career with the Chicago Black Hawks, he went on to ply the blueline for ten years as a Minnesota North Star before finding himself gunked out of the game in 1978.

“It was a gradual thing,” he told me a year or so ago when I stopped in at the bar he owns in St. Paul, Minnesota, not far from the Minnesota Wild’s home rink. “It started about the size of a dime on my arm. Then it got bigger. It went down my side and it just started to spread. As soon as I was off the ice, in two weeks it was gone. If I came back to the ice, play a few games, it would come right back again.”

“We changed equipment. They covered me in creams, they covered the equipment. I changed underwear, t-shirt, after the warm-up, at the end of every period — it just got worse.”

He was getting pills, injections of steroids. He spent 11 days in hospital to start off the 1975-76 season. At one point, he said at the time, he was getting 30 shots a day to help in the relief effort.

“It was pretty painful. It was at the point where my whole side was just pus. They couldn’t figure out what it was. I’d be wrapping towels around my body, which helped — the problem was when I had to take the towels off. I couldn’t sleep — for a while I was sleeping sitting upright in a wooden chair. A few other guys on the North Stars had it. Doug Rombough had a little bit of it, Lou Nanne had some, so a few guys — not like I had it. It forced me out of the game. It got to the point by the end where they couldn’t give me any more cortisone. I had to retire.”

It was ten years later before doctors came up with anything resembling an answer to the gunk mystery — too late for Reid’s career. In 1988, a member of the Edmonton Oilers’ medical staff was one of those who discovered that one of the causes had to do with the use of formaldehyde in the manufacture of equipment as a way of preventing mildew and maintaining colour.

“Once we figured out that was the problem, we had a good, quick solution to it,” Dr. Don Groot told The National Post in 2000. This one: the addition of a cup of powdered milk to the second rinse cycle of a wash, he said, seemed to do away with both the formaldehyde and the gunk it bred.

 

(A version of this post appeared previously at http://www.lockerroomdoctor.com.)

hockey players in hospital beds: no more will I put my face in front of the puck

Plante Show: Jacques Plante indicates where a puck hit his mask in May of 1970. Visiting is Mrs. Ruth Frohlichstein, a St. Louis neighbour of the goaltender’s who was also described by some contemporary newspaper captioneers as Plante’s “favourite bridge partner.”

“Did you ever see how they kill cattle?” Jacques Plante said. “They use a sledgehammer and the cattle just drop dead. That’s how the shot felt when it hit me. Without the mask I wouldn’t be here today.”

He was in the Jewish Hospital in St. Louis by then, early May of 1970. Eleven years had passed since he’d first donned his famous mask and started a hockey revolution. At 41, with seven Stanley Cup championships to his name, he was nearing the end of his playing days, but he wasn’t there yet. In his second year with St. Louis, he was a favourite of fans, and had helped the Blues reach their third consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.

Coach and GM Scotty Bowman had used three goaltenders through the early rounds of the playoffs. As the Blues prepared to face Boston in the finals, Bruins’ coach Harry Sinden said, “We recognize Plante as their number one goalie, and I never want to see him in the nets against us.” Bowman didn’t oblige: Plante was the starter on Sunday, May 3, as the Blues opened the series at home at The Arena.

Boston’s Johnny Bucyk scored in the first period, Jim Roberts tied the score for St. Louis early in the second. Then, as recalled next day in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The 41-year-old Blues goalie was struck on the fiberglass mask above the left eye on a deflection of a shot by the Boston Bruins’ Fred Stanfield.” Another correspondent from the same paper had him “felled by a puck.”

UPI: “nearly had his head torn off Fred Stanfield’s screamer.”

Stanfield’s “brow-bender,” was Harold Kaese’s contribution, in The Boston Globe.

“The Boston player’s drive, which started out low, glanced off Phil Esposito’s stick and smashed into the veteran goalie’s mask, cracking it.” (Post-Dispatch)

He fell facedown. For two minutes he lay unconscious on the ice. Blues’ doctor J.G. Probstein and trainer Tommy Woodcock “worked on” him, the AP said. After about five minutes, they got him to his feet. He wobbled. They brought out a stretcher, but he wanted to skate off.

Ernie Wakely, 28, was the Blues’ back-up. He came in and did his best, but the Bruins kept coming, and won by a score of 6-1 with the aid of Bucyk’s hattrick.

Later, Dr. Probstein said it was a concussion and that while Plante’s condition was “satisfactory,” he’d be hospitalized “for an indefinite period of time.”

Plante’s first words (“after his head cleared”) were said to be: “The mask saved my life.”

He phoned his wife Jacqueline in Montreal. “She was relieved to hear from me,” he said later. She made a habit of not watching her husband on TV, but his children had the game on that night. It was almost when she passed through the room and noticed that Plante was absent from the net. Only then did the youngest son calmly mention what had happened.

Monday, a reporter among many visiting Room 223 at Jewish Hospital described the patient: “He had a whelp over his left eye and a slight cut and he smiled very little for his audience.”

Plante: “My head hurts every time I move it.”

Joe Falls was there, sports editor of The Detroit Free Press.

“Hockey writers,” he’d write, “happen to like old Jacques.”

He’s a good guy and always good for a story and so before we went up to see him I chipped in two bucks with a couple of Montreal writers and we bought him some flowers.

Jacques, he like that very much. He is a very sensitive man and was moved by the sentiment.

“Merci beaucoup, merci beaucoup,” he kept repeating.

Of course we’d signed the card: “From Fred Stanfield, with love.” He pretended not to notice.

Did Plante change rooms? Also Monday, Boston Globe columnist Fran Rosa found him asleep in 219. Barclay Plager had spent the night at the hospital, too, and he was the one to wake Plante up. The Blues defenceman was admitted after passing out on the Blues’ bench during the third period of Sunday’s game; now he was being released.

Plante talked about his future. “I don’t think I’ll be here next season.” With Buffalo and Vancouver coming into the league, summer would see an expansion draft. Plante didn’t think he’d be protected.

“Look,” he said, “Hall is three years younger than me and Wakely is the goalie of the future so what do they want with me?”

Plager had injured himself trying to hipcheck Boston’s Johnny McKenzie, damaging ribs when he bounced off and hit the boards. “The doctor didn’t exactly call it a fracture,” he confided. “He seems to think it was a separation. He said he hadn’t seen anything like it before and he’s going to write a paper on it.”

Monday, the Bruins held a light practice. Towards the end, coach Harry Sinden called the players together and led them in an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Fred Stanfield was turning 26.

Plante said he’d never been hit so hard. From his Montreal days, he recalled a tough night against Toronto: “Red Kelly shot and hit me in the face and the rebound went to Mahovlich. When I dove for the puck, it hit me where the mask protects my eyes. All I had that time was a nosebleed. No cuts.”

Dan Stoneking of The Minneapolis Star phoned Plante on Monday, said he sounded “groggy.” He also noted his “unmistakable French-Canadian accent.”

Another report from Plante’s bedside noted his “slight French accent.”

Joe Falls from Detroit’s Free Press opened his column with this:

Monsieur Jacques Plante, he leaned back on ze pillow in ze hospital room and he say: “Le masque m’a sauve la vie …”

“It only hurts when I laugh,” Plante told Dan Stoneking.

“I’ve got the world’s biggest hangover,” was another quote in another paper.

“Nothing ever felt like this,” Joe Falls heard. “My head, it is still spinning. I feel like I am floating. I feel like I want to throw up all the time.”

“I can still feel it in my head,” was another thing Plante said on the Monday. “The way I feel right now, I don’t feel like playing any more. That’s today. I don’t feel like eating or anything. Then I know as I get better I’m sure I’ll play again. But I do not know I will play in this series. I just don’t know.”

Also on Monday, Mrs. Ruth Frohlichstein dropped by. That’s her, above. The newspapers who ran photographs of her visit described her variously: as “a neighbourhood friend” and “Plante neighbour and favourite bridge partner.”

St. Louis coach and general manager Scotty Bowman had yet another goaltender waiting in the wings, 37-year-old Glenn Hall. Originally, Bowman had said he’d wanted to see how Plante played in the first game before he made any decisions on later starters. “He doesn’t play well in Boston,” Bowman said, “Glenn Hall plays well there.” With Plante out, the coach didn’t waver from that: Wakely would keep the net for Game Two in St. Louis before giving way to Hall when the series moved to Boston.

plante down

Bodycheck: St. Louis defenceman Al Arbour arrives on the scene in the moments after Fred Stanfield’s shot laid Plante low.

Continue reading

what we call the unseen hand

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The Canadians were ready in 1972 — at least, okay, maybe, no, not entirely prepared, exactly, but they were eager to shift from practicing to playing actual games. That, they were ready for. “We’ve had enough of this,” said forward Ron Ellis, “it’s time to get to work.” Phil Esposito didn’t care who was on his wings: “Regardless of whether I play with Roy Rogers and Trigger, just so long as we win.” Defenceman Gary Bergman insisted the team wasn’t overconfident when he said, “Look, we’re used to playing against the best forecheckers in the world — right in the National Hockey League. So we don’t have to learn to change our game to beat the Russians.” I don’t know whether centreman Bobby Clarke thought it was cockiness or not when he gave The Hockey News his prediction, below, but say this — it was in line with prevailing opinion in Canada as August came to an end and the pucks began to fly in earnest. Columnist John Robertson of The Montreal Star was a notable dissenter — his unpopular prognostication had the Soviets winning six of the eight games. And Canadian coach Harry Sinden was, notably, sounding notes of caution while others crowed Canadian domination. “We have to leave ourselves open and be ready to make big and quick adjustments,” Sinden said on the eve of the opening game. A sampling of Canadian self-regard (with bonus Soviet views, too) from the eve of the Summit Series of 1972:

 “We’re going to win.”
• Gordie Howe, former right wing, Detroit Red Wings

 “We will win eight games to nothing.”
• Alan Eagleson, director, NHLPA

“I bet a friend that we’ll win every game by at least three goals.”
• Bobby Clarke, centre, Philadelphia Flyers and Team Canada

“The Russians could take a game or two, though I don’t think they will.”
• Jack Kent Cooke, owner, Los Angeles Kings

“To ask any team to beat another eight times in a row is to ask a lot. But if we play up to our capabilities, we can win every game.”
• John McLellan, coach, Toronto Maple Leafs

 “I believe Russia’s best will beat Canada’s best in hockey eventually. But not this year; I doubt if the Russians will win a single game next month in The Great Confrontation, either in Canada or in Russia.”
• Jacques Plante, former goaltender, Toronto Maple Leafs

“If we play to our potential and, like I say, don’t take them lightly, we will be okay. I would be very disappointed if we don’t win all the games.”
• Jean Béliveau, former centre, Montreal Canadiens

 “I expect the Canadians to win every game. They’re that superior.”
• Billy Reay, coach, Chicago Black Hawks

“I don’t think the series will be a rout but I strongly believe we’ll beat them and beat them convincingly. I think we’ll win all eight games.”
• Ralph Backstrom, centre, Los Angeles Kings

“Our guys are pros and, in my opinion, the best hockey players in the world. If they play up to their potential, I can’t see how the Russians can win a game from them. Except for what we call the unseen hand — some fluky break that could make a difference. Barring that, it should be an eight-game sweep for Canada.”
• Scotty Bowman, coach, Montreal Canadiens

“I’m sure Team Canada is going to win. But I have a lot of respect for the Russians. Their conditioning is superb. They live together for 11 months of the year, and they’re like machines — their thinking is done for them. I don’t think they can react and act on instinct the way our players do. I think Team Canada will win all eight games.”
• Al Arbour, coach, St. Louis Blues

“You have said you will sweep us off the ice. We have said we would like to play and learn for the future. You must fulfill your boast. We will merely play our best, learning as we go.”
• Anatoli Tarasov, former coach, Soviet national team

 “We’ll give predictions for the games after the games. We won’t make any before.”
• Andrei Starovoitov, secretary, Russian Ice Hockey Federation

Sources: “What Experts Think — Most Favor Canada Sweep,” The Hockey News, September, 1972, p. 3; “Anxious To Start,” The Globe and Mail, September 1, 172, p. 36; “Jacques Plante Tells Why We Will Beat The Russians — This Year,” The Globe and Mail, 26 August, 1972, A14; “If We Lose Series Hockey Will Gain — Sinden,” September 2, 1972, p. 22; “No predictions, says Russian hockey official,” August 31, 1972, p. 26.

(Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Frank Lennon. Library and Archives Canada, e010933355 /)

stopping a salming

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The Canadians had a simple plan: stop a Salming.

Tuesday, September 7 was the day Sweden and Canada clashed, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in that September of 1976. The home team had opened its account at the first Canada Cup with a merciless mincemeating of Finland: 11-2 was the final. Next day, Sweden beat the United States by a count of 5-2. Canada went on to master the U.S., too, 4-2, while the Swedes shared a 3-3 tie with the Soviet Union.

Canada’s plan for the Swedes had two parts, the first of which precipitated a line-up adjustment: out went a couple of goalscoring wingers, Reggie Leach and Danny Gare, in came a pair with recognized defensive chops, Bob Gainey and Lanny McDonald.

Part two: smother a Salming.

There were two of them to choose from, both defencemen. Stig, the elder at 28, didn’t worry Canada too much, not in the way that his younger brother did, the Maple Leafs’ own Borje, who was 25. If Lars-Erik Sjöberg was the Swedish captain, Salming Minor was their on-ice leader, not to mention an offensive threat — he’d scored a goal in each of the first two games.

There was no secret to Canada’s strategy. “He’s too good,” Gainey said. “If you let him skate, he’s going to hurt you.”

“It’s nothing new, eh?” captain Bobby Clarke told the Toronto Star’s Jim Proudfoot afterwards. “Just like playing the Leafs in the National Hockey League. Everybody knows you’ve got to control Salming or he’ll murder you. The Swedes built their whole offence around him. He’s the guy who brings the puck out of their zone, and he’s the man they want to get the puck to on the powerplay.”

“Everybody had the same instructions — get in there quick and take Salming before he gets underway,” coach Scotty Bowman said afterwards.

Bill Barber was the first to hit Salming hard in the first period, before Bobby Hull applied himself. “He threw two clean checks,” Scott Young wrote, “with all the power of the strongest physique in North American hockey.”

Salming had one long shot on goaltender Rogie Vachon — Proudfoot rated it the hardest he had to handle all night — but otherwise the Leafs’ defenceman wasn’t prominent in the 4-0 win that Canada composed. Bob Gainey had been assigned the job of checking Anders Hedberg, but he found time to score a pair of goals, too, with Hull and Marcel Dionne counting the others.

“The man said he wanted us to hit Salming,” Hull said after the game. “I’m just here to please.” Canada’s back-up goaltender, Gerry Cheevers, agreed that Salming hadn’t been the force he’d been in his team’s previous games. “We can thank Hull for that. Those hits would have stopped a Clydesdale.”

(Canada Cup poster by Thomas Ross McNeely. Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

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

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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

that week: if he were a forest, he’d be a national park

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“There will never be another Gordie Howe,” is what Bobby Orr was saying last week, in the days following Howe’s death on June 10 at the age of 88.

“You couldn’t invent Gordie today,” Orr told Dave Stubbs from NHL.com. “If he was playing with today’s rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn’t take liberties with him. The way he played, he’d do real well.”

“He was everything to me,” Wayne Gretzky told NHL.com.

Adam Gopnik wrote a Howe tribute for The New Yorker. “Perhaps only Mark Messier, among players bright in our contemporary memory, combined the same qualities of grit, skill, desire, and accuracy,” he mused. “As Gretzky lived on the edge of his skates, Howe lived in his wrists: the accuracy, power, and quickness of his shot are the first things those who saw him up close, in his prime, often reference (after they reference the elbows that rose above those wrists).”

“My best Christmas ever, I was five years old and my dad — I mean Santa Claus — bought me a Gordie Howe sweater, which I wore for the whole year.” That’s Gretzky again, back in 1994. The same article, from Reuters, goes on to say that when young Wayne pleaded with his father, “a barber,” to cut his hair Gordiewise, Walter Gretzky had to explain that Wayne had too much hair and Gordie too little.

“His elbows were the best,” Joe Peacock wrote in 1997.

Gretzky, last week, helped to clarify that old Reuters story: “I was seven or eight years old and I’d go to the barber shop … and I’d say, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut.’ I was enamored by him at a young age.”

Eddie McCabe, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, circa 1979, said this: “Gordie is such a decent man, he makes up for the yahoos and the boors.”

Frank Selke said there was no-one better. “Gordie Howe is the greatest all-round hockey player I’ve ever seen,” he opined in 1961 when Selke was managing director of the Montreal Canadiens. “He’s a composite of some mighty fine players through the years, and I’ve been watching them all, amateur and professional, since the 1910s around my old hometown, Kitchener. I’ve never known any player combining so many faculties. He’s the greatest of them all.”

Gordie’s dad didn’t necessarily agree. Gordie wrote about this in his “authorized autobiography,” and … Howe! (1995):

According to my Dad, Vic was always the better player, better than me. He was so funny. And Vern, my oldest brother, was the best of us all, so Dad said. It wasn’t until Dad was old, on his death bed, that he finally gave me more credit. He was kidding me, and said, “Aw, I saw a few gams on television. I guess you were better than your brothers.”

“In street clothes, he looks quite slim, an impression heightened by his long arms, rather long neck and narrow face.” This is Peter Gzowski, from a famous Maclean’s profile of Howe from 1963. “His most outstanding physical characteristic is the slope of his shoulders; his trapezius muscles — the muscle you feel if you stretch your arm out to one side — rise into his neck at an angle not far from 45 degrees, while his deltoids, at the top of the arm, look scarcely better developed than the average dentist’s. The enormous strength he displays in hockey flows from him, rather than exploding, and the easy grace with which he moves on the ice, and which has given so many hockey fans pleasure over the years, is also evident in his loose, almost lazy walk.”

“He’s always at the outer edge of the rulebook,” Eric Nesterenko told Gzowski. “You never know when he’s going to slip over into what’s dirty.”

Howe’s longtime linemate concurred. “Gordie gets away with more than anyone else in hockey,” said Ted Lindsay. Andy Bathgate of the New York Ranger indicted Howe for “deliberately inflicting head cuts, of deliberately cauliflowering at least one ear, and of deliberately raising the puck at other people’s heads.” He did not spear, Bathgate said, nor butt-end. Gzowski: “He is a recognized master of ‘high sticking,’ an action that is almost impossible for the fans or even the referees to separate from an accident, and which has carved his signature on a good many faces around the league.”

Gary Ross wrote about Howe in 1978, the year Number 9 turned 50 playing for the New England Whalers, “If Gordie Howe were a building, he’d be sandblasted and declared an historic site. If he were a forest, he’d be made a national park. In an age of $100,000 flakes he’s the real thing. A hero, a wonder, a natural phenomenon.”

When a 45-year-old Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to play with sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who told him to go for it. “I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you’d find similar musculature,” Dr. Bailey said. “It’s a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That’s almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80.”

Herbert Warren Wind was first to profile Howe for the pages of Sports Illustrated. “When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone,” he wrote in 1955, “doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot. Also invisible is Howe’s great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete’s forearm.”

Mark Howe, in his 2013 memoir Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey: “He always regretted dropping out of school and felt that somebody from the hockey club should have stopped him. I think that’s why he took up crossword puzzles — a big-time passion of his — to improve his vocabulary.”

“His success is due in part to the fact that he has the ‘perfect body for hockey,’” Larry Bortstein was able to disclose in 1970. “His shoulders slope so sharply into his huge biceps, which flare out into huge forearms, wrists, and hands. His legs are very strong. ‘I conserve them by sitting down at places where I don’t have to stand,’ he says.”

“When Howe is on the ice,” Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964, “Detroit’s Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable.”

King Clancy was the one who suggested someone ought to bottle the man’s sweat: “It would make a great liniment for hockey players.” Continue reading

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