terry sawchuk: big hands, fast reflexes, an already much-stitched face

Wheelmen: Detroit’s powerful 1959 line-up included (from left) Marcel Pronovost, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, coach Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, and Gordie Howe.

“He has big hands, fast reflexes, and an unorthodox, gorillalike crouch — ‘I feel more comfortable down there.’” So chronicled Life magazine’s unnamed writer in a February, 1952 feature profiling Detroit Red Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk. Winnipeg-born on this date when it was a Saturday in 1929, Sawchuk was a mere 22 in ’52, and just halfway through his second season in the NHL, but already Life was prepared to proclaim him the greatest goalie ever. In 50 games up to that point in the season, he’d accumulated ten shutouts and a miserly average of 1.86 goals a game. He’d play all of the Red Wings’ 70 games that year, and be named to the NHL’s First All-Star while winning the first of his four career Vézina trophies. That same spring, Sawchuk would backstop the Red Wings to the first of the four Stanley Cups he’d get his name on before he died, aged 40, in 1970. Already in ’52, Life was registering the damage he’d sustained doing his duty, noting that it wasn’t so healthy for a man in his position to be guessing where the puck was going and getting it wrong: “Sawchuk has 40 stitches on his face to prove it.”

Sawchuk’s eventful story is the subject of a Canadian biopic due for release in 2019. It’s a narrative (as some early production notes explain) that explores Sawchuk’s youth as well as his 20-year, five-team NHL career — “during which he recorded 103 shutouts and 400 stitches to his face.”

Filmed mostly in Sudbury, Ontario, earlier this year, Goalie (Blue Ice Pictures) stars Mark O’Brien as the man himself. It also features Kevin Pollak in the role of Detroit GM Jack Adams. Adriana Maggs is directing; with her sister Jane Maggs, she also co-wrote the screenplay that draws on both the poems in Night Work (2008) by their father, Randall Maggs, and David Dupuis’ 1998 biography Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie.

fall fashion

Detroit Red Wings coach Jimmy Skinner (right) gears up in the fall of 1957 with his boss, manager Jack Adams. A son of Selkirk, Manitoba, Skinner succeeded Tommy Ivan on the Wings’ bench in 1954, guiding the team to a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship in the spring of ’55. The summer of 1957 was a tumultuous one in Detroit. In July, Ted Lindsay departed the team, traded to Chicago after 13 seasons and 700 points for the crime of heading up the NHL’s incipient player’s association. Lindsay had said he’d rather retire than leave Detroit, but he’d finally agreed to the trade. At a press conference, Lindsay described “the personal resentment of the Detroit general manager toward me.” Adams denied that there was any feud: he said that shipping out 31-year-old Lindsay, the fourth highest goalscorer in NHL history, and All-Star goaltender Glenn Hall, 25, for four players and cash was all about renewing the Red Wings. With Terry Sawchuk back in the net that year, Detroit did end up in third place in the final NHL standings, though they fell to the unstoppable Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs. Skinner was gone by then, having resigned as coach in January on a doctor’s advice about the migraines he couldn’t quell. Sid Abel was the man who replaced him, and he kept the job for the next ten years. His old linemate Ted Lindsay would return to Detroit for a final season in 1964-65 during that time. As for Stanley Cups, Abel’s Wings came close, losing in the Finals four times during his tenure. The team would go without a championship until 1997, with Scotty Bowman in command.

breaking through: notes on fred sasakamoose in 1953, and some others, who went before

Here’s what seems reasonable to say: the facts on just who might have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player are unsettled.

I wrote about this back in December, here, but it bears reviewing.

The record on whether Paul Jacobs actually skated for Toronto in 1918 is — murky.

What about Taffy Abel of the Chicago Black Hawks in the 1920s? Not so clear.

I’m not the only one who’d say the strongest case would seem to be that of Buddy Maracle, who played for the New York Rangers in 1931.

Jim Jamieson, also a Ranger, would seem to have come next, in 1944.

Which gets us to Sasakamoose. There’s no disrespect for what he’s achieved in his career in the suggestion that he’s probably the third Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. So why hasn’t the NHL gotten around to acknowledging this?

This isn’t new news. It’s been discussed before. Not by the NHL, pointedly — the league shows no interest the history beyond the version they’ve settled on. No interest, at least, in disturbing the history that seems to have served just fine since Sasakamoose was actually in the league. No-one was acknowledging Maracle and Jamieson in the 1950s, let alone telling their stories — they’d already been forgotten.

Sasakamoose gets a second call to the NHL, in February of 1954.

The silencing and erasure of Indigenous stories is, of course, another not-new Canadian story. Sasakamoose was only briefly an NHLer in the 1950s, and whatever currency his story had in the mainstream press in Canada and the United States at the time was couched in stereotypes, assumptions, and casual racism.

That his story is being told now, frankly and in fuller frame, with all the pain and ugliness of his experience at residential school, is a greater good. (See, in particular, Marty Klinkenberg’s powerful 2016 Globe and Mail profile.) But what about acknowledging the other Indigenous NHLers who went before? Why is this so hard?

In late December, when Sasakamoose was named a Member of the Order of Canada, he was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off ahead of a game with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The NHL line and that of all the press attending those events was that he was the first Indigenous player. Reporting another story in January, I e-mailed a contact at the league to ask about the possibility that maybe that wasn’t so. Here’s what I heard back:

As far as we know, Sasakamoose was the first Canadian Indigenous player with ties to First Nations. Since we don’t track race/ethnicity, we rely on archives/online stories, and information from the players themselves. In Canada there are lots of communities with ties to First Nations — it’s possible there was a player with Indigenous parents that played before Sasakamoose, but there’s no way to know for sure.

A month later, no such latitude seems to have worked its way into the wider conversation, where there still seems to be no doubt about Sasakamoose’s firstness to the fore. In a front-page story in today’s Globe and Mail, Marty Klinkenberg celebrates Ethan Bear, the latest First Nations player to make it to the NHL. Sasakamoose is in the lede: “the first Indigenous player in the NHL.”

Same again earlier in the week, via the league’s own editorial arm, NHL.com, where Tom Gulitti was still, in a prominent Sasakamoose profile, putting him ahead of any others.

I tweeted a note to Gulitti, with a link to my Maracle story, but didn’t hear back. Along with several other writers, elsewhere, Gulitti also touted this week as the anniversary of Sasakamoose’s NHL debut, in 1954. (Klinkenberg mentions ’54, too.) Quibblesome as it’s going to sound, that’s not right, either.

It’s true that Sasakamoose, rookie centreman, was in the line-up for Chicago when they played in Toronto on February 27 of ’54. But he’d already been called up from the minors earlier that season, in November of ’53.

He’d made an impression at the Black Hawks training camp that year, as Arch Ward of The Chicago Tribune told his readers that September. The Hawks, he wrote, “have a genuine Injun hockey player — Chief Running Deer — under contract, but will call him up to the Stadium ice this season only if they need an attraction to boost the gate receipts.” He continued:

The chief is only 18 and plans to play junior hockey with Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he will be listed in the program as Fred Sasakamoose. … He is a full blooded Cree and as such collects $5 a month from the Canadian government under the ancient peace treaty with the tribe. … Sasakamoose, or Running Deer, is 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighs 165 pounds, a fast centre, and ambidextrous. … Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings is the only ambidextrous player in the National Hockey League at the moment and experts say he does not operate as smoothly as Sasakamoose, or Running Deer.

The Black Hawks had played 20 games when Sasakamoose re-joined them, in New York, on a Wednesday, November 18, under the supervision of Black Hawks’ scout (and former NHL goaltender) Tiny Thompson. That was necessary, the Tribune explained, “because of a Canadian law which requires that a guardian accompany any Indian minor when travelling away from his reservation.”

Chicago coach Sid Abel was said to have high hopes for him when he put him into the line-up on the Friday, at home against Boston. The Tribune said he “gave a spirited account of himself,” showing “a pleasing willingness to rough it up” in Chicago’s 2-0 loss, firing “two or three good shots” on the Bruins’ Sugar Jim Henry.

For Sunday’s game, home again to Toronto, Abel put him on a line with veterans Bill Mosienko and George Gee. He didn’t really feature as the Leafs prevailed 5-1 — or if he did, the Chicago papers didn’t take notice. They did mention that next morning, Monday, the Hawks sent him down: Tiny Thompson took Sasakamoose back to Moose Jaw, where he’d play through until the next call-up, in February.

 

howe and fontinato, 1959: just like someone chopping wood

Alternate History: A comical telling of the night Gordie Howe punched Lou Fontinato in February of 1959, as re-imagined for a 1992 Howe-inspired graphic biography edition of Sports Legends Comics, drawn by Dick Ayers.

Officials at the game charged with breaking up such fights let this one run its course. Showing instincts toward self-preservation, neither linesman chose to step between the pair of 200-pounders as they flailed freely with their fists.

“I never saw one like it,” says goalie Terry Sawchuk, who had a ringside seat when the action exploded behind his net.

• Marshall Dann, The Detroit Free Press, February 2, 1959

Today in concussion history: it was on this day in 1959 that Gordie Howe put his fist into Lou Fontinato’s face, and hard. “The most famous single punch in NHL history,” Peter Gzowksi called it. If that’s true, the fame might not have been spread so far and so wide if Life magazine hadn’t broadcast the news so graphically across the United States and beyond two weeks later.

It’s certainly a tale much (if not always consistently) told. The Detroit Red Wings were in New York to play the Rangers. With the home team out to a 4-1 win near the end of the first period, Fontinato, 27 at the time, skated over to talk to Howe, 30, at a face-off — “warned him about something or the other,” Marshall Dann reported. When the puck dropped, Howe soon ran into his shadow for the evening, Eddie Shack. Howe cross-checked him or just “whacked” him; descriptions differ. (“Shack got his hair parted … from Howe’s stick,” is yet another view.) They, in the hockey parlance, tussled, but didn’t fight. As Howe wrote in several of his memoirs, his history with Fontinato included the high stick with which he’d cut Fontinato’s ear earlier that season, so he wasn’t surprised when Fontinato dropped his stick and came skating at him from 20 feet away.

Howe saw him coming and ducked Fontinato’s first fist. Gzowski didn’t quite get it right: Howe pluralized his punch. Howe: “I hit him with everything I had as hard and as often as possible.” Dann: he “loaded up and started with a steady stream of right uppercuts. He got Fontinato’s uniform by the left hand and pulled it half off, cutting down Lou’s return punches.”

Howe said he changed hands, and then dislocated a finger. That hurt “like a son of a gun,” according to the account in 2014’s My Story, wherein ghostwriter Paul Haavardsrud streamlined and gently updated an earlier effort at autobiography, and … Howe! (1995). Of regrets, the latter admits none: “Did I feel sorry for him? No. We’d gone at one another for years.” Nineteen years later, the official Howe line was slightly softened: “It didn’t make me happy to see Louie in such bad shape, but I can’t say I feel sorry for him. That might make me sound cold-hearted, but to my way of thinking he was just doing his job and I was doing mine.”

Fontinato didn’t leave any memoirs, but he did talk to reporters in the days after the damaging. He shared his opening statement to Howe with the Associated Press: “ ‘Keep your stick to yourself,’ I tells him.” As for his nose: “It’s been broken four times before and there’s hardly any bone there. It’s very easy to push out of place.”

Fontinato also made his case to Tony Saxon of The Guelph Mercury in 2006. “I know one thing,” he said then. “A lot of people thought I lost that fight, but I didn’t. I probably threw ten punches to his one. Then I look up to see what damage I’ve done because I’ve been hammering away for a couple of minutes. I look up and he gets me with one right on the nose.”

The whole affair got a sustained revival in 2016, when Fontinato’s death followed Howe’s by just three weeks. Mentioned in passing in most of the Howe coverage, it was defining anecdote featured in Fontinato’s obituaries. The New York Times included one of Howe’s more uncharitable lines: “That honker of his was right there, and I drilled it.”

“Gordie Howe performed rhinoplasty on Mr. Fontinato’s prominent proboscis with his knuckles,” Tom Hawthorn epitaphed in The Globe and Mail.

Back in 1959, mostly everybody had a go Fontinato’s nose-job. “The bugle was detoured by Gordie Howe” was one of Milt Dunnell’s efforts; “bombed out of commission” was Jimmy Breslin’s contribution on the news-wire.

It’s worth noting just how audible the written record is. Under the headline “Don’t Mess Around With Gordie,” Life’s write-up had an unnamed Red Wing recalling that “Howe’s punches went whop-whop-whop, just like someone chopping wood.”

Frank Udvari was the referee that night, and he either read that and absorbed it into his own experience or thought kindling at the time, too. “Never in my life have I heard anything like it,” he said in 1979, “except maybe the sound of someone chopping wood. Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”

One of the witnesses that Roy MacSkimming canvassed for his 1994 biography Gordie: A Hockey Legend was Red Wings’ trainer Lefty Wilson, who reported what reached him at the bench: “With every blow, you could hear something break — squish, squish.”

Stan Fischler was watching from the Garden press box that night. He’d later describe Howe’s fists moving “like locomotive pistons,” though the sound they made was decidedly equestrian: “Clop! Clop! Clop!

MacSkimming writes that that the portraits Charles Hoff took for Life juxtaposing Fontinato’s face and Howe’s flex may have shocked “gentle American readers by portraying the vicious side of hockey.” Maybe so, but in Canada and the hockey-knowing northeast United States, it mostly went into the books as just another hockey fight.

A brutal one, to be sure — Detroit coach Sid Abel called it “the fiercest I’ve seen since Jack Stewart battled John Mariucci 15 years ago” — but nothing but nothing so especially out of the run of the league’s ordinary brutality. The headlines were almost cheery, even if the photographs weren’t: “Gordie Convinces Lou With Well-Placed Right” readers in Nanaimo learned a few days after the fact; “Gord Howe’s Fists Too Much For Lou,” advised Toronto’s Daily Star. If Fontinato had been (as the AP put it) the NHL’s reigning “bare-knuckle champion,” it was no longer so, according to much of the coverage. “Howe is champ,” declared the AP. “Another smudge on Lou’s escutcheon,” the Star’s Milt Dunnell wrote, while in The Globe and Mail Jim Coleman warned that “even such peace-loving players” as Alex Delvecchio and Ralph Backstrom would now be emboldened to toss “tentative punches at Fontinato’s sore schnozzle.”

Rangers coach Phil Watson had his own historical benchmark. For him, it was “the best fight I’ve seen since Art Coulter and Dit Clapper tried to cripple each other 20 years ago.” He wasn’t what you’d call entirely pleased, however. “Howe gets away with murder,” he railed after the game. “He cross-checked Shack in the head for three stitches. He’s been doing things like this for years, but the referees won’t give penalties to Howe.”

Watson would have more cause for complaint. Holding steady in playoff contention at the start of February, the Rangers would go 6-13-2 post-clout, ceding the last spot for the post-season to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We never got over Louie’s pasting,” Watson said. “His nose looked like a subway hit it.” Detroit missed out, too, though it’s unclear if that was any solace.

Back on the night itself, 59 years ago, Udvari sent Howe and Fontinato to the penalty to serve out their five-minute majors. Because, well, hockey, both men returned to the ice to play out what ended as a 5-4 Rangers win. “Although he suffered a broken nose and had several heavy bruises on his face,” Marshall Dann reported, “Fontinato finished the game.”

Only afterwards did he check into St. Clare Hospital. “The doctors had to wait until the hemorrhaging stopped before they could operate,” he’d recall. He stayed for two days. Two days after his release, he went with his teammates to Detroit. With the newspapers touting a “rematch,” Fontinato skated in the warm-up but didn’t play. He was back in action a week after that when the teams played again. Wearing a protective mask, he seems to have steered clear of Howe, and Howe of him.

The two men did meet again, in a civilian setting, in April of ’59, when their teams were watching the rest of the NHL partake in the playoffs. Scott Young was there to see Howe offer his hand to Fontinato for shaking. “When Fontinato saw who it was,” Young reported, “he grinned and pulled his own hand back and said, ‘It wasn’t like this the last time!’ and then shook hands with the man who had broken his nose in New York.”

 

word watch: when don cherry says dangle

Dangler: Sweeney Schriner in his Maple Leafing days. “A picture player,” Conn Smythe called him. “He provokes the enemy, fascinates the unprejudiced observers.”

I don’t know how many tirades, total, Don Cherry launched last night on Hockey Night in Canada, I just caught the one, after the early games had come to an end. Vancouver had baned Toronto, barely, 2-1, while in Montreal, Canadiens scourged Detroit 10-1. Winger Paul Byron scored his first NHL hattrick in the latter, and all his goals were speedy. Highlights ensued as Cherry and Ron MacLean admired his fleety feet.

Cherry: Look at how he outskates guys. I mean, this guy can really … skate … dangle, as they say. I’m, a, now watch …

MacLean: Now, let’s be clear, when you say dangle, you mean he can wheel.

Cherry: [Irked-more-than-usual] I’m saying he can … Everybody knows that played the game for a long time, dangle means … And [thumbing at MacLean, about to refer to incident that nobody else has knowledge of] you remember John Muckler comin’ in, sayin’, what are you, nuts, skates fast. The guys that are in the game now, they really don’t know the game, I’m not getting’ into that …

Anybody that says dangle and it’s “stickhandling” doesn’t know the game. I just thought I’d throw that in.

So. Interesting discussion. To recap: Don Cherry is ready to go to vocabulary war with anyone who doesn’t agree that there’s only one true hockey definition for a fairly common word, and it’s not the one that most people think it is, which proves how ignorant they are, i.e. very.

Cherry’s correct on this count, at least: dangle has long been a word in hockey referring to the speed with which a player skates. Here, for instance, is the venerable Vern DeGeer, Globe and Mail sports editor, writing in 1942:

Sid Abel, the talented left-winger for Detroit Red Wings, watched Saturday’s Bruins-Leafs game from the Gardens press box … Sid did not attempt to conceal his open admiration for Syl Apps, the long-striding speed merchant of the Leafs … “I think most players are pretty well agreed that Apps can dangle faster than any skater in the league,” said the observing Sid …

And from Bill Westwick of The Ottawa Journal in 1945, talking to Billy Boucher whether Maurice Richard was as rapid as Howie Morenz:

He takes nothing away from Richard. “He can dangle, breaks very fast, and is a top-line hockey player. But they can’t tell me he moves as fast as Howie. I’ve yet to see anyone who could.”

On the other side — what we might call the anti-Cherry end of things — most recent dangles you’ll come across, in print or on broadcasts, involve a player’s ability to manipulate a puck. If you want to go to the books, Andrew Podnieks’ Complete Hockey Dictionary (2007) mentions skillful stickhandling in its dangle definition, and The Hockey Phrase Book (1991) concurs.

As does Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin. “You know what,” he was saying in 2015, talking about then-Canuck Zack Kassian. “He can dangle and make plays.” A year earlier, Detroit defenceman Brendan Smith had a slight variation as he hymned the praises of teammate Gustav Nyquist: “He’s a hell of a skater, he’s a great puck-mover, he makes great plays, he’s got great skill, he can dangle you, he’s hard to hit, he’s wormy or snakey, whatever you want to call it.”

Can we agree, then, even if Don Cherry might not, that dangle has more than one hockey application? Is that a compromise we can get behind without further hoary accusations regarding who and who doesn’t know the game.

The dictionaries, it’s true, need to make room for Cherry’s definition alongside theirs.

On the other side, it’s not as though Cherry’s sense of the word is the original or even elder one. In fact, as far back as 1940 you can find The Ottawa Journal using dangle to mean stickhandling. And here’s Andy Lytle from The Toronto Daily Star jawing with Conn Smythe that same year about some of his Leaf assets:

He waxed lyrical over [Billy] Taylor whom he calls “a player with a magnificent brain” and [Sweeney] Schriner whom he says emphatically and with gestures is the best left winger in the game today.

“Schriner,” he enthused, “ is the maestro, the playmaker deluxe who is so good he can distribute his qualities amongst [Murph] Chamberlain and [Pep] Kelly until they too play over their heads.”

“He can dangle a puck.”

“Dangle it,” exclaimed Conny, now thoroughly stirred, “I tell you I’ve never seen anything comparable to his play for us in Detroit last Sunday night. It was a revelation in puck-carrying. He was the picture player. He isn’t like Apps going through a team because Schriner does it with deliberate skill and stick trickery. He provokes the enemy, fascinates the unprejudiced observers. Apps is spectacular, thrilling because of his superlative speed. Schriner is the same only he does his stuff in slow motion so everyone can enjoy him.”

In other words, Apps may have been able to dangle, but Schriner could dangle.

 

easel does it

Ottawa artist (and former goaltender) Tony Harris spent the last past year on a commission to paint the NHL’s 100 greatest players. He finished the job last week. This weekend, from Sid Abel to Steve Yzerman, the original oils are all on show together at Montreal’s Windsor Station as part of the NHL’s Centennial celebrations. Visiting hours are today from noon to 7 pm and, tomorrow, noon to 4 pm.

That’s Harris here, in his Ottawa studio, earlier this year. I talked to him for a piece that’s on the page today in The New York Times.

 

last time I saw somebody go faster than the whole league

“McDavid looks like he’s different than everybody else. Last time I saw somebody go faster than the whole league was Bobby Orr. I was nine years old. And this guy’s faster than the whole league, and it’s incredible to watch.”

• Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, November 2016

shamokin_news_dispatch_tue__feb_8__1927_Last Wednesday, when it mattered, Connor McDavid flew down the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to score the overtime goal that beat the Florida Panthers. Earlier that night, McDavid had notched the 100th point of his burgeoning NHL career in what was his 92nd game in the league. While it wasn’t Wayne Gretzky-good — he did it in just 61 games — it’s a feat that puts McDavid fourth among active players, behind Alex Ovechkin (77 games), Sidney Crosby (80 games), and Evgeni Malkin (89 games).

Last Sunday, mostly for fun, McDavid took part in the Oilers’ annual Skills Competition. Matthew Benning was the quickest of Edmonton’s backwards-skaters on the day; Milan Lucic showed the hardest shot. When it came to racing face-forward ’round the ice at Rogers Place, Benoit Pouliot (13.895 seconds) and J.J. Khaira (13.941) were fast. McDavid, by no real surprise to anyone, proved faster, make it around the rink in a time of 13.382 seconds.

That got Joe Pack of Sportsnet wondering: how does McDavid’s speed compare to NHLers of this age and others?

He duly noted that Detroit’s Dylan Larkin took a turn of the ice at the 2016 all-star game in a time of 13.172 seconds, outdoing Mike Gartner’s 1996 mark of 13.386. But? Overlooked, Pack submits, is the fact that

Larkin, and last year’s crop of contestants, got an advantage no other skaters before had: they began from the far blue-line, only to have the clock start once they hit the red line. Gartner, and every other skater at the competition over the years, started from the red line.

So Larkin’s record, I’m suggesting, should have an asterisk attached. Gartner’s record has apparently been broken by McDavid.

The real test, of course, will come in next week’s all-star game. “Still,” Pack writes, “the conversation around McDavid’s speed has begun in earnest. Is he the fastest in the game now? Is he the fastest ever?”

While we wait to find out, maybe is a look back in order? Beyond 1996, even?

The annals of speedy hockey-player skating are incomplete. The documentation, shall we say, isn’t superb. And while hockey players have tested themselves to see how fast they go for almost as long as the NHL’s, the conditions (as Pack points out) haven’t exactly been standardized. Some have stood still on their start line, others have skated to it at full fling. Some have carried pucks as they careened against the clock — not McDavid or Larkin or most of the recent racers. Technology has changed: hand-held stopwatches have been replaced by precision timers with electronic eyes. All of which makes it hard to line up McDavid’s feat (if that’s something you felt like doing) in order to compare it with those of, say, a Howie Morenz or a Hec Kilrea.

Still, back we go.

In 1945, Montreal Canadiens’ centre Buddy O’Connor won a one-lap, flying-start, puck-carrying race around Ottawa’s Auditorium in a time of 14.8 seconds. Teammates Elmer Lach (15.0) and Maurice Richard (15.2) came in after him; defenceman Leo Lamoureux was disqualified when he lost the puck.

Maple Leaf Gardens hosted what the papers called a speed test at the end of January, 1942. The Leafs had played Thursday and would be back on the ice in earnest Saturday, but on this Friday night the occasion was charitable, with 13,563 fans showing up in support of a memorial fun for the late Toronto sportsman Robert Ecclestone.

The evening’s entertainment featured a 20-minute scrimmage of (mostly) oldtimer Leafs.

The racing involved a puck-carrying contest with players flying to the start. There were seven of them, active NHLers from each team: Syl Apps (Toronto); Flash Hollett (Boston); Sid Abel (Detroit); Tommy Anderson (Brooklyn Americans); Lynn Patrick (New York); Max Bentley (Chicago); Jack Portland (Montreal).

They wore their uniforms but not all of their regular padding. The former Ottawa Senators’ star who presided at the finish-line did so under his current title: RCAF Squadron-Leader Punch Broadbent held the stopwatch.

Each man skated twice, initially. None of them broke 15 seconds in the first round, which also saw Hollett momentarily lose control of his puck and a fall by Abel. In the second heat, Apps and Patrick both blazed around at 14.8 seconds. In the tie-breaker, Patrick slowed to 15 seconds while Apps stuck to 14.8.

So that pleased the local fans. The ovation, The Globe and Mail testified, “has seldom been matched at any time.”

(Not everyone was so impressed. When The New York Post chimed in, it was to say that the event could hardly be considered “the last word” in speedsters, given that Chicago’s Doug Bentley and Milt Schmidt of Boston weren’t involved.)

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pre-kid sid

Old Bootnose: Sid Abel thought he had another year in him at the end of the 1951-52 NHL season, his GM Jack Adams, wasn’t so sure. The Detroit Red Wings defeated the Montreal Canadiens in the spring of ’52 to win the Stanley Cup, and Abel, 34, was the captain leading them, their frontline centre, and the highest-scoring player in team history. He hadn’t signed a new contract, though. He had bought a cocktail lounge in Detroit, and there was talk that he was thinking of starting a new career there. Instead, he signed on with the Chicago Blacks as playing coach. Five years later, he was back in Detroit coaching his old linemate and fellow Saskatchewanian Gordie Howe. Abel stayed on for 12 seasons (Howe, still playing, lasted a season longer). Above, that’s the coach in one of his natural habitats at the Detroit Olympia in January of 1961.

(Photo: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505699)

a brace of shakes

Aftershake: In April of 1949, the Toronto Maple Leafs swept to their third consecutive Stanley Cup, beating the Detroit Red Wings in four straight games. Above, captains Sid Abel and Ted Kennedy share a moment. A year later, after Gordie Howe was injured doing his best to check Kennedy, Abel was one of the Wings who went after the Leaf captain with malice aforethought. (Photo: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132804)

Handfast: In April of 1949, the Toronto Maple Leafs swept to their third consecutive Stanley Cup, beating the Detroit Red Wings in four straight games. Above, captains Sid Abel and Ted Kennedy share a moment after the decisive game at Maple Leaf Gardens. Almost a year later, after Gordie Howe was injured doing his best to check Kennedy, Abel was one of the Wings who went after the Leaf captain with malice aforethought. (Photo: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132804)

seeing red

There are uglier hockey photographs, bloodier, brutaller. But this intimate image of Red Kelly lashing out at Toronto’s Vic Lynn in Detroit in 1950 has to be one of the most intense portraits in the archives of raw hockey rage. The fact that it’s not quite in focus only adds to the rush of the moment, and the danger. It’s a hard photograph to study without flinching: Kelly might just follow through and hit you. And of course what we’re looking at is likely only the half of it, in terms of rage: the camera doesn’t show the extent of Lynn’s ire, much less any of the general rancor and violent feeling that had filled up the Olympia that night.

It was the end of March, 1950, and the Leafs and Red Wings were playing their second game in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Toronto had won the first game in Detroit by a score of 5-0. This game went the other way, 3-1. A subhead in next morning’s (Toronto) Globe and Mail:

Detroiters Bludgeon Way To Boisterous Victory In Mean-Mannered Game

It wasn’t just the loss motivating the Red Wings. That first game was the one in which 21-year-old Gordie Howe was grievously injured. Trying to hit Toronto Leaf captain Ted Kennedy, he, Howe, fell into the boards. The Globe and Mail called it a mishap, reporting that he’d suffered a “stiff concussion” along with a shattered cheekbone and a broken nose.

Detroit GM Jack Adams told it this way, later, to Trent Frayne from Maclean’s:

Toronto’s Ted Kennedy was carrying the puck near the boards. Howe sped toward him, cutting diagonally across the ice. A fraction of a second before the impact, Kennedy drew himself up, and Howe crashed headlong into the boards. Gordie lay limp on the ice, bleeding from his nose and eye. Later, in hospital, there was every indication that he was dying. He was unconscious, vomiting, had a broken cheekbone and nose, and a brain specialist operated, boring a hole into his skull to remove fluid pressing on the brain. We paced the corridor all night. Even the next day his condition was critical.

The Red Wings said it was Kennedy’s dirty fault. They said that Kennedy had butt-ended Howe.

Why did Kennedy pass by the Detroit bench to say sorry? That, for Red Wings coach Tommy Ivan, was all the confession he needed. “If he didn’t hit Howe with his stick, why did he skate over and apologize? I’m not saying it was deliberate, but it was a check made with the butt-end of Kennedy’s stick. He isn’t the only player in the league who checks with the butt. Lots of them do.”

Kennedy testified: “I was skating in to shoot when Howe and Jack Stewart of the Wings converged to check me. I got by them all right and never touched Howe. The first I knew of it was when a teammate shouted to me that Howe was down on the ice.”

The Leafs’ Garth Boesch offered, helpfully, that he thought that maybe Stewart might have inadvertently clipped Howe with his stick.

Kennedy: “I saw Howe lying on the ice with his face covered with blood, and I couldn’t help but think what a great player he was and how I hoped he wasn’t badly hurt. Then Detroit players started saying I did it with my stick. I knew I hadn’t and as I have always regarded Ivan as a sensible, level-headed man, I went over to the Detroit bench and told him I was sorry Howe was hurt, but that I wasn’t responsible.”

Sid Abel said what he had to say on the ice, chopping at Kennedy’s ankle when the game resumed. He took a slashing penalty for that. After that, Leaf coach Hap Day kept Kennedy on the bench.

NHL president Clarence Campbell, who was at the game, made it known that he was looking into the incident. He talked to both teams and called the game officials to his hotel for a two-hour confab, referee George Gravel and stand-by Butch Keeling, linesmen Sammy Babcock and Ernie Le Maitre. The first three gave formal statements; Le Maitre said he didn’t see what happened. Then Campbell gave a press conference: the first ever in league history, he said, to be called to discuss an injury to a player.

Campbell’s version: Jack Stewart started up the ice with the puck. Kennedy checked him, took the puck the other way. Stewart tried to waylay him, failed. Just as Kennedy crossed the blueline, Howe cut toward him, skating fast. Kennedy passed the puck, backhand. Brushing Kennedy slightly, Howe crashed heavily into the fence, fell to the ice. Stewart fell on top of him as the play continued.

Campbell said he believed the evidence showed that it was physically impossible for Kennedy to have hit How with the butt of his stick. He chided Tommy Ivan, but understood, assuming he’d accused Kennedy “in a fit of anger.”

Campbell said he was keeping the investigation open: “We are willing to hear evidence from any interested parties and will not make any final decision until we talk to Kennedy and Howe. It may be that one of the player’s statements would offer other facts that would throw an entirely different light on the case.”

Doctors weren’t sure, at this point, whether Howe’s career was over. They were reluctant to say.

Gordie’s mother had a sunnier outlook. “He seemed just like my old Gordie,” Mrs. A.C. Howe told the newspapermen after visiting her boy at Harper Hospital. She’d flown in from Saskatoon with her daughter, Gladys. “His first words were, ‘Why, mom, what are you doing here?’”

Another terribly head-injured hockey player was asked for an opinion. “Helmets are not necessary,” Ace Bailey said. “Hockey players carry so much armor already, they can’t bear any more.”

Toronto’s mayor, Hiram McCallum, phoned Ted Kennedy in Detroit to say the things that mayors say. The people were behind him. They knew he was blameless. “They are 100 per cent behind you all the way and know you will go on and continue to play wonderful hockey.”

“We regret very much the injury to Howe,” he continued, “as he is a great player, but at the same time know that he was the aggressor in attempting to crash you on the boards.”

So that’s the background. The Wings had vowed that they’d win the second game on March 30 for Howe, and they did that, but while the teams played some hockey, mostly in the first period, the second and third were the ones to generate the next day’s headlines: Blood-spilling Contest (The Globe and Mail), Pier 6 Brawl Fiasco (Toronto Daily Star), Free-For-All Fights Bring 19 Penalties as Detroit Six Evens Play-off Series (New York Times).

In the second period, with his team leading 3-0, Detroit defenceman Lee Fogolin tripped Ted Kennedy. As referee Butch Keeling whistled a penalty, Ted Lindsay showed up to cross-check the Leaf captain. Leaf Gus Mortson: flew at Lindsay. Sid Abel: rushed in, fists flying. Grabbing Kennedy and holding him to help out the Wings: an irresponsible fan. Wing Leo Reise: bludgeoned Jim Thomson across the head and shoulders with his stick. Jim Vipond from The Globe and Mail called it “a donnybrook of the worst order and a black mark against organized hockey.”

He went on:

This writer has often avowed that no player would intentionally injure another, but not after tonight. There could be nothing more brutal and deliberate than the Detroit players’ attempt to even a trumped-up injustice to one of their mates.

Out of it all, Reise and Thomson drew majors and Lindsay, Kennedy and Fogolin two minutes each. Abel escaped scot free, as did battler Mortson.

The Leafs scored in the third, but it was the last-minute melee that got all the press. To start, Lindsay and Bill Ezinicki exchanged a few wallops. Everybody piled in then, including Red Wings’ usually even-tempered defenceman: Red Kelly. He started a separate feud with Vic Lynn, which gets us back to that original image. Is it possible that the photographer was on the ice, standing just behind Lynn? Probably not. Below, we see, remarkably, what would seem to be the instant of Kelly’s onslaught from behind. Vipond says that Kelly’s victory was decisive: Kelly “tossed Lynn to the ice, straddled him and threw his punches.”

The referee wasn’t impressed — or not watching. “Again Keeling was lenient to the extreme. He pinned minor sentences on Ezinicki, Juzda and Lindsay, sending them to their dressing rooms. It is doubtful if Keeling saw the Kelly-Lynn preliminary bout.”

Ted Kennedy wasn’t talking much afterwards. “The game’s over,” he said. “They won it.”

“Such violence hardly seems possible in sport. Yet there it was.” The next day, The Globe and Mail devoted its lead editorial to lament, excoriating the Red Wings for their outrages, the referees for not punishing them properly, the NHL for not taking a tough enough stand: For The Good of the Game was the headline.

Tommy Ivan insisted he hadn’t instructed his players to go after anyone. “I can only repeat that I did not have any thought of my players seeking revenge. You can confirm this statement by talking to my players. Responsible lads like Red Kelly will back me up.”

Clarence Campbell warned that the feuding had to stop. If it continued, he said, there would be fines and suspensions. Also, for the third game, he was putting an extra referee on the ice in place of one of one of the linesmen. And any player bickering on his way to the penalty box would receive a misconduct.

“Hockey is a tough and rugged game at the best of times,” Campbell said, “but the stick-swinging which took place … has no place in the game at any time.”

That seemed to help: for the third game, in Toronto, lapsed back to hockey. “In contrast to the blood-letting, brawls and bickering of the initial two tilts in Detroit,” Al Nickleson wrote in The Globe and Mail, “only three minor penalties were issued, two to Leafs, in a sparkling, close-checking display.”

The Wings won the one after that. By then, Howe was ready to speak up. A week after his brain surgery, his doctors had removed the No Visitors Allowed sign from the door of his hospital room, and he was free to tell reporters what he knew. It wasn’t a whole lot. “All I remember is chasing after Kennedy. I don’t remember being struck or hitting the boards.”

“Kennedy is too good a hockey player to deliberately injure another player.”

On the subject of his future, he promised he’d be back. “Sure, I’ll be playing next season — a player has got to expect a few bumps.”

The Red Wings ended up winning the series in seven games. By the end of April, they’d won the Stanley Cup, their fourth, beating the New York Rangers in seven games. When Clarence Campbell handed the trophy to Wings’ captain Sid Abel, the fans in the rink called for goaltender Harry Lumley to join him. Then they insisted on GM Jack Adams, coach Ivan, and vice-president Jim Norris. Finally the cry arose: “We want Howe,” and Gordie Howe walked out on the ice in his street clothes.

Red Notice: In a view from the other side of the ice, Red Kelly, wearing 4, at left, unleashes on the Leafs' Vic Lynn.

Red Notice: In a view from the other side of the ice, Red Kelly, at left, unleashes on the Leafs’ Vic Lynn.

 

 

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Rinkside: Bruins and Red Wings played to a 2-2 tie on the night of February 9, 1941, in Detroit. Here, in the second period, players from both teams share the penalty bench while they serve their respective second-period punishments. From left: Bruins Des Smith (helmeted) and Flash Hollett; Detroit’s Sid Abel; Eddies Wiseman (Boston) and Wares (Detroit).

Rinkside: Bruins and Red Wings played to a 2-2 tie on the night of February 9, 1941, in Detroit. Here, in the second period, players from both teams share the penalty bench while they serve their respective second-period punishments. From left: Bruins Des Smith (helmeted) and Flash Hollett; Detroit’s Sid Abel; Eddies Wiseman (Boston) and Wares (Detroit).

edgar laprade, 1919–2014

Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Laprade and Mr. and Mrs. Bert Laprade. Date of Original: 1938(Thunder Bay Public Library)

Bearcats of the Lakehead: The Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Laprades (left) catch a train with the Mr. and Mrs. Bert Laprades in Port Arthur, Ontario, in 1938. (Thunder Bay Public Library)

If it were anyone else, we might be able to swing players around to fill the gap. But the loss of Laprade is serious trouble.
• Frank Boucher in January of 1951

Edgar Laprade was 94 when he died last Monday at home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. A revered New York Ranger, the closest he came to winning a Stanley Cup was in 1950, when the Rangers lost in Game-7 double overtime to Detroit. He was a four-time All Star and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 1945-46 and the Lady Byng, for peacefulness, in 1949-50. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993 as a Veteran. That, he said at the time, was his biggest hockey thrill. Richard Goldstein has a good obituary in The New York Times. Otherwise, a few further notes on a quietly outstanding career:

1. Mine Centre, Ontario, was where he was born, in October of 1919, at the Lakehead, 190 miles west of Port Arthur on the Canadian Northern Railway. “There’s some good fishing there,” Laprade told Kevin Shea at the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006.

2. Prospectors had struck copper in May of 1916. A year later the Port Arthur Copper Company was selling shares on the property at 30 cents apiece. “This is the great time in the world’s history for mining,” one of their ads crowed. “Metal is King. Copper is at the highest point in years.”

3. Playing in Port Arthur, Laprade was a Bruin before he graduated to the mighty Bearcats, for whom he starred with his brother Bert, a defenceman. They won the Allan Cup in 1939, beating the Montreal Royals, and would have gone on to represent Canada at the 1940 Winter Olympics if war hadn’t swept it off the calendar. In February of 1941, local fans organized Laprade Night ahead of a game with the Fort William Hurricanes where they presented the boys with silver tea services. Actually, no, just the one: it was wartime, after all, and they would have to be content to share.

laprade

4. He was the best senior hockey player in the country in those years. The New York Rangers held his rights and twice the manager there, Lester Patrick, invited him to training camp and each time Laprade said no. “We tried again this fall,” Rangers’ PR man Jersey Jones was saying in 1941, when Laprade was 22, “but it doesn’t look very promising. Lester’s raised the ante several times, I understand, but still no go. Probably when he makes up his mind to give the Rangers a break — if he ever does — he’ll have to make the trip in a wheelchair.”

5. After Elmer Lach broke his arm in the fall of 1941, Canadiens’ manager Tommy Gorman tried to lure Laprade to Montreal, and it looked like he might be lured, too, until Patrick said nyah-uh, refused to cede his rights.

6. As Don MacEachern has written in his review of western Canadian service hockey, the Port Arthur hockey team bifurcated in 1942, creating a new team, Shipbuilders, to compete against the Bearcats. Edgar and Bert stuck with the latter while a third Laprade brother, Remi, suited up for the new team. A hybrid version of the two ended up in the Allan Cup Final in the spring of 1942 where they lost to a powerhouse RCAF Flyer team boosted by the talents of recent Boston Bruins Woody Dumart, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer.

By the fall of 1943 Bert was on the ice for the RCAF. Edgar went to Ottawa to enlist in the Army’s Ordnance Corps. For the rest of the war he served, on the ice and off, in Winnipeg and Kingston.

7. That’s where Frank Boucher, who was coaching the Rangers, went to work, in the summer of 1945. Through a friend he found out that Laprade was worried about a $5000 payment on a house in Fort William. He got an old Kingston pal, former Ranger great Bill Cook, to arrange a dinner. Boucher’s offer was a two-year contract worth $15,000 along with a $5000 signing bonus. Laprade agreed. According to Boucher, he then had to convince Lester Patrick to go along with the deal. Which he did, eventually, grudgingly.

8. The Rangers weren’t sorry. At 26, Laprade won the Calder decisively, well ahead of Chicago’s George Gee and Montreal’s Jim Peters.

9. He impressed Lloyd Percival as the shiftiest puck-carrier in the NHL. And when the author of The Hockey Handbook (1951) asked veteran hockey writers who were the best skaters they’d seen, the list included Syl Apps, Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz, Max Bentley, Maurice Richard, Frank Mahovlich, Bill Mosienko, Gordie Howe, and Laprade.

10. He liked a nine lie on his stick, noteworthy because it’s unheard of. The lie, you’ll recall, is the angle between the shaft and the blade, and most players opt for a five or a six. This is from a Ranger teammate, Danny Lewicki:

He was very difficult to check as the lie of his stick meant he could keep the puck very close to his feet. I believe ‘Teeder’ Kennedy of the Leafs was the only other player of that era to also use the same lie stick.

11. The elusive little centre was a phrase used to describe him. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “His all-around ability and sparkling play made him the keyman of the team.” Around the Garden, there was a saying, apparently, in those years: “As Laprade goes, so go the Rangers.”

12. In 1949, he was said to be the hardest-working Ranger. It wasn’t a good team. In Laprade’s ten New York years, they only made the playoffs twice. It was his most potent weapon, his quickness. It helped him avoid some terrific smashes and even topped his superb ability as a stickhandler, a department in which he was as good as Detroit’s Sid Abel, “a real clever gent with a hockey stick.” This is all from Ralph Trost of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “That quickness,” he said, “is almost as sharp as that of a mongoose, the animal kingdom’s quickest operator in the clutches.” Just imagine if Laprade played between wingers like Howe and Lindsay. Which was more or less the point of the piece, headlined “Laprade’s Skill Lost With Rangers.”

13. A hard man to please, Ralph Trost. Here he is in 1951:

Few men in hockey have been better than Edgar. Between the blue lines, few have been his equal at puck control. Edgar and some other lad can dash in that center ice and both get spun around. But usually it is Laprade who comes up with the puck.

Yet, the same fellow within 15 feet hasn’t anywhere near the same control. His shots, when he gets them, are fluffy. The fastest man on balance at center ice seems to be the last one to get it down near the goal. How Laprade gets into that position where he has no shot but a futile backhander is a real puzzle.

Maybe if they could change that line around the goal from red to blue, nothing will stop him.

14. He never was a prolific scorer, it’s true. His best year, 1949-50, when he won the Lady Byng, he had 22 goals. In the 500 NHL games he played in his career, he notched 280 points, with another 13 in the playoffs.

15. Gentlemanly is an adjective he wears, and earned, no doubt. He went whole seasons, as the obituaries remind us, without incurring a single minute of penalty punishment. And yet he did what he had to do: in that tea-service game in 1941, the Laprades were front and centre in the game’s only fight, a double date in which they teamed up to trade punches with Fort William’s Stan Robertson and Joe Konderka.

16. “Like all peaceful guys,” wrote Tommy Holmes in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “he had the sins of the savage brought down upon him.” Which is to say that for all his lawfulness — because of it? — he seems to have been under constant attack. Here’s an erstwhile Red Wing, Benny Woit, from Rich Kincaid’s The Gods of Olympia Stadium: Legends of the Detroit Red Wings (2003):

Teddy Lindsay just nailed him this one time. You know, I still remember when he hit him. Oh, jeez, the blood all over the place.

That’s the only guy Ted Lindsay ever went back to and said he was sorry. He kind of looked at Edgar and he almost apologized. But I don’t think he did. Pretty close, yes.

17. “I never liked Gordie,” Laprade told The Globe and Mail’s Allan Maki in 2011. “Even his own linemates, like Ted Lindsay, didn’t like him. He wasn’t that clean of a player. He was a good player; you can’t take that away from him. But he elbowed me once for no reason.” Continue reading