just play the game

Slapper: Born in 1941 on a Friday of this date in Big River, Saskatchewan, Jim Neilson made the switch from left wing to defence as a junior in Prince Albert. Loosing a shot here in 1971, when he was a veteran of 30, Neilson made his debut with the Rangers in 1962, and manned the blue line in New York for 12 years before joining the California Golden Seals for the 1974-75 season. He was captain in California and for the Cleveland Barons, too, after the Seals moved north. He finished his career with a season in the WHA with the Edmonton Oilers. “I’m an easygoing guy,” he said in the ’80s, looking back on his career. “I never look far ahead and I’ve used that philosophy all my life. I just play the game. It’s over, and there’ll probably be one again tomorrow.” Jim Neilson died on November 6, 2020, at the age of 78.

andy bathgate, 1959: the main thing in shooting is your grip

“The main thing in shooting is your grip on the stick,” Andy Bathgate divulged in January of 1959. “You don’t have to be big and you don’t have to be strong, but you have to have the right grip. People talk a lot about my slap shot — that’s an arm shot, you don’t break the wrists. But my best shot is a wrist shot with no followthrough. I know exactly where it’s going, and I can get it off pretty fast.”

Bathgate, who died on a Friday of this date in 2016 at the age of 83, was playing in his seventh NHL season in ’59. At 26, he was making such impression on the New York Rangers’ right wing that Sports Illustrated put him on its cover. “The most exciting player in hockey,” Kenneth Rudeen called him in the profile within, before casting back to Bathgate’s Winnipeg boyhood. “He had a hockey stick in his hands at 6,” Rudeen wrote, “and he was playing in organized community games at 9. He managed to get in as many as 100 games a season as an adolescent; during one winter he played on eight different teams and coached another.”

Interesting to hear Bathgate explaining how he developed his shot, which would become one of the most effective in hockey. He and his friends, he said, would skate as much as possible on outdoor rinks in the neighbourhood, and even when it was too cold to skate, he and a pal would switch to boots and stand on opposite sides of the ice, “some 70 feet apart,” to alternate shooting and playing goal. Rudeen:

Each wore a heavy gauntlet and tried to catch the puck as the other shot as hard as he could. There was a gentleman’s agreement to keep the puck high, because low shots broke sticks and ankles.

“We’d just keep shooting the puck harder and harder and harder,” Bathgate says. “After a while you developed something. Now all the kids are going in for curling In heated rinks! I’m afraid there aren’t many hungry hockey players coming along out there.”

While developing the ability to launch what is now one of the hardest shots in hockey, Bathgate unwittingly acquired the bad habit of making only high shots. When he discovered later that he could not expect to survive in professional hockey without a variety of shots, he buckled down to learn them. Today he mixes the high hard one judiciously with the rest, but even so he is conspicuous for his attempts to score from far out. Occasionally he succeeds spectacularly. For example, in a game last season he cracked a rising slap shot between the top goal post [crossbar] and the shoulder of the startled Montreal goalie, Jacques Plante, from beyond the blue line, about 75 feet away.

It was later that same year that Bathgate unleashed one of the most consequential shots in hockey history at Plante — only this time, he intended to hit him rather than put the puck past him.

November 1, 1959 was the day, when Montreal was in New York to play the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. As I’ve written before, Bathgate was mad at the Canadiens goaltender, who’d clattered him into the boards early in the game, cutting him. As Bathgate later told Plante biographer Todd Denault, he’d had revenge in mind when he broke in and let go a high (not-so-judicious, if very accurate) backhand. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” Bathgate told Denault.

Plante left the game bleeding from his wounds. When he returned, of course, he was wearing his famous mask.

 

 

 

slap happy

Shot and Chaser: Cincinnati Stingers’ Claude Larose unleashes a shot on goaltender Christer Abrahamsson of the New England Whalers in 1976. Larose, a left winger, went on to play a handful of games with the New York Rangers in the NHL, but he’s not to be confused with the other, elder Claude Larose, a right winger, who won six Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1960s and early ’70s. This Larose scored 28 goals for the Stingers in his WHA rookie season, 1975-76, and 30 the following year. (Image: Mark Treitel)

shooter tutors

In the taxonomy of hockey-player poses, the Slapper rejects both the inert formality of the Tripod and the more or less uncomfortable self-consciousness of the Snow-Job in favour of the speed and contact and, well, impatience inherent in hockey. Presumably there was a puck in the frame a moment before the photographer released the shutter, but these Blues weren’t interested in letting it lie: that’s just not what pucks are for. Teammates on St. Louis’ 1970-71 roster, the shooters here are wingers (top) Gary Sabourin and Wayne Connelly.