tommy woodcock, 1933—2022

Sorry to see news of the death earlier this week of Tommy Woodcock, the first trainer the St. Louis Blues ever had, and a veteran of the dressing rooms of the Hartford Whalers and San Jose Sharks. He was 89.

In Providence, Rhode Island, Woodcock grew up as the son of the manager of the local Arena, and he got his first job there in the 1940s when, as a 12-year-old, he served as (in his words) “a squeegee boy, helping brush the excess water off the rink after it had been flooded.” On his skates, he played centre and right wing, and scored some goals in the 1950s on New England senior amateur ice and, briefly, in the Eastern Hockey League.

As the story goes, Buddy LeRoux, trainer of Boston’s Celtics and Red Sox, was the one to suggest he take up as a trainer. Woodcock started out tending college teams at Brown, in Providence, and worked with the AHL Providence Reds, as well as with local baseball and football teams before GM Lynn Patrick hired him in 1967 to be the trainer for the expansion St. Louis Blues. With the Reds, he was a protégé of trainer George Army, a local legend who maintained that he’d learned to stitch hockey wounds by slicing up oranges and then sewing them back together.

Woodcock was 34 when he started in St. Louis. For 16 years he tended the Blues, who vied their way (in vain) during that tenure through three Stanley Cup Finals. The times, they were simpler, back then, as Woodcock recalled for NHL.com in 2008: “The players did a lot. They carried their own bags. We never washed the underwear, we just hung it up to dry.”

Woodcock’s other duties, in his day, ran the regular gamut. He sharpened skates, maintained and modified equipment, stitched wounds, ministered to aches, pains, scuffs, concussings. He wielded tape — a lot of tape. For a cheerful newspaper profile in 1970, Woodcock estimated that the Blues’ annual roll-out of tape was some 212,000 yards for socks-securing and another 3,300 yards for sticks.

In 1973, Woodcock organized his expertise into a book.

In 1979, around the occasion of his 1,000th NHL game, Woodcock testified that Bernie Federko was the most talented player he’d had under his care, while original Blues’ captain Al Arbour rated the highest pain tolerance of any of his charges. Garry Unger, meanwhile, had “the best set of muscle structure” in Blues’ history. “That’s why,” Woodcock said, “he never has any pulled or strained muscles.”

“Arbour was typical of some of the old-timers,” Woodcock waxed in ’79, “he was totally dedicated to the game.” The biggest change he’d seen in his time in big-league hockey? “The young guys coming into the league now aren’t dedicated. They aren’t willing to work to improve themselves. If they’re not doing well, they’ll blame their stick or a part of their equipment — but never blame themselves or try to work harder.”

One then-current Blue was excused from this indictment: Brian Sutter. “He’s the last of the real dedicated hockey players,” Woodcock said.

In 1983, Woodcock followed former Blues’ GM Emile Francis to the Hartford Whalers. In 1991, GM Jack Ferreira hired him to be the first trainer for the expansion San Jose Sharks. He would continue to work as a consultant with the Sharks well into his 70s and in so doing, in 2008 attended his 40th NHL training camp. All told, he presided over more than 3,000 NHL games, regular-season and playoff.

In 1973, Woodcock became the first NHL trainer to organize his experience and expertise into a book when he published Hockey From The Ice Up, a helpful how-to aimed at aspiring young players, their parents, and coaches. It counselled on equipment and pregame meals, ran down conditioning best practices, delineated hockey injuries (from butterflies to tongue-swallowing), and identified some key dos and don’ts for those hoping to succeed in hockey (stay away from alcohol and solvent-sniffing).

In 2003, Woodcock was inducted into the Hall of Fame that the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society curates under the auspices of the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Lefty Wilson, Skip Thayer, and Eddy Palchak in the pantheon.

 

et al

Isle Remember You: Born in Sudbury, Ontario, on a Tuesday of this date in 1932, Al Arbour was a largely dauntless (and bespectacled) defenceman (+ an eager shot-blocker) for four NHL teams over the course of 16 seasons, helping the Detroit Red Wings (1954), the Chicago Black Hawks (1961), and Toronto Maple Leafs (1962 and 1964) win Stanley Cup championships. He served as the very first captain of the St. Louis Blues. He coached the Blues, too, before moving on to the New York Islanders, where (of course), he won more Stanley Cups, four of them all in a row, from 1980 to 1983. This card dates to 1974. “He’s soft spoken and quiet,” it reads on the flip side, “but Al has proven to be a consistent man behind the bench.” Al Arbour died in 2015 at the age of 82.

bob plager, 1943—2021

So sorry to hear the news that Bob Plager died in a car accident this afternoon in St. Louis. He was 78. Born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, he was an original Blue, joining brothers Barclay and Bill in St. Louis in 1967 after starting his NHL career with the New York Rangers. He played 10 seasons on the St. Louis blueline, and continued with the Blues beyond his retirement as a scout, executive, and (briefly) head coach.

red baron

Coach Red: Berenson was an assistant in St. Louis before succeeding Barclay Player behind the bench in 1979.

Born in Regina in 1939 on a Friday sharing this date, Red Berenson turns 81 today. Would we agree that it’s long past time he got his invitation into hockey’s Hall of Fame, as a builder if not as a player? He was a left winger in his day, a junior star with his hometown Pats, and played for two Memorial Cups in the late 1950s. As a 19-year-old, he helped the Belleville McFarlands win the 1959 World Championships in Prague, finishing tied atop the tournament’s scoring chart with a Czech and an American. He hit the NHL ice as a Montreal Canadien, then joined the New York Rangers, before making his mark with the expansion St. Louis Blues as the ’60s turned into the ’70s. On memorable night in 1968, Berenson scored six goals in an 8-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. He played five seasons with the Detroit Red Wings before finishing his career back in St. Louis. He was a member, too, of Team Canada in 1972.

And as a coach? He was an assistant in St. Louis before succeeding Barclay Plager as principal on this very date in 1979, his 40th birthday. His Blues tenure lasted three seasons; he won a Jack Adams as the NHL’s top-rated coach in 1981. In 1984, he returned to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, to take over as head coach as the hockey Wolverines. His 33-year stint there yielded a pair of NCAA championships, in 1996 and ’98, before he retired from the bench in 2017.

 

tenacious d

Barc The Spark: Born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, on a Wednesday of this date in 1941, Barclay Plager was the eldest of the St. Louis Blues Plagers, joining the team with brother Bob for the team’s first season in 1967. (Bill arrived in 1968.) “I have never, ever had a player who was such a fierce competitor,” coach Scotty Bowman said of Barclay, “who wouldn’t accept a defeat no matter what the score was.” He patrolled the Blues line for nine seasons, six of those as captain, and when he retired the team showed its esteem by retiring the number 8 he’d worn on his sweater. He coached the team for a year after his retirement, and later served as an assistant. Barclay Plager died of cancer in 1988 at the age of 46. That’s him here getting down to block a shot during the Blues’ 1971-72 campaign in front of goaltender Jacques Caron. Looking on is Wayne Carleton of the California Golden Seals.

it’s easy — all you have to do is win

A birthday today for Scotty Bowman, whose 1,471 coaching wins (1,244 in the regular season) are unmatched in the annals of NHL history. The Stanley Cups he’s won as a coach and executive number 14, most of which (five) he famously raised in the 1970s as master motivator, superlative tactician, and sometime scold of several mighty aggregations of Montreal Canadiens. His Detroit Red Wings won three more Cups, his Pittsburgh Penguins another. His coaching career also included, of course, stints in St. Louis and Buffalo. Born on a Monday of this date in Verdun, Quebec, in 1933, Bowman turns 86 today.

On the 1997 occasion of Bowman’s 1,000th NHL win, St. Louis Blues’ GM Ron Caron was one colleague who paid tribute while offering insight into the famously hard core of Bowman’s success on hockey’s benches.

“He was close to Toe Blake,” said Caron, who’d served as a scout in Montreal during Bowman’s Canadiens’ tenure, “and he saw that Toe didn’t succeed early in his career because he wasn’t tough enough. Toe made the correction, and that was his idol. That was how he became the coach he is.”

home of the blues, if not the stanley cup

Eagle’s Nest: The last time a hockey team from St. Louis played for the Stanley Cup, 1970, they were doing it at the old St. Louis Arena on Oakland Avenue. Opened in 1929, it was home long before that to the AHA Flyers and (for the single season of their existence) the NHL Eagles. This illustration dates to the latter’s brief tenure there, 1934-35 — during which time the rink also hosted the U.S. National Dairy Show. Renovated for the arrival of the Blues in 1967, the Arena was renamed the Checkerdome in 1977, though that only lasted until 1983. If the Blues do raise the Stanley Cup tonight, they’ll do it eight kilometres to the east of the long-gone Arena, over the ice of the Enterprise Center, to which they moved in 1994.

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.

at rest, at the ready

The Tripod that St. Louis Blues’ captain Al Arbour is affecting here, above, circa 1970, may be the original hockey-player pose. Check your collection of Beehive hockey photos from the 1930s, or the NHL portrait-work of the Turofsky brothers in the 1940s: the Tripod is the default. It’s as natural a stance as there is for a skater (as opposed to a goaltender) lining up for the puck to drop — in a game that’s all motion once it starts, this is how you look (at rest but at the ready) in the moment before the chaos ensues.

If you do happen to find yourself standing still while the puck’s in play, and it’s the Boston Garden in May of 1970, then it may be that you’re St. Louis Blues’ defenceman Noel Picard, and Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins is airborne nearby, having scored his famous Stanley-Cup-winning goal. Not much Picard could have done, really — did I mention Bobby Orr? That’s Picard in repose below, around that time; he died in 2017 at the age of 78. According to Richard Labbé, writing this week in La Presse (here, in French), Picard was at peace with his famous failure to stop Orr, and would happily put his signature to copies of Ray Lussier’s iconic photograph when fans approached with Sharpies.

snow show

In the vast catalogue of hockey-player portraits, the Show-Your-Snow is as classic as they come. It can’t, perhaps, match the nimble drama of the Leap (a.k.a. the Up-Up-And-Away) or the slightly distressing mystery of the Man Down, but neither of them evokes the rink like this — the shish of the skates, the spray of the snow, the wind of the collision just barely avoided. As Phil Goyette demonstrates above, you don’t have to produce a blizzard — although as fellow Blues centre Camille Henry emphasizes below, why not? Goyette played 13 seasons for Montreal and the New York Rangers before arriving in St. Louis at the age of 36 for the 1969-70 campaign, leading the team in regular-season and helping the Blues gain the Stanley Cup Finals. Henry, who was 37 that year, came to the Blues after 13 distinguished years as a Ranger, though he played just a few final games in ’69-’70 (none in the playoffs) before announcing his retirement.

eyes on al

The St. Louis Blues aren’t there yet, but they did beat the San Jose Sharks 5-0 Sunday in the fifth game of the NHL’s Western Conference, which means that one more win would put the Blues into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1970. That could happen tonight: the two teams meet again in St. Louis.

Coached by Scotty Bowman (and by, a little bit, Lynn Patrick), the Blues reached the finals in each of their first three NHL seasons, falling twice in succession to the Montreal Canadiens and then, 49 years this month, to Bobby Orr’s mighty Boston Bruins. The core of the Blues’ line-up in the latter series was steeled by a remarkable collection of veterans that included goaltender Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall (aged 41 and 38 respectively), centre Camille Henry  and defenders Jean-Guy Talbot and Al Arbour (all 37.) That’s Arbour pictured here, alongside another distinguished NHL elder, Doug Harvey, who manned the St. Louis line at the age of 44 in his final season, 1968-69. Arbour captained the team in all three of their early Stanley Cup appearances. Arbour handed the C to Barclay Plager at the 1970-71 season when he took over as coach of the Blues while Bowman turned his attention to GM’ing.

The arrangement didn’t last: by February of 1971, Arbour was back on the St. Louis blueline and Bowman was back to the bench. “I think I can help more in a playing capacity,” Arbour said at the time. As for Bowman, he insisted the arrangement was only temporary. “I had, nor have, no aspiration to return to coach on a permanent basis,” he said. “Coaching is not for me. But I decided to come back because it is good for the good of the team. We’re building for the future and one man can’t spoil it all.”

The future burned brilliantly bright for both men, of course, though not in St. Louis. While Bowman went on to coach the Montreal Canadiens, Arbour ended up behind the bench of the New York Islanders. In the 11 seasons that followed the year Bowman and Arbour shared coaching duties in St. Louis, their (non-Missouri) teams would lay claim to nine Stanley Cups.

old guard: a brief history of aged nhlers

Don’t Let Go The Coat: The year before he became Montreal’s original Canadien (and nine years before he made his NHL debut at age 38), here’s Jack Laviolette, left, alongside Didier Pitre.  

The NHL debut that Connie Madigan made on this date in 1973 is notable because, at 38, the St. Louis defenceman was, well, in hockey terms — elderly. For 14 years he’d laboured in the minor leagues before getting his break, mostly with the WHL Portland Buckaroos, with whom he earned (not necessarily in this order) a nickname, Mad Dog, and a reputation for not letting the rules of the game compromise his style of stopping opponents. “All knees, elbows, and snarly looks” is how a Vancouver paper summed it up in 1968. “He hurts,” a rueful and respecting opponent said in 1971. That was the same year Madigan served a lengthy suspension for punching a referee, knocking him out.

Madigan was pleased, in ’73, to have finally made the big time. “Even after waiting all these years,” he said, “it was still quite a thrill playing in my first game. I’m just glad to be here, although I’ve always thought I should have been here sooner.” The Blues were playing Vancouver the night he premiered, and on his first shift Madigan gave the puck away to a Canuck, Barry Wilkins, whose own inadvertent pass eventually went to the Blues’ Pierre Plante, who scored — so no assist for Madigan, but not a terrible start. He took no penalties from referee Dave Newell, who happened to be the very guy he’d punched in ’71. “It didn’t bother me any that it was him,” Madigan said. “He leaves me alone.”

Madigan finished the year with St. Louis, getting into 20 regular-season games in all, then five more in the playoffs. That was all for Connie Madigan in the NHL; he finished his career after another few seasons in the minors.

Madigan was then (and sometimes still is) deemed the NHL’s “oldest rookie.” The definition of what constitutes one of those in the NHL has changed over the years. Since Mad Dog’s stint in the league, it’s been narrowed to exclude the exceedingly mature: “Any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie,” the league’s policy now stipulates.

That doesn’t change the fact that Madigan remains one of the most aged players ever to have waited for most of his career to skate in the big league. Despite what you may have heard, he’s not the oldest of the old. In fact, I think he’s no better than the third oldest player to make an NHL debut.

First would be Lester Patrick, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947. He was 43 and coaching the New York Rangers when he inserted himself into his own line-up for a game on defence in 1927. The following spring in the playoffs, he made a more famous appearance, replacing an injured Lorne Chabot in the Ranger goal. (More on that here.)

Then, next: Jack Laviolette, Hall of Fame class of 1963. Born in Belleville, Ontario, in 1879 — he died, at 80, in 1960 — he’s the most original Montreal Canadien you can name, the team’s first hire in 1909 when it came into being as Le Club de Hockey Le Canadien. As manager and coach, he built the team; on the ice, he captained it from the defence that first futile year, when Le Canadien finished at the bottom of the seven-team National Hockey Association standings.

Laviolette would soon cede the managing, coaching, and captaining to others — George Kennedy, Adolphe Lecours, and Newsy Lalonde succeeded him, respectively, in 1910-11. Continuing on the defence, Laviolette did (briefly) get the captaincy back the following year, and played on as an influential member of the NHA Canadiens through the war years. In 1916, he helped the team win the Stanley Cup.

He was still in the picture as the team prepared for a new season in November of 1917, even as the old league was dissolving and a new one materializing.

The latter was, of course, the NHL, and when its four teams got going on the Wednesday night of December 19, 1917, Laviolette was the eldest of its players at 38 years, 145 days. (On his St. Louis debut, Connie Madigan was 38 years, 125 days.)

Canadiens were in Ottawa that opening night, where the local Citizen lamented the home team’s lacks (Frank Nighbor, Horace Merrill) while singing the virtues of the visitors. Montreal “skated out with one of the finest all around hockey machines they have ever had.” Anchored by Georges Vézina in goal, Canadiens counted on Joe Hall and Bert Corbeau on defence and a forward line led by Lalonde, Didier Pitre, and Joe Malone. Jack Laviolette was a substitute by now, along with Billy Coutu and Louis Berlinguette.

In his role as a reliever, the Citizen said, Laviolette showed he had “lost little of his speed and snap.” Montreal prevailed on the night by a score of 7-4 with Laviolette notching an assist for his troubles — the only one he’s credited with in his 20-game NHL career, to go with two goals.

I don’t know what Laviolette’s plans were for the following year, but his hockey future was decided in May of 1918. His off-season gig at that point was as manager of the Joffre Café in Montreal; he also had a thing for speed. For as long as he’d starred on the ice, Laviolette had excelled at other sports, as well: he was a superior lacrosse player and excelled at racing both motorcycles and automobiles.

He seems to been driving one of his racing cars in a non-competitive setting one night in the Montreal neighbourhood of Longue-Point, near the river, when the car skidded and hit what’s described in contemporary accounts as an “iron tramway pole.” Two friends who were with him escaped unhurt, but Laviolette’s injuries were such that surgeons ended up amputating his right leg below the right knee. That was the grim news the Gazette reported in the days following the accident — though subsequent reports that summer had him losing his left foot.

That might warrant further investigation. Some more historical housekeeping might be in order here, too, in the matter of Laviolette’s NHL coaching career. Consult the usual trusted sources — Hockey Reference, say, or Canadiens’ own historical reservoir — and you’ll find Newsy Lalonde listed as the team’s coach for 1918-19. Like Laviolette before him, he was multi-tasking in those years, coaching, playing, and captaining the team. But that December, as the new season was getting underway, several newspaper reports had Jack Laviolette coming on as coach — or, in the terminology of the day, trainer. (Just to confuse things, head coaches were in that early era often also referred to as managers.)

The day of the team’s first practice, for instance, Tuesday, December 10, 1918, the Gazette notes that at Jubilee Rink, at 7 p.m., Laviolette (“whose hockey career is finished”) “will make his initial appearance as trainer.”

“Laviolette has been given charge of the team, and should make good in the position.”

The Ottawa Citizen mentions him, too, as Canadiens’ trainer in December, with an intriguing coda: “He will give an exhibition of skating between the periods.” Pluck that thread and you might extract an item from Toronto’s Daily Star in which Toronto coach Charlie Querrie mentions this same plan. “Querrie says that Laviolette already handles his artificial foot so well that strangers never notice his disability,” is how that report ends.

Did Jack Laviolette end up coaching the Canadiens for some of their schedule in 1918-19 or did he simply entertain the faithful between periods? I don’t have much more to go on either way, at this point. If you’re reading the old newspapers, you’ll find that he fades from the page — until early February, when his name emerges one more time. “Happy” Jack Laviolette, the Ottawa Citizen tags him, announcing that he may that very day get up on skates and give them a go.

“He threatened to put them on early this winter, but somehow or other refrained,” the report continues. Depending on how things go, and given the scarcity of NHL referees, the Citizen suggests that Laviolette may soon be enlisting as an arbiter. That doesn’t seem to have happened, though. The final line of the Citizen’s update doesn’t really clear up the coaching mystery, either, noting that “Jack has been acting as a sort of a coach and adviser to the Canadien hockey team.”