spit take: nels stewart, newsy lalonde, and a jolt of tobacco juice in jakie forbes’ eye

Poison Control: A 1952 magazine ad for Pleasant Moments whisky celebrated Nels Stewart’s 1931 record-setting outburst with this imaginative view of one of the two goals he scored within four seconds to lead his Montreal Maroons to a win over the Boston Bruins. (Artist: John Floherty Jr.)

By early afternoon, the signs at Montreal’s Forum were already up: Standing Room Only. “And long before the referees called the teams together at centre ice to start the game, all this space had been grabbed up,” the Gazette’s Marc McNeil would recount. “It was a complete sell-out Saturday night. And those 13,000 fortunates witnessed a mighty spectacle that crammed action and thrills into every minute of play.”

Playing a leading role that night in January of 1931: Nels Stewart, star centreman for Montreal Maroons and the reigning Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP. In a battle between two of the NHL’s best teams, Stewart, who was born in Montreal on a Monday of yesterday’s date in 1902, powered his team to a win over the visiting Boston Bruins with a third-period outburst, setting a record for speedy scoring that stands to this day.

That being the case, today’s another day that I’ll be pleased to gripe that Stewart doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. His absence from the NHL’s 2017 list of the 100 Greatest Players in league history tells you everything you need to know about that marred memorial. Stewart won a Stanley Cup with the Maroons in 1926 and was the first man to win the Hart Trophy twice. Along with his seven seasons in Montreal, Stewart played another five for the New York Americans along with four for Boston where, though the Bruins themselves have forgotten it, he captained the team. In 1937, the man they called Old Poison overtook Howie Morenz as the NHL’s all-time leading goalscorer, a height he held until Maurice Richard overtook him in 1952. Stewart was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Toronto Telegram columnist Ted Reeve grew up with Stewart in the Beaches, in Toronto’s eastern end. “The best natural all-round athlete I have ever seen in Canada,” Reeve called him.

“Extremely deceptive,” was Frank J. Selke’s verdict, “the brainiest player I have ever known.”

Selke also testified that Stewart “couldn’t backcheck a lick.”

“He is worthless as a defensive player, always has been,” Herb Manning wrote in the Winnipeg Tribune in 1939. “There is nothing streamlined about him. He lumbers along like a truck on a steep grade. He always seems to be ten feet behind the play, whether they are going backward or forward.”

But?

“But a split second is all the time he requires to complete a chore in the enemy zone.”

He got his chores done, scoring 324 goals in 650 regular-season NHL games, nine more in 50 playoff games.

In Montreal, he centred the famous S line, flanked by Hooley Smith and Babe Siebert. “Babe and Hooley did most of the work,” Stewart later said, “because I was a shambling six-footer who took relays from the corners.”

In 1938, the Ottawa Journal wrote about his “careless, almost lazy style,” noting also that “no goalie ever feels at ease while he is lurching and wandering around the vicinity of the net.”

Ottawa Senators goaltender Clint Benedict: “Nels liked to park and take a puck and fire it quick.”

“Nels was one helluva hockey player,” New York Rangers centreman Frank Boucher said. “He was almost impossible to move once he got in front of the net.”

Harold Burr of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle consulted former Senators star defenceman Eddie Gerard on Stewart’s virtues in 1932, when Gerard was coaching the New York Americans.

“Big and wide of beam,” was Burr’s description of Stewart, whose playing-days metrics came in at 6’1’’, 200 pounds.

No other player in the National Hockey League practices his loafing around the nets of the enemy. He doesn’t look dangerous. He isn’t a fast skater or a hard shot. But he does all his playing from the other fellow’s blue line.

“Watch him lift his shoulder to draw the goalie out,” warns Gerard, his old Montreal boss. “That’s why he scores so frequently — he makes the goalminder make the first move. But watch further. Nels never shoots from the shoulder. He just flips his wrist.”

Boston bought him in 1932. “He is a two-fisted fighting player,” coach Art Ross said at the time, “and the greatest inside player in the game.”

Greatest Inside Player in the Game: Montreal Maroons’ star Nels Stewart as he actually looked in the early 1930s.

Which brings us back to that night at the Montreal Forum in 1931, Saturday, January 3. Nearly halfway through the season’s schedule, the visiting Bruins were heading up the league’s American section, while the Maroons were atop on the Canadian side, neck-and-neck with the Canadiens, defending Cup champions.

Maroons prevailed, 5-3, despite going into the third period trailing 3-1. D.A.L. MacDonald wrote up the game for the Montreal Gazette, and he speculated that if the frenzied Montreal fans had any regrets, they might have centred on the hurry with which the home team turned the game around.

First winger Jimmy Ward scored. Six minutes later, Stewart stepped up after Hooley Smith slammed a shot into Tiny Thompson’s pads. “The rebound dropped barely a foot in front of the Boston goalie and big Nelson Stewart was in like a flash to flip the puck over his prostrate form,” was how MacDonald saw it. “If Nels had scooped it up with a dessert spoon he couldn’t have done it more neatly.”

That tied the game. Four seconds later, Stewart scored the winner. It went like this:

From the face-off once again, Stewart slipped a pass over to Smith that left the Boston front rank behind and at the defence back came the disc to Nelson. The big fellow rode right in on Thompson and the goalie never had a chance. Another flip of those steel wrists and Maroons were in front to stay.

Two goals in four seconds. “Shades of Frank McGee!” MacDonald enthused. “For quick scoring feats and high-powered excitement, Nelson the Great has few equals.” It would, indeed, take 64 years for another NHLer to match Stewart’s record. No, not Gretzky or Lemieux: in1995, Winnipeg Jets defenceman Deron Quint scored a pair of goals in four seconds versus the Edmonton Oilers to slip into the record book alongside Stewart.

Is there any indication that in scoring his brisk brace, Stewart might have distracted or disabled Tiny Thompson by spitting tobacco juice into his unsuspecting eye?

No, none. Though that is a stratagem that is persistently attributed to Stewart in latter-day accounts of his career. Mostly it’s offered up as passing proof of his cunning and/or outright nastiness, often with a hint of admiration — if not any specificity.

The general tobacco-spitting charge shows up in Stewart’s Wikipedia profile, for instance. Floyd Conner slots it into Hockey’s Most Wanted (2002), with his own twist: the eye-spitting was motivated by Stewart’s “contempt” for goaltenders. In his 2012 book, Next Goal Wins, Liam Maguire goes out on a limb of his own to venture that the nickname Old Poison derived directly from “his habit of spitting chewing tobacco into the eyes of opposing goaltenders.”

Stan Fischler has been one of the more enthusiastic purveyors of the expectorating story over the years; it repeats throughout his broad oeuvre. Here it is in his The All-New Hockey’s 100 (1998):

It was not uncommon for Stewart to chew a wad of tobacco, produce juice, and then spit it unerringly in the eyes of a goalie as he shot the puck.

None of the above mentions is sourced; not one identifies a particular instance which any first-hand accounting to back up the chewing/juicing/spitting combo that Stewart is reputed to have employed to such (purported) devilish effect. None of the authors cited above seems to have done any digging of their own. If they had, they’d have found that no-one seems to have been taking note of Stewart’s spitful habit when he was actually playing: my scourings of contemporary newspaper accounts from Stewart’s active years in the 1920s and ’30s haven’t turned up even a fleeting mention of any tobacco-chewing let alone spitting.

The legend does (fittingly?) crop up in the five-part hockey-history TV series that Vancouver’s Opus Pictures produced in 1996, Legends of Hockey, and my guess (it’s mostly a guess) is that it’s from this (also unsourced) documentary that the subsequent literary mentions originated and proliferated. (Wikipedia’s mention of Stewart’s adventures in chaw footnotes it.) The second episode includes short biographies of several colourful hockeyists, including Eddie Shore, Red Horner, and Ol’ Poison himself. You can click in to review it here, starting at the 27:26-minute mark, where you’ll soon hear narrator Alan Maitland intone:

As well as being poison around the net, the Montreal Maroons’ Nels Stewart had the nasty habit of spitting his chewing tobacco in the goalie’s eyes. Never a great skater, never a great checker, he was still a lethal goalscorer.

As Garth Woolsey of the Toronto Star wrote back in 1996, Legends of Hockey is, as a whole, a delightful confection. Specifically citing Stewart and his alleged spitting, Woolsey also notes that “in the off-hand fashion of such productions, this pungent detail is presented without elaboration. Legends delivers with more similar tidbits of history, whetting the appetite. What it might not explain meatily, the series suggests delectably.”

Is it possible that there’s truth at the root of the legend, wherever that might lie? Of course. But without any first-hand account of where Stewart might have been chewing his tobacco and loosing it on contemptible goaltenders, or when, or who the goaltenders might have been, I’ll be wary of treating the tale as fact. I don’t mind James Marsh’s formulation in his biography of Stewart in The Canadian Encyclopedia:

The story that he spat tobacco juice in the eyes of opposing goalies may be apocryphal but apparently is in keeping with his temperament on the ice.

If Newsy Lalonde merits a mention here (and he does), it’s because he’s a, well, key witness in the larger case — as well as a prime suspect.

Lalonde, of course, was one of hockey’s greatest talents, as well as another fairly glaring absentee from that centenary list from 2017. His pro career on ice started as early as 1906, and he went on to play seven NHL seasons, mostly with the Montreal Canadiens, before it was over in the late 1920s. He was famously uncompromising — which is one generous way of saying that he played the game violently and often with what still looks like, over the distance of years, breathtaking spite.

Not that he was (apparently) alone in his willingness to twist rules or (as the case may be) soak them in tobacco juice in those early decades. Long after he’d hung up his skates he was still recalling the transgressions of opponents like Paddy Moran, Stanley-Cup-winning goaltender for the Quebec Bulldogs and a fellow Hall-of-Famer. Here’s Lalonde reminiscing in 1951, as reported in the Montreal Gazette:

“Paddy chewed tobacco,” Newsy said, “and he could hit a keyhole at 40 paces. You had to duck when you skated behind his cage or he’d get you right between the eyes.”

Lalonde elaborated on this theme a decade later. This time he was talking to Andy O’Brien for a feature on hockey malice for Weekend Magazine.

“Paddy [Lalonde said] was in a class by himself by himself when it came to chopping toes of opposing forwards who came within range, and in those days the skate toes weren’t  so well padded. But his pet skill was squirting tobacco in your eye.”

In 1961, Newsy Lalonde implicated Paddy Moran for his chaw crimes.

What would it have cost Any O’Brien to press for just a few more details? As it is, I guess Lalonde’s long-range memories do get us closer to a confirmed case of tobacco-juice-in-the-eye without pinpointing anything precisely. The best we might be able to hope for on that count focusses again on Newsy Lalonde, though he’s not (and probably shouldn’t be expected to be) implicating himself this time. It’s another goaltender of old giving evidence here, Jakie Forbes, who was playing for the Toronto St. Patricks in the early 1920s when Lalonde was skating for — and captaining and coaching — the Canadiens.

Forbes’ news wasn’t exactly fresh when he got around to reporting it: one version I’m looking at dates to 1969, 50 years after the fact, when Forbes was 72, and the other is from Trent Frayne’s 1974 book The Mad Men of Hockey.

Both accounts are, it has to be said, fairly vivid, even if they don’t perfectly match up.

The first, from a genial Globe and Mail retrospective, has Forbes telling his tale this way to writer James Young:

The game is much faster now, but not nearly as rough as it was. In one game at the old Mount Royal rink in Montreal, Newsy Lalonde came around the net and caught me in the eye with his stick. I went skating out to protest to the referee and skated right into him, knocking both of us down. He said he had not seen the incident and sent me back to the net.

The next time Lalonde came down to my end of the ice I went out to stop him, using a high stick if possible. He skated to the side of me, spit his tobacco juice in my face and when I fell skated around me to score in the open net.

Trent Frayne’s framing of this same tale five years later isn’t quite the same; it does up the colour balance.

“He was,” Forbes says this time, by way of introducing Lalonde, “the dirtiest son of a bitch I ever played against.”

In Frayne’s version, Forbes stopped Lalonde and the puck was headed back the other way. As Lalonde rounded the net to follow it, he paused to punch Forbes squarely — and hard — in the face.

“Blood spurted from the goaler’s nose,” Frayne writes, “and he took off after Lalonde, brandishing his stick like a lariat.”

The referee is named as Cooper Smeaton, and he does get knocked down. Jumping up, he’s quoted threatening Forbes:

“Get back in the goal, you crazy little bugger,” he shouted at the five-foot-five goaltender, “or you’re out of the game.”

Frayne adds some fine points to the final act of the piece, too. Near the end of the game, with Canadiens leading 4-1, Lalonde broke in with the puck. Forbes was ready for him, “readying an axe-swing at Lalonde’s head.”

But at the last instant the flying Lalonde spat a long stream of tobacco juice into Jakie’s face, circled the net laughing, and pushed the puck into the goal past the sputtering Forbes.

Triangulating with a few of the details provided by Frayne, it’s possible to key in a couple of games from the two seasons Forbes spent with Toronto. The first time he played Canadiens in Montreal was on Wednesday, March 10, 1920, a night on which the local Gazette found plenty in his performance to praise: “Forbes the Youngest Goaler in NHL Made Many Brilliant Stops at Mount Royal Arena,” reads a subhead from the next morning’s dispatch.

Too bad for Forbes, Montreal won, 7-2, with Lalonde scoring a hat trick. But contemporary accounts mention no high sticks, punches, or other hijinks. Also, the referee that night was Harry Hyland. So that’s probably not the night in question.

A better bet altogether is a game from almost a year later, a Monday-nighter played on February 28, 1921. It was noteworthy affair on several counts. A former U.S. president was one of the 5,000 spectators on hand, for one thing: what’s more, William Howard Taft was “in position to have a good view” of a first-period fight between Toronto’s Ken Randall and Didier Pitre of Montreal.

It was a thoroughly bad-tempered occasion even before the teams hit the ice. Toronto was lending winger Cully Wilson to Canadiens that season, but just before the game, with centreman Corb Denneny ill and unable to play, the St. Pats tried to claim Wilson back for their own line-up.

NHL President Frank Calder was in the building and presided over a summit in the referee’s room. The Montreal Star mapped the terrain:

If he played with Canadiens, Toronto would protest him. If he played with Torontos, Canadiens would no doubt protest him, and if he refused to play with Torontos, whose property he was, he would be suspended. The president, however, refused to counsel him what to do, and told him to suit himself, bearing in mind that he was Toronto’s property.

Wilson sat out and, indeed, never suited up for either Montreal or Toronto again: the following season he turned out for the Hamilton Tigers.

In Montreal in 1921, the game went sourly on without him. “There were many unparliamentary clashes,” the Star reported. The Mount Royal Arena’s natural ice deteriorated as the game continued, too. In the second interval, the Star’s reporter watched as “the men who were supposed to scoop the snow off the ice only got water for their pains, and when the third period began, the ice was like mud. When a man fell he got up sopping wet.”

It was in the second period that Forbes and Lalonde first sparred, though whether it was a high stick or a punch that the latter perpetrated isn’t clear. Press reports make no mention, either, of a collision between Forbes and Smeaton. “Lalonde was given a minor for charging Forbes,” is as much as we get from the Gazette, though with an interesting coda: “Lalonde was booed for his attack on the net custodian.” (Le Droit: “Lalonde was hissed when he jostled Forbes.”)

In Trent Frayne’s telling, the game ended 5-1 for Montreal, which wasn’t the case on this night. Lalonde did score Canadiens’ final goal, towards the end of the third, to complete a 4-0 Montreal win (and Georges Vézina shutout). As the Star had it, “Lalonde’s brilliant lone-handed shot finished the scoring.”

But if reporters present saw Lalonde score, none of them would seem to have noticed him spit his tobacco or laugh, and nor did they catch Forbes’ sputtering as he failed to foil him. That doesn’t mean that a spit-assisted goal isn’t part of hockey history which remains, after all, mostly a matter of the many moments, savoury or not, that go unrecorded.

Famous Five: Lined up from left, Newsy Lalonde, Lester Patrick, Odie Cleghorn, Frank Calder, and Cooper Smeaton, circa the … early 1930s? (Image: La Presse)

 

 

 

non-fungible number 9

Elbow Room: “Gordie ‘Pow!'” by Detroit artist Zelley was offered for sale as an NFT earlier this fall by the Hoe Foundation. (Image: Howe Foundation)

I lost track of the bidding soon after the bidding started, in October, on the Gordie Howe NFTs. If there was bidding. Was there? I wasn’t bidding, but I think people were, if I’m not mistaken, people who saw an opportunity to acquire exclusive works of art depicting one of the greatest hockey players ever to have played, for the purpose of … not hanging them on the wall, or anywhere, due to the non-fungibility of the works in question, as I understand it, which I don’t, entirely.

I’ve been slow on the NFT uptake, I confess. Trying to catch up. Gordie Howe’s token efforts snared my attention because (i) Gordie Howe and (ii) I’m always interested in the artwork that hockey inspires. I didn’t need to be seeking to acquire any of the vaporous masterworks on offer to activate my curiosity in the subject-matter and the history on which they draw. That came naturally.

Howe’s grandson, Travis Howe, is the founder of this feast — Mark Howe’s son. There’s a video you can watch that has Travis explaining the whole concept behind The Gentl9man 2021 NFT Art Collection. The idea, in short, is to be sharing “some really special stories that have true meaning to the Howe family” while raising money for the good causes that the Howe Foundation has long believed in and supported. I can get behind that, even if I’m not bidding: the Howe Foundation does worthy work in aid of both getting kids active and in backing women aspiring to make their way in the world of sports business.

Along with a reproduction of a sketch of Mr. Hockey’s own, there were eight works originally on offer in October, by a Detroit artist, Matt Zelley, a.k.a. just plain Zelley. Among them is a great piece of puck-pointillism, reproduced at the foot of this post; another portrays Gordie Howe as an oncoming locomotive — at least I think that’s the concept. Promised as a premium bonus to the lucky buyer of the poppy Roy Lichtenstein-inspired piece at the top of the post: “a game-used pair of Gordie’s elbow pads” currently on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Zelley’s interpretations of some of the landmarks of Howe lore are to your taste or not; all the works are up for viewing at the Howe Foundation site.

It’s not the commerce involved with these NFTs that I’m interested in, particularly, nor Zelley’s decisions as an artist. What I’m here for (sorry if you’re not) is the storytelling that’s behind the project, and the messages it’s sending — and ignoring. While there’s plenty to consider and to discuss in each of these Howe Zelleys, the one that catches my attention in particular is the vivid one we’re looking at above, the one titled “Gordie ‘Pow!’”

Let me just disclaim, up front, any desire to mess with Gordie Howe’s legacy. He remains one of hockey’s undeniable greats — Maurice Richard himself will be testifying to that a little further down. Howe’s talents were mountainous, as was his strength and his durability. I’m not denying any of that. He played the game at such a high level for such a long time, was an idol to so many, worked tirelessly as an ambassador of the game he loved, seems to have been just a great guy, so long as you were meeting him in circumstances in which you weren’t trying to take the puck away from him or otherwise stymie his progress on NHL ice.

But also? There’s no getting away from the fact that, on that ice, he was a clear and present danger to anyone who got in his way. Gordie Howe was violent and he was mean.

You don’t have to take my word for it. “Meanest player in the league,” Andy Bathgate called him in 1959, “uses all the tricks plus.” A sampling of the press Howe got when he first retired in 1971 might include Dave Anderson’s verdict in the New York Times: “Sure, this soft-spoken man was dirty. Some say the dirtiest.” Son Marty has called him (with, I guess, affection) “the toughest, meanest guy I’ve ever seen on a pair of skates.” Howe was often injured, we know; he also did a lot of injuring. I’ve written about both, including here and here.

Hockey, which is to say hockey people, long ago found ways to reconcile itself to and excuse the violence it tolerates within the game. One of them is to insist that assaults that take place on the ice are somehow different from those that occur elsewhere, beyond the confines of arena boards. (That this fiction has taken hold and, mostly, been accepted in the wider world is a magic no-one truly understands.) There’s a rhetorical trick hockey people like, too, the one that seeks to detach hockey players from the anti-social behaviours they sometimes perpetrate by emphasizing what wonderful people they are away from the game. I’ve written about this before — specifically in reference to Gordie Howe, in fact — without ever really understanding the logic at work. The Howe Foundation’s NFT project blithely embraces the contradiction by including the concept of [sic] gentl9manliness in the title of a collection that includes portraits of our hero punching and knocking out opponents.

In those works, Zelley honours and adds to another tradition of hockey’s tendency to downplay its own brutality, whether or not he’s actually aware it. “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is an actual cartoon, so it’s hard to blame it for doing (and doing well) what cartoons are meant to do: brighten, distort, exaggerate, spoof the real world for entertainment’s sake.

Here’re the rubric accompanying the piece in the Howe Foundation’s online gallery:

Gordie “Pow!”

“It’s better to give than to receive.”
— Gordie Howe

With playful colors and a comic-inspired style, a smiling Gordie Howe uses one of his infamous elbows on Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Contrary to popular belief, there was no bad blood between the two players. That myth began when Howe hit Richard coming across the line, and according to Howe, “he spun like a rocket and fell down.” Howe went on to explain, “He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.”

Where to begin? Also: how to begin, without sounding like a serious finger-wagging pedant? I guess maybe would I get going by pointing out that elbowing, infamous or otherwise, is a penalty, following up to ask why the act of knocking out an opponent, even rendered with a playful palette, would be one you’d want to spotlight? Yes, I think that’s how I’d do it.

Definitely looks like a headshot, too, that grinning Gordie has delivered here. We’re late to the scene, but I’d say that the Richard we’re seeing is unconscious, even before he’s down — which won’t be good for his head when it does hit the ice in the next (purely notional) panel. I guess if you were aiming to portray both Howe’s cheery nature and his grim record of administering concussions to opponents, this is how you’d do it, but again I’m going to fall back on questioning: why?

I know, I know: it’s comic-inspired, not an accurate portrayal, what’s the big fuss, why do I hate fun?

It just strikes me as stoutly strange that (i) this is the one of the (quote) really special stories that has true meaning to the Howe family and (ii) that no-one involved in the project saw any dissonance in turning hockey head trauma into a cartoon for a Howe-related project.

Mr. Hockey, after all, spent the last years of his life with dementia that, as son Marty talked about in 2012, was surely related to the injuries he suffered in his hockey-playing years. “You play 33 years at that level without a helmet,” the younger Howe told the Toronto Star’s Mark Zwolinski, “and things are going to happen.” Did he have CTE? It’s not clear; as far as I know the family didn’t donate Howe’s brain for study after his death in 2016 at the age of 88. In 2012, Marty Howe said that the Howes had no plans to do so.

Marty and Mark and their two other siblings, Murray and Cathy, did write an afterword to the autobiography that Howe published in 2014. My Story is a bright and entertaining package, written in the confident first-person; only on a back-end acknowledgments page does Howe credit Calgary writer Paul Haavardsrud for helping “to take the thoughts in my head and put them down on paper.” As John Branch wrote in a review of the book for the New York Times, the whole enterprise raises “at least two questions, both unanswered: What kind of damage did hockey do to Howe’s brain? And how does someone with dementia, which severely impacts memory, write a memoir?”

The afterword, which the Howe children presumably penned themselves, does actually attempt to rationalize the punishment and pain that were such prominent parts of their father’s professional brand. It’s almost endearing.

“How can someone who’s so kind and soft-spoken at home become so remorseless once he puts on skates,” they ask. Answer: “It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde duality that’s not easy to reconcile.”

It comes down to his professionalism. That’s what they believe. His job was to win; he did his job.

“He decided early in his career that to be successful in the NHL he’d need to give the opposition a reason to slow down when they came to get the puck. If that meant throwing an elbow or putting some lumber on a guy, then it seemed like fair game to him. After all, everybody in the NHL was being paid to be there, and the odd cut or bruise was just the cost of doing business.”

Here’s where differ from those earlier (and forthcoming) witness statements. “Ironically,” the Howe siblings propose,

it was the respect he had for other players that made him feel like he had a license to play as ruthlessly as he did. He wasn’t mean-spirited or dirty; he just figured that a few stitches or a knock to the ribs didn’t cause any real harm. If it gave him the extra split second he needed to make a play, then that was justification enough for him. In his mind, playing any other way would be shortchanging the team. Some people might not approve, but his tactics gave him the space he needed to operate for more than 30 years. There was definitely a method to his madness.

I can’t decide if the generosity of this reading outweighs its naïveté, or whether do they just cancel each other out? That the Howe children decided to address their father’s on-ice vehemence at all should be recognized — but then so should the fact that they then so studiously avoid any serious discussion of the head trauma that Gordie Howe suffered and administered even as they’re leading up to their mention of his “cognitive impairment” in the last few pages of the book.

The jolly anecdote that Zelley and company have attached to “Gordie ‘Pow!’” is, if nothing else, of a piece with the reputational reset that Mr. Hockey proposes.

I know, I know: the quote about the supposed bad blood between Detroit’s most famous number 9 and his Montreal counterpart is accurate: it’s something that Gordie Howe did indeed tell Dave Stubbs, then of the Montreal Gazette, in 2007. They were in Montreal, at a gala celebrating the charitable works of a mutual acquaintance Howe knew as “John” — Jean Béliveau. Most of the account Stubbs wrote focussed on the amicable relationship that those latter two enjoyed through the years. Here’s a fuller excerpt:

They fought hard, but within the rules during a time of bitter rivalries, when teams met each other 14 or more times per season. Neither recalls ever dropping the gloves against the other.

It was the late Rocket Richard, a fellow right-winger, that lore has Howe detesting.

“There was no dislike,” Howe said. “I respected him. I’d watch every move he made, if it could benefit my hockey. …

“They always thought there was bad blood because I hit him once coming across the line and he spun like a rocket and fell down. He wasn’t hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.

“I felt sorry for the Rocket. I never felt he enjoyed the game. If he wasn’t having a good night, he’d just as soon explode. That fellow didn’t know when to stop, did he? But I admired him.”

So much so that Howe named his dog for Richard. Surely the four-legged Rocket is a ferocious, brooding beast?

Howe leans in close.

“A toy poodle,” he whispered, his playfulness worn in a grin.

A great party piece, that last bit, if a little cruel. The pity, just before that, is interesting. As for Howe’s assertion that there was no antipathy between the two superstars — I’ll grant that it’s entirely likely and unsurprising — allowable, even — that at that late date, when Howe was 79, with almost half-a-century gone by since the two men last met on NHL ice, that’s how he chose to remember the way it once was, benevolently, generously, electing to settle back on the comforting chimera that as old rivals they two had engaged in honourable sportive struggle against one another with reverence and esteem as their mutual watchwords.

The historical record isn’t entirely contradictory — let’s just say that it has a finer grain to it.

Howe and Richard were fighting each other on the ice as early as 1949, when Richard was 27 and Howe was 20. Detroit and Montreal had a bad-tempered meeting that January at the Forum wherein Richard engaged in what the local Gazette rated as “determined slugfests” with Howe and Red Wing captain Sid Abel. In both cases, the Gazette decided, he was “on the short end of the punch-throwing.” The Rocket was hurt, too, in one of those melees, tearing a muscle in his hip.

Red Wing defenceman Red Kelly later recalled that the referee on the night, King Clancy, skated in to adjudicate when Howe and Richard first began to scruffle, calling off the players who were trying to separate the two. “Let ’em alone. Let ’em fight. Let’s see who is the best fighter,” Clancy said, by Kelly’s 1970 account. (Before it was all over — accidentally or not — Richard ended up punching Clancy, too.)

That wasn’t the only occasion on which Howe and Richard brawled. There was this time, too, which I don’t have a precise date for, though the details of the respective uniforms would seem to say it’s pre-1956:

Howe v. Richard: An undated photo of Detroit’s number 9 and Montreal’s. That’s Red Wing Marty Pavelich sitting atop the boards, which suggests that the photo was taken in 1956 or earlier.

However warmly Howe and/or members of his family have spoken of Richard in recent years, both men did see, in their time, see fit to putting some pricklier feelings on the page.

Here’s the Rocket writing about Howe in his 1971 Stan Fischler-mediated autobiography:

He was big and strong and skated with great ease. He could do what no other player in the league could do, shoot the puck from either the left or right side. I noticed Howe when he first joined the Red Wings in the late forties and he impressed me as a good, but not a great, hockey player.

That changed, with the years. “Looking back,” Richard says, “I would say that Howe is the best all-around hockey player I’ve ever seen, and that includes Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.”

The next paragraph, I guess, counts as … praise?

Another thing about Gordie that I experienced firsthand was that he was a dirty hockey player, not tough, mind you, but dirty — and he would take absolutely nothing from anybody. If you gave him a bad check, you could be sure he’d get even with you, in spades! But he wouldn’t start it. In that sense, Howe and I were the same. I would never hit anybody first if he hadn’t done anything to me before.

In their 2000 book, 9: Maurice Richard, Reluctant Hero, Chris Goyens, Frank Orr, and Jean-Luce Duguay quote Richard near the end of his career. “Howe is a great player, the best I ever played against, but he should hustle more. He doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as he could. He was a better all-round player than I was, maybe the best ever. But I think he should have scored more big goals, like in the playoffs.”

Finally, the 1995 memoir Howe produced with Tom DeLisle’s help is instructive, too, and offers more nuance on the relationship than what we’re getting from the Howe Foundation’s NFT catalogue. Billed as “an authorized autobiography by Gordie and Colleen Howe,” And … Howe! includes a chapter called SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT. Here’s the salient sub-head followed by Howe’s reminiscence as it appears on the page:

THE ROCKET AND GORDIE HAVE NEVER BEEN FRIENDS SINCE GORDIE BROKE THE ROCKET’S GOAL RECORD OF 544.

GORDIE: Things have changed but, at the time, I hated the old (bleep). Of course, he hated me too. There were a few guys he hated worse than me, like [Ted] Lindsay and Stan Mikita. But that was then. Now, Rocket and I are pretty good friends. We do a few things together, and he and his now deceased wife, Lucille, were our first choices to be included in a book Colleen produced a few years ago about former players and their families, entitle After The Applause. So I think that shows our respect for him.

Rocket said once in the paper that “Gordie might have more goals, but my goals were more important.” I told somebody, “I don’t want to fight with Rocket, but I’d like to say that his goals meant bugger-all to me.” Essentially he’s such a proud man. He was a goalscorer, I was a goalscorer. I had to take him out, he had to take me out. That was our job from the blueline in. Rocket was such a powerful man. He had one habit I perceived, however, he would come down and cut across the blueline because he liked to get to the center of the ice and shoot. Everything was quick wrist shots. So one time, as he came across the blueline, I really nailed him. We ended up in a fight.

This is the 1949 clash described earlier. As the Detroit Free Press saw it, “Richard and Howe met heavily inside the Detroit blueline and came up fighting. They kept swinging lustily with bare fists and tumbled to the ice.”

Back to Howe’s telling:

There was a flurry of people around. Somebody pushed me from behind and I went down on one knee. And for some reason, Rocket was under my left knee. I waited, and when he looked up, I popped him. I whacked him a pretty good one. Then all hell broke loose, and when they got us apart we were yapping like jaybirds at one another. Then Sid Abel poked his nose in, and said to the Rocket, “Aw, you big frog, you finally got what you were asking for.” And Rocket goes — BAM! — and breaks Sid’s nose. Then I started to laugh, it looked so darn funny. Then Sid went in an did a job on the Rocket, again.

Rocket was talking about that episode a little while ago. He said, “I took on your whole damn team, no wonder I lost.” Even in a loss, he could be so proud. The guy is unbelievable.”

Full Count: Zelley’s “1,071 Pucks,” another NFT that went up for sale earlier this fall, with the number recognizing the goals Howe scored in the NHL and WHA.(Image: Howe Foundation)

a broad street bully reconsiders: regrets, he had a few

Born in Waldheim, Saskatchewan, on a Friday of this date in 1949, Dave Schultz is 72 today. He scored some goals in his 11-year NHL career, but mostly the man they called the Hammer is remembered as the muscle behind the Philadelphia Flyers’ back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in the early 1970s, which is to say the fist. In helping his team claim their second straight Cup in 1975, Schultz amassed 472 minutes in penalty minutes, a single-season record in NHL annals.

“The Flyers’ home, the Spectrum, is on Broad Street in Philadelphia,” Dick Brown wrote in Weekend Magazine the summer before that spree, “and newspapers have referred to Dave Schultz as ‘Broad Street’s biggest bully.’ Okay, then, what is it that goes into the making of a bully? As far as Dave is concerned, the answer is obvious: his fighting is his success. With all that it’s done for him, it would be big news if he decided not to fight.”

Schultz was 24, then, with a five-year contract in hand and “a fine, five-bedroom home across the river from Philadelphia in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.” He was “at an all-time heavy, all-time healthy 196 pounds on a frame of six feet one.” He smoked two or three cigarettes a day during hockey’s season, Brown reported, more in the summer; he liked beer and rye. “A star’s life,” the story went, “for a guy who might not be a star if he didn’t fight.”

After Philadelphia, Schultz carried on to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, where he continued to hammer away as a King, a Penguin, a Sabre.

So surprise was general across the hockey world when Schultz published his autobiography in 1981, a year after his retirement from the NHL. Schultz had Stan Fischler shaping his sentences for The Hammer: Confessions of a Hockey Enforcer, and together they questioned hockey’s propensity for violence, exploring the regrets Schultz now felt for the hockey life he’d led and weighing the question of what might be done to change the culture in which he and his Flyers thrived. (They also, incidentally, accused Schultz’s former Philadelphia captain, Bobby Clarke, of cowardice.)

“Hockey can be the most exciting sport on earth and the most artistic as well,” Schultz declared, to sum up his 200-page case, “but only when properly played and administered. Tragically, it has degenerated into a sloppy, brawl-filled mess. I certainly do not deny my own contribution to the problem, which I have tried to spell out as clearly as possible in this book. I hope that I succeeded and that the NHL will, in the future, sell hockey, not blood.”

 

leapin’ lou

Manhattan Mauler: Born in Guelph, Ontario, on a Wednesday of this date in 1932, Lou Fontinato was renowned for … well, if you know anything about his nine seasons in the NHL, mostly with the Rangers, finally with Canadiens, you know that he excelled at goading, inciting, shedding his gloves, punching, being punched. “If there were a prize for refrigerated misbehavior,” Arthur Daley wrote in The New York Times in 1956, “it’s a cinch that Louie the Leaper would win it.” Fans loved him, and it was often reported, too, what a great guy he was, despite the violence he perpetrated. “A sweetheart — away from the rink,” Stan Fischler once advised. Lou Fontinato died in 2016 at the age of 84. (Image: Tex Coulter, 1958)

under review: reading your way through a hockey hiatus

Is it really 50 days since the pandemic stopped hockey, and everything else, except for in Belarus? Yes, that’s right, it was, this Thursday past — two score and ten scoreless days since the rinks closed up on March 12. Does it feel like a hundred days? Two hundred? As David Remnick was saying on The New Yorker’s podcast a couple of weeks into this strange spring, the loss of big-league sports is not — by far — the worst we’ve sustained, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bitter.

In the absence of hockey, and everything else (except in Belarus), it’s the questions that multiply to fill the ever-expanding void. They’re bulky and awkward, mostly unanswerable, and all but impossible to shepherd out of mind: How did this happen? Will everything be okay? When does it end?

Some of them are smaller, too, with a mosquito’s whine, no less nagging for being non-essential. Does hockey matter? What, really, are we missing? Were this year’s Leafs any good, does anyone recall? How do I know if my sourdough starter is still alive? Did you see those 1980s Oilers on Sportsnet the other night — how great were they? Not to mention Don Wittman on the play-by-play. Also: should I wash my hands again now? Also: anybody been able to zoom in on Ron MacLean’s good-looking bookshelves to see just what he’s got back there?

Hockey did focus itself on books in the first late-March weeks of isolation, back when we were still getting used to distracting ourselves. Remember? Back when we were focussed on tricks with rolls of toilet paper, before advent of multi-paned Zoom conclaves of housebound NHLers really got going? I suppose that people are still reading books, quietly, thoughtfully, off-screen, but in those days, the hockey world seemed to be as intent on talking books, hockey and otherwise, as much as zone starts or PDO.

San Jose Sharks captain Logan Couture started a book club.

Washington’s goaltender-on-hiatus Braden Holtby made a steeple of the books he’d been reading, or his wife Brandi did — she was the one, anyway, who tweeted out the photo:

In Seattle, the NHL’s newest franchise revealed … no, not the team’s much-anticipated name, that’s still to come — when “the mood is right,” as Greg Wyshinski of ESPN reports. The should-be Metropolitans did proffer some literary advice, even if it wasn’t exactly adventurous.

Hockey Canada weighed in:

Others turned their cameras to their shelves to advocate for hockey-minded favourites, historian and L.A. Kings writer Mike Commito had some counsel:

To which some of us answered back:

I added a novel to this massif of mine; I could have elevated more. I’ve written elsewhere about hockey fiction, superior and not-so-much. Ranking the novels I’ve enjoyed most of all, and learned from, the ones that rise above the regular, I tend to back up Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season (1985) with books like Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (1987), The Divine Ryans (1990) by Wayne Johnston, Fred Stenson’s Teeth (1994), and Mark Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya! (1997). Pete McCormack’s sweet and underappreciated novel Understanding Ken(1998) would be on it, and so would The Good Body by Bill Gaston (2000). And, from 2011, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist.

So much for the best. What about the rest? A couple of years ago, when I was working hard to read allthe hockey books, every one of them — well, I didn’t do that, is what happened: I failed. It turns out that there are just too many, and not enough time, plus while a whole lot of them are vivid and insightful and even beautifully rendered, many others are … not.

I did read a lot, though. And for all the hockey narrative I made it through, I acquired a whole lot more, much of which I have shelved here behind me, with the fiction closest to hand, in case of emergency. It’s not all novels; this is a library rich with juvenile and genre editions, mass-market, pulp, serialized, and self-published sagas, too. Colonizing three shelves and part of a fourth behind the desk I’m sitting at, they’re all here, the great and the good and the just-entertaining mixed in with the middling, the muddled, the dumbly offensive, the merely harmless. It’s some of the latter that I’m thinking of paying some attention to here, in this space, over this next little stretch of our Great Hiatus, with a particular focus on the made-it-halfway-through and the couldn’t-get-myself-past-the-second-page. If now’s not the time to take a walk on the pulpier, predictable, prosaic side of hockey’s library, when is?

That’s not to say that some the fiction that comes under consideration in this upcoming series isn’t deftly done, incisive, insightful. We’ll look for that, without necessarily counting on finding it. The cover-art we’ll see along the way will be, I’ll mention, as fantastic as this. How far will we wander, through just how much turgid prose, down how many clichéd plotlines? We’ll see. No judgment … unless, no, I guess it’s too late for that. No harm, then — that’s what I’ll say: no harm intended. I’m not here to blame or berate or bicker. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the books discussed here, I forgive you. Same thing if you happen to have written any of them. So: stay tuned.

 

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.

henri richard: a reader’s companion

16 + 9: John Taylor’s 1960 still life with skates and sweaters, left behind by brothers (and Canadiens legends) Henri and Maurice Richard.

“Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, doesn’t want to be a little gale in the wake of a rumbling hurricane. He wants to swirl through the National Hockey League under his own power, creating his own storms, if any, and reaping the respect of his rivals strictly on his own merits.”

That was the opening to a Vince Lunny cover story for Hockey Pictorial in March of 1956, towards the end of the younger Richard’s rookie season in the NHL. It didn’t take long, of course, for Henri, who died on Friday at the age of 84, to skate up a storm of his very own alongside Maurice, 14 years his elder. It was only two years later that Milt Dunnell took to Hockey Pictorial’s columns with Maurice’s take on how Henri was faring in the league. “The Rocket gives the opinion faster than he breaks over a blueline,” Dunnell wrote in April of 1958: ‘Henri is a better skater than I ever was. He’s a better stickhandler, he’s a better puck-carrier. Henri is a better hockey player.”

Rocket’s view wasn’t, perhaps, universal at the time — Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake, for one, wasn’t yet willing to declare Henri supreme among Richards. All these years later, the question of which brother was the more valuable player might well still start a debate that wouldn’t necessarily finish. What we do know is that Henri played 20 seasons with Montreal, amassing 1,175 points in 1,436 games, regular season and playoffs, winning an unmatched 11 Stanley Cups along the way. He captained the Canadiens from 1971 through to his retirement in 1975. The team retired his number, 16, that year; he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

It’s true that Henri’s literary legacy doesn’t measure up to Maurice’s. A quick check of the bookshelf tells the tale: the elder Richard’s life and riotous times have been the focus of at least 12 books over the years, from Gerry Gosselin’s Monsieur Hockey (1950) to Jean-Marie Pellerin’s Maurice Richard: L’Idole d’un Peuple (1998) to The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard (2009) by Benoît Melançon. No-one (to date) has published Henri’s biography or devoted a volume to his place in hockey or Quebec history.

That’s not to say the younger Richard doesn’t figure in more general histories of the game. Stan Fischler’s 1971 Hab history The Flying Frenchmen, for instance, delves into the brothers’ relationship during Henri’s early days in the NHL and offers up this telling anecdote:

The Canadiens were in the midst of a workout when Henri rounded the net at full speed from one side and Maurice approached on the same track from the other direction. They collided violently and both fell to the ice unconscious. When they were finally revived, both were escorted to the first-aid room where Maurice needed 12 stitches to close his wound and his kid brother, six stitches.

Then, in a masterful understatement, Maurice intoned: “You’d better watch yourself. Henri. You might get hurt.”

Henri rates a chapter in Michael Ulmer’s Canadiens Captains (1996). And he’s a voice throughout Dick Irvin the Younger’s 1991 oral history, The Habs. That’s where you’ll find Henri doing his best to explain his infamous 1971 outburst wherein he called Al MacNeil the worst coach he’d ever played for:

“I didn’t really mean it, but it came out because I was mad. Al was a good guy. But I was just mad, and they made a lot of things about that in all the papers. Even Guy Lafleur, in his book. He said I said to MacNeil that he shouldn’t coach the Canadiens because he didn’t speak French, and all that shit. I never said that in my life.”

Trent Frayne’s Henri essay in his 1968 anthology of hockey profiles, It’s Easy, All You Have To Do is Win is worth seeking out. While you’re arranging that, maybe settle in with the inimitable Frayne’s 1958 Maclean’s Henri profile, which is archived here.

So far as odes and obituaries published in the days since Henri’s death, recommended readings would start with this piece by Dave Stubbs at NHL.com, which includes reflections from Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer.

Tom Hawthorn’s Globe and Mail obituary is deftly done and deserves a read, along with Roy MacGregor’s reminiscence, also in the Globe, which is here.

If you read French, take a look at Gaétan Lauzon’s coverage in La Presse, ici. Richard Goldstein wrote a New York Times obituary, published Saturday — that’s here.

If you missed Friday’s broadcast of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, you can download the March 6 podcast here (and should) to listen to Carol Off’s conversation with Henri’s Canadiens teammate Ken Dryden. It gets going at the 37.40 mark.

On Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada opened with Ron MacLean’s conversation with Dick Irvin, which includes his thoughts on the origins of the nickname Pocket Rocket. There’s tape of that here, and worth your attention, if you didn’t catch it on the night.

One more? That would be Michael Farber’s Richard tribute at TSN, which you can find over this way.

(Top image: John Taylor, about 1960, silver salts on film, gelatin silver process, MP-1999.5.5032.4, © McCord Museum)

boston brouhahas

Hub Hype: The tribute Stan Fischler pays to Boston’s Bruins in this 1971 book is largely pictorial, by way of Dan Baliotti’s photographs. Setting up all the action shots of Orr, Espositos, Sandersons, and Cashmans, Fischler does, in considering the essence of the Bruin brand, quote the inimitable Peter Gzowski. That goes like this: “Although every team in the NHL has come to personify its home city, none has held more consistently to a single style, over the years, than the Bruins. They are delicate as stevedores … at a poker table they are the burly roisterous redhead in the corner, ready to give the first man who says he misplayed a hand a good rap in the mouth. They seem to take as much pleasure out of knocking someone down as in scoring a goal. The Bruins have played the game with a joy-through-brawling that is as Boston Irish as a last hurrah.”

hockey hair, jack crawford edition

Hair Apparent: From left, these Bruins of the early 1940s line up as Jack Crawford, Dit Clapper, Flash Hollett, Des Smith, Jack Shewchuk, and Red Hamill.

So as previously discussed, Jack Crawford, Boston defenceman of yore, was bald — “very, very,” according to Stan Fischler — and that’s why he wore a helmet. There’s lots in the way of anecdote to back all this up in the hockey books, if you get around to consulting them. Longtime Beantown broadcaster Fred Cusick mentions it in his 2006 memoir, Voice of the Bruins, for instance: Crawford wore the helmet “for cosmetic reasons,” he writes, “having lost his hair as a young man.” Turns out Ultimate Hockey (1999) quotes Crawford himself (no source offered) on the origin story: “When I played football as a teenager for St. Mike’s, the paint would peel off inside of my helmet and the doctors say that some chemical in the paint triggered the skin infection that caused all of my hair to fall out over the years.”

It is true that in most of the photographs you’ll find — the ones I’ve seen, anyway — Crawford has his helmet firmly in place. Also that — as in this one, from the Hockey Hall of Fame’s archive, or this one — from what you can discern of what’s beneath the headpiece, his hair looks decidedly scant. But then (also in the Hall), there’s this photo showing quite a coif.

It’s the one you’ll see reproduced, as it happens in Andrew Podnieks’ voluminous historical ledger Players (2003). Podnieks, who’s typically very detailed in his biographical sketches, makes no mention in Crawford’s entry of any hair loss — the defenceman wore his helmet, he maintains, because he’d suffered a concussion early on in his career. Again, there’s no source provided for this.

To yesterday’s question of whether Crawford was bald but then grew back his hair; acquired a toupée; and/or had his photograph touched up — well, I don’t really have any definitive answer on that. If only to further/muddle the mystery, I can offer up for examination the photograph that tops the post. There’s no date on it, but given the players lined up, it would have to have been taken between 1940 and 1942. That’s Crawford on the far left, wearing number 6 and what looks to be as healthy a head of hair as Dit Clapper’s impressive do alongside him. Clapper’s, we know, is authentic, and Crawford’s (can we agree?) looks genuine enough. Could it be artful? I can’t really decide. Zooming in, below, you can see that an editorial hand seems to have darkened the horizon of Clapper’s hairline to distinguish it from the background. In Crawford’s case, I go back and forth. If someone did go to the trouble of painting it in — well, then, all I can say is bravo.

(Top photo, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

early adapter

Up And Away: Boston defenceman Jack Crawford lifts off in early 1939, during his first full season as a Bruin.

Lots of NHLers donned helmets in the 1930s: call it the Ace Bailey Effect. Bailey, of course, was a fleet Toronto winger who nearly died after Boston’s Eddie Shore knocked him down in December of 1933 and his head hit the ice. Carried off the ice at Boston Garden, Bailey’s survival was very much in doubt as he underwent the two skull surgeries that ended up saving his life, though he never played another hockey game.

Many players across the league adopted helmets in the months that followed; lots of them ended up abandoning them after a brief trial.

The Bruins actually had a regular helmet-wearer before Bailey went to ice in George Owen, who served as the team’s captain in 1931-32.

Afterwards, they had Jack Crawford, who was Boston’s captain for the 1945-46 season. He didn’t start his career as a Bruins’ defenceman until 1938, and he arrived in the league with headgear in place.

Born on this date in 1916, Crawford hailed from the western Ontario hamlet of Dublin, not far up the road from Howie Morenz’s hometown of Mitchell. He would go on to play all of his 13 NHL seasons with Boston, winning two Stanley Cups along the way, in 1939 and 1941. In 1946, he was named to the NHL’s 1st All-Star Team. He died in 1973 at the age of 56.

For Crawford, wearing a helmet was a matter (at least in part) of modesty. It all stemmed from a youthful mishap caused by … a helmet. He played schoolboy football in Toronto in the early 1930s — possibly at St. Mike’s, where he was a Junior B Buzzer? Along with several teammates, he suffered a reaction to the paint used on the football helmets, causing the loss of his hair, and he wore a leather hockey helmet ever after to cover the lack.

Just how bald was he?

A Boston Globe article from 1938 explaining the situation says “practically.”

“Jack very, very bald,” Stan Fischler has written. “The helmet did a very, very good job of concealing his pate.”

“Completely bald,” Fischler has also said, in a different book, explaining that he was “so embarrassed by it that he decided to wear the headpiece.”

A reminiscence from a 1970 edition of The Boston Globe recalled this:

Whenever his helmet was knocked off the capacity crowd would react when they saw his totally bald head. There was just something eerie about hearing 14,000 gasp “Oooooh!”

All of which makes this photograph from NHL.com a bit of a … head-scratcher. Did he at some point manage to grow this array? Acquire a hairpiece? I can’t say so with any real authority, but spying as closely as I can, my bet is on the stranger still possibility that somebody — by request or on their own initiative? — may have done some inky photo-doctoring here to restore Jack Crawford’s lost thatch.

happy birthday, 1986: fuhrsie was late getting back in the net, and smitty just tried to cut the corner

It was his birthday, of course, happened to be. I can’t say how much that multiplied the misery for the man in question, if at all, or how much of a sting he still feels, 32 years on from that day in 1986 — like yesterday, April’s last — when, as a rookie defenceman for the Edmonton Oilers, he scored what has become hockey’s most famous self-inflicted goal, which I (obviously) don’t have to specify further due to how notorious it is, though maybe I should all the same (just to be clear) by naming the man now synonymous with putting a puck past your own surprised goaltender: Steve Smith.

Calgary was in Edmonton that long-ago day, playing Game 7 of the Smythe Division Final. Smith was 63 games into his career with the Oilers, who were hunting their third Stanley Cup in a row. He’d just turned — was still not finished turning — 23. The score was tied 2-2 when, at 5:14 of the third period, Smith found himself behind his own net, rapping the puck off Grant Fuhr’s leg, into that net, to score the goal that not only won the reviled Flames the game but eliminated the Oilers from the playoffs.

Owning It: Smith sags, Flames celebrate

So, a big mistake. But other defencemen have done what Steve Smith did, in important games, as have lots of forwards. He’s the only one to have had his entire career as a hockey player reduced to a single misdirected pass. As recently as 2016, a writer in a major American magazine referred to Smith as having suffered “perhaps the most devastating embarrassment the NHL has ever seen.”Really — ever? How is it that his goal has become both the exemplar for hockey self-scoring and, for Smith, the act that has come to define an otherwise distinguished 16-year career on NHL bluelines to those of us who were watching the game in the 1980s? And how can that be fair?

I take this all a little personally. Smith is a player I’ve followed with special interest since he first skated into the NHL. At first my attention was almost entirely nominal. He’s not much older than me, and grew up in Cobourg, Ontario, just to the south of where I was in Peterborough. I ended up taller; he managed to win many more Stanley Cups than I ever could. It wasn’t hard to imagine his career as my own. No problem at all: I’ve got way more imagination, in fact, than I do actual hockey skills, so it was easy to fancy myself out there, numbered 5, in William-of-Orange/Oiler colours, alongside the most exciting players of the age, Gretzky and Messier and Kurri and Coffey. Smith wasn’t exciting, but I liked his lanky style, which had just a hint, in those early years, of my own trying-too-hard clumsiness. I felt for him in 1986, and maybe even thought I could help him shoulder the burden. I couldn’t, of course — how could I? For a long time, years, any time I got on the ice for a beer-league game I did think demon thoughts about shooting the puck past my own goaltender midway through the third period. I never did it, though I’m pretty sure some of my teammates expected me to, also — especially the goaltenders.

•••

Smith’s old goal is old news, but it’s also (like everything else) as current and quick-to-the-fore as your Google search window. Search (go on) and the page that beams up with an efficiency that’s easy to mistake for eagerness shows Smith prostrate on the ice after the goal and tearful in the dressing room.

The goal has eternal life, of course, on YouTube. Funny Moments In Sports — Steve Smith Scores On Himself the footage there tends to be titled, and the commentaries run on and on. Some of them do their best to exonerate Smith —

Grant Fuhr should have been hugging the post when Smith attempted his pass

— while others are more interested in forensic dissections:

After about 50 viewings over 20 years, I finally see how it happened… Fuhr’s stick came downwards just as Smith passed the puck, and it went off Fuhr’s stick and in, Smith thought there was a lane there to clear it cause Fuhr’s stick was up at the time… does that sound right?

There’s every degree of pity, and plenty of character-witnessing—

Poor guy

if i didnt know any better it looks almost as if that was purposely done. but still i feel sorry for smith

this isnt funny

i played for steve smith. greatest guy in the world.

People enjoy the goal as entertainment —

lol you know whats funny. next season, when the oilers played the flames in the saddledome, flames fans would yell “SHOOOOT!!” when smith was behind his net looking for a play LOLOLOL. by the way, the 07 stanley cup was won by almost the exact same “anti-play”

and also count it as revenge —

Steve Smith is also the guy who made a dirty play that took Pavel Bure into the boards and hurt his knee. Bure was never the same again. Smith took out the most exciting player in the game at that time, what a jerk.

A conclusion drawn by some online commentators on the Smith goal?

oilers suck.

More formal reviews of what happened were plentiful, of course. Terry Jones was one who described the goal for newspaper readers the next morning with minimal drama:

When Steve Smith passed the puck from behind his net and hit goaltender Grant Fuhr on the back of his left leg, the puck bounced into the net, breaking a 2-2 tie and breaking the backs of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

Jones wrote for The Edmonton Sun, so the headline went for maximum blare:

BIGGEST BLUNDER EVER?

For a lede he went with “one of the biggest bonehead plays in the history of all sport.” There was a lot of that. Infamyis another  word that repeats through subsequent accounts of the goal, almost as abundantly as gaffe. Mentions of mortal woundsand witness protection programsfollow on allusions to the caprice of the hockey gods. The Oilers’ collective overconfidencewas seen early on as a contributing factor to what happened to them via Smith’s own goal, along with their arrogance.

Smith’s birthday featured prominently in the coverage, e.g. Rex MacLeod’s Toronto Star lede asserting that he will never forget the one in which he aged a lifetime.

Often recalled in the aftermath was the fact that Smith only played that night because Lee Fogolin was injured.

Flames’ winger Perry Berezan got the credit for the goal as the last Calgary player to touch the puck. “I think I am the only man in history to score a series-winning goal from the bench,” he said later. “I had dumped the puck into the Edmonton zone when I was front of my own bench, and I didn’t even see it go in. I remember how strange it was on the bench when the goal was scored. It was quiet. We were asking, What just happened?and guys were saying, Steve Smith bounced the puck off of Fuhr. It’s a goal!

That’s a later take, so far as I can determine. On the night, Berezan was quoted as saying, “This is too unbelievable to be true” and “I couldn’t dream it any better.”

There was wide acknowledgement in those contemporary accounts that Berezan was the only native-born Edmontonian on Calgary’s roster, and that his birthday was Christmas Day, following which he grew up as an Oilers’ fan. Also: his uncle was the organist at the Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum.

Berezan’s sympathy took year’s to emerge into the wild: until 2016, in fact, when Ben Arledge at ESPN The Magazine stirred the grave of Smith’s unmeant goal. This is the piece wherein you’ll see Smith’s mortification rated “the most devastating” the NHL has ever witnessed; other than that, it’s plausible. Berezan, interestingly, tells Arledge that he wanted to say something to Smith back in ’86, but he was 21, and some of the Flames veterans told him never to feel sorry for a beaten opponent, and so he kept quiet, not a word. “But,” he says, “I felt terrible for the guy.”

I doubt that Lanny McDonald was one of those unnamed veterans implicated here — that just doesn’t sound like Lanny. In the moment, right after it was over, McDonald made clear that Smith really had no choice in the matter. “When I saw the goal go in,” McDonald confided in the Calgary dressing room that night, “I couldn’t believe it. Then I felt it was meant to be. We did a lot of praying in this room and God finally answered our prayers.”

Huge, if true.

At the time, the Oilers seemed to have no inkling that He’d forsaken them. Over in their room, they were still focussed on the passion of Steve Smith.

“It’s not his fault,” Wayne Gretzky was saying after the Oilers had failed to tie it up. “One goal did not lose these playoffs.”

Rex MacLeod of The Toronto Star described him and several of his teammates as “red-eyed from weeping. “It was an unfortunate goal,” Gretzky said. “We tried not to let it bother us. We tried to keep our energy at a high level and I think we did. It was a big disappointment, but I’ve had a few before. It hurts when you’re good enough to win and you expect to win. That’s tough, but we lost fair and square to a team with a lot of heart.”

“I don’t think anyone in this room should be pointing a finger at another guy,” Gretzky also said. “I think you should look yourself in the mirror.

That raw-eyed 99 from just now I imagine standing there with his gear only half-off, naked to the shoulderpads, sadly sockfooted. But by the time Robin Finn of The New York Times got to studying him, he was showered and dressed. “His face freshly scrubbed and every burnished hair in place,” Finn wrote, “he stood and faced wave upon wave of microphones and pointed questions. He wore a white shirt and a brown tie flecked with dots of royal colors, and flecked, too, with stray tears. But Gretzky was in control, and the only evidence of his distress was in the fluttering of his eyelids as he politely answered all queries concerning his dethroning.”

Grant Fuhr said, “It was right on the back of my leg. I was trying to get back in the net, but I didn’t expect it to go through the crease.” He told someone else, “I can never recall a goal going in in like that. You never expect something like that. I’m not real big on losing.”

Smith played not another second of the third period following the goal he scored on Berezan’s behalf. That was Edmonton coach Glen Sather’s decision, of course. “I feel sorry for Smith,” he told reporters when it was all over, “but I told him he can’t let it devastate him. He’s gonna be a good hockey player. I still think we’re a great hockey club, but I guess we still have some growing to do.”

Smith was devastated, but that didn’t stop him from facing the press. His eyes were wet and red, according to most accounts; Al Strachan, then of The Globe and Mail, has him “sobbing.” Either way, he would be roundly commended for failing to hide himself away. “Sooner or later I have to face it,” he said. Of course he was expected to explain what had happened. “I was just trying to make a pass out front to two guys circling,” an Associated Press dispatch has him saying. “It was a human error. I got good wood on it, it just didn’t go in the direction I wanted.”

Was there not one of those scribbling correspondents who might have stepped up to give the man a hug?

I guess not. Smith went on talking. “I’ve got to keep on living,” the papers all reported next day. “I don’t know if I’ll ever live this down, but I have to keep on living. The sun will come up tomorrow.”

It did, revealing new newspaper analyses of what Smith had wrought. George Vecsey of The New York Times called it a “true disaster.” Another reporter there tracked down Rangers’ defenceman Larry Melynk. He’d started the season as an Oiler, only to lose Sather’s confidence and have Smith supplant him before a trade took him to New York. “I would have fired it around the boards,” Melnyk opined. “Just stay with my game. Shoot it around the boards.” He wasn’t gloating, though. “What happened to him could have happened to anybody.”

There were examinations of what had gone wrong with the Oilers for every taste, including the worst possible. David Johnston of The Gazette felt sure that once “hockey pathologists” got around to conducting an autopsy, they would discover that the team had been suffering from “cancers” of both the soul and the mind, which would account for their having (“like Ernest Hemingway”) “turned their formidable weapons on themselves and committed suicide.”

•••

After I published my book Puckstruck in 2014, I had several conversations with passersby at bookstore events who saw my name on the cover and lit up under the lightbulb that appeared over their heads.

Them: Hey. You played for the Oilers.
Me: No, no, not me, different guy. Better hockey player in terms of … everything hockey. And I go by Stephen, mostly.
Them: Oh. So you wrote Steve Smith’s biography?

No. That’s a book, so far, that’s still to be published. Smith hasn’t seen fit to/hasn’t had time for/has no interest in autobiographying — maybe one day? Several other frontline Oilers who’ve written memoirs have, of course, revisited that night in ’86.

Start with Kevin Lowe, whose autobiography/history of Edmonton hockey was guided by Stan and Shirley Fischler. Champions (1988) has this to say:

Steve Smith, our big young defenseman who had replaced the injured Fogie, was behind our net in the left corner looking to make our standard fast-break play. That means the puck goes up the ice pretty quick. Unfortunately, Steve kind of bobbled the puck a bit and he never did get good wood or a handle on it. Since he knew that the objective of the play was to do it as quickly as possible, he moved the rubber without having all the control he should. The puck just sprayed off his stick, hit the back of Grant’s left leg and went into the net. Just like that!

Here’s Jari Kurri, from 17 (2001), in an autobiography he authorized himself to write with Ari Mennander and Jim Matheson:

He tried a long cross-ice pass, but it bounced off the leg of Fuhr and into the net. Fuhr wasn’t hugging the post and Smith was a little too adventuresome. When the puck went in, Smith dove to the ice, covering his face, looking like he wanted the ice to open and swallow him up.

Grant Fuhr has published a couple of books of his own, starting with a manual for would-be puckstops, Fuhr On Goaltending, written with Bob Mummery’s aid and published in 1988. The Smith goal might seem like a perfect teaching moment for such a project as this, but there’s no mention of it, not on the page headed Asleep At The Switch, and not in Communication, either. “Be alert, concentrate on the puck, and stay in the game,” Fuhr advises in the former; in the latter, he specifically references teammates handling the puck behind the net. But only, as it turns out, to remind novice goalkeeps that a defenceman back there must be kept informed about incoming opponents. “Keep up the chatter,” he says.

In 2014, with Bruce Dowbiggin lending a hand, the goaltender published a fuller memoir. But Grant Fuhr: The Story of a Hockey Legend doesn’t go into even as much detail when it comes to “the lovely Steve Smith goal” as Fuhr did the night of. The playoffs, Fuhr concedes, ended on “a crushing note,” which marked “kind of a gloomy end to a gloomy month:” his father had died two weeks earlier. Next up: the Oilers were only a few days into their off-season when Sports Illustrated published an exposé alleging cocaine use by sundry Oilers, including Fuhr.

“That month,” he concludes, “kind of turned everything bad.”

Number 99 got his account out in Gretzky: An Autobiography (1990), which he crafted with Rick Reilly’s help. Here’s how they frame the goal:

Steve Smith was this big, good-looking defenseman of ours, only twenty-three years old, a future star, a Kevin Lowe protégé. He is a real smart player, but that night he made a mistake. He took the puck in our own corner and tried to clear it across the crease: the cardinal no-no in hockey. It’s like setting a glass of grape juice on your new white cashmere rug. You could do it, but what’s the percentage in it? Without a single Flame around, the puck hit the back of Grant’s left calf and caromed back into our net. Hardly anybody in the arena saw it but the goal judge did. The Flames suddenly led 3-2. It was a horrible, unlucky, incredible accident, but it happened. Steve came back to the bench and, for a minute, looked like he’d be all right. But then he broke down in tears.

The fact that Gretzky’s most recent book, 99 Stories of the Game (2016, assist to Kirstie McLellan Day), makes only passing mention of Smith, and none of his infamous goal, might seem to signal that the story has been wholly written, nothing more to say. Two books from 2015 undermine that notion.

I briefly held out some hope that Gail Herman’s Who Is Wayne Gretzky? might prove to be an existential tell-all by 99’s rogue therapist, but it’s nothing like that.

It is, instead, a handsome 106-page biography intended for younger readers. It’s abundantly illustrated by Ted Hammond and (if it does say so itself) “fun and exciting!” The young readers it’s intended for, I’d have to say, would non-Canadian and hockey-oblivious. If you are such a youthful person, an 11-year-old, say, living on a far-flung Scotland Hebride that wifi has yet to reach, and yet still, somehow, you’ve developed a curiosity about hockey that so far hasn’t divulged what exactly Brantford, Ontario’s own paragon could do and did, then this is just the book for you, congratulations, and hold on: you are going to learn a lot about Gretzky.

You’re also going to come away with a full understanding of Smith’s renowned goal. Chapter 8 is the where you’ll find what you’re after on that count, the one entitled “Dynasties and Dating.” The latter has to do with what followed after Wayne went to a basketball game in 1987 in Los Angeles and this happened: “American actress and dancer Janet Jones came over to say hello.” More important for our purposes here is what happens two pages earlier, back on the ice as the Oilers battle for the 1986 Cup, and well, guess what.

To Herman, no matter what Steve Smith did, the puck had its own agenda:

Oilers defenseman Steve Smith skated to the net to stop a goal by the Flames. He tried to clear the puck. But the puck hit the Oilers’ goalie, Grant Fuhr, on the leg. Then it bounced into the net.

The graphic generosity Herman pays to Smith is worth noting, too: in Chapter Eight’s six pages, he features in no fewer than three line-drawings, which is as many as Janet Jones gets, just before she becomes Mrs. Gretzky in Chapter Nine.

The Battle of Alberta can’t compete when it comes to illustrations. But what Mark Spector’s 2015 history of the years of Oiler-Flame rivalry lacks in artwork, it makes up with what may be the definitive post mortem, devoting a full 15 pages to what happened that night in a chapter titled “The Right Play The Wrong Way: Oiler Steve Smith’s Unforgettable Goal.”

Spector begins by recounting how, in the immediate aftermath of what he calls “the worst experience of [Smith’s] life,” the wretched defenceman found a grim joke to offer. “I got good wood on it,” Spector has him telling reporters. “I thought the puck went in fast.”

Maybe that’s right. But looking back at the contemporary accounts, only the first phrase seems to have appeared in any of the immediate coverage of the game in the spring of 1986.

Reporters at the scene who took down “I got good wood on it” tend to have heard what came next as “it just didn’t go in the direction I wanted.” (Kevin Paul Dupont of The Boston Globe heard “but not in the direction I hoped.”) The original is self-deprecating rather than actually humorous, and doesn’t so fully support Spector’s framing premise that Smith was “having a laugh at his own misfortune.” It’s no more than a minor mystery, I’ll grant you. But given the descriptions of the mood in the Oiler room, and of Smith’s own demeanor on the night, I’m skeptical that anyone heard him jibing about the speed of the puck that night. From what I can glean, Spector’s amended version doesn’t seem to have shown up before a 2010 article of Jim Matheson’s in The Edmonton Journal.

Otherwise? Spector calls Smith another mobile defenceman who could fight and play. He describes him as gangly. He asserts that he took nothing for granted and (cleverly) not good enough to feel any entitlement.

Spector does provide a valuable service in breaking down just what Smith was attempting to do. As Kevin Lowe tells him, this was the Oilers’ new quick-up play designed to catch an opponent offguard as they dumped the puck in and changed. The centreman and maybe a winger would be waiting high up on the opposite boards, over by the penalty boxes. “You just went back and you almost didn’t look,” Lowe explained. “You just forced it up to the spot.”

But then: “Fuhrsie was a little late getting back in the net, and Smitty just tried to cut the corner a bit.”

“He’s gonna be a good hockey player,” Glen Sather said back on that April night, and so it proved. When the Oilers roared back in 1987 to win another Cup, Smith and his story arc’d to a perfect redemptive close. “A year after Smith’s mistake,” Spector writes,

after the Oilers had regained their place atop the hockey world with a seven-game ouster of Philadelphia in the Final, Gretzky made a classy gesture when he handed the Stanley Cup to Smith and sent him off on a celebratory whirl around the Northlands Coliseum ice.

It didn’t end there, of course. As noted on the Oilers’ own Heritage website,

Smith persevered and became one of the key players of the team’s drive for three more Cups in 1987, 1988, and 1990. Smith best year came in 1987-88, when he scored 12 goals, added 43 assists, and received 286 penalty minutes. Smith proved he was a tough customer, and the disastrous goal was nothing more than a fluke.

Gretzky has gone even further. Diligent, down the years, in making sure Smith’s name stays cleared, Gretzky has even claimed that the Oilers were actually fortunate to lose in ’86. “I know that sounds strange,” he’s reasoned, “but sometimes you lose for a reason. After that season, we made some changes, got hungrier, and stopped thinking we had sole rights to the Stanley Cup. Maybe Smith wonus two more Cups. Who knows?”

Smith himself has said that the whole experience was life-changing. “It taught me humility,” he told Spector. Ben Arledge talked to him about this, too, in the ESPN piece. “I really believe that incident had a lot to do with making me a much humbler person,” Smith said to him. “It probably taught me more about humility than a person could ever learn. From that day forward, I sincerely cheered for people. I didn’t want to see people fail. I didn’t want to ever see people have that type of day.”

Mark Spector’s Battle of Alberta chapter comes with a fairly perfect ending, in which Smith tells of playing a subsequent pre-season game in Calgary. The fact that Spector doesn’t bother to date it could indicate that he (a) preferred to render it as legend as much as a fact or (b) couldn’t be bothered. It did happen, on a Tuesday night, September 25, 1990, in front of a crowd of 20,132 fans who, as usual, called for Smith to “shooooot” every time he touched the puck. Smith was prepared, having warned Oilers’ goaltender Bill Ranford that there might come a point in the game where he actually did just that. “And,” Smith told him, “you’d better fuckin’ stop it.”

And so it happened, in the first period, that Smith lobbed a backhand at Ranford that the goaltender did, indeed, save. Smith raised his stick to the Calgary faithful who, it’s reported, laughed.

“The whole place stood up and gave me a standing ovation,” Smith tells Spector. “It was kinda cool. For the most part, they left me alone after that.”

(Drawings: Ted Hammond, from Gail Herman’s Who Is Wayne Gretzky?)

 

 

 

 

stan mikita: tough kid who grew up

The Chicago Blackhawks, long since out of the playoffs, wrap up their home schedule tonight hosting the still-in-hunt St. Louis Blues at the United Center. Before the game, the Blackhawks will honour Hall-of-Fame centreman Stan Mikita with a ceremony involving several of his grandsons. Mikita, who’s 77, was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia in 2015; Chris Kuc’s Chicago Tribune feature from that time deserves your attention, if you haven’t seen it already. Otherwise, a Mikita reading list might include books like Mikita’s own 1969 autobiography, I Play To Win, published the same year as Stan Fischler’s Stan Mikita: The Turbulent Career of a Hockey Superstar, along with Scott Young’s brief 1974 biography for young readers, Tough Kid Who Grew Up. More recently, there’s Bob Verdi’s richly illustrated review of Mikita’s career, Forever A Blackhawk (2011).

Mikita, of course, spent all 22 of his NHL seasons with Chicago, helping them to win the 1961 Stanley Cup. One of his coaches, Billy Reay, called him “hockey’s most complete player,” and Mikita helped make that case by winning two Hart Memorial trophies as NHL MVP in the 1960s along with four Art Ross scoring titles and a pair of Lady Byng trophies. “If you don’t have pride in yourself,” he explained to a reporter in 1968, “you won’t write a good story. It’s the same with hockey. You have got to have pride in yourself to win.”

(Top Image, from July of 1966, by Frank Prazak, Library and Archives Canada)