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)

howe and fontinato, 1959: just like someone chopping wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

my first hockey game: stan fischler

No-one has talked and written more hockey in the past 50 years than Stan Fischler. Today in Puckstruck’s occasional series, the man they call “The Hockey Maven” recalls the first NHL game he saw in person.

Eighty-five now, Fischler got his start on the page in the mid-1950s with The Brooklyn Eagle and The New York Journal-American. Nowadays he’s on air for MSG’s broadcasts of games involving New York Rangers and Islanders and New Jersey’s Devils. Born in Brooklyn, he’s an authority on New York’s subways and American-Jewish humour as well as all things puckish. He’s bylined stories over the years for The New York Times and The Toronto Star, Sports Illustrated, and Hockey Digest. He’s a columnist for The Hockey News, and has been publishing his own weekly Fischler Report for more than 20 years.

Stan Fischler

Fischler has been publishing books since 1967, and his bibliography, which runs to more than 100 titles, includes biographies of Gordie Howe and Stan Mikita, memoirs by Brad Park and Maurice Richard, along with team and oral histories, and …. there’s not much in the game that hasn’t caught Fischler’s attention. Among the best, in my books: Those Were The Days: The Lore of Hockey by The Legends of the Game, his 1976 compendium of interviews with greats of the game going back to Cyclone Taylor and Newsy Lalonde; and Metro Ice: A Century of Hockey in Greater New York (1999).

 In 2007, Fischler won the Lester Patrick Trophy, which recognizes significant contributors to the cause of hockey in the United States, adding his name to an all-star roll that features the likes of Jack Adams, Eddie Shore, Scotty Bowman, and Art Ross.

 His first NHL game? Here’s his recent recollection of how that happened in 1942, followed by some further historical fleshing-out of the night in question.

I saw my first hockey game at Madison Square Garden in 1939. It was an “amateur” doubleheader: Met League game at 1:30 Sunday, followed by a Rovers Eastern League game at 3:30 p.m.

I was seven years old at the time and not allowed to go to Rangers or Americans games because they did not start until 8:30 p.m., and I had to get up early to go to P.S. 54 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in those days.

Of course, I yearned to see an NHL game and finally got my wish in November of 1942. World War II was on in its intensity and every NHL team had lost players to the armed forces, including the Rangers. Having begged my father to take me and a friend named Jerry, he finally agreed.

However, the rain was coming down in torrents that afternoon and Dad hesitated because of that. Finally he agreed and we took the subway to the old Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street. Dad bought the cheapest seats — side balcony — and it was Rangers vs. Chicago Blackhawks.

Problem was the side balcony seats — except for first two rows — had obstructed views and we couldn’t see anything that happened along the side boards right below us. Nevertheless, we were thrilled beyond belief. Chicago still had the Bentley Brothers, Max and Doug, while the Blueshirts were reduced to lesser stars.

I was so dazzled by the mere viewing of my first major league game that I was more observer than fan. Besides, I was a Maple Leaf fan and could no summon any rooting interest.

As it happened, I continued going to every Sunday afternoon game and did not see another NHL game until the 1945-46 season when my Dad took me to see Toronto vs. Rangers. New York won by a goal and while I was very disappointed, I enjoyed seeing my Leafs in person.

A year later I started going to Leaf games at MSG on a regular basis and became a season ticket holder for the 1947-48 season.

Stan Fischler’s first obstructed-view experience of NHL hockey came on a Tuesday night, November 10, 1942, along with 8,558 other fans at Madison Square Garden. It was the Rangers’ fifth game of the season, the second they’d played on home ice. Neither New York nor Chicago would fare well that season — both teams missed the playoffs — but on the night, Rangers prevailed, 5-3, in overtime.

 One of the stories for the Rangers that nascent season was in goal. Sugar Jim Henry was gone to the war, and to replace his preventative measures, GM Lester Patrick had brought in a 25-year-old rookie, Steve Buzinski, from Saskatchewan’s senior-league Swift Current Indians. When he wasn’t watching for pucks, Buzinski worked as a wheat and cereal expert with Swift Current’s Dominion Experimental Station. As one newspaper wag, Harry Grayson, was writing in ’42, Patrick was considered “the smartest man in the dodge,” so when he plucked up Buzinski, “everyone expected he would have another ace to show them. Hadn’t the Rangers had such illustrious netkeepers as Lorne Chabot, John Ross Roach, and Davey Kerr?”

 It didn’t go so swimmingly. The Rangers lost three of their four first games, including a 12-5 loss to Detroit and a 10-4 Montreal drubbing, with Buzinski surrendering 32 goals as they did so. “By now,” Harry Grayson cruelly reported, “the boys were calling Steve ‘Sieve.’”

 He rallied under Fischler’s young gaze. Joseph Nichols wrote it up for The New York Times. “Aided not at all by the Rangers defence, which had trouble with the fleet Black Hawk wings, Buzinski nevertheless had the creditable total of thirty-nine saves.” Tied 3-3, the teams headed for (non-lethal) overtime, which saw Bryan Hextall and Lynn Patrick score to secure the Ranger win. Wartime cutbacks would shelve regular-season overtime, so this, as it happens, was the last one the NHL would see for 40 years.

 True to Fischler’s memory, the Bentleys were on show that night, with Doug counting two of the Chicago goals and Max adding an assist. Brother Reg was with Chicago that year, too, his only season in the NHL, though he wasn’t in the line-up for this Ranger game.

 And Buzinski? He didn’t last the month of November. Stan Fischler’s first game was the last one Buzinski won in the NHL. He guarded the Ranger net for four more games after that, losses all, whereupon the Rangers brought in a Detroit farmhand, Jimmy Franks, and Buzinski’s NHL career was over. While the Rangers sent him down to the AHL New Haven Eagles, he didn’t last there, preferring to head back to Saskatchewan, where he was reinstated as an amateur. He enlisted not long after that. He did get back into the nets, post-war, with the Swift Current seniors.

 Around the time he was shipping out of New York in 1942, he wrote a letter home to the editor of The Swift Current Sun. “These New York sportswriters are really something to fear,” it read, in part.

Brothers In Arms: Chicago’s own Saskatchewaners coming at you, in 1942, Reg Bentley on the left alongside Max and Doug.

 

maurice richard had a bad night; fern majeau picked up a pocketful of pennies

Punch-Line Original: Joe Benoit played three seasons for the Canadiens in the early 1940s before the war interrupted his skating. He returned after it was all over, in 1946-47, but only briefly.

Seventy-four years ago tonight, Maurice Richard had a terrible night.

That’s not the anniversary that tends to be observed, of course. Seems like people prefer to recall that it was on a night like this in 1943 that Montreal coach Dick Irvin debuted a brand new first line, one featuring wingers Toe Blake (left) and Maurice Richard (right) centred by Elmer Lach, that would soon come to be known, then and for all time, as the Punch Line.

October 30 was a Saturday in 1943, and it was opening night for four of the NHL’s six teams. Montreal was home to the Boston Bruins. After an injury-plague start in the Canadiens’ system, Richard, 22, was healthy. Having played just 16 games in 1942-43, he was ready to start the season as a regular. The Canadiens had lost some scoring over the summer: Gordie Drillon was gone and so was Joe Benoit, both gone to the war. The latter had scored 30 goals in ’42-43, leading the Canadiens in that department as the right winger for Lach and Blake. That line was already, pre-Richard, called Punch, with Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald claiming that he’d been the one to name it.

Richard didn’t recall this, exactly. In autobiography Stan Fischler ghosted for him in The Flying Frenchmen (1971), Richard erred in saying that he took Charlie Sands’ place on the Punch Line rather than Benoit’s.

Roch Carrier added a flourish to the story in Our Life With The Rocket (2001), a poetic one even if it’s not entirely accurate.

Richard’s wife Lucille did (it’s true) give birth to a baby girl, Huguette, towards the end of October of 1943, just as Montreal’s training camp was wrapping up in Verdun. True, too: around the same time, Richard asked coach Irvin whether he could switch the number on his sweater. Charlie Sands wasn’t a Punch Liner, but he was traded during that final week of pre-season: along with Dutch Hiller, Montreal sent him to the New York Rangers in exchange for Phil Watson. Richard had been wearing 15; could he take on Sands’ old 9? “He’d like that,” Carrier has him explaining to Irvin, “because his little girl weighs nine pounds.”

“Somewhat surprised by this sentimental outburst, Dick Irvin agrees.”

Here’s where Carrier strays. To celebrate Huguette’s arrival, he writes, Richard promised to score a pair of goals in the Canadiens’ season-opening game: one for mother, one for daughter. “The Canadiens defeat the Bruins,” Carrier fairytales, “three to two. Maurice has scored twice. And that is how, urged on by a little nine-pound girl, the Punch Line takes off.”

Huguette’s birthday was October 23, a Saturday. The following Wednesday, Richard did burn bright in the Canadiens’ final exhibition game, which they played in Cornwall, Ontario, against the local Flyers from the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Maybe that’s when he made his fatherly promise, adding an extra goal for himself? Either way, the Canadian Press singled him out for praise in Montreal’s 7-3 victory: “Maurice Richard, apparently headed for a big year in the big time, paced Dick Irvin’s team with three goals in a sparkling effort.”

That Saturday, October 30, 1943, the home team could only manage to tie the visiting Bruins 2-2. Montreal had several rookies in the line-up, including goaltender Bill Durnan, who was making his NHL debut. Likewise Canadiens centre Fern Majeau, who opened the scoring. Herb Cain and Chuck Scherza replied for Boston before Toe Blake scored the game’s final tally. The Boston Daily Globe called that one “a picture goal” that same Blake skate by the entire Boston team. “The ice was covered with paper and hats after the red light flashed.”

That was the good news, such as it was. Leave it Montreal’s Gazette to outline what didn’t go so well. “Four Bruins Are Casualties,” announced a sidebar headline alongside the paper’s main Forum dispatch, “Maurice Richard Has Bad Night.” Details followed:

richard oct 30 43 (1)

hockey players in hospital beds: maurice richard, trop fragile pour la nhl

This was the second ankle-break of Maurice Richard’s fledgling career: in 1940, as a 19-year-old, he lower-body-injured himself playing in a game for Montreal’s Quebec Senior league farm team. He returned from that in 1941 … only to suffer a wrist fracture. He was sufficiently mended in 1942 to make the big-league Canadiens before he broke himself again. Richard himself got the timing of this 1942 incident slightly wrong: it happened during Montreal’s late-December game home to the Boston Bruins rather than in an away game earlier in the month, as he told it in the 1971 autobiography he wrote with Stan Fischler’s help.

At the time, a Boston reporter described the scene this way:

Maurice Richard was knocked from the game when elbowed by Johnny Crawford and had to be carried from the ice. There was no penalty …

Here’s Richard’s Fischlerized memory, picking up as headed in Boston territory with the puck on his stick:

The next thing I knew, big Johnny Crawford, the Bruins’ defenceman who always wore a helmet, was looming directly in front of me. He smashed me with a terrific but fair body check and fell on top of me on the ice. As I fell, my leg twisted under my body and my ankle turned in the process.

Once again I heard the deathly crack and I felt immediately that my ankle must be broken. As they carried me off the ice, I said to myself, “Maurice, when will these injuries ever end?”

The awful pattern was virtually the same as it had been the year before, and the year before that! I was out of action for the entire season and missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, too.

Roch Carrier’s version of events is, by no surprise, much the more vivid. From Our Life With The Rocket (2001):

The puck is swept into Canadiens territory. Maurice grabs it. He’s out of breath. For a moment, he takes shelter behind the net. With his black gaze he analyzes the positions of his opponents and teammates, then lowers his head like a bull about to charge. With the first thrust of his skates the crowd is on its feet. It follows him, watches him move around obstacles, smash them. The fans begin to applaud the inevitable goal.

He still has to outsmart Jack Crawford, a defenceman with shoulders “as wide as that.” He’s wearing his famous leather helmet. Here comes Maurice. The defenceman is getting closer, massive as a tank. The crowd holds its breath. Collision! The thud as two bodies collide. Maurice falls to the ice. And the heavy Crawford comes crashing down on him. Maurice lands on his own bent leg. When Crawford collapses on him he hears the familiar sound of breaking bone: his ankle. He grimaces. This young French Canadian will never be another Howie Morenz.

Carrier goes on to describe the dismay with which Montreal management considered this latest setback. Coach Dick Irvin and GM Tommy Gorman offered their fragile winger to both Detroit and the New York Rangers. “The future is uncertain,” Carrier writes. “He wants to play hockey, but it seems that hockey is rejecting him just as the sea in the Gaspé rejects flotsam, as his mother used to say. Maybe his body wasn’t built for this sport.”

(Ilustration: Henri Boivin, 1948)