prologue to a riot

Sticks swung in Boston: that was where it all started, near the end of the NHL’s regular season, when Maurice Richard was the first to strike — unless it was Hal Laycoe. When it comes to the riotous events in Montreal in 1955, it’s Thursday, March 17, fest of St. Patrick, that mostly resonates.

But it was the previous Sunday, March 13, where the violence that convulsed Montreal later in the week got started, 500 hundred kilometres to the south, in Boston’s cavernous Garden.

It was the last week of the NHL regular season. Montreal, battling the Detroit Red Wings for first place, had beaten Boston 2-1 at home on Saturday night. Sunday’s encounter had the Bruins leading 4-1 halfway through the third period when Bruins’ defenceman Warren Godfrey took a holding penalty. On another night Montreal coach Dick Irvin’s desperate gambit might have made more news: with six-and-a-half minutes to go, he pulled goaltender Jacques Plante to give his team a two-man advantage. That’s when the first moments of the Richard Riot began to play out.

The most comprehensive account of the whole affair is the one that Sidney Katz would publish in Maclean’s in September of 1955.

Here’s how he narrated what happened on Boston ice between Richard and Laycoe as the Montreal’s powerplay revved up:

Richard was skating across the Boston blue line past Boston defenseman Hal Laycoe when the latter put his stick up high and caught Richard on the left side of the head. It made a nasty gash which later required five stitches. Frank Udvari, the referee signaled a penalty to Laycoe for high-sticking but allowed the game to go on because Canadiens had the puck.

Richard skated behind the Boston net and had returned to the blue line when the whistle blew. He rubbed his head, then suddenly skated over to Laycoe who was a short distance away. Lifting his stick high over his head with both hands Richard pounded Laycoe over the face and shoulders with all his strength. Laycoe dropped his gloves and stick and motioned to Richard to come and fight with his fists.

An official, linesman Cliff Thompson, grabbed Richard and took his stick away from him. Richard broke away, picked up a loose stick on the ice and again slashed away at Laycoe, this time breaking the stick on him. Again Thompson got hold of Richard, but again Richard escaped and with another stick slashed at the man who had injured him. Thompson subdued Richard for the third time by forcing him down to the ice. With the help of a team mate, Richard regained his feet and sprang at Thompson, bruising his face and blackening his eye. Thompson finally got Richard under control and sent him to the first-aid room for medical attention.

Richard was penalized for the remainder of the game and fined $100. Laycoe, who suffered body bruises and face wounds, was penalized five minutes for high-sticking and was given a further ten-minute penalty for tossing a blood-stained towel at referee Udvari as he entered the penalty box.

Richard’s emotional and physical resistance were at a low ebb on the night of the Boston game. It was near the end of a long exhausting schedule. The Canadiens had played Boston only the previous night in Montreal. Richard had been hurled against a net and had injured his back. The back was so painful he hadn’t been able to sleep on the train trip to Boston in spite of the application of ice packs. On the morning of the game he confided to a reporter, “My back still hurts like the dickens. I feel beat.” He never considered sitting out the Boston game. There was too much at stake. With three scheduled games left, the Canadiens chances of finishing first in the league were bright. Furthermore, Richard was narrowly leading the league for individual high scoring. If he won, he would receive a cup, $1,000 from the league and another $1,000 from his club. He was still brooding over an incident that had threatened his winning the top-scoring award. In Toronto the previous Thursday, he had been in a perfect position to score when he was hooked by Hugh Bolton of the Maple Leafs. Bolton was penalized but it still meant that Richard was deprived of a goal he desperately wanted.

We have Richard’s own account, or at least a version thereof. In 1971, guided if not ghosted by Stan Fischler, he published an eight-chapter memoir of his career that was appended to Fischler’s The Flying Frenchmen: Hockey’s Greatest Dynasty.

Chapter Four is “The Riot.” Richard notes that Laycoe, one of hockey’s few bespectacled players, had once been a teammate of his with Canadiens. He says he wasn’t particularly rough or dirty, but nor was he entirely pacific.

In Richard’s version, he recalls hitting Laycoe, who went down. “As he fell he hit me in the eye with his stick, opening up a bleeding wound over my eye.”

The parties involved would subsequently be summoned for a hearing with NHL president Clarence Campbell at NHL HQ in Montreal — we’ll get to that tomorrow. For the moment we’ll skip ahead to his findings, which he released in a statement that ran to 1,200 words.

Richard, Campbell wrote, skated by and Laycoe high-sticked him on the side of the head.

That doesn’t quite rhyme with what Laycoe told Tom Fitzgerald of The Daily Boston Globe the day after the incident. “Richard and I were both going for the puck,” he said then. “I was hooking the puck away from him, and he brought his stick up over his shoulder hitting me over the bridge of the nose. I was stung and I acted automatically. I admit I brought my stick up then.” Continue reading

make way for the leafs

standwitness

Toronto’s upstart Maple Leafs head into tonight’s game with the Washington Capitals with a five-game winning streak in hand, but the real news may be the optimism and glad-heartedness attending the team in the wake of Sunday’s outdoor overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings feels like something of a new commodity in the city. The surging Leafs have their fans talking about making the playoffs for the first time in four years, even as they bask in the lustre of the bright youth of Connor Brown, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and the incandescent Auston Matthews.

Toronto has, in fact, seen the hope before. It was this very time of the year in 1992, for instance, when GM Cliff Fletcher orchestrated the ten-player trade that brought in Doug Gilmour from the Calgary Flames.

A new day dawns for the team that forgot how to win

was the headline in Toronto’s Financial Post on this day 25 years ago, while in The Windsor Star, columnist Lloyd McLachlan wrote about the notion of Gilmour as, “if not the second coming of Dave Keon, at least a playmaking Moses possibly capable of helping inspire a miracle escape from the wilderness.”

Twenty years further back, Stan Fischler’s 1975 book Make Way For The Leafs outlined an end for another era of Toronto hockey woe. Once, he wrote in opening his thesis, the Leafs had been Canada’s own New York Yankees: “the supreme professional sports organization.” By the end of the page, he’d outlined the glories composed by Conn Smythe, emphasized the success of his teams, the colour of its characters, the team’s toughness, his material proof of which cited Bingo Kampman,

a defenceman of such herculean strength he would win bets that he could lift heavy dinner tables just by placing a side of the table top between his teeth and then hoisting the table using sheer mouth power.

Fischler’s quick sketch of Toronto’s downfall centred mostly on GM Punch Imlach. His account of the team’s ongoing resurrection got going in chapter two with Imlach’s sharp young successor, Jim Gregory, along with the savvy coach he hired in Red Kelly, and a cadre of “youthful skaters” like Darryl Sittler, Rick Kehoe, and Lanny McDonald.

Fischler pegged the start of the Leafs’ “rebirth” to the opening of the NHL’s 1973-74 season — just as, it so happens, team president Harold Ballard was getting out of prison after serving a sentence for theft and fraud.

Ballard isn’t everyone’s idea of a hero, of course. Fischler called him “the most intriguing and one of the most engaging personalities in Toronto sports,” framing him as “a hard man in what he feels is a hard world.” In ’73, Fischler said, Ballard believed the Leafs were three years away from establishing a Stanley Cup-winning team.

They did get to the semi-finals in 1978, losing there to the eventual champions from Montreal. That was as good as it got, though: what the Leafs had to look forward to beyond that were the grim ’80s. Was the team’s wilderness ever so deep and dark as it was in that decade in which they traded away McDonald and Sittler, and squandered one draft pick after another?

The legacy of those years under the Ballard regime lingered a long time. It’s what Cam Cole was alluding to in ’92 as Doug Gilmour arrived from Calgary, and it’s something that Leaf-loving hearts trust is history of a kind that doesn’t repeat itself.

Players turn to mush in Loserville North

Cole’s Edmonton Journal column that January morning was headlined, and it carried on in a key that even, now, still, in these heady times of Marners and Matthewses, can send a shudder through a city:

For reasons not clearly understood to this day, good players turn to mush instantly upon contact with Toronto. It may be the acid rain. Veteran star, proven role player, promising draft pick — you name it, the Leafs can ruin it.

one of hockey’s great unflappables  

dry 73Lanky law student was an epithet applied to Ken Dryden in 1971, the year he burst into the NHL by way of the Montreal net, helping the Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup. Phil Esposito was one prolific shooter he stymied that spring and he’s the one generally credited as the first to call the 6’4” Dryden an even-toed ungulate. Stan Fischler told the tale in Boys’ Life in 1972:

Somehow, Dryden managed to blunt Esposito’s best shots with his 42-inch arms or block them with his enormous chest. At one point the enraged Esposito crashed his stick against the protective glass, glared at Dryden and shouted: “You thieving, four-story giraffe!”

Born on this day in 1947, Dryden turns 69 today. That seems like reason enough to excerpt an interview he gave in 1976 to an unnamed writer for Maple Leaf Magazine, Toronto’ game-day program:

Q: Is there anything about hockey that is not so much fun?
A: Practices are not much fun. The least fun of all is being inactive. There is very little satisfaction in being a non-participant; those games I can do without. I watched a couple of games from the press box this year and I couldn’t stand it. Jeez, I felt like an idiot.

Q: Is that a comment about sportswriters, with their hot dogs and beer?
A: What I’m saying is that I felt uncomfortable, partly because I don’t enjoy sitting out hockey games and partly because the press box has got to be the worst place in the world to watch a hockey game. It is so far removed from the action. Very few customers, I think, would pay to sit there. You can’t blame the club owners for sticking the press way up at the top, back out of the way. You wouldn’t want all the press guys taking the expensive seats. But I have never yet seen an exciting game from the press box. You’re so far away that the game is slowed down to nothing. Cournoyer looks like a dump truck idling down the ice.

Q: You seem to be the original Cool Hand Luke, one of hockey’s great unflappables. Don’t you get just a little nervous down there, or are you good at hiding it?
A: Cool Hand Luke. You gotta be kidding me. He ate 50 hard-boiled eggs. Are you trying to say I’m one of hockey’s great egg-eaters? Or do you mean I play hockey with egg on my face?

Q: No, no. I was just trying to find out if you get nervous.
A: I rarely get nervous anymore. Very infrequently. Sometimes a bit nervous during the day of an important game. Most of the time I feel like I’m prepared, ready to play, without the physical elements such as butterflies or throwing up that are a part of being nervous. The most nervous I’ve ever been in my whole life was a few minutes before the end of Game Seven in Moscow in 1972. Paul Henderson had just scored the goal that had put us ahead of the Russians 4-3. I was watching from the stands. I already knew I had the starting assignment for Game Eight. The seconds ticked away. I realized that if we could hold on, Game Eight would be the decider. Were my knees jelly? Were my legs shaking? You bet they were. I had no idea what it was like, even though I’d already played in the Stanley Cup playoffs. From that point on and for the next two days I began to feel worse. My stomach started to churn. My legs got weaker by the hour. It stayed with me right up until game time.

(Maclean’s cover painting by Peter Swan)

boom-boom and minor boom

b'boom

Handmedown Hab: Danny Geoffrion was three years old in March of 1961; his father, Bernie, had just turned 30. Boom-Boom, as Geoffrion père was better known, was in the midst of his best scoring season, one in which he’d score 50 goals for the Canadiens and lead the NHL with 95 points. Sporting his dad’s number 5 here, Danny would, in time, earn a Habs’ sweater of his own: after GM Sam Pollock drafted him in 1978, he made the team as a 20-year-old right winger the following season, wearing number 20 and an uninspired nickname: Little Boomer. The defending Stanley Cup champions got a new coach that year, too: Bernie Geoffrion.

It didn’t go so well, familywise. In December, though the team was at the top of the Norris Division, Boom-Boom resigned as coach, handing the reins to an assistant, Claude Ruel. It was a few months before Geoffrion talked publicly about the pressure of coaching his son. Frank Brown of the Associated Press was one of the writers who told the story:

“I should have been like the other coaches and give a chance to my son,” said Bernie Geoffrion, “but I was afraid I’d be criticized for putting him in too much.”

So he barely put him in at all. As time passed, things worsened.

“For three weeks, we didn’t talk — not a word. Can you imagine that?” said Bernie Geoffrion. In the Montreal Forum, on the buses, in the airports, in the hotels, they would walk past each other as strangers. “It was unbelievable.”

It got to be too much. One day, Bernie Geoffrion walked into his home and sat with his wife of 29 years, Marlene. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m 50 years old. I don’t need the money. I want my kid back.’”

The two reconciled after Bernie quit. “I’ve got my son back,” the ex-coach said, “and that’s all that matters.” Danny still didn’t play much, however. He went without a goal during his Hab tenure: in 34 games before he left the team at the end of the unhappy season, Boom Minor recorded six assists and 19 minutes in penalties. The following season, playing for Winnipeg, he scored a respectable 20 goals and 46 points. But that was his last turn in the NHL.

Bernie Geoffrion does tell a bit of a different tale in Boom-Boom (1997), the autobiography he published with Stan Fischler’s help. It was Ruel and maybe vice-president Toe Blake — anyway, “the organization” — who didn’t want Danny to play. Bernie would try to put him into the line-up and he’d be told no. “Nobody,” he writes, “could give me a good explanation of why I couldn’t play Danny. I could never find the answer.”

He’d dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup as coach of the Canadiens: the dream, he writes, turned into a nightmare. His Marlene is the one, in this telling, who sees his unhappiness and tells him to quit. He did it, Ruel took over, Montreal ended up losing in the playoffs to lowly Minnesota. Finis.

Back to the photo: that’s Marlene up there on the wall, below the Stanley Cup, off to the right of the big smiling Boom-Boom portrait. She was a very good figure skater when she married Boom-Boom; she was 19 and he was 21. Her father is up there, too, on the end: the late Howie Morenz, Streak of Stratford. Marlene didn’t remember him: she was just two when the legendary Montreal star died in 1937 after a career-ending leg injury complicated (as the tale’s told, at least) by a heart broken by the news that he’d never play another game for his beloved Canadiens.

messrs. belvedere

belvedere handball pkstrk

A hidden gem! A setting said to be distinctive for guests on business and leisure alike! Unparalleled location in the heart of Manhattan! Rates starting at around US$167 per night!

That’s the pitch browsers online can find looking for a booking at New York’s Belvedere Hotel, which I wasn’t, recently. I can’t say one way or the other whether it’s the place for you; what I can report, confidently, is that if you do go, your hopes of emulating these early New York Rangers, above, and getting in a game of handball on the roof is zero.

There is a gym at the Belvedere: indeed, the hotel’s website says it’s “proud” to have one, “encouraging health-conscious guests to maintain their active lifestyle while traveling and dining out.”

I guess handball’s heyday has come and mostly gone, but I had a moment’s reverie in which you could still catch a game on high at the Belvedere.

The woman I talked to there when I phoned seemed worried by my rooftop questions. “No,” she told me, “there’s no tennis court.” Handball. “Nope.” When did it close? Did she know? Did someone know? What’s up there now? Anybody I can talk to who can talk about the history of the hotel? I was panicking her, though. “Honestly,” she said, “nobody that’s here has ever seen anything like that.”

•••

That’s Ching Johnson here, of course, on the left, with Bill Cook leaping high over his fallen brother, Bun. All three had been with the Rangers since their inaugural season, 1926-27. It was 1929 now, springtime, and the team was girding to defend the Stanley Cup title it had won the previous year over the Maroons of Montreal. Bun Cook was 25, his brother (the Ranger captain) and Johnson older, 32 and 30, respectively. The team couldn’t quite pull off the defense, falling in that year’s two-game final to the Boston Bruins.

The Belvedere, at 319 West 48th Street, was new in the late 1920s. “The Outstanding Success of the City,” bragged a newspaper ad from those years, before getting down to details: 450 baths complemented the Belvedere’s 450 rooms, all of which were outside rooms, featuring two large windows. The Moderately Priced Restaurant served a Peerless Cuisine. You could get a large double room for US$6 a day; furnished suites with serving pantries ran anywhere from US$35 to US$150.

Times Square wasn’t far and, more to the point, Tex Rickard’s Madison Square Garden was just a block north up 8th Avenue. Handball was just the start of it — over the years, many hockey players would call the Belvedere home. Following, a few notes on that and other Belvedere/hockey associations.

•••

In early April of 1928, just before the Rangers went into Stanley-Cup battle with the Montreal Maroons, the Belvedere and its inimitable menu played host to a hockey awards dinner. At this time, the NHL proper awarded three individual trophies, the Hart (for league MVP), the Vézina (goaltender allowing the fewest goals), and Lady Byng (high skill and gentlemanly conduct), but these weren’t those.

First among honourees on this night were handballing defenceman Ching Johnson, who took the Paramount Theatre Trophy as MVP of the New York teams, Rangers and Americans. The Broadway director and producer (and native-born Newfoundlander) John Murray Anderson sponsored that one, with the New York Hockey Writers Association taking care of the voting. Out of 26 ballots cast, Johnson’s name was on 12, while the two centreman, the Rangers’ Frank Boucher and the Amerks’ Normie Himes, appeared on seven each.

Boucher was the highest scoring New Yorker that year, finishing third in the NHL chart behind Hart-winner Howie Morenz and his Canadiens teammate, Aurele Joliat, and that was good enough to win him the Belvedere Hotel Trophy. (His Cook wingers, Bun and Bill, were runners-up.) But while Boucher would that same year win the first of his seven Lady Byng Trophies (in 1935, they actually gave him trophy, ordered a new one), on this night Boucher had to concede the Roosevelt Hotel Clean Play Trophy to Harold Darragh of the Pittsburgh Pirates. NHL referee-in-chief Cooper Smeaton seems to have been responsible for deciding this one, drawing on what a Brooklyn Daily Eagle report calls his “private records” to determine that while Boucher had been penalized for 14 minutes of the 1674 he’d skated that season, Darragh, a winger, was sanctioned for just 10 of his 1620 minutes.

Bandleader and hockey fan Paul Whiteman presided over the proceedings — or as the Daily Eagle called him, “corpulent ‘Oom’ Paulie Whitehead,” who made Ching Johnson look like a mere “mite.”

•••

In the late 1930s, the Belvedere played host to an annual dinner given by the NHL for the aforementioned New York Hockey Writers Association. At the 1938 edition, Rangers GM Lester Patrick unveiled his proposal for an all-new playoff format. Harold Parrott wrote it up for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In fact, the Silver Fox of the ice rinks was practically lopsided after expounding his playoff theories to hockey writers last night with the aid of calculus, logarithms, a financial expert he brought along for the purpose — and a lot of patient good humor.

Ahead of the season, Montreal’s troubled Maroons talked of migrating to St. Louis, or maybe Cleveland, but the league turned them down, so they’d suspended operations, leaving seven teams. Patrick wanted the NHL to collapse the remaining teams into one division (previously they’d been divided into American and Canadian halves) with the team that finished on top declared league champion. All seven teams would them compete for the Stanley Cup, with the first-place finisher leaping past the first round with a bye while — importantly — not missing out on its share of ticket profits. Revenue was an important feature of the plan, with teams’ percentages based on (as far as I can discern) a formula accounting both for regular-season and how far they advanced in the playoffs. “The Ranger boss,” Parrott wrote, “figures this will make the teams hustle until the season’s last whistle.”

Interesting that Patrick was sharing with the writers before he took it to the NHL and the teams involved. “Manager Patrick,” noted The New York Times in its report, “is hopeful that his plan will be accepted, although at first blush it seems a most radical and fantastic one, he himself declared.” If the NHL did put this Patrick plan to a vote, it failed to pass. The league did end up rejigging divisions that year, decanting two into one, but when the playoffs came around in the spring of 1939, only the top six teams were in. Last-place Chicago had to watch as Boston went on to beat Toronto in the finals.

•••

The Belvedere is where Stan Fischler got his start to his career in hockey journalism, books, broadcasting and general, all-around mavening. He writes about this in New York Rangers: Greatest Moments and Players (2015). As a Brooklyn College student in the early 1950s he not only joined a Rangers fan club organized by team publicist Herb Goren but launched a club newspaper with a pair of willing friends. “This gave us entrée to interview players,” he recalls, the first being Ed Kullman, “cross-examined in his suite at the Belvedere Hotel.”

•••

Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times called on Fischler’s formidable Ranger memory when he wrote Don Raleigh’s obituary in 2012. “Bones Raleigh was the quintessential antihero,” Fischler said of the former centreman, Kenora-born, who captained the Rangers and scored back-to-back overtime winners in the team’s losing struggle with Detroit in the 1950 Stanley Cup finals. “He was an intellectual; he would write poetry on the Staten Island Ferry. He would get the puck behind his net and just wend his way up ice on spectacular rushes. Problem was, Bones being so skinny, by the time he got inside the enemy zone, he was usually body checked. But we didn’t mind because he was our guy.”

For much of his ten-year NHL career, he was one of many Rangers to make a hockey-season home at the Belvedere. Klein talked to teammates Harry Howell and Pentti Lund, among others. They both remembered him calling in teammates to his suite for pre-game strategy sessions. He was a book-reader and a bon vivant, loved life in New York, enjoyed the sense of humour:

“Old Bones Raleigh, he used to be our cook in the hotel,” Howell said. “He used to buy the groceries, and we’d pay him. One night, he gave a huge can of peaches to the players, and we thought, Boy, this is really something. So Bones, before we ate the peaches, said, ‘Now you guys realize you each have to give me 12 cents per peach.’ We all knew what he was like and just laughed.”

•••

I’m assuming that Raleigh was on hand at the Belvedere on the last night of 1952 as the Rangers, with wives and girlfriends, heralded the new year. Frank Boucher was there, the Rangers’ GM now, and so was Bill Cook, his coach, who’d almost died twice in the year gone by thanks to irate bulls and exploding tractors. The Leafs and Rangers had played to a 3-3 tie that night but while Toronto’s hockey players had packed up and travelled on to Boston after the game, several of her hockey writers had stayed on to party at the Belvedere. The Globe and Mail’s Gord Walker was one of them, which is how we know that Gladys Gooding was at the piano when the time came to sing Auld Lang Syne, when Rangers captain Allan Stanley wore a plastic fireman’s hat to welcome the midnight. “There was quite a noise for a while,” Walker wrote. “It died down shortly because he wives kissed their husbands, and the girl friends kissed their escorts and the Toronto hockey writers shook hands with each other.”

all georges vézina’s children

vezina 17

For as long as the NHL hands out trophy for goaltending excellence in his name, Georges Vézina will be remembered for his proficiency in stopping pucks. Still, it is 90 years this fall since Vézina played his last period of NHL hockey, which means we don’t really have much of a sense of the man, his demeanor, or how he conducted himself, on or off the ice. His goaling statistics remain impressive, if not exactly overwhelming. Between 1910 and 1925, he was the only goaltender to ply the Montreal Canadiens’ net. He won two Stanley Cups before the NHA made way for the NHL. Of the 203 games he played over nine seasons once that happened, 113 of them were wins. You can study all this at one of the online stats archives, where you’re liable to learn that Vézina’s lack of a QSP and his relatively modest career GPS of 38.8 don’t seem to have affected his standing on the Elo Fan Rating ladder.

Not a fan of analytics? Fair enough. What about fantastical stats? Those are different from the fancy metrics with which the NHL game is now measured in that they don’t necessarily have anything to do with on-ice performance and, plus, they’re not true. For instance: you may have read, possibly in a book published newly this fall, that by the time he died in 1926, 39-year-old Georges Vézina had fathered 24 children.

myths sticksIf the book in question is Kevin Gibson’s Of Myths & Sticks: Hockey Facts, Fictions & Coincidences (Douglas & McIntyre), then you may know already that it doesn’t profess to be a major work. It’s a slim volume, light-hearted in tone, “a lively compendium of little-known hockey trivia,” as the publisher promises, from a “stats archaeologist.” More than a third of its 176 pages are devoted to a humdrum calendar of on-this-day-in-history reminders from the hockey past.

“I am,” Gibson volunteers in his introduction, “the TSN Research, Stats and Information Department.” As such, he’s all about facts, a word that choruses through both the author’s manifesto and the book’s marketing material along with notable others like urban legends, conspiracy theories, debunking, and falsehoods. The truth is, when it comes to hockey history, you just can’t believe what you’ve read. “I’d like to go through some old wives’ tales,” Gibson announces, “legends and confessional stories and get to the bottom of what is fact and fiction in the world of hockey.” Never fear, Gibson’s here, to separate the faux from the facts, all of which he’s analyzed and researched and uncovered.

Great. Happy to hear it. Lots of us who love hockey history revel in fine detail and quirky ephemera, and we’re always eager to learn more. Some of us have even gone before where Gibson goes, delving (for example) into Georges Vézina’s family history. That’s how we found out that the story of his multitudinous children is exactly that: plain fiction, a fanciful not-true made-up fallacious falseness that has been making the rounds for almost as long as the Montreal Canadiens have been around, ever since Léo Dandurand put it on a hook to see whether the newspaper boys might bite.

For the record, Vézina and his wife Marie (née Morin) had two children, no more. Both were sons: Jean-Jules, born in 1912, and Marcel Stanley, who made his debut in 1916, on the very night the Canadiens won the Cup whose name he inherited.

Dandurand is, of course, a towering figure in Montreal Canadiens history, an owner who also coached and managed the team. He could have been a serial fabricator, I guess, but then again the story of his goaltender’s populous family might just as well have been a moment’s joke taken up by a newspaperman who didn’t bother to verify it with Vézina himself. The goaltender’s English doesn’t ever seem to have been very good, so maybe that was part of it. D’Arcy Jenish dates the original Dandurand telling to the spring of 1925, when Montreal was in Victoria to play for the Stanley Cup.

Gibson certainly isn’t the first reputable writer to repeat the error. When Vézina fell ill and left the Canadiens in the fall of 1925, various newspapers gave him a brood of 17 — “enough for two hockey teams, plus substitutes,” according to The Springfield Missouri Republican, who also saw fit to add six years to his age and promote him to police chief of his hometown, Chicoutimi.

After his death the following March of 1926, newspapers variously pegged his progeny at 17 (an Associated Press report in The New York Times) and 22 (Winnipeg Tribune). While I should say that the French press seems to have gone unfooled from the start, Montreal’s English papers preferred the fantasy version in which, for example, (The Gazette) “two sets of twins were born in the first two years of his married life.”

The numbers have fluctuated over the years. By 1936, The New York Post was at 18 — though two years later they’d revised themselves down to 14. Strange to say, but Rosaire Barrette’s 1952 biography of Léo Dandurand reiterated its subject’s original lie, hoisting the number back up to 22.

Stan Fischler settled on 20 in The Flying Frenchman (1971) but 22 is the number that’s proved the most persistent. It’s the one in both Ron McAllister Hockey Stars (1950) and Andrew Podnieks’ otherwise authoritative Players: The Ultimate A-Z Guide of Everyone Who Has Ever Played in the NHL (2003). Podnieks notes that only two of the many were alive by the time Vézina died — true enough, in its way.

“He began fathering babies like he was aiming at a world record,” Brian McFarlane breezes in The Habs (1996). In Canadiens Legends: Montreal’s Hockey Heroes (2005), Mike Leonetti mentions Vézina’s devout Roman Catholic lifestyle: “He was married at 20 and produced 22 children!” That’s good enough, too, for Jack Falla, who paid tribute to Vézina in his 2008 book Open Ice, devoting a whole chapter to the man in which he described a pilgrimage to visit Chicoutimi and alluded awkwardly to Mrs. Vézina’s partnership.

The truth is out there. Michel Vigneault’s straightforward entry in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography gets it right. Online, The Hockey Hall of Fame successfully splits myth from truth, as does Vézina’s Wikipedia page. In ‪The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory (2009), D’Arcy Jenish makes no mistake. And as recently as this very fall, Pat Hickey’s 100 Things Canadiens Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die tells (a little wearily?) the truth.

Is it such a big deal that Of Myths & Sticks: Hockey Facts, Fictions & Coincidences gets it wrong? Other than the several times the error is trumpeted on the book’s cover and in marketing materials, Vézina’s imaginary family occupies one small paragraph within one slim book. It is interesting that Gibson ups the ante more than almost anyone previously — only Stephen Cole, in The Canadian Hockey Atlas (2006), has ever claimed 24 minor Vézinas before now — but in the wider swing of things, it’s not such an egregious blunder.

Except for … it’s not the only one in the book. I gave up looking after not too long, but just before I got truly exasperated, I came across a glaring error of fact involving Gordie Howe hattricks along with a pair of Ching Johnson mistakes. I don’t have a ratio on how much faux Of Myths and Sticks contains compared to its facts, but whatever the number, it’s not favourable. Continue reading

young turks

1969-70

1969-70

Stephen Cole’s new book is a boisterous account of the decade when the NHL let it all hang out: Hockey Night Fever: Mullets, Mayhem and the Game’s Coming of Age in the 1970s. Who else was he going to kick off with, chapter one, if not the ungovernable Derek Sanderson?

Cole sketches vividly to give us Sanderson’s early days in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He’s drawing here on Sanderson’s two autobiographies, published 42 years apart. If you’ve read those — I’ve Got To Me came out in 1970, Stan Fischler assisting, when Sanderson was 24; he was 66 when Crossing The Line (Kevin Shea lending a hand) in 2012 — you’ll maybe recall the prominent figure cut by Sanderson’s father, Harold.

A wounded veteran of infantry battle in the Second World War, he was the one who (the story goes) read in Maclean’s in or around 1950 that no professionals were more respected in Canada’s than hockey players and so, guess what, that’s what young Derek would be. Once the boy got up on skates, Harold’s the one who told him not to worry about a little blood. Later he made a ritual of saving Derek’s actual stitches once they’d done the work of binding his hockey wounds.

“A sparky daredevil,” Cole calls Harold, “pushing Kotex past the finish line in sleepy postwar Ontario.”

That’s in reference to a job Harold worked at Kimberly-Clark. In his 1970 memoir, Derek tells us that he started sweeping floors, then became a machinist. In 2012 the telling is more detailed and only a tiny bit awkward:

After the war, my dad got a job at Kimberly-Clark plant, where they manufactured feminine hygiene products. My father was mechanically inclined and could fix anything. He was great with machinery. By simply looking at things, he could tell you how they worked.

Which brings us to the crucial moment in the Turk Sanderson origin story: the first steps on skates.

Here’s what Stephen Cole gives us:

Harold fixed butter knives to the bottom of Derek’s first shoes. Later, he spread linoleum on the driveway, building a practice net from abandoned (?) pipes at Kimberly-Clark.

There are a couple of things here to unpack. One, I have to put a question mark on that question mark. What’s that all about? Sanderson 2.0 makes no mention of linoleum; Harold’s net is for the famous rink he froze across several neighbours’ backyards:

My dad made real boards, and brought home some old discarded pipes from the Kimberly-Clark plant, along with old mesh from the Niagara Falls Memorial Arena, to make nets.

Is Cole suggesting that the pipes were still in use when Harold decided to remove and repurpose them? If so, is that kind of an accusation really best levelled via punctuation?

Two: butter knives?

It’s straight from the Sanderson/Shea, 2012, which come with bonus material detailing some of the engineering involved.

My dad was an extremely intelligent guy, in spite of his lack of formal education, and with a boatload of common sense, he took a practical approach to everything he did. He wanted me to find my balance on a pair of skates. To prepare me, he took a couple of butter knives, cut them off and taped them to my shoes and then had me walk around on the hardwood floors. I was four years old.

After what I’ve read, I’m not doubting Harold, his ingenuity or his ability. I do wish, though, that we knew a bit more about the taping. We’re talking best-quality duct tape, I assume. Still, can you tape knives to shoes in a way that they’ll support the weight of a rambling four-year-old? I just don’t see taped knives holding in place. I guess probably an experiment is in order, with these butter knives and tape. Just as I can secure the lend of a willing toddler, we’ll head over to the Puckstruck testing lab.

In the meantime, consider that this may have been old hat for young Derek. If you go by what he says in I’ve Got To Be Me/1970, he was already up about in the living room a whole year earlier, at age three, with no cutlery in sight:

My dad bought me a pair of skates and then, right in the living room, he’d lace them up and have me walk around on the carpet. The point was for me to get the feel of the skates and to develop balance.

“Just walk around on them,” he’d say, and I’d stumble all over the place until I got the feel of the blades on the boots. My mother, Caroline, didn’t exactly object. She was usually mild mannered, always had food on the table and our clothes were always clean. She was the type of person who, if you got up in the middle of the night, would make the bed while you were gone.

1973-74

1973-74

(Hockey card images courtesy of Hockeymedia)