frank mahovlich: guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music

Frank Mahovlich scored a pair of goals on this date in 1968, the day of his 30thbirthday, powering his Toronto Maple Leafs to a 2-1 win over the visiting Detroit Red Wings. But the man they called the Big M wasn’t long for the Leafs at that point: a little more than a month later, after almost 12 years in the blue-and-white, Mahovlich was traded to those very same Wings in a seven-player deal. Heading for Detroit with him were Pete Stemkowski, and Garry Unger (along with Carl Brewer’s rights); the return for the Leafs was Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith, and Norm Ullman.

Born in 1938 in Timmins, Ontario, Mahovlich grew up to be a golden boy in Toronto, of course, starting in the mid-1950s with a starring Junior-A role as a St. Michael’s Major. Profiled by Hockey Pictorial’s Margaret Scott after he won the Calder Trophy in 1958 as the NHL’s superlative rookie, Mahovlich divulged his boyhood heroes (Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay) and discussed what he liked to eat on a game-day (steak at lunch, eggs around four o’clock). In terms of his record collection, well, he admitted a partiality for musicals like Oklahoma! and the “semi-classical” stylings of Mantovani. An “enthusiastic” dancer, Mahovlich acknowledged that no-one had to coax him onto a dancefloor, unless the music playing was rock ’n’ roll. “I guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music,” he told Scott. “Something nice and quiet and not too fast.”

The impact that Mahovlich continued to have as a Leaf left winger is hard to overstate. Twice named to the NHL’s First All-Star team, he featured on a very good Toronto team that would win four Stanley Cups in six years through the 1960s. Writing in Maclean’sin ’61, Peter Gzowski thought he could be a defining figure in NHL history, the rightful heir to Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. At 23, Mahovlich was, Gzowski felt, “making an honest, exciting and, it appears now, worthy bid to claim the new era for his own.” Even if that didn’t quite work out as planned, The Globe and Mail’s Louis Cauz had no trouble deeming him “the most productive goalscorer the Leafs have ever had.”

That was in 1967. Earlier the same year, Leaf legend King Clancy offered this on Mahovlich: “He’s as nice a man as I’ve ever known in this game. Perhaps that is his trouble. He has the talent to be the greatest hockey player who ever lived, if only he was a little meaner. But he isn’t, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

For all the goals scored and the Stanley Cups hoisted, it’s true that life as a Leaf came with a cost for Mahovlich, who was twice treated in the 1960s for what the papers variously termed “emotional breakdown,” “tension,” and “nervous depressions.” The second time, in the fall of ’67, Mahovlich missed 11 games. Gordie Howe was one who weighed in with a diagnosis at the time — of the Leaf faithful. “If Toronto fans would appreciate his great talent and give him the cheers he deserves, instead of booing him, maybe the pressure wouldn’t cook the guy.”

Mahovlich had his ups and his downs when he returned to the fold in ’67, dominating one night, lagging some others. The boos continued. Leafs coach and GM Punch Imlach was said to be dissatisfied, too, with Mahovlich’s defensive play, and by time Imlach sent him to Detroit in March of ’68 all the talk of rifts between coach and fans and player meant that the trade didn’t come as a surprise to many.

That’s not to say it didn’t traumatize Toronto. Indignant fans jammed the switchboard at Maple Leaf Gardens with complaining calls the morning the deal was announced, while others out in front of the rink stopped traffic on Carlton Street with their moody milling. In the wake of the trade’s announcement, The Globe and Mail reported that shares in MLG Inc. fell by $1.50 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

For Mahovlich, the shift to Gordie Howe’s Red Wings was as good (on the ice) as a rest: he would thrive in Detroit, scoring a career-high 49 goals the following season, 1968-69. He eventually went to Montreal, where he enjoyed his best years, statistically, in a three-and-a-half-year stint that saw him help Canadiens to Stanley Cup championships in 1971 and ’73. Mahovlich played three seasons in the WHA after that, returning to Toronto as a Toro in 1975 before following the team when they moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and reconstituted as Bulls.

Lightly interrogated by Norman Brown for the 1965 edition of Canadian Boy, a magazine published by the Boy Scouts of Canada, Mahovlich had said he thought he had another eight years of hockey in him. “I don’t know. I’d say I might quit around 34 or 35.”

As it was, he was 41 in the fall of 1979 when he made a bid to return to the NHL with the Red Wings before deciding that it wasn’t to be. “He gave it everything he had,” said Detroit coach Bobby Kromm. “When the exhibition games were over, he came to us and said he didn’t think he could hack it. I’m glad it happened that way, that we didn’t have to go to him. He was a great player.”

 

 

 

 

strategy sesh

Café Society: Howie Meeker turns 94 today, so happy returns are in order, along with (why not) a photo from the middle (though possibly late-isa) 1940s. Meeker (left) shares a coffee and a laugh with Leaf teammates Vic Lynn (middle) and Joe Klukay. There’s no way to confirm it, of course, but take a moment to study those cups: is it possible that Klukay’s is harbouring a frothy latte? On the menu behind, a Sirloin Steak is a pricey $1.20. Pie and Ice Cream? A very reasonable 20 cents.

jacques plante’s new face-saver

e011161492-v8-1

Mask + Man: Before he added his famous mask to his game equipment one night in 1959, Jacques Plante was protecting his face in practice. After having both cheekbones broken in training mishaps in 1954 and ’55, he first tried a welder’s mask donated by a fan. He later switched to the plexiglass apparatus he’s holding above, the creation of a St. Mary’s, Ontario, inventor by the name of Delbert Louch. “Louch’s New Head-Saver” had its shortcomings: it left a goaltender’s forehead vulnerable and tended, too, to fog over on the ice. Plante modified his, as shown above, by cutting out eye-holes. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

You can guess, maybe, the species of shot that truly distressed Jacques Plante. “Oh brother, that damned slap shot!” he wrote, to the point, in 1971. “You have no idea what an effect the slap shot has had on goalies.” Heading into a game against Chicago, he said, knowing he was gong to facing Bobby Hull, his nerves would start their rattling two days before the teams hit the ice.

Plante was 41 by then, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs — with another three seasons to go before he’d wrap up his 21-year professional career. He was wearing a mask by then, of course — had been for 11 years, ever since the night in 1959 when Andy Bathgate of the Rangers moved in on him in early minutes of a game in New York.

You know the story. It was this week, 57 years ago, November 1. It wasn’t a slapped shot that did the damage and launched a Heritage Minute. No, Bathgate’s effort was a malign backhand. He told Plante biographer Todd Denault that he’d done it on purpose, vengefully — Plante had tripped him into the boards, he was bleeding, and mad. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” he said.

The puck struck Plante to the left of his nose. Dave Anderson: “He toppled face down on the milk-white ice at the right side of the net.” Red Fisher, covering the game for The Montreal Star, would describe Bathgate rushing in and lifting Plante’s head.

Plante stayed down for 15 seconds. He got up with a towel fixed his face, skated off under escort by Maurice Richard and Dickie Moore. A pair of Garden policemen helped him to the medical room. Rangers’ doctor Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa sewed in seven stitches. After 20 minutes, Plante was ready to return. There are varying versions of the conversation that took place between coach and goaltender before Plante rejoined the game. In his biography Behind The Mask, Raymond Plante (no relation) has Plante lying on the medical table, seeing Blake, saying I want to play with my mask on. Blake: We’ll see, we’ll see.

Dave Anderson wrote a Plante feature for The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. As he tells it, Blake is the one to mention the mask, tell Plante he can put it on. Good, Plante told him, because I wouldn’t go back without it.

Todd Denault’s biography is Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (2010). He has a stricken Plante departing the medical room, heading back out to the ice (where — a superior detail — the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), then on the Canadiens’ dressing room where he had it out with his coach. Continue reading

the gump’s tale

gump

In January of 1957, Boston goaltender Terry Sawchuk announced he was quitting the NHL, for a bit, or maybe for always. He ending up coming back, of course, but at the time that was very much in doubt. “My nerves are shot,” he said, “and I’m just edgy and nervous all the time.”

So that’s what Gump Worsley was talking about, in April, when the New York Rangers’ goaltender was coverboy (along with his eldest son, Lorne Jr.) for Hockey Blueline. Inside, as told to Dave Anderson, he got right down to business: people thought it was funny, now, to wonder about his nerves.

“When are you going to crack up?” they say. First of all, it’s not funny because Sawchuk is a sick guy. Second of all, I’ll never crack up.

I don’t believe all this talk about “nerves” because a goalkeeper is under fire all the time. If that’s the case, I should be the first one to crack. They shoot more at me than any goalkeeper in the National Hockey League.

If the number of shots at a goalkeeper is so important, then why hasn’t Al Rollins cracked up? Or Harry Lumley? They’ve been around longer than me and had a lot of shots taken at them. But they’re all right. Maybe they’re like me. They don’t worry about something they can’t do anything about … a goal.

Worsley, 29, had been in the NHL for three-and-a-half seasons at this point. That was the key to keeping cool as a netminder, he found — failing to worry. “My wife, Doreen,” he confided, “tells me nothing bothers me.” He made a study of this, and always had. Never looked up his goals-against average, paid no attention to rumours that he was destined for the minors.

Some goaltenders worked themselves into such a state that they couldn’t sleep, or eat. Not Gump:

My wife will tell you how I eat before a game. And how I sleep two-and-a-half, three hours. I usually eat a real big meal — two filet mignons, baked potato, green vegetable, salad, toast and tea. And then I take my nap. Sometimes she has trouble waking me.

After a game — win, lose or tie — I come home and eat another big meal. Not a sandwich, a meal.

That’s what worked for him. But while he may have maintained the same appetite at a steady level as his hockey career went on, his worrying evolved. Ten years later, playing for Montreal now, he may have had occasion to recall that old vow. As detailed in They Call Me Gump, his 1975 Tim Moriarty-assisted autobiography, things had changed. “I finally wound up with the goaltender’s occupational disease during the 1968-69 season with the Canadiens,” he’d write. “I suffered a nervous breakdown.”

At the age of 39, he was playing well in the Montreal net, but he was suffering emotionally. He didn’t like flying. That was a big part of it. Also, the Canadiens had changed coaches: Toe Blake was out, replaced by Claude Ruel. The new boss thought Worsley didn’t practice properly, just went through the motions. Blake had tolerated Worsley’s reluctance to extend himself on the understanding that he’d stay in shape and be ready when the games came around. Ruel was different: he liked to “blow his damn whistle and bark orders. … This got under my skin, and by the time the season was a month old we weren’t speaking.”

Fans, too, were taunting the Gump. That was something else. On November 26, 1968, the Canadiens were en route to Los Angeles by way of Chicago. The first leg of the flight was turbulent, and that was enough for Worsley, which is to say too much. At O’Hare Airport, he left the plane, telling Jean Béliveau that he was retiring. He took a train back to Montreal.

As Worsley recounts it, the breakdown wasn’t severe: “I got over it quickly.” Montreal GM Sam Pollock arranged for him to see a psychiatrist, and he did, and they talked about “everything.” Late in December he started skating on his own at the Forum. By January, he was back in the Canadiens goal.

The Globe and Mail reported that he’d conquered his fear of flying. The pudgy goalie, they called him. “There were a lot of things,” he said. “My nerves were gone. “I had a lot of problems, personal things.”

“I didn’t say anything to the guys. I kept it all inside. I guess you could say I was carrying a lot of worries on my shoulder. Perhaps unnecessarily, but that’s the way it was.”

the wild man of guelph

e002505664-v6

A birthday today for Lou Fontinato, who was born in 1932, in Guelph, Ontario, whereabout he still lives. A defenceman, he was mostly, in the NHL, a New York Ranger, though he ended his career with Montreal in 1963. The on-ice activities he’s most often remembered for may be (i) leaping, which he’s supposed to have done sometimes in rage when called for a penalty and led to the nicknames Leapin’ Lou and Louie the Leaper; (ii) punching; (iii) getting punched, most famously by Gordie Howe in 1959.

Tex Coulter painted him for the cover of Hockey Blueline in 1958, as you can see here; for five other Fontinato glimpsings, we’ll go to the archives. It was The New York Herald Tribune and syndicated columnist Red Smith who called him “the wild man of Guelph, Ont.,” and we’ll start with him:

It wasn’t clear exactly what happened in a skirmish near the boards on the Fiftieth St. side. Maurice Richard, skating to centre ice, tossed his stick away but didn’t seem to be aiming at anybody’s head. He shoved with both hands against Fontinato’s chest, like a small boy picking a fight on the playground.

The Rangers’ dark defenseman is no admirer of the Marquis of Queensberry. Strictly a London prize ring man, he had his padded gloves off the fragment of an instant.

A lovely right caught Richard just outside the left eye. Skin burst and flesh cracked and blood ran in little parallel trickles down the Rocket’s face, staining his white shirt.

Players and officials moved in and, to the crowd’s astonishment, Richard drew back, showing no disposition for further action. Fontinato was raging, trying to shove past officials who held him off, starting little flank movements around the knot of men who fenced him off from Richard.

Pure joy swept the galleries. Crumpled papers and bits of waste were flung onto the rink. Photographers were out on the ice shooting eagerly. At length Fontinato was led to the penalty box for the second time in the evening, taking a comfortable led over Detroit’s Ted Lindsay as the league’s most penalized badman.

• Red Smith, “What Red Smith Thinks,” Toledo Blade, January 13, 1956

When Fontinato hit, he hurts. He’s a 22-year-old who weighs a streamlined 191 pounds and stands 6-foot-1 — without skates.

Galleryites never feel neutral toward the big bruiser. In Vancouver one time an irate fan threw his shoes at Louie the Leaper.

“They were new shoes, too,” said Fontinato thoughtfully. “I ground my skates into them to remove the newness and tossed them back.”

• Arthur Daley, “Rock ’n’ Roll,” The New York Times, January 22, 1956

Lou is a bachelor. So he rooms with other bachelors on the Rangers when the team is in New York. He lives with Larry Cahan, Gerry Foley and Hank Ciesla in a three-room suite at the Kimberly Hotel, 74th St. and Broadway. Each player has his chores. Lou is the cook.

“He’s a good cook,” Foley says. “His best dish is spare ribs. But we don’t eat anything fancy. Steak. Roast beef. He cooks the breakfasts. Eggs any style. Everything.”

Does the trigger-temper explode occasionally?

“Oh, yeah,” Foley smiled. “We do the dishes. He gets mad if something’s not clean. Starts banging pots around.”

• Dave Anderson, “Rangers’ Leapin’ Lou,” Hockey Blueline, January, 1958

Howe’s most notorious altercation was with Ranger defenceman Lou Fontinato in Madison Square garden in 1959. Frank Udvari, who was the referee, recalled, “The puck had gone into the corner. Howe had collided with Eddie Shack behind the net and lost his balance. He was just getting to his feet when here’s Fontinato at my elbow, trying to get at him.

‘I want him,’ he said.

‘Leave him alone, use your head,’ I said.

‘I want him.’

‘Be my guest.’”

Fontinato charged. Shedding his gloves, Howe seized Fontinato’s jersey at the neck and drove his right fist into his face. “Never in my life had I heard anything like it, except maybe the sound of somebody chopping wood,” Udvari said. “Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”

Howe broke Fontinato’s nose, fractured his cheekbone, and knocked out several teeth. Plastic surgeons had to reconstruct his face.

• Mordecai Richler, “Gordie,” Dispatches from the Sporting Life (2002)

That’s the feeling around the NHL — an unwritten rule — you don’t fool around with big Gordie.

Lou Fontinato learned the hard way, one night in New York when the former tough guy of the Rangers tangled with Howe behind a net.

“I still hear that sound,” one of Fontinato’s former team-mates said recently. “I was only a few feet away. Gordie had his skates braced against the back of the net and he threw only one punch. It was the worst thing I’ve seen in hockey. It broke Louie’s nose, knocked him cold.

“I can still hear it — bone against bone. Nobody will ever know how much that hurt Lou. He had built a reputation as a tough guy and Howe destroyed it with that one punch. Louie was never the same after that.”

• Paul Rimstead, “Thwonk!,” Montreal Gazette, January 13, 1968

(Photo, taken January 14, 1961: Weekend Magazine/ Louis Jaques/ Library and Archives Canada/ e002505664)

books that hockey players read: steve yzerman and gordie howe

Embed from Getty Images

Let’s allow, for a moment, that young Stevie Y was actually wiling away some time in the Joe Louis branch of the Detroit Public Library when photographer Bruce Bennett. Why not? This was January of 1984, halfway through his rookie season with the Red Wings. He had a pretty good year, scoring 39 goals and 87 points. He was the first 18-year-year-old to appear in an NHL All-Star game, and he end the year as runner-up to Tom Barrasso in voting for the Calder Trophy.

I’d like to know what else features in the stacks at the Joe. A lot of Gordie Howe’s books, I’m guessing, along with all the books about Mr. Hockey, too. The one Yzerman has in hand is Stan Fischler’s 1967 biography. Howe turned 39 that year, and he was in his 20th year as a Red Wing. Assuming Yzerman made it to the last chapter, he would have read Fischler’s musings on the imminent end of Howe’s career. “It’s going to be a bad day around here when he quits,” Sid Abel is heard to mutter. “A very bad day.” Howe, of course, had another four Red Wing seasons in him, and seven more after that in Houston and Hartford.

As Steve Yzerman knows, Howe talks about his longevity in that final chapter. Balance is key. Management, he says, expects you to eat, sleep, live hockey. “To me,” Howe goes on, “that’s a good way to go crazy. I don’t believe in it. For one thing, you have to take care of the body. That is a hockey player’s equipment. You keep in shape and you watch your weight. You eat the things you know you should. Take the day of a game. I would love a steak but I have eggs instead. Why? Because I feel I play better with eggs.”