non-fungible number 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gordie “Pow!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howe leans in close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Howe’s telling:

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

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

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

why be a coach, anyway?

Flyer + Friend: Philadelphia coach Fred Shero in the mid-1970s, with his Siberian husky, given to him as a gift by Flyers’ captain Bobby Clarke. Sorry to say, I don’t know the dog’s name.

“Why be a coach, anyway? The money is not great; usually less than a team’s greenest player. The future is absolutely certain: you’ll be fired. The wise, the safe, or the lucky are the ones who take the first chance to get higher into management. Be a general manager, and fire somebody else: be a Harry Sinden, Sam Pollock, Jim Gregory, Tommy Ivan.”

That was the great Scott Young writing in a Globe and Mail column headlined “A Coach’s Fate is to Get the Chop” back in 1977, not long after the Toronto Maple Leafs sacked Red Kelly. Today, when Alain Vigneault lost his job with the underwhelming Philadelphia Flyers, he was the second NHL coach to go in just 24 hours, joining Travis Green, formerly of the Vancouver Canucks. Young’s theory of sanctuary in management isn’t looking so good today: Canucks GM Jim Benning was also let go yesterday, not a week after his (former) Montreal counterpart Marc Bergevin was shown the Bell Centre door.

And the money? What’s the deal on coaching dollars 44 years on from Red Kelly’s day? I don’t have good sources on his exact Leaf salary, but the Globe reported in ’77 that his successor on the Toronto bench, Roger Neilson, signed a one-year deal with Harold Ballard that the Toronto owner said was “about the same salary Red had,” but with more opportunities for bonuses.

That, the Globe asserted, put Neilson “in the $40,000 bracket, or roughly half the average salary of players in the National Hockey League.”

Today? Under the CBA, the minimum an NHLer can be paid annually is $750,000. When it comes to an average, as Bryan Murphy at NBC Sports writes here, there’s no such definitive number. “However, given that each team has $81.5 million in cap space for this season, with 23 players allowed on the active roster, the average of that comes out to around $3.5 million per player.”

According to CapFriendly, Vigneault was in the third year of a five-year deal that’s been paying him $5-million annually. That’s less than the Flyers’ best-paid player, Claude Giroux, who makes $8.275 a year, and six other of the team’s more valuable members. Travis Green’s 2021-22 salary isn’t listed, but last year he was making $1-million. Looking at this year’s Canucks’ roster, that’s less than 14 of his (erstwhile) players.

Coaches do have another option, of course, a middle way between getting fired and taking a chance on the safety of management: as Fred Shero did in the summer of 1978, they can walk away.

In his day, the man they called the Fog had been seven years doing the job that Alain Vigneault just stopped doing on the Flyers’ job. Shero’s record included bringing home a pair of Stanley Cup championships, but at 52 he just didn’t think he had what it took any longer. “The reason for this resignation,” he said, “is simply that I feel my effectiveness to motivate the players, as well as to inspire them to the degree that would result in a Stanley Cup victory, has been exhausted.”

He went on to coach the Rangers in New York, but in November of 1980 he reached the end of the road there, too, resigning a second time, with Craig Patrick stepping in to succeed him.

That was a grim month all around for NHL coaches: the Edmonton Oilers also canned Bryan Watson that November, making way for Glen Sather’s return, while Detroit replaced Ted Lindsay with Wayne Maxner.

 

now hear this

Talk Talk: Detroit coach Jimmy Skinner broadcasts instructions on the bench at the noisy Olympia in January of 1956. Listening up is #11 Marty Pavelich.

Jimmy Skinner’s spirits were high in mid-January of 1956. The coach of the Detroit Red Wings had his charges on a five-game winning streak, and he’d just seen them beat the league-leading Montreal Canadiens 2-0 at Detroit’s Olympia. Skinner was in his second year as Red Wings coach, and he had a record to maintain, having led the team to a Stanley Cup the previous year.

The new year had Skinner tinkering with his team, shifting Red Kelly from defence to left wing, slotting Ted Lindsay onto Alex Delvecchio’s wing, trying Metro Prystai on right wing instead of centre. Sitting third in the standings of the six-team NHL, the Red Wings were making ground on the second-place Rangers and the Canadiens ahead of them.

Playing a leading role in the shutout win over the Canadiens was goaltender Glenn Hall; centre Dutch Reibel had scored both Detroit goals. Credit was due, too, to the home crowd who’d cheered the Wings on: the 14,988 spectators who’d showed up on a Sunday night to see the Canadiens game made it the largest of the season to date.

Fans in the Olympia had been so enthusiastic, in fact, that Skinner’s players had been complaining that they couldn’t hear him on the bench. Skinner’s solution, pictured here, was to have a microphone installed, connecting to a series of “squawk boxes” installed strategically along the length of the bench facing the players. I don’t know how long this broadcast system lasted. I can report that while the Red Wings did make it back to the finals that year, they ceded the Stanley Cup to the Canadiens, falling in five games that April.

lum (+ chums)

Apple Cheeks: Born in Owen Sound, Ontario, on this date in 1926 (another Thursday), Harry Lumley did his goaling for … well, everybody in the oldtime NHL but the Montreal Canadiens. He won a Stanley Cup championship in 1950 in Detroit, aided by these two epic Red Wings, Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. As a Leaf Lumley won the Vézina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender in 1954; he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1980. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

net yield

Lean In: Detroit Red Wings goaltender Harry Lumley aslant on one of Bert Lindsay’s collapsible nets, circa 1950. Lindsay Sr. was himself one of the NHL’s earliest goaltenders; he was also, subsequently, Terrible Ted’s father. His scheme for a hockey net that forgave crashings like the one on display here had its (brief) day towards the end of the 1940s, when Lindsay Jr. was first making his name in Detroit. For a fuller account incorporating a primer on the evolution of NHL netting, there’s this.

mask mandate: what would ted lindsay do?

Ted Lindsay was 53 in 1979, with his left-winging NHL heyday firmly behind him: 14 years after he’d last turned out in a competitive game for the Detroit Red Wings, he was on the job as the team’s GM. He did still get in on a regular Monday-night pick-up game at the Detroit Olympia, alongside a motley non-Hall-of-Fame crew of friends, sportswriters, and Zamboni drivers. “Jeez,” said one of those scrimmagers as he watched Lindsay do his middle-aged thing one night in April of ’79. “He must have been unbelievable when he was 24.”

The mask? No, there was no pandemic on the loose in Michigan that spring. The tuque, Lindsay explained to an interested onlooker, was for style, while the mask was to help warm the rink air as it went into his lungs. “It’s the same skiing,” Lindsay said. “The cold air is rough on me.”

apple cheeks

Keep Your Eye On The Puck: Harry Lumley guards the Detroit goal at Maple Leaf Gardens on Saturday, March 20, 1948. The home team beat the Red Wings 5-3 on the night to clinch first place in the NHL. The foreground Leaf is Vic Lynn, with Howie Meeker cruising out near the blueline. Detroit’s skaters are, from the left, Red Kelly and Bill Quackenbush in the distance, Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe closer to the camera. Detroit and Toronto would meet again later in April for Stanley Cup, with the Leafs prevailing in four straight games.

Born in 1926 in Owen Sound, Ontario, on a Thursday of this date, Harry Lumley was — and remains — the youngest goaltender ever to have started an NHL game: he was just 17 when he made his debut in net for the Detroit Red Wings in December of 1943. As he got older, the man they called Apple Cheeks won a Stanley Cup with the Wings (in 1950) along with a Vézina Trophy in ’54. He was a Leaf in Toronto by then; Lumley also skated, in the course his 14-year NHL career, for the New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks, and Boston Bruins. Inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1980, Harry Lumley died in 1998, aged 71.

(Image: Turofsky/Imperial Oil, from A Century of NHL Memories: Rare Photos from the Hockey Hall of Fame, used with permission)

a sturdy six-footer

“A sturdy six-footer,” The Star Weekly styled Boston defenceman Bob Armstrong in the copy accompanying this 1960 photo spread that featured him keeping tabs on Detroit’s Gordie Howe; his defence was, in its time, described as bruising and no-nonsense. At 29, having spent a decade on defence for the Boston Bruins, Armstrong played in his only NHL All-Star Game in 1959-60. He accumulated the best offensive statistics of his career that season, notching five goals and 19 points in 69 games — along with the 96 penalty minutes that put him ninth on the list of most-penalized NHLers that year, a little ahead of Ted Lindsay. Armstrong, who died on a Tuesday of this date in 1990 at the age of 59, wore number four for the Bruins for 11 seasons. Pat Stapleton got it after him for a while, then Bob McCord, then Al Langlois, before Bobby Orr made it his own in 1967.

(Image: Harold Barkley)

crash course: hockey’s daily tutorial on how not to social distance

Hubbub: The Toronto Maple Leafs won their third consecutive Stanley Cup on the night of Saturday, April 16, 1949, beating the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 to sweep to the championship in four games. The game was not without melee: here Leaf captain Ted Kennedy and teammate Fleming Mackell dispute with a pair of Wings in the front of the Detroit bench. That’s possibly Black Jack Stewart with glove raised; in the foreground … maybe Ted Lindsay? Arriving to adjudicate is referee Bill Chadwick. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132811)

After a month of summertime hockey, we’ve learned what NHL playoffs look like when you play them in a pandemic: on the ice, they more or less resemble the game as it’s usually played, back in the pre-COVID past, with all the ensuing clustering, close-fought commotion, and bodily byproducts that players shed, the sweat, spit, blood, and teeth. If all goes according to script in a year in which so much hasn’t, in another month from now the Stanley Cup will be in the hands of hockey’s latest champions, riding high, and full of champagne. In today’s print edition of The New York Times — and online, here — I survey hockey’s daily tutorial — its crash course? — on how not to social distance.

 

ted talk

Exile On Madison: Born in Renfrew, Ontario, in 1925 on another Wednesday, Terrible Ted Lindsay played 13 inimitable seasons on the left wing with the Detroit Red Wings, winning four Stanley Cups along the way, what a glorious time — until, right, he was exiled to Chicago in the summer of 1957 as punishment for his dogged efforts to establish a players’ union. He played three seasons with the Black Hawks before he retired. A comeback he made with Detroit in 1964 last a single season. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966. Lindsay died in 2019, in March, at the age of 93.

the only goaltender ever to have won a game in the nhl? for an hour or two in 1917, that was bert lindsay

Goaltender Bert Lindsay was 36 by the time he took his first NHL turn — though to be fair, before he skated out for that debut in the waning days of 1917, there was no NHL.

Tending the nets for Montreal’s Wanderers, Lindsay started the league’s very first game on the Wednesday night of December 19, 1917, against the team from Toronto. (The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators also played that night, but that game was delayed, and started later in the evening.) Toronto’s goaltender, Sammy Hebert, conceded the first goal in league history when the Wanderers’ Dave Ritchie beat him a minute into the first period.

The game, let’s just say, was a tough one for any of the goaltenders involved. After Montreal put five pucks past him in the first period, Hebert gave way to Art Brooks, on whom the Wanderers scored a further five goals. Going the distance, Lindsay was beaten on just nine occasions, helping his team to eke out a 10-9 win. That meant that he was not the first goaltender to win an NHL game: briefly that night, he was the only goaltender ever to have won one. That distinction, of course, expired as soon as the Canadiens finished their game in Ottawa, beating the Senators 7-4, and Georges Vézina joined Lindsay as the NHL’s winningest goaler.

Bert Lindsay was born in the village of Belwood, Ontario, just north of Guelph, on the 23rd day of another July, this one in 1881. He eventually found his way north and east, to Renfrew, which is where he made his name as a professional hockey. For a couple of years starting in 1910, manning the nets for the NHA’s star-studded Renfrew Creamery Kings, Lindsay had Cyclone Taylor, Newsy Lalonde, Lester and Frank Patrick lining up in front of him. He subsequently played six seasons for the PCHA’s Victoria Aristocrats before returning east to join the Wanderers in Montreal.

He was the man in their nets for the final two NHA seasons. That gets us to 1917 and the NHL, wherein Lindsay guarded the Wanderer goal in the only four games the team ever actually played in the league. That opening-night win was the only one the Wanderers managed in its brief history in the league: Lindsay was on the losing end of four subsequent games.

The Wanderers were already undermanned, desperate for players, when in early January of 1918 the Montreal Arena burned down. While the building’s other tenant, the Canadiens, saw fit to make a move to the Jubilee Arena, Wanderers’ owner Sam Lichtenhein decided to disband his team. They defaulted two more games before their final extinction, and while many of their players joined other NHL teams for the remainder of the year, Lindsay didn’t catch with the Toronto Arenas until the following year, his last in pro hockey.

There are a couple of other facets to Lindsay’s place in hockey history. For one thing, Bert begat a Hall-of-Fame son, Ted, who was born in Renfrew towards the end of July of 1925.

For another, some 20 years after that auspicious event, Bert Lindsay devised a new and improved piece of hockey furniture.

This is 1947 we’re talking about now. Bert, who’d originally retired to Renfrew to run a car dealership and coach some hockey, was north now, living in Kirkland Lake. I don’t know long he spent cogitating on a safer hockey net, nor whether it had been in the works going all the way back to his own goal-guarding days.

It was a serious effort that almost (but not quite) made it to the big league.

The standard NHL net in 1947 was one that Lindsay’s old coach and teammate with the NHL Wanderers had invented: the Art Ross Patent Goal Net.

After his long and distinguished career playing defence came to end with the demise of the Wanderers, Ross took up as an NHL referee and then as a coach, originally with the Hamilton Tigers. When Boston entered the league in 1924, he signed up to shape the newborn Bruins.

As shrewd as he was a judge of hockey talent, and as careful a tactician, Ross was also one of the game’s supreme innovators, constantly working to refine the game and its tools.

He designed a better puck, one that the NHL officially adopted before the 1918-19 season.

To mitigate the damage those very pucks threatened to do to players’ feet, he devised a chainmail boot to fit over skates long before plastic skateguards became commonplace.

Ross experimented with metal-shafted sticks, too, years before aluminum and composite models became fixtures in the hands of hockey players everywhere.

As Ross himself told it, he was forced into renovating the nets that had been employed on NHL ice for the league’s first decade. This was the same model that had featured in the old NHA: flat-backed, all straight lines, it looked a bit like the unfinished frame for a chest of drawers.

Introduced in 1911, this net had been designed by another famous goaltender, Percy LeSueur, who’d end up (like Ross, if not Bert Lindsay) in the Hall of Fame. The problem: pucks could, and did, bounce out as quickly as they made their way into the LeSueur net, often defying the best efforts of referees and goal judges to discern their passage.

Bounceback: From Percy LeSueur’s 1911 patent application, a rendering of the flat-backed net that served the NHL for its first decade on ice.

Ross’ patience for this lasted through the 1926-27 NHL season but not beyond. His solution was to invent the net that, in basic design, is the one we know today. Built on a base shaped like the number three, it featured angled metalwork within, along with a strip of interior mesh, all of which helped to corral pucks and keep them from bouncing out.

“After a game in Boston last winter in which four goals were disputed,” Ross said in the fall of 1927, “I began to plan it, and here it is.”

Net Work: In 1927, Art Ross unveiled his new net. Adopted for the 1927-28 season, it served the NHL for almost 60 years without alteration.

Hockey’s managers and mandarins were impressed when he revealed his prototype. “I wish we had thought of such a net years ago,” said Frank Patrick, no mean hockey visionary himself. The NHL was on board from the start, adopting the new Ross net for service effective that very season.

Affixed to the ice with steel pegs, the net that Ross conceived in 1927 did duty in the league for nearly 60 years, and it went more or less unchanged until 1980. That was the year that Mark Howe, then of the Hartford Whalers, suffered a horrific injury when he slid into and was badly sliced by the Ross net’s protruding middle plate. It was in the aftermath of that that the NHL did (eventually) get rid of the latter and switch out the uncompromising steel pegs in favour of the magnetic anchors used today.

While the fix that Bert Lindsay proposed in 1947 wouldn’t have adjusted the way nets were secured to the ice, he was focussed on the damage they could do to players, and how to improve their “yieldability.”

That’s a word from a patent application of his. “It is well known that in ice hockey,” Lindsay explained in his filing, “a player is frequently injured by collision with a rigid goal post. The object of this invention is to provide a goal that precludes or lessens such injury and is accomplished generally by the provision of yielding posts in the goal structure.”

Lindsay’s design put hinges in the goalposts, and backed them with heavy springs. Say Maple Leaf winger Gaye Stewart lost a wheel driving for the Detroit net one night, crashing into one of Harry Lumley’s posts. By Lindsay’s design, a mere seven pounds of pressure would cause the upright to give way. “When the force of the impact has been removed, the section … promptly returns to its normal position under the action of the springs.” The net itself might not be displaced, but Lindsay’s contention was that injuries to players would be “much less severe than if a rigid post were struck.”

Try, Try Again: Drawings for Bert Lindsay’s second patent application show his spring-loaded collapsible net.

Lindsay’s collapsing nets got some play in 1947, on the ice in Kirkland Lake, apparently. Then they gradually worked a way south. Following a demonstration in North Bay, Ontario, Lindsay Sr. arranged to ship a prototypical pair to Toronto towards the end of March.

He’d had discussions by then with the NHL president, Clarence Campbell, and it seemed possible that the new pliable nets would get a run out at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Leafs were hosting a Stanley-Cup semi-final. Starring for their opponents from Detroit was 21-year-old Ted Lindsay, all grown up now, and in his third season playing truculent left wing for the Wings.

Bert Lindsay’s nets didn’t get their chance in the NHL on Saturday, March 29, 1947, as it so happened. Press reports don’t get into the details but in the end, the experimental nets only ended up being tested before the second game of the Toronto-Detroit game that night. The Toronto Daily Star reported their findings, awkwardly and without attributing them to anyone by name: NHL officials “found them fine after they smooth out a few rough spots.”

While his net didn’t make the opening line-up, Bert Lindsay did get to see his son put a pair of pucks into the old Art Ross cages, as the Wings overwhelmed the Leafs by a score of 9-1. It was a big night all around for Red Wing parents: Sid Abel’s mother had travelled from Melville, Saskatchewan, to see her son play for the first time in his seven-year NHL career.

The next time Bert Lindsay’s nets rated a mention in the popular press seems to have heralded their last gasp. It was a year later, 1948, when they showed up in New York. I don’t know much about this, but they seem to have had a trial in (I think) in the Eastern Hockey League, (possibly) at Madison Square Garden. They also seem to have been given a test run in Windsor, as the caption for the photo below suggests.

They didn’t catch on. A rough spot that hadn’t been sufficiently smoothed was the concern that sly goaltenders would seek to bend back the posts to help them keep pucks out.

Their failure to prosper that year seems also to have had to do with the problem that Art Ross had wrestled with 20 years earlier. The Lindsay nets were, the Boston Globe advised, too shallow: “pucks bounce out too easily.”

The old goaltender kept on working on his novel nets, retooling, refining. This we know because in 1950, two years after he’d filed his original specs, Bert Lindsay was back at the Patent Office with paperwork for a new and improved version of his innovative net. In vain, it seems: while he may have fixed its early flaws to his own satisfaction, nobody else in the hockey world seems to have given it a third chance.

Bert Lindsay died at his home in Sarnia, Ontario, in 1960. He was 79.

big moe

Ken Mosdell made his name in the NHL of the late 1940s as a defensive centreman, though later he blossomed into a bit of a goalscorer. Either way, his value to the Montreal Canadiens was never in doubt. Born in Montreal on a Thursday of this date in 1922, Mosdell played 15 NHL seasons, most of them with Canadiens, though he skated for the Brooklyn Americans, too, and the Chicago Black Hawks. He won four Stanley Cups with Montreal. In 1953-54, he was the centre voted to the NHL’s First All-Star Team, alongside Detroit wingers Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Big Moe, his teammates called him in Montreal, where he was honoured at the Forum for his service on Ken Mosdell Night in 1955. Ahead of a game against the New York Rangers, teammate Elmer Lach (he was out of the line-up) did a turn around the ice in a gleaming new Oldsmobile 98 before handing Mosdell the keys. Canadiens won the game 10-2, with Boom-Boom Geoffrion scoring five goals. Mosdell couldn’t buy so much as an assist on the night. He died in 2006 at the age of 83.