sawchuk’s reward, this night in 1952? a smoke and a stanley cup

On this night in 1952, Terry Sawchuk deterred 26 Montreal shots to see his Detroit Red Wings to a 3-0 win over Canadiens and, thereby, a sweep of the Stanley Cup finals. It was the first of four Cups for Sawchuk, who also collected a Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. With his fourth shutout in eight playoff games, Sawchuk tied an NHL record that night at Detroit’s Olympia. As time ticked away to end the game, his teammates mobbed the 22-year-old in his crease as the organist played “Auld Lang Syne.” Later, Marshall Dann of the hometown Free Press found him in the dressing room, puffing on a cigarette and posing with the Cup. “This last game was the toughest of the entire series,” Sawchuk said, “and I believe it was my best game. The Canadiens were trying to rough me up in the goalmouth and knock me off my feet every time they skated by.”

(Image: Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / PA-209513)

howe and fontinato, 1959: just like someone chopping wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

cat tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

johnny bower, 1967: by a whisker

Say whatever you want about the late, great, exceedingly affable Toronto Maple Leaf goaltender Johnny Bower, who died a week ago at the age of 93, but say this, too: he was an extremely speedy shaver.

This is going back ages, to those ancient times when the Leafs still reigned as Stanley Cup champions. They’d triumphed in the spring of 1967, as you maybe don’t really remember, an unlikely crew of conquerors as ever there was in NHL history, anchored in goal by the elderly tandem of Bower (42 at the time) and Terry Sawchuk (37).

At some point after that springtime surprise, Bower took up as spokesman for the Sunbeam Shavemaster Shaver Model 777. Maybe you’ve heard tell of this fabulous machine; possibly you had one, once, to tend your own face. Did you prize above all things getting the trimming done with maximum dispatch? Bower seems to have been so eager to prove how hasty his Shavemaster could do the job, he challenged four of his NHL compadres to a race.

Sawchuk was there, with an electric shaver with rotary heads. Ed Giacomin of the New York Rangers brought an old analogue “band” razor. Then there were Canadiens: Charlie Hodge with (and I quote) a flat-headed electric shaver with reciprocating cutters, Gump Worsley wielding a stainless-steel blade in a safety razor.

In case you thought this was an unofficial stunt, sorry, wrong, no: this was official. So much so that three NHL trainers were on hand to time the proceedings: Montreal’s Bob Harney, Bob Haggert from the Leafs, and Frank Paice of the Rangers.

The goaltenders hadn’t shaved for a day, I guess. That’s what I’m told. Of course they got dressed up in full gosling gear (no masks, obviously). Given the go … well, who’s kidding who? You knew how this was going to go. Bower won. It took him and his six-bladed 777 — believe it or don’t — a mere minute to mow his mien. Six “husky” blades did the job, the admen from ’67 tell me, with “over two million cutting actions.”

Bower was sold, it seems — enough to make the sell. His testimony is on the record: “I don’t think any shaver,” he advised, “can beat Sunbeam for speed and comfort.”

 

wings nuts

Go Wings Go: Toronto’s 2017 Leafs skate in Detroit tonight to renew an old rivalry. In February of 1961, when the Red Wings paid a visit to Maple Leaf Gardens, the crew of winged-wheel fans who made the trip from Michigan included, from left, Rose Marie Galitz, Andrew Sorovetz, and Jack Walker. The game they witnessed would have been a disappointment, with the home team skating to a 4-2 victory. Detroit’s defence was “slipshod,” by one report, leaving goaltender Terry Sawchuk to fend for himself. The Leafs got goals from Bon Nevin, George Armstrong, Ron Stewart, and —“untouched and skating like a gale” down the length of the rink — Eddie Shack. Detroit’s goals came from Vic Stasiuk and Marcel Pronovost. (Photo: Michael Burns)

scoring on your own net: he fell forward on his face, lay prone on the ice, and refused to be comforted

roy w

Handcuffed: “I’ve never seen it happen before in all the years I’ve been in hockey,” Roy Worters said in 1940 when his glove betrayed him.

For all the uproar over the puck Edmonton’s Kris Russell fired into his own net last week, you’d think it was NHL’s first own goal. It wasn’t. Just ask — no, actually, let’s leave Steve Smith out of this. Hasn’t he suffered enough?

Patrick Laine, then. Not quite a year has passed since the then-rookie winger for the Winnipeg Jets scored a goal that counted for the Oilers — won them the game, in fact. Laine skated away without so much as a producer’s credit: Edmonton’s Mark Letestu goes down in scoresheet history as the game-winning-goaler. What else is there to say? “I think everybody saw what happened,” Laine told reporters after the game. “That’s my comments.”

He has a point. Though if hockey is, as they say, is a game of mistakes, the suggestion that we shouldn’t dwell on own goals does kind of limit the conversation. I agree that we probably don’t need a central registry of every last self-inflicted score in NHL history. That doesn’t mean we can’t revisit a bunch of them here. Where to start, though? And once you have started, where then to stop?

In 1931, Boston’s Eddie Shore hammered the puck past teammate Tiny Thompson to win a game for the New York Americans. He did it again five years later, in Toronto: the Leafs’ Bill Thoms took a shot on Thompson, which he saved, only to see the puck bounce up. “As Tiny went down,” the Daily Star’s Andy Lytle wrote, “Eddie Shore batted it into the net instead of over it.”

Detroit defenceman Benny Woit snared a rebound in front Red Wings goaltender Terry Sawchuk at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1954. Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail saw it all. “There wasn’t a Toronto player near him. Evidently he planned to flip the puck behind the net but somehow his radar became fouled up and he tossed it directly into the open goal.”

In 1998, Montreal defenceman Vladimir Malakhov whacked Pittsburgh’s winning goal past Canadiens’ goaltender Andy Moog. Penguin Stu Barnes claimed that one. Moog said it was his fault. Bruce Keidan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette appointed Malakhov a member of Sigma Alpha Oops.

I’ve seen a reference to a couple of “reverse hattricks” — long-ago Amerks’ defencemen Pat Egan and Detroit’s Marcel Pronovost are both implicated in scoring three goals in a single game on their own nets, though I haven’t been able to further verify either one of those claims.

That’s probably enough. Almost. Two last incidents and we’ll leave it there. It’s embarrassing to score on your own net, and terrible-feeling. In Toronto in ’54, 13,115 Leaf fans (quote) roared with delight after Woit scored on Sawchuk. “Woit,” Rex MacLeod wrote, “looked appealingly around the ice, probably praying for a manhole to materialize so that he could jump in.” In Edmonton in ’86, Steve Smith was down on the ice weeping. Which gets us to Roy Worters and Jack Portland.

Roy Worters • January, 1931

Is it an own goal when a goaltender puts the puck past himself? There’s probably a good argument to made that no, it’s not. That’s not going to slow us down here. In February of 1927 Roy Worters was guarding the Pittsburgh Pirate goal in a game that ended up 2-1 for the New York Rangers. The first goal went like this, according to the Associated Press:

Bun Cook went the length and shot, but the puck hit the backboards and bounded back to the front of the net to one side. Worters attempted to clear with his hand and accidentally pushed the disc into the net.

“A tough break,” the AP’s man on the scene called it; an editor for The Pittsburgh Daily Post amplified that to “Bone Play” in the headline overhead.

On to 1931. Worters was tending the New York Americans’ net by now. This time, Montreal Canadiens were in visiting Madison Square Garden. Last minute of the second period, score tied 1-1, Canadiens were pressing. Left winger Georges Mantha flipped the puck high towards the Americans’ goal. Worters dropped to his knees to catch it, did, left-handedly, but then (as one report put it) “became flurried.” In trying to throw the puck into the corner, as goaltenders used to do, he tossed it into his own net. Harold Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle picks up the story:

From the press rows it looked as if the rubber was hot and Roy wanted to get rid of it. But he was just trying to clear his net, as he had done some 25 times before during the evening. However, the puck caught in the tear he didn’t know anything about and, instead of going into the corner, it went right into to the cage behind him. To his horror, the red light went up and the winning goal was scored.

A tear in the leather of his glove, that is. Neither Worters nor Amerks’ trainer Percy Ryan had noticed it, I guess. Burr:

When Roy saw what had happened he fell forward on his face and laid prone on the ice and refused to be comforted.

New York coach Red Dutton had to come out on the ice, and did so, and lifted up his goaltender. Told him to forget it.

Not often does Red’s voice break, but it broke then. For the rest of the game Worters was the most pathetic figure in the rink No one could read his thoughts as he crouched there in his cage, but they must have been scalding.

No-one scored in the third, so Canadiens won 2-1. Burr was down in the New York dressing room for the post-game denouement.

Worters sat staring blindly at the offending glove, bulky and shapeless with its reinforcement of felt padding. It was the first of his harness he discarded belowstairs but the last to toss aside.

“I’ve worn that glove for three years and now I’ll have to throw it away — after this,” he was muttering. “I made the same kind of a play every goalie in the league makes when he catches the puck. But it caught in my glove. I’ve never seen it happen before, all the years I’ve been in hockey. Say, Percy!”

The passing trainer came climbing gingerly over discarded heaps of rag-bag underwear so dear to the heart of a hockey player. He was woebegone for the first time this winter.

“Yes, Roy,” he gulped.

Worters handed him the glove that had failed him. “You’d better order me a new pair of gauntlets from the sporting goods store,” he said kindly. “Those old babies are fairly well shot, anyway,” continued Roy, showing the places where the faithful Percy had darned and patched and darned again. “But it’s going to take me all the rest of the season to break in a new pair. I sure liked those old gloves — until tonight.”

 

Jack Portland • March, 1940

Chicago was the hottest team in the NHL heading into the playoffs that year, though Toronto finished higher in the standings: that’s what The Globe and Mail’s Vern DeGeer was saying in 1940 as the regular season rounded into the playoffs. In the opening round, the Maple Leafs ended up sweeping past the Black Hawks in two straight games. It was closer than that sounds. The first game went to an overtime that Syl Apps ended in the hometown Leafs’ favour. The second game, back in Chicago, was tied 1-1 in the third period when — well, there was nothing so remarkable to Jack Portland’s gaffe. Toronto rookie Hank Goldup had taken a shot on Hawks goaltender Paul Goodman and in trying to swat rebound clear, Portland failed to do that.

The Chicago Tribune’s Charles Bartlett didn’t make a whole lot out of the mistaken game-winner: inadvertent, he called it. But in Toronto’s Daily Star, Andy Lytle went to town on Portland:

That makes him an athletic goat comparable to Roy Reagels, who ran a ball the wrong way for a touch-down in football, to “Wrong-Way Corrigan” in the air, to Merkle in baseball, who forgot to touch a base, and to Snodgrass who muffed a fly in world series baseball and kissed a flock of easy dough a tragic [sic] good-by.

Which seems altogether heartless. Max Bentley was a Chicago rookie that year, and while he didn’t make it to the ice in those playoffs, he was with the team. He later said that he’d never seen a man so heartbroken as Portland, who cried bitterly in the dressing-room after the game, and for days after that locked himself in his room and wouldn’t talk to anyone.

Not that it would have provided much solace at the time, but I hope Portland knew that he wasn’t alone that spring. The Leafs ended up going to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Rangers. In the ten playoff games they played, they scored a total of 21 goals. Nineteen per cent of those were, in fact, knocked into nets by helpful opponents — along with Portland, Chicago’s Art Wiebe and New York’s Mac Colville and Alf Pike scored goals they regretted that counted for the Leafs that spring.

 

 

 

 

a hundred years hirsute: the nhl’s first moustache (and other moustaches)

Lanny McDonald and Moustache: “Put a handle on it and you could clean your driveway.”

Start with Andy Blair. Talking hockey moustaches, you had to start with him: for a long time in the early years of the NHL, his Toronto Maple Leaf lip was the only one in the entire loop to be adorned with any growth of hair. Or so we thought. Turns out hockey wasn’t quite so clean-shaven as we were led to believe. In fact, Blair wasn’t even the first Toronto player to skate mustachioed. Puckstruck exclusive: the NHL’s first recognized moustache made its debut as early as the league’s second season.

Jack Adams was the man to wear it. Better known for his later (smooth-faced) exploits as coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Adams was an accomplished player in his time, too, of course, winning two Stanley Cups in the NHL’s first decade. The first of those came in the spring of 1918 with Toronto.

It was when he returned to the team — now the Arenas — later that year that he changed his look. We have just a single source on this so far, but it’s persuasive: Adams, an astute Toronto reporter took note, boasted

a tooth brush decoration on his upper lip. You’ve gotta get pretty close to Jack to see it, as he is a blonde.

Andy Blair’s moustache was much more distinctive, not to mention very well documented. A Winnipeg-born centreman, Blair made his NHL debut in 1928. As best we can trace, he came into the league smooth-faced. The evidence isn’t conclusive but as far as we know he did get growing until the early 1930s.

When we think of classic Leafian moustaches, it’s Lanny McDonald’s full-frontal hairbrush that comes to mind, or maybe Wendel Clark’s fu manchu. Blair’s was trim. A teammate, Hap Day, described it as “a little Joe College-type.” Trent Frayne preferred “Charlie Chaplin.” It even rates a mention in Blair’s biography in the Hockey Hall of Fame register of players — even though it didn’t survive the end of his NHL career.

After eight seasons with the Leafs, Blair and his laden lip went to Chicago in 1936 for a final fling with the Black Hawks. Blair, at least, lasted the year: “I see the boys got together and made him shave off his Clark Gable moustache,” former Leafs teammate Charlie Conacher noted that year. “That is something more than we could get him to do when he played in Toronto.” The story goes that it disappeared under duress: only after his Chicago teammates repeatedly threatened to do the job forcibly did Blair get around to shaving the moustache away.

Lucky for Blair that it hadn’t happened sooner: like his Canadiens counterpart Pit Lepine, Conacher actually headed up a fervent anti-moustache campaign through the ’30s. Well, maybe that’s a bit strong: Conacher was a paid pitchman through for Palmolive Shave Cream (Giant Size Double Quantity 40 cents!). I don’t doubt that he used the stuff himself. I do wonder whether he actually said, of his own free will, “Palmolive knocks my whiskers for a goal every time I use it.”

It was another Leaf who picked up where Blair left off, though it took a few years. In the fall of 1945, The Globe and Mail introduced rookie defenceman Garth Boesch as the man sporting “the most impressive crop of lip foliage in a major hockey dressing room since Andy Blair.” Columnist Bobbie Rosenfeld was willing to go even further: if you left the Calder Trophy voting for NHL rookie-of-the-year to women, and Boesch would win hands (face?) down. “That Garth moustache,” she wrote, “which is a la Caesar Romero, has the femmes swooning every time the Leafs’ defence star steps on the ice.”

“I started growing it when I was 18 and I still have it,” Boesch told the Globe’s Paul Patton in 1975, when Boesch was 54. Red Dutton was supposed to have watched him as a young prospect, declaring, “With that moustache, he’s got two strikes against him before he starts.”

“I never heard that,” Boesch said. “Nobody ever complained to me.” He was proud to say he never lost a tooth in his five years playing in the NHL. He did acquire an honest share of stitches, though. “Lots on my lower lip, but never on my upper lip. I always had a big nose and I guess it protected my moustache.” Continue reading