March of 1964 was a busy month for Gordie Howe. To finish up his 18th season with the Detroit Red Wings, he scored four goals in 10 games, giving him 26 on the season and 566 for his career. He ended up, again, as Detroit’s leading scorer, fifth overall in the NHL. Both The Hockey News and the Associated Press voted him to their Second All-Star teams, which is where he’d end up when the official NHL version was named in April. What else? As his 36th birthday loomed, on March 31, and Howe was signing a 10-year promotion deal with Eaton’s department store, he mentioned that he planned to play two more years of pro hockey before he retired and went looking for a coaching job.
Also: on this very date in ’64, another Sunday, deep in Chicago Stadium, Gordie Howe asked a young fan a question that — just guessing here — he thought of as rhetorical. Did the fan, Howe inquired, want a punch in the mouth?
Having just helped his team even its first-round playoff series with the Chicago Black Hawks at a game apiece, Mr. Hockey might or might not have gotten the answer he was or wasn’t looking for: we just don’t know.
What’s clear is that Howe put down the bags he was carrying to deliver the aforementioned punch — “a good one,” as he described it, later, to reporters.
Robert Rosenthal, 20, was the fan. He and his friend George Berg had gone down after the game to wait outside the Red Wings’ dressing room. This we know because the next day, Monday, Rosenthal presented himself at Chicago’s Monroe Street municipal court with an idea of obtaining a warrant for Gordie Howe’s arrest on a charge of assault.
“When the player came out,” Rosenthal recounted, “I said, ‘Why don’t you learn to play a little cleaner?’” Howe’s reply: “You want a punch in the mouth?”
To that, Rosenthal told the court, he said this: “You’re good at fighting guys smaller than you.”
Howe hit him.
Rosenthal testified that he’d retreated south, to nearby Cook County Hospital, where he’d taken on eight stitches to close the cut to his mouth.
Judge John Sullivan wasn’t impressed. “I will not,” he told Rosenthal, “perform a useless act.”
“On the basis of the evidence you’ve given me, any judge in my opinion would find Mr. Howe not guilty, since you admitted that you provoked him.”
Back in Detroit, Howe told reporters what he knew — and added several new punches to the mix-up.
“This guy got in the way and said to me, ‘The ref called ’em right for you?’ I said, ‘Sure, all right.’ Then he said, ‘Oh, he didn’t call them right, huh?’” He wasn’t making much sense.”
“I asked him if he was looking for trouble. Then he stepped into me and I let him have a light punch on the nose.”
“I took another step toward the bus and he hit me on the back of the head, so I put down both travelling bags and let him have a good one.”
“I don’t think they have the right to swear at you,” Howe said, summing up, “and I’m not going to stand for it when they use my mother’s and father’s name in vain.”
In the aftermath of Rosenthal’s dismissal at court, his mother, whose name may have been Veronica but is given in at least one account as Veronia, mentioned that lawyers would be consulted. Sure enough, before the week was out, just in time for Howe’s birthday, Rosenthal filed a lawsuit seeking US$25,000 for damages from number 9 and the Red Wings, claiming “Howe’s unprovoked attack humiliated, embarrassed, and held him up to public ridicule.” He noted, too, that his wound had become infected and swollen to three times its regular size.
Howe and/or Wings may have settled the suit — whatever happened, the incident vanished from the press. They had largely, true to Rosenthal’s claim, sided with the hockey player over the man who accosted him. A scrapbook of not exactly sympathetic headlines from that week, 56 years ago, might include:
Detroit Hockey Player Socks Annoying Fan
Fan Learns What NHL Players Know — Don’t Mess Around With Gordie Howe
Gordie Howe Decks Abusive Fan
Fist in Face Worth $25,000, Figures Fan
As for the NHL, president Clarence Campbell said he’d investigate, though he didn’t expect anything to come of it. “I’m not too excited about it,” he said, “and I doubt there’ll be any league action against Howe. After the game is over and he’s out of the rink, it’s not really an NHL affair, although these incidents can’t do anything for our public image.”
For the cover for the 1960 Official National Hockey Annual, artist (and former NFL lineman) Tex Coulter painted Montreal’s Bill Hicke scoring on Chicago’s Glenn Hall, and while you can’t really see the expression on either man’s face, the sense of their mutual surprise is strong, as though the last thing either man expected to see was that puck find the back of the net. I wrote in my 2014 book about the journalist and pro tem goaltender George Plimpton and his suspicion that his failure as a netminder was largely a problem of acquaintance: he’d never really gotten to know the puck. “One would appear with the abruptness of a bee over a picnic basket,” he wrote in Open Net (1985), “and then hum away, all so quickly that rather than corporeal it could well have been an apparition of some sort. A swarm of them would collect in the back of the net during the shooting drills without my being sure how they got there.”
From the veterans of the crease Plimpton apprenticed with during his stint with the Boston Bruins he learned that you never bother with a puck that ends up behind you in the net. A bee no more, that puck has become your mess and your shame — “like dogshit on a carpet.”
It was the final weekend of the NHL’s 1959-60 season, towards the end of March. On the eve of the playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs had a couple of games to go before they got down to the business of chasing the Stanley Cup. Sunday they played their final regular-season game in Detroit, forging a 3-2 win in which goaltender Johnny Bower was the acknowledged star. Bower hadn’t done badly the night before either, back home at Maple Leaf Gardens, outduelling Chicago’s Glenn Hall in a 1-0 win that saw Frank Mahovlich set up Red Kelly’s winning goal. Writing it up for the hometown Globe and Mail, Rex MacLeod recognized that “Pierre Pilote, most underrated defenceman in the league was a standout for the Hawks in a game that had occasional flurries of high-speed action, excellent goalkeeping, fine defensive work plus solid bodychecking.” A photographer from the Turofsky’s Alexandra Studio’s caught some of that here. Reproduced in 100: A Century of NHL Memories (2017), an anthology of photographs drawn from the vasty vaults of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, this image shows Pilote upending Leafs’ right winger Gerry James while Hall secures the puck in his crease. The other Hawks shown are (back left, wearing number 8) winger Murray Balfour alongside defenceman Moose Vasko. Obscured, mostly, by James and Pilote, that’s Bobby Hull in back. He didn’t make the cut at all when football star and artist Tex Coulter came to translate the scene to canvas. Then again, Glenn Hall didn’t fare a whole lot better in the painted version, here below, that would adorn the cover of the NHL’s 1961 Official Annual, snatching away Hall’s real-save save to pose him looking back, too late, at the goal he couldn’t foil.
(Top image: Imperial Oil/Turofsky Collection, from 100 : A Century of NHL Memories, Natural Treasure Series, 2017)
Boston’s surging Bruins play in Montreal tonight, where (in case you hadn’t heard) their old rivals the Canadiens continue their season of struggles. The two teams meet again next Wednesday before returning to Montreal to complete their mini-series a week from tonight.
The two teams have played 34 playoff series against one another since 1929, with Montreal having prevailed in 25 of those. Tonight’s game is the 739th regular-season meeting. Canadiens are ahead by (almost) a century on that count, with a won-lost-lost in overtime record 360-267-8 and 103 ties.
The first time the teams clashed was December 8, 1924, a Monday night, in Boston. That was the first year there were Bruins, of course, and in just the third game of their history, Canadiens spoiled the evening by beating them 4-3. The ice was a little soft at the Boston Arena; the crowd numbered 5,000. Aurèle Joliat notched a hattrick for the defending Stanley Cup champions from Montreal, with Howie Morenz adding a goal of his own. Scoring for Boston was Bobby Rowe and Carson Cooper, with a pair.
Is it fair to say that Tex Coulter caught the spirit of the rivalry in his 1959 painting of a couple of belligerents ignoring the referee? That’s one question. Another: who were his models? Fern Flaman and Leo Boivin were up atop the pile of leading Bruin penalty-takers that season, but Coulter’s Bostonian doesn’t look like either of them, to me. The haircut kind of suggests Jack Bionda. The Hab in question is numbered 2, which would make him Doug Harvey. I don’t see that, though, either. Could be 20, I guess, which was Phil Goyette. Ian Cushenan was 21 and Don Marshall 22 and … I don’t know. Safe to say it’s not Jean Béliveau. Let’s just leave it there. Game’s on.
Artish Proof: Goaltender Gump Worsley inspects artist Tex Coulter’s handiwork in early 1957. In April of that year, the portrait of the Rangers’ backstop accompanied by son Lorne Jr. would grace the cover of Hockey Blueline, which looked like this.
“A degree of quietude has settled on the Forum.”
• Danny Gallivan reports from the CBC broadcast booth during the first period of Montreal’s famous exhibition encounter with the Central Red Army on December 31, 1975
Mordecai Richler called him “the last of the literate TV play-by-play commentators,” which is — well, very Mordecai Richler. Danny Gallivan was, it’s true, a broadcaster like no other, and today’s the centenary of his birth.
Born in Sydney, Nova Scotia on April 11, 1917, he turned out to have an arm on him, such that that the New York Giants invited him to their training camp in 1938 to see him pitch. An injury curbed his Major-League dreams, and he served as teacher, a soldier, and a steelworker before ending up as sports director at Halifax radio station CJCH. His career with Hockey Night in Canada began in 1952 and continued, mostly in Montreal, calling Canadiens’ games, until his retirement in 1984.
When he died at the age of 75 in 1993, Jack Todd remembered him in The Gazette as a man who was as much a part of Montreal “as the cross or the river or the Forum.” His voice, high-pitched and lilting, is as memorable to those of us who heard him as the exploits of the Lafleurs and Gainey and Cournoyers he narrated. And of course there’s none other in hockey to match the Gallivan lexicon, with its cannonading drives, scintillating saves, and Savardian spin-o-ramas.
Bob Cole may not have been able to rise to Mordecai Richler’s standard; I’m guessing he’s never actively tried. Cole was a protégé of Gallivan’s not to mention an enthusiastic admirer. Here he is, Gallivanting, in Now I’m Catching On: My Life On and Off the Air, a 2016 memoir:
I was always a hero-worshipper, and Danny Gallivan was one of my heroes. I will always remember him doing Wednesday and Saturday night games with Dick Irvin. It was fabulous. There will never be another Danny. There was that personal touch of his, his style, his sound. His feeling about what he was doing. You could tell he was into it.
They’re still playing that famous clip of his: “Lafleur coming out rather gingerly on the right side. …” Just listen to that. You can feel the game.
Danny told me that he would grab a dictionary and find a word and practice that word and then throw it into the game somewhere. He really did that. He would find a word in the dictionary and then think of where he could use it. “Sagacious” would turn into “sagaciously stopped the puck.” He worked at it. He was a student of the English language and he perfected it.
(Image, from 1957: Tex Coulter)
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.”