paul meger, 1929—2019

News yesterday that Paul Meger has died at the age of 90. Born in Watrous, Saskatchewan, he grew up in Selkirk, Manitoba, where he played, early on, for the local Fisherman. He arrived in the NHL in 1950, playing in parts of six seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, mostly wearing the number 20 on his back, aiding in the effort to win a Stanley Cup in 1953. He scored 24 goals in 1951-52; that’s him above trying to harry Lumley’s Toronto net in ’53 or so, as Leafs Jim Morrison and Tod Sloan do their best to badger him. Floyd Curry and Paul Masnick were Meger’s linemates on the Habs’ fourth line in 1954. He was 25 when, in the fall of that year, his playing career came to an end after he suffered a fractured skull in a collision with Boston’s Leo Labine.

 

(Image: HockeyMedia and The Want List)

won and all

Yours, Truly: NHL President Clarence Campbell, suited on the right congratulates Toronto coach Hap Day, on the ice at maple Leaf Gardens on April 16, 1949. Arrayed behind are (from left) Leaf captain Ted Kennedy, Vic Lynn, Bill Barilko, Garth Boesch, (obscured by the Cup, so hard to say, but maybe) Sid Smith, Turk Broda, Cal Gardner, and Tod Sloan. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132795)

“The boys were whooping it in slightly mad fashion,” The Globe  and Mail’s Al Nickleson wrote of the April night in 1949 that the Toronto Maple Leafs wrapped up another championship, “when through the bedlam of the crowded Maple Leaf dressing-room came the stentorian tones of portly Tim Daly. “‘I don’t know why you guys are so excited at winning the Stanley Cup,’ he needled. ‘We do it every year.’”

The long-time team trainer wasn’t far off: the Leafs had just, it’s true, won their third consecutive Cup, and their fifth in eight years. (They would claimed it again two years later, in 1951, on the strength of Bill Barilko’s famous final goal.) In ’49, coached by Hap Day, Toronto had dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep. They won the decisive game 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens on goals by Ray Timgren, Max Bentley, and Cal Gardner. Ted Lindsay scored for Detroit. Once it was all over, NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hockey’s most coveted trophy to Leaf captain Ted Kennedy — as seen above — before the Stanley Cup was carried in the Gardens’ press room and (as Nickleson recounted) “filled with bubbling champagne.”

In street clothes, Leafs joined officials, newspapermen, and friends to sip from the Cup. Garth Boesch, hard-hitting defenceman, stroked the outsize trophy gently, and said, “See you again next year, honey.”

below the belt: the great leaf groin crisis of 1957

“Guts, goals, and glamour” was the slogan that GM Hap Day Toronto Maple Leafs draped on his team in the mid-1950s and it was one that his coach Howie Meeker gladly took up when he took charge of the team for the 1956-57 campaign. But halfway through the season, with the Leafs cruising closer to the bottom of the NHL standings than the top, another not so melodious g-word was crowding into the phrasing: groins.

Toronto had gone nearly six years without winning a Stanley Cup, and ’56-57 wouldn’t be their year again. That March, not long after the team missed the playoffs, Day resigned his post, and while Meeker hung around for a little longer, Leafs president and managing director Conn Smythe fired him before the spring had turned to summer. Smythe himself was retiring that year after a lively 30 years helming the Leafs, though not before naming a new coach (Billy Reay) and installing a committee of GMs (it included his son Stafford and Harold Ballard, among others) to steer the team into the future.

Whatever the particular lacks and flaws of the ’56-57 Leafs might have been, injuries did play a significant part in their failure to launch. Hap Day was talking about that in a story that appeared on this very January day in 1957 in The Globe and Mail. “I can recall some pretty rough seasons but never one to equal the present campaign,” he told Red Burnett. “I don’t believe we’ve been able to put a full-strength team on the ice since the season started.”

Injured Leafs had by that point missed a total of 124 games — and they still had 27 games to play. Over the entirety of the previous season, they’d lost a total 66 man-games to injuries. (As of today, this year’s Mike Babcock-led edition of the Leafs have lost 50 man-games.)

Among the ’56-57 wounded were defenceman Hugh Bolton, who’d been out 27 games with a broken leg, and forward George Armstrong, 16 games on the shelf with torn ligaments. Bob Pulford (strained back), Gerry James (battered shoulder), Barry Cullen (charley horse + fractured hand), Marc Reaume (gammy foot), and Tod Sloan (shoulder separation) had all been absent.

For all that pain and damage, it was the ubiquity of one particular ailment that seems to have concerned Conn Smythe most. Defencemen Jim Thomson, Tim Horton, and Jim Morrison had all at some point gone down with groin injuries that season, along with forwards Rudy Migay and Ted Kennedy.

As the pair of memos shown here memorialize, Conn Smythe was on the case. Could his team of highly tuned professional athletes be failing to stretch properly before they threw themselves into the fray? And what about these nefarious stops and starts? Were theyto blame? On this day 62 years ago, he started his investigation with a phone message to GM Day, who duly answered.

the winnipeg arena’s royal quandary: if the queen herself walked in, would she know who it was?

Elizabeth The First: Gilbert Burch’s original Winnipeg Arena portrait, c. 1979. (Image: Winnipeg Tribune/Universty of Manitoba Archives, PC 18 A81-012, Box 64, Folder 6315, Item 18)

A birthday yesterday for hockey fan and (by the Grace of God), Queen of Canada and of Her other realms and territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Elizabeth II, who’s 92 today. She never did suit up for the Vancouver Canucks, despite what you may have been led to believe by B.C. painter Timothy Wilson Hoey. She has been attending NHL games since 1951 when, a few months before she succeeded her father on the throne, Princess Elizabeth attended her first professional hockey game in Montreal.

What else was she going to do on an autumn’s tour of Canada? She and her husband Prince Philip did see a game in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens that October before they got to the Forum, but it wasn’t a real one. The royals didn’t have time in their schedule to attend Toronto’s Saturday-night season-opener, so Leafs and the visiting Chicago Black Hawks accommodated them by playing a half-hour exhibition game that afternoon. Fourteen thousand non-royal fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock show. The Leafs had Ted Kennedy, Sid Smith, Max Bentley, and Tod Sloan in the line-up, while Chicago featured Bill Mosienko and Gus Bodnar, but neither team was able to show their majesties what a goal looked like on the afternoon. For those, the commoners would have to return for the evening’s encounter, Chicago beat the Leafs 3-1.

Two weeks later, the regal visitors did see Canadiens’ Floyd Curry score a hattrick in a 6-1 Montreal win over the New York Rangers.

I’m pretty sure that Maple Leaf Gardens still had a portrait hanging of King George VI. Once Princess Elizabeth was proclaimed queen throughout her realms, she would eventually ascend (via painted portraits) the walls of several hockey rinks across Canada. The Queen oversaw the Gardens ice in the 1950s and on through the 1960s, until Harold Ballard had her removed in the early 1970s in favour of more seating. I’d like to know what became of that portrait, but don’t. “If people want to see pictures of the Queen,” Ballard is supposed to have said, “they can go to an art gallery.”

In Winnipeg, where the Jets are thriving unseen by the Queen’s likeness, the old Arena knew Her Majesty in several distinctive versions. The first was in place when the rink opened in the fall of 1955. I’ve only seen that one depicted at a distance, and I can’t say who commissioned it or what the painter’s name was. This original Winnipeg Arena monarch was, let’s be honest, a somewhat distracted one, gazing away up into the stands to see what the ruckus might be rather than watching the action on the ice — as is, of course, her royal right. That’s her, here below, in September of 1972, when she was not really paying attention to the third game of the Summit Series — a good one, by most accounts, wherein Canada and the Soviet Union tied 4-4.

queen winnipeg 72

Royal Highness: The Winnipeg Arena’s original, non-Burch portrait of Queen Elizabeth presides over the pre-game anthems ahead of Team Canada’s Summit Series game against the Soviet Union on September 6, 1972.

This first Queen departed the Arena in 1976, as far as I can tell, when Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor, Jack McKeag, decided it was time to update the regal look. Twenty-one years had passed, after all, since the portrait of a 29-year-old queen as a preoccupied spectator had taken its place, and she was 50 now. McKeag paid for the new commission, which went to a company called Claude Neon. The painter tasked to do the job was a commercial artist on staff, 49-year-old Gilbert — Gib — Burch. When he died in 2006, a family remembrance mentioned his hometown, St. James, Manitoba, and his gentle spirit. “He started out as a coffee grinder,” it said, “but wanted to be an artist.”

Burch did his best with Her Majesty. Later, after this new 4.2-by-4.2-metre portrait went up on the Arena’s north wall, he confessed that it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. He complained that he hadn’t been given a proper photograph from which to work.

“I argued and argued that it wasn’t a good enough copy,” he told a reporter. “Even the lighting in the photograph was poor.” It was tiny, too: the distance from the Queen’s crown to her neck, he reported, was no more than a few centimetres.

Burch had gone looking at the library for a better image. “The previous portrait,” he said, “was taken from a beautiful photograph. This one was terrible. I left out some wrinkles. I couldn’t see the eyes. And the mouth was a plain mess. I tried the best I could with the photograph I had.”

He got a do-over. In 1978, there was a new lieutenant-governor in office, F.L. (Bud) Jobin, who felt that the Arena’s queen didn’t resemble the one who lived in Buckingham Palace. “If the Queen herself walked in there,” he said, “she wouldn’t know who it was, except for the jewelry and crown.” He wasn’t campaigning for a new portrait, he insisted that January: “It’s just my opinion that it should be changed.” But Jobin did eventually raise (a) enough of a ruckus and (b) money to see the second coming of the Arena’s Queen replaced by a third. His predecessor didn’t object. Burch’s original portrait did make HM look a little “stiff and solemn,” McKeag conceded. He even offered to help pay the cost — $1,600 — of a new edition.

So Burch started again. He worked from an official portrait this time, spending more than 200 hours on this new oil-on-plywood piece. The painting was bigger this time, five-by-seven metres, making it the largest portrait of the Queen in the world (until someone worked up a bigger one in 2012).

By the end of 1979, with the Jets embarking on their first NHL season, his new (new) effort was ready to be unveiled ahead of the team’s December 7 game against the Edmonton Oilers. The Queen looked happier. And more like herself? The Winnipeg Tribune took to the streets of Winnipeg to ask the people what they thought.

QE2: Gilbert Burch puts the finishing touches of his second 1979 portrait for the Winnipeg Arena. (Image: Peter Levick, Winnipeg Tribune/Universty of Manitoba Archives, PC 18, Box 2, Folder 49, Item 9)

Several said the new painting made her look “phony,” even “comical.” They didn’t love the eyebrows. A woman said, “She looks like a squirrel storing away nuts in her cheeks.” Many liked the smile; some thought she looked more “queeny” in the earlier rendering. One man objected to seeing her get older. “She may be aging,” he said, “but we don’t have to look at it all the time, do we?”

Lieutenant-Governor Jobin was pleased. “In my opinion,” he said, “it is excellent, and a very good likeness.”

The original Jets departed Winnipeg in 1996. The Arena lasted for another ten years, until March of 2006, when 200 kilograms of dynamite helped demolish it. Burch’s second queen was long gone by then, having been removed in 1999 by the rink’s management, dismantled, trundled away into storage. The portrait might have been destroyed but for Syd Davey, head of the Canadian Commonwealth Society, who persuaded Winnipeg Enterprises to give the pieces to him in the hope that he could find the portrait a new home.

That hasn’t quite happened, yet. After a long stay in a Whitby, Ontario, warehouse, the portrait did make it back to Winnipeg in 2015, when a pair of CN rail executives bought it. Burch’s work made a brief public appearance in a downtown parking lot in October of 2016 during celebrations surrounding the NHL’s Heritage Classic. There was talk  then that the painting would be reappearing in 2017 in a more permanent local setting, but that doesn’t seem to have happened to date.

Winnipeg reporters who asked in 2011 whether the the portrait might find a place in the Jets’ current home at the MTS Centre were told by True North Sports and Entertainment that Gilbert Burch’s Queen wasn’t in their plans. She was “outdated,” they said, and would block the view of too many spectators wanting to watch their hockey.