bob gainey: what you get if you turn guy lafleur inside out

On Bob Gainey’s birthday — Peterborough, Ontario’s own five-time-Stanley-Cup-winning former-Habs-captaining Hall-of-Famer turns 64 today — a few fond fêteful notes.

A cornerstone, Stu Hackel dubbed him when, earlier this year, Gainey was named to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. Hackel’s citation quoted a Montreal teammate from those dominant Canadiens teams of the 1970s, Serge Savard: “I can’t think of anyone on our team,” Savard said, “who means more to us than Gainey.”

The NHL didn’t, of course, get into ranking its superlatives, but if you’re looking for something in that line, I refer you to a book published earlier this fall by the hockey cognoscenti at Le Journal de Montreal. Not so surprisingly, Les 100 meilleurs joueurs du Canadien goes with a top three of Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, and Guy Lafleur. Gainey gets in at number 22 — three slots back of Carey Price, but just ahead of Andrei Markov, Toe Blake, and Georges Vézina. If that fails to satisfy, you may be better to settle down with Red Fisher’s 2005 Canadiens top ten, whereon Gainey is lodged at number eight. (Béliveau, just for the record, comes ahead of Richard in Fisher’s thinking, with Lafleur holding at third.)

“That No. 23 for the Montreal team, Mr. Gainey, is the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” That was Soviet maestro Viktor Tikhonov rating Gainey during the 1979 Stanley Cup finals, which Gainey dominated. You’ll see it sliced up, this opinion, edited down to leave out the final phrase and make it absolute. Not necessary — it’s high enough praise in the original translation. Still, you can understand how, especially in Montreal in those glory days, the temptation to upgrade. “May be one of the most technically perfect hockey players who ever lived,” Gazette columnist Tim Burke was writing the morning after Canadiens beat the Rangers to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Gainey won the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring as playoff MVP. To go with the NHL silverware, Sport magazine gave him a 1980 Silver Anniversary Jeep CJ5, too. That’s maybe worth a mention.

Would we consider here, too, just how much of the literature detailing Gainey’s hockey brilliance finds a way, even if only gently, to scuff at his reputation? That sounds a little defensive, probably, but then what could be more appropriate while we’re talking about the man who won the first four Frank J. Selke trophies?

“A down-to-earth product” of Peterborough, a New York columnist by the name of Elliot Denman called him after those ’79 finals in a column that actually quoted Gainey as saying “Aw, shucks.” On behalf of those of us who, like Gainey, are born-and-bred Peterbruvians, I’m going to turn the other cheek for all of us on Denman’s drive-by dis of our little city, which happens to have been (not making this up) the first municipality in Canada to install streetlights. Gainey, Denman supposed, “much prefers the 75-watt lighting of his hometown to the bright neons of Montreal and New York.”

Then again, Gainey did say himself that if he were a GM (as he later would be, once his playing days were ended), he’d get rid of himself. “I’d trade myself for a Larry Robinson or a Ken Dryden. Defencemen and goalies are crucial.”

Still, it’s not as if the archives lack for Gainey acclaim. Back to that.

Ken Dryden goes on Gaineying for pages in The Game (1983). To his “basic, unalterable qualities — dependability, discipline, hard work, courage,” Gainey added an “insistent passion, an enormous will to win, and a powerful, punishing playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo.”

“If I could be a forward,” wrote Dryden, “I would want to be Bob Gainey.”

Heading out of the tempestuous ’70s into a whole new hockey decade, Gazette sports editor Al Strachan saw him as a symbol and standard-bearer for entire continents and generations to come.

“Nobody in the world,” Strachan wrote, “better exemplifies the true North American style of hockey than Gainey.”

He is a superb skater and an excellent defensive player. But unlike the European players, he also plays a rugged, bone-crunching game. He pounds the opponents into the boards, blasts them off the puck, and makes them pay the price for dipsy-doodling in their own zone.

Yet no one plays a cleaner game than Gainey. … Nothing could be better for hockey than to have the junior ranks start emulating the Bob Gaineys of this world than the Dave Hutchisons.

Rick Salutin writing about Gainey is worth your while, finally. “Gainey works,” he wrote in a 1980 magazine profile of our hero. “Hard.”

He tears up the ice, his legs pumping and thrusting, his face contorted with effort and determination. He is the very opposite of his teammate Guy Lafleur. Lafleur skates lightly, with a Gallic flair that appears effortless: he whirls and corners like one of those toy tightrope walkers you can’t knock off balance. Gainey is what you would expect to get if you turned Lafleur inside out. In fact, Ken Dryden calls Gainey “the Guy Lafleur of defensive forwards.” Lafleur fulfils our every stereotype of French-Canadian finesse, while Gainey does the same for our notions of the earnest, achieving English-Canadian.

It gets better. “What is the Gainey style?” Salutin goes on to wonder.

In a stage play I wrote several years ago called Les Canadiens, a defensive forward steps onto the ice/stage to try to contain a rampaging goal scorer in the Morenz-Richard-Lafleur tradition. The character says, to his teammates or the audience:

It’s okay. I got ’im. Good thing I backcheck. It’s not the glamour job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Maybe it’s because Mom always said the other kids were pretty or smart but I was so “responsible.” I’m there when there’s hard slugging to do

This speech was inspired by Gainey’s play, but it is really too stodgy for Gainey. For, despite his defensive role, he is an exciting player.”

Later in the profile, Salutin adds a perfect parenthetic coda:

(Gainey saw Les Canadiens, by the way, and pronounced it “luke,” as in lukewarm; two nights later, at a performance of his own at the Forum, he had one of his two-goal nights in a kind of rebuttal to the onstage caricature.)

(Painting by Timothy Wilson Hoey, whose work you’re advised to investigate further, at  www.facebook.com/ocanadaart and ocanadaart.com)

maurice richard had a bad night; fern majeau picked up a pocketful of pennies

Punch-Line Original: Joe Benoit played three seasons for the Canadiens in the early 1940s before the war interrupted his skating. He returned after it was all over, in 1946-47, but only briefly.

Seventy-four years ago tonight, Maurice Richard had a terrible night.

That’s not the anniversary that tends to be observed, of course. Seems like people prefer to recall that it was on a night like this in 1943 that Montreal coach Dick Irvin debuted a brand new first line, one featuring wingers Toe Blake (left) and Maurice Richard (right) centred by Elmer Lach, that would soon come to be known, then and for all time, as the Punch Line.

October 30 was a Saturday in 1943, and it was opening night for four of the NHL’s six teams. Montreal was home to the Boston Bruins. After an injury-plague start in the Canadiens’ system, Richard, 22, was healthy. Having played just 16 games in 1942-43, he was ready to start the season as a regular. The Canadiens had lost some scoring over the summer: Gordie Drillon was gone and so was Joe Benoit, both gone to the war. The latter had scored 30 goals in ’42-43, leading the Canadiens in that department as the right winger for Lach and Blake. That line was already, pre-Richard, called Punch, with Elmer Ferguson of The Montreal Herald claiming that he’d been the one to name it.

Richard didn’t recall this, exactly. In autobiography Stan Fischler ghosted for him in The Flying Frenchmen (1971), Richard erred in saying that he took Charlie Sands’ place on the Punch Line rather than Benoit’s.

Roch Carrier added a flourish to the story in Our Life With The Rocket (2001), a poetic one even if it’s not entirely accurate.

Richard’s wife Lucille did (it’s true) give birth to a baby girl, Huguette, towards the end of October of 1943, just as Montreal’s training camp was wrapping up in Verdun. True, too: around the same time, Richard asked coach Irvin whether he could switch the number on his sweater. Charlie Sands wasn’t a Punch Liner, but he was traded during that final week of pre-season: along with Dutch Hiller, Montreal sent him to the New York Rangers in exchange for Phil Watson. Richard had been wearing 15; could he take on Sands’ old 9? “He’d like that,” Carrier has him explaining to Irvin, “because his little girl weighs nine pounds.”

“Somewhat surprised by this sentimental outburst, Dick Irvin agrees.”

Here’s where Carrier strays. To celebrate Huguette’s arrival, he writes, Richard promised to score a pair of goals in the Canadiens’ season-opening game: one for mother, one for daughter. “The Canadiens defeat the Bruins,” Carrier fairytales, “three to two. Maurice has scored twice. And that is how, urged on by a little nine-pound girl, the Punch Line takes off.”

Huguette’s birthday was October 23, a Saturday. The following Wednesday, Richard did burn bright in the Canadiens’ final exhibition game, which they played in Cornwall, Ontario, against the local Flyers from the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Maybe that’s when he made his fatherly promise, adding an extra goal for himself? Either way, the Canadian Press singled him out for praise in Montreal’s 7-3 victory: “Maurice Richard, apparently headed for a big year in the big time, paced Dick Irvin’s team with three goals in a sparkling effort.”

That Saturday, October 30, 1943, the home team could only manage to tie the visiting Bruins 2-2. Montreal had several rookies in the line-up, including goaltender Bill Durnan, who was making his NHL debut. Likewise Canadiens centre Fern Majeau, who opened the scoring. Herb Cain and Chuck Scherza replied for Boston before Toe Blake scored the game’s final tally. The Boston Daily Globe called that one “a picture goal” that same Blake skate by the entire Boston team. “The ice was covered with paper and hats after the red light flashed.”

That was the good news, such as it was. Leave it Montreal’s Gazette to outline what didn’t go so well. “Four Bruins Are Casualties,” announced a sidebar headline alongside the paper’s main Forum dispatch, “Maurice Richard Has Bad Night.” Details followed:

richard oct 30 43 (1)

the sorry condition in which the canadiens have found themselves

a108357

On The Rise: A Montreal pre-season line-up from October of 1942. Times were tough, but hope bloomed eternal. Back, left to right: Jack Portland, Bobby Lee, Paul Bibeault, Ernie Laforce, Red Goupille, Maurice Richard, Butch Bouchard. Front: Bob Carragher, Glen Harmon, Buddy O’Connor, Gerry Heffernan, Elmer Lach, Tony Demers, Jack Adams. (Image: Library and Archives Canada / PA-108357)

There’s a howling you’ll hear when the Montreal Canadiens start an NHL season with a run of 1-6-1. Fans lend their fury to the high machine-buzz of hockey-media frenzy, and and there’s an echo down there in the NHL’s basement where the Canadiens and the three sad points they’ve earned to date languish. The whole din of it gets amplified, as everything does, when you put it online. And history can’t resist raising a nagging voice, too.

Today its refrain is this: should these modern-day Canadiens lose tonight’s game at the Bell Centre to the visiting Florida Panthers, they’ll match the ’41-42 Canadiens for season-opening futility. That was the last time Montreal went 1-7-1 to start a season.

Lots of people have lots of good ideas. Captain Max Pacioretty should either start scoring/lose his C/get himself reunited on a line with centre Philip Danault/see to it that he’s traded to Edmonton as soon as possible, maybe in exchange for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. GM Marc Bergevin needs to address the media/find a sword and fall on it/reverse-engineer the trade that sent P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber.

Amid the clamour, coach Claude Julien was calm, ish, yesterday. “We’re all tired of losing, I think that’s pretty obvious,” he told reporters circling the team’s practice facility at Brossard, Quebec. “You know we really feel that we’re doing some good things but we’re not doing good enough for 60 minutes and we need to put full games together.”

Back in ’41, sloppy starting had become a bit of a Canadien tradition. With Cecil Hart at the helm, the team had launched its 1938-39 campaign by going 0-7-1. A year later they got going in 1939-40 with an encouraging 4-2-2 record before staggering through an eight-game losing streak followed by twin ten-game winless runs. In 1940-41, getting underway for new coach Dick Irvin, Canadiens sputtered out to a 1-5-2 start.

Irvin had just coached the Leafs to another Stanley Cup final when he quit Toronto for Montreal in the spring of ’41. He’d started his Leaf reign by winning a Cup in 1932 and in eight subsequent seasons, he’d steered his teams to six Stanley Cup finals.

Why would he want to take charge of a team that The Globe and Mail’s Ralph Allen called “a spent and creaking cellar occupant”?

For the challenge, presumably. Better money? Main Leafs man Conn Smythe was, in public at least, magnanimous — strangely so, to the extent that The Gazette ran his comments under the headline “Smythe in New Role/ As Aide to Canadiens.” It quoted him saying that Montreal had asked his permission to offer Irvin the job. “The Maple Leaf club’s reaction,” he continued, “was that we hated to see Irvin go but we felt that the sorry condition in which the Canadiens had found themselves wasn’t doing any team in the league any good.”

Smythe wanted to help, what’s more. “We are going to give him whatever help we can in player deals.” Maybe Irvin and the Canadiens could use Charlie Conacher, for instance, or Murray Armstrong?

“If he figures Conacher or Armstrong will fit,” Smythe prattled away, “then he can have them, and also two or three other players on our roster.”

Irvin must have figured otherwise. He went about reshaping the Canadiens without his former boss’ aid. In November, his new Montreal charges started off by tying Boston 1-1 at the Forum. They followed that up with four losses and an overtime tie before powering by the New York Americans 3-1 on November 23. The teams played again in New York the next night and Montreal lost by a score of 2-1.

“The rearguard has been the main grief of the made-over Habitants,” Harold C. Burr opined in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Rookies Alex Singbush, 19-year-old Ken Reardon, and Tony Graboski were inexperienced, liked to rush the puck too much. Star winger Toe Blake was in slump, too — that didn’t help. The best part, Burr thought: these Habs never quit fighting. “That’s one of the attributes of this young team — the old scrappiness.”

Irvin had vowed that the team would make the playoffs in ’41. The season was shorter then, of course, 48 games, so the margin for error was tight. Then again, six of the league’s seven teams got qualified for the post-season, so all Montreal had to do (and did) was to go 16-26-6 and edge out the woeful (and soon-to-be-extinct) New York Americans for the final playoff berth. (Facing the Chicago Black Hawks, Montreal fell in three games.)

Montreal would eventually get themselves turned around. In the fall of ’42, Canadiens added a young rookie named Maurice Richard to the fold. Two years after that, the team was at the top of the NHL standings when the season ended in March. And in April of 1944, they defeated the Chicago to win the Stanley Cup.

Before that, during the bleak years, hope does seem to have been more eternal in its bloom than in modern-day Montreal.

Concern was in order in November of 1938: from Montreal’s Gazette.

Deep into November of 1938, English Montrealers awoke to read in The Gazette that Canadiens had lost their sixth straight game in New York the previous evening, 2-1 to the Rangers. Never mind: even the New York papers were said to be reporting that Montreal had played the Rangers off their skates for a good part of the game. Jim Burchard of The Telegram said the visiting team lacked only luck, while The Herald-Tribune felt they just needed a bit more polish in their finishing. “They muffed half a dozen scoring chances,” Kerr Petri wrote. Coach Cecil Hart was certain his boys would beat the Americans in the next game, that very night. “On the basis of last night’s form, we can do it,” he said. “We’re going to win plenty of games after that one, too. And if we had any of the breaks last night, the first victory might be ours already.” (The Americans whomped them, instead, 7-3.)

Four years later, almost to the day, Dick Irvin was telling the hockey writers that the 2-1 loss in Detroit that left the Canadiens adrift at 0-4-2 was cause for … encouragement. “One can’t be satisfied by obtaining only two points out of a possible 12, but they are improving. They played good hockey in Detroit, had more chances, I think, but the other guys got the decision — and that’s what counts.”

A year after that, November of 1941, and the 0-4-1 Canadiens had the Rangers coming in. “Despite the fact Canadiens have not yet won a game,” The Gazette noted, “the box-office at the Forum reported yesterday prospects for a big crowd tonight are bright.”

Montreal lost that one, 7-2. Still, as he’d done a year earlier, Irvin did guide the team once more into the playoffs. Think of that as Max Pacioretty and Carey Price lead their 2017 Canadiens out onto the ice tonight.

 

won and done: len broderick’s night in the montreal net

One Night Only: A photographer from Parkies happened to be on hand at Maple Leaf Gardens the night Len Broderick played his lone NHL game in 1957, which is how his performance ended up immortalized on a pair of hockey cards. Above, Montreal’s Doug Harvey stands by his goaltender while Sid Smith and Tod Sloan hover.

A crowd of 14,092 would eventually make their way to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto that Wednesday night late in October of 1957. Len Broderick was one who’d come to watch the hometown Maple Leafs take on the Montreal Canadiens, the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Toronto-born Broderick, who’d just turned 19, was a student at the University of Toronto who also kept the nets for Toronto’s Junior-A Marlboros, with whom he’d won a Memorial Cup in 1956.

 Broderick never got to his seat at the Gardens that night. Instead of settling in to watch the evening’s proceedings, he’d soon be lacing on skates and pads to head out on the ice wearing Jacques Plante’s own number one Canadiens’ sweater to play — and win — his first and only NHL game.

Teams still didn’t carry regular back-up goaltenders in those years. In case Ed Chadwick fell injured, the Toronto Maple Leafs kept practice goalie Gerry McNamara on stand-by. As mandated by the NHL, the Leafs also had a second goaltender on call for the visiting team. That’s where Broderick came in.

 It was 7.30 when he got to the rink. Leafs’ PR manager Spiff Evans was waiting to tell him that the Canadiens needed a goaltender and he was probably it. Broderick thought it was a joke. “Don’t laugh,” Evans told him. “I’m serious.”

 Only a week had passed since Plante’s return to the ice after a sinus operation and now he was fluey and his chronic asthma was acting up. Gerry McNamara was older, 23, more experienced and if the Leafs could track him down, then he’d be the man to take the Montreal net. They couldn’t; at twenty to eight, Broderick was told he was the man. “Holy cow was I surprised when I heard I was going in there,” Broderick later told The Toronto Daily Star’s Gordon Campbell.

 In his Star report on the game, Jim Proudfoot wrote that Broderick “staged a tremendous display of technical hockey that, for the most part, was lost on the crowd, but which dazzled and disorganized the last-place Leafs.”

 The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond wrote that Montreal “demonstrated the best five-man defense outside of pro football to protect their stand-in goalie.”

 Proudfoot picked out Dollard St. Laurent for particular praise, and Doug Harvey was good, too; Montreal’s defencemen rarely let Leaf shooters gets within shouting distance, he wrote. Broderick didn’t have to make a single save in the opening ten minutes of the second period

 Leaf wingers Barry Cullen and Bob Pulford beat him late in the game, while Canadiens were shorthanded. “It’s doubtful if even Plante could have stopped either of those drives,” Proudfoot advised.

 Montreal coach Toe Blake: “We gave him great protection all right, but the kid got us started on the right foot with a couple of big saves early in the game when we really needed them.” The Leafs’ Frank Mahovlich broke in while there was still no score. “Suppose he scores,” Blake said. “Leafs have the first goal and you know what that can mean in an NHL game. Instead, Broderick made a good stop. That was a mighty important play.”

 “I was really nervous,” Broderick told The Star, “but once I made that stop on Mahovlich I felt all right.”

 Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke took down Broderick’s address: he wanted to send him a thank-you. “If ever any proof of the honesty of hockey was needed, this was it,” Selke said. “Here’s a boy, belonging to another team, who goes in and plays terrific hockey.”

 Only two pairs of goaltending brothers have made it to the NHL: Len and his late younger brother Ken, who’d later suit up for the Minnesota North Stars and Boston Bruins, along with Dave and Ken Dryden.

 Len Broderick never played another NHL game. He turned 79 this week. For many years he’s made his home in Greenville, South Carolina, where he’s CFO of a financial services company. In 2015, I called him up to ask him about his night as a Montreal Canadien. He started by telling me about the pay:

They used to pay me, I think it was $25 a game, to go and watch the games. We sat in Connie Smythe’s box, so they knew where we were.

My dad had not been to a Leafs game for a number of years and his boss that day had asked him if he wanted to go — he had an extra ticket.

So we went around and picked up his boss. I was supposed to be there at seven for the eight o’clock game. We were a little late — I got there about seven-fifteen. At the gate they were jumping around, and then they saw me and they said, hey, get in here you’re playing, we gotta find your equipment. [Laughs] Jacques Plante had an asthma attack and you’re it.

My dad had no idea until I came out on the ice.

In the visitors’ dressing room, they gave him Plante’s sweater, number 1, to wear.

Maurice Richard came over and sat down and started talking to me, I guess thinking he was settling me down but … He introduced me to some of the players. He just sat and talked while I got dressed.

Well, everything was happening so fast, I didn’t have a lot of time to do a lot of thinking about it. It was get ready and get out there.

I didn’t see Plante — I never saw him. I assume he wasn’t there.

Toe Blake came over to shake hands. He was chasing after Geoffrion because Geoffrion was throwing up — he’d told him not to eat that pasta. He was busy with that.

What kind of goalie were you?

Stand-up. Not like they do it now, butterfly. I had Turk Broda as a coach and he was a stand-up goaltender. He would kneel down behind the net and watch people shooting on me. He taught me. And he usually picked me and drove me to practice, so I got to know him pretty well.

What was it like to skate out in front of an NHL crowd?

It was certainly different. The game where we beat the Junior Canadiens to win the Memorial Cup, we had the largest crowd they ever had in Maple Leaf Gardens. They didn’t play overtime, so we played an eighth game, it was a Wednesday night, I remember it: they were standing four and five deep in the greys. So it didn’t bother me, a big crowd.

I had gone to Leaf camp that year and in shooting practice there, Frank Mahovlich would come down, dipsy-doodling, and he kept putting the puck between my legs — to the point where he and I were both laughing about it. I wasn’t stopping it, and he just kept putting it in.

So fairly early in the game, he got a breakaway. I was determined, I said to myself, he is not putting that things between my legs. So I really kept my legs tight together. He tried it, of course, and as he was circling, he looked back. You could see the surprise on his face that he didn’t have a goal.

That was pretty early in the game.

Once I was in the game, I was in it. I had a shutout with about ten minutes to go. It was a great team I was playing with — probably one of the greatest NHL teams ever. I had Doug Harvey and Tom Johnson in front of me. They blocked a lot of shots. That’s what they did — they were very good.

I knew all the Leafs because I’d been up at training camp with them. I remember, there was a scramble around the net and I can remember Bob Pulford saying, ‘Lenny, what are you doing to us?’

Broderick faced 22 shots before the night was over, compared to the 38 that the Leafs’ Chadwick saw at the other end. Broderick had his photo taken after the game, standing between the Richard brothers, Henri and Maurice. Some fuss would follow as the week went on, but at the Gardens, Broderick just packed up his gear, and handed over Plante’s sweater. Then he drove home with his dad.

He was pretty pleased with the whole thing.

There was a lot of press and that the next day. It was great. I was at the University of Toronto at the time, in Commerce, and there was a film crew over there, got me out of class.

Frank Selke sent me a very nice letter. If [an emergency] goaltender played, they only had to pay him $100. He sent a cheque for $150. He talked about how it wasn’t as easy to go against your own team.

On their way to winning another Stanley Cup the following spring, the Canadiens would get the help of another emergency goaltender, John Aiken, in Boston. As for Len Broderick, he played another year for the Junior-A Marlboros before leaving the nets for good. Did he think of pursuing an NHL career?

They weren’t paying any money. There were no masks. And I just didn’t feel it was worth it. At that time, for a first-year player, it was 8,000 a year. Frank Mahovlich, even, that’s what he got. Staff Smythe called me at home, he wanted me to come to Leaf camp, and I said, how much are you going to pay me? The first year was eight thousand. I was in the chartered accountant course at the time and I just said, I gotta get past this.

I probably had 75 stitches in my face, top of the head, over the years. [Chuckles] Eventually I just thought, why should I get banged around and hammered for 8,000 a year?

Any regrets?

No, not much. I’m very happy with my career. I have two or three hockey cards to remember that night. When my brother came through, I guess it was three years later, salaries had gone up quite a bit. That’s when they were starting to go up. And he got to play with the Canadian Olympic team, out of the University of British Columbia. That wasn’t there when I finished.

Non-Stop: Toronto’s Barry Cullen scores on Len Broderick. That’s Montreal’s Jean-Guy Talbot arriving too late. In the background are Leaf Ron Stewart and Montreal’s Doug Harvey.

[A version of this post first appeared on slapshotdiaries.com. The interview has been condensed and edited.]

 

 

des glorieux

Open Bracket: Montreal coach Dick Irvin stands by members of his 1946-47 Montreal line-up. Backed by Butch Bouchard, they are: Bill Durnan, Ken Mosdell, Norm Dussault, Ken Reardon, John Quilty, Leo Lamoureux, Roger Leger, Leo Gravelle, Maurice Richard, Toe Blake, Murph Chamberlain, Bob Fillion, and Glen Harmon. (Image: Library and Archives Canada, 1979-249 NPC)

tijuana brash

Jean Béliveau, thoroughbreding through centre!

Frank Mahovlich, moosing down the wing past the Montreal blueline!

I don’t what it is about Blades and Brass, but it makes sense. If you’ve screened William Canning’s short film from back in bygone 1967, maybe you know this already. The old technicoloured hockey is fascinating in its own, though without the soundtrack, it just wouldn’t be the classic it is. Don Douglas wrote that, and Ken Campbell orchestrated it. Just what kind of sense the pairing of the hockey and the music makes, the how, and the why of it — that’s a whole other parcel of questions that might be better off left to itself, over there, in the shade, where maybe is it best if we just leave it unopened? The National Film Board’s catalogue copy has an understated charm that  surprises even as it fails to convey the near-perfect oddity of what you’re about to watch. “This short documentary showcases the best of the 1967 National Hockey League season, set to music in the Tijuana Brass style.”

Well, why not?

Jacques Laperriere!

Bobby Hull!

John Ferguson!

Forgive all the exclaiming, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to translate the footage to the page.

Terry Sawchuk! Eddie Giacomin! Gump Worsley in full flop!

Toronto’s Bob Pulford looking downcast! Béliveau wailing on Reggie Fleming of the New York Rangers! Phil Goyette, not seeing the shot that hits him amidships and drops him to the ice in painful anguish that causes you to shift in your seat, especially if you happen to be male! J.C. Tremblay carried off on a stretcher! One lonesome overshoe on the ice! The rink crew scraping up bloody slush! Toe Blake in a porkpie hat, chewing his chaw! Béliveau pressing a towel to a cut! Great goal, Claude Provost!

Blades And Brass is a masterpiece. Is there any doubting this? Watch it, the whole thing. It’s not long. Me, now — watching these 50-year-old scenes, I’m just not sure how I’m going to be able to endure the plain old modern non-mariachi NHL.

 

that near-perfect human hockey machine: memories of morenz, 80 years on

Local Hero: A mural celebrating the life and lacy of Howie Morenz adorns the wall of the Valu-Mart on Mitchell, Ontario’s main street. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

(A version of this post appeared on page SP3 of The New York Times on June 18, 2017.)

Howie Morenz wept when he finally agreed to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1923, abandoning a budding career as a railway machinist and departing his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to become the world’s greatest hockey player.

That’s the story: he didn’t want to go, refused to believe he was good enough to play in the NHL. He’d be fine, of course: within the year, he’d be winning his first Stanley Cup. By then, the fame of his name was already spreading across North America. As it turned out, he was what an admiring rival called “that near-perfect human hockey machine.”

For 14 years his legend grew. Then, shockingly, 80 years ago this month, he died at 34. His friends said Morenz’s heart shattered when he realized his career was over.

His hockey résumé by then would include two more Stanley Cups. Three times he was recognized as NHL MVP, and twice he led the league in scoring. He was one of the original nine players honored when the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1945. In 1950, a national poll of Canadian sportswriters named Morenz the greatest hockey player of the half-century.

Not so easily quantified is how much Morenz’s blazing talents helped solidify the NHL’s early success, especially in brand-new U.S. markets. Beloved in Montreal, he was the league’s biggest box-office draw. The sight of Morenz in motion is said to have convinced the boxing promoter Tex Rickard to start up the New York Rangers.

As part of the effort to spread the hockey gospel in the U.S., several Canadian players including Boston’s obstreperous defenceman Eddie Shore) were dubbed “the Babe Ruth of hockey,”

Morenz was the one the Bambino himself venerated. He said that Morenz had the biggest heart of any athlete he’d ever known.

•••

Visitors to Stratford today tend to come for this handsome city of 33,000 for its renowned Shakespearean festival; some others, perhaps, are pilgrims seeking Justin Bieber sites — like Morenz, the singer grew up here.

While you can book “Twelfth Night” tickets online, maybe download Stratford Tourism’s 25-point map of sacred Bieberly locations, a century after the hockey player’s family arrived in town, you’re on your own when it comes to Morenz monuments.

Portraits hang in the city’s arenas, and there’s a street in his name. After you’ve gazed at the family house on Wellington Street where Morenz signed his first fateful contract, you might make your next stop 20 minutes to the west, in the smaller town of Mitchell, where Morenz was born in 1902 — ice zero for one of hockey’s most dynamic personalities, even when waning winter has freed the flow of the river where he played his earliest hockey.

A plaque recalls Morenz in the downtown Mitchell park that bears his name.

Mitchell wears its Morenz association with pride. The wider world may have known him as the Stratford Streak, but hereabouts he’ll always remain Mitchell’s Meteor. The arena where he played in his youth is gone now, but if you stand in the park named for him and peer north, you start to get your bearings on the story. It helps if you have Dean Robinson at hand.

Mitchell-born, he’s a retired journalist and local historian who last fall published Howie Morenz: Hockey’s First Superstar, an updated edition of his 1982 biography.

“He was good when he played here, but he wasn’t yet a stand-out,” Robinson says. “There were a couple of other guys who were better.” He can tell you how boy Howie skipped piano lessons to play hockey, and show you the spot, above the new dam, just north from where Whirl Creek joins the Thames River. “He just loved to play the game,” Robinson says.

Morenz has a street here, too, to his name, along with a mural adorning the main-street wall of the supermarket. Minor hockey teams here are nicknamed Meteors in his honour.

From a storytelling perspective, Mitchell moves you from Shakespeare towards Alice Munro: continue west on Highway 8 and you’ll soon find yourself in Huron County, home to the influential 2013 literary Nobel laureate and her fiction. And here on the edge of Munro territory, it’s tempting to borrow some of her atmospheres, maybe a suggestion of secret sorrows to cast a shadow into the narrative.

It is true that one of Morenz’s elder brothers died young. And in 1922, the budding 19-year-old star returned home from hockey to learn that his mother, Rose, had drowned in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” a Toronto newspaper reported.

Toronto tried to sign Morenz in 1923 before Montreal secured his signature. Robinson wonders whether Rose would have nixed his plan to turn professional if she had been alive. As it was, Morenz doubted his decision from the moment he made it, and was trying to escape his commitment almost to the moment he left for Canadiens training camp. Stratford did its best to keep him, too: local businessmen offered him $1,000 to stay.

•••

The Morenz era was hatched on an alternative fact: unsure of how a hockey player of German descent would be greeted in Montreal in the wake of the First World War, the Canadiens amended Morenz’s background to neutral Swiss. Morenz laughed, later, recalling the lie, joking that his legendary agility on the ice was learned leaping alp to alp.

He thrived in Montreal. If the Canadiens were already known as the Flying Frenchmen when he arrived, Morenz, a centre, and his two speedy wingers, Aurèle Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, accelerated their attack and their popularity. The NHL had four teams when he started in 1923; by the end of the decade it had expanded to ten. Morenz was the league’s biggest box-office draw. Another team offered to buy him for $50,000 — nearly four times the franchise fee the Boston Bruins paid to come aboard in 1924.

Rink Relic: A Morenz portrait hangs in the lobby of the William Allman Memorial Arena in Stratford, Ontario. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

When it comes to filmed footage of Morenz in flight, a few grey skittering sequences survive. Mostly, his legacy is preserved in prose. He was small, fragile-looking, but he played the game fast and with an enthusiasm that often looked like recklessness. He took the word dash, verb and noun, and made it his own; he was a “comet of centre ice,” “cyclonic,” riding skates that were “mercury-dipped.”

“Jesus Christ, could he go!” said Joliat. New York Americans’ goaltender Roy Worters claimed never to have seen Morenz’s number 7 sweater at a standstill. “He was number 777 — just a blur.”

Referee Bobby Hewitson described the signature of his style: “He moved down center ice giving a little hop every once in a while as he would literally skip over the opposition’s sticks.”

He was said to pack the NHL’s hardest shot, and its most accurate. His bodychecks, fair and fearsome, prompted Toronto executive Frank Selke, Sr. to the highest praise he could muster: “I’ve seen many fellas throw up their dinner after he hit them.”

The novelist Hugh MacLennan watched him play. “The little smile on his lips,” he said, “showed that he was having a wonderful time.”

Off the ice, he was said to be modest, friendly and funny, a bon vivant who loved the racetrack, and to sing while he strummed his ukulele.

Hockey players expect their sport to damage them: all those brash sticks and colliding bad tempers. Morenz was in the league five seasons before he lost a tooth, but in the meantime hockey tore his ligaments and dislocated his collarbone, gashed his head. He seems to have been almost constantly piling into goalposts. His thumbs broke, his kidney bruised.

He was in danger off the ice, too. In 1932 he chased off a burglar from his mother-in-law’s house in Montreal, though not before the intruder bashed him over the head with his revolver. Another time, on the golf course, lightning struck as Morenz raised his (wooden) club to swing. A crackle, a flash: Morenz said he felt a jolt, no more.

In 1934, after Chicago knocked Montreal from the playoffs, he told the newspapermen that he had another four, five seasons left in him. “I am not old,” he declared, “only 31, and I will be back there as long as the Canadiens want me.”

But he’d started to slip. He wasn’t scoring so much. Did the fans in the Forum actually dare to boo him? Dean Robinson says they did, and that Morenz cried.

When Montreal manager Leo Dandurand traded his star to the Chicago Black Hawks that fall, he said it was to spare him further indignity. Morenz said he’d rather retire than leave, though eventually he boarded the train south, in more tears.

Chicago was a bust. The goals didn’t return, and then he wasn’t playing. It was a mercy when he was traded again, this time to New York to play for the Rangers.

The Canadiens bought him back in the summer of 1936. Re-united with his family, back with his old wingers, he was revived, and so too were the Canadiens. Dead last in the NHL the previous season, they were, by the start of 1937, atop the league’s International Section.

Chicago stopped in at the Forum late in January. Morenz had a bad knee, which might have something to do with the fall he took early into the game.

As teammate Toe Blake saw it, Morenz lost his balance, slid into the boards, was in turn crashed into by a big Chicago defenceman, Earl Seibert. Unless Seibert knocked him down. Either way, the tip of Morenz’s left skate dug into the boards, stuck, and in the tumult the leg snapped. The Montreal paper La Patrie reported the awful noise of it: “un sinistre craquement.”

A rink attendant would later mark the boards where Morenz’s skate held fast — as a warning to navigation or for commemorative reasons, it’s not quite clear.

“I’m all through,” Morenz is supposed to have said in the dressing-room. His tears were hot, according to one reporter, but he wasn’t blaming Seibert. He tossed up a brave wave to worried fans and teammates as he was stretchered to the ambulance.

Radiographs of Morenz’s fractured left leg appeared in Montreal’s morning papers after he was felled in January.

He was front-page La Patrie news next morning, peering up from bed in the photograph from his room at St. Luke’s Hospital. Inside, on page 24, readers could examine radiographs of his fractures. Were there two, four, five? It wasn’t not entirely clear. “Rarely has surgery seen such a severe break,” said Canadiens physician Dr. Hector Forgues.

“It took 14 years to get me and they got me good,” Morenz told reporters when they crowded in a few days later. “But don’t count me out yet.” His room was filled with well-wishers in the following weeks, and (so it seemed) as much optimism as healthy good cheer. He was said to be mending well. There were tales of parties, beer under the bed.

Then — something happened. Columnists mentioned “une violente dépression nerveuse.” Dr. Forgues said the patient was suffering from nervous breakdown but was improving. Vague at the time, the story hasn’t really clarified. There was talk that his weight wasted away. When he told Joliat that he’d be watching the Canadiens’ playoff games from “up there,” did he mean, maybe, a heavenly press box? Uncertain. That first week of March, visitors were banned, a guard put on the door, a nurse on constant duty.

He died late on a Monday night, March 8. Did he try to leave his bed only to collapse? Die in his doctor’s arms, with an unnamed friend nearby? Other versions of the scene had him sighing and/or smiling at a nurse. Officially, the cause was deemed “accidental” — a heart attack — and the papers, at least, left at that.

At the Forum two days later, boards covered the ice. An estimated 14,000 filled the arena. Attendees remembered flowers and silence. “He made straight for the goal,” the clergyman intoned, “in life as he did in the game of hockey — there were needless curves or loops in his course.” A further crowd of 25,000 lined the streets of Montreal as the body was borne to Mount Royal Cemetery.

pall

Guard Duty: Morenz’s Canadiens teammates served as pallbearers at his funeral. Left, front to back are Armand Mondou, George Brown, and Babe Siebert. Right: Georges Mantha, Paul Haynes, and Pit Lepine.

The Canadiens said no-one would ever Morenz’s number 7 again — not until his eldest son, 10-year-old Howie Jr., was ready to join the team.

An NHL benefit game in the fall of 1937 raised nearly $30,000 for widowed Mary Morenz and her three young children, but other parts of the story’s epilogue are grim.

Kidnappers threatened the family. Later, an anguished Mary Morenz entrusted her three children to the care of an orphanage. Seven-year-old Donald died of pleurisy before she remarried in 1939 and brought home Howie Jr. and Marlene.

Howie Jr. tried his best to follow in his father’s skates. He was talented and worked hard. He was a heavily scrutinized junior in Montreal first, then went on to play professionally for the minor-league Dallas Texans before the Canadiens released him in 1949 because of an eye condition.

Howie Jr. died in 2015 at the age of 88. I asked his son recently whether the pressures of name and expectation had ever made him bitter.

“I don’t think so,” he told me. “He was, I think, disappointed.”

The third Howard Morenz is in his 50s, lives in Ottawa, where he’s semi-retired from a career in information technology. He played some hockey in his time, but decided early it wasn’t something he’d pursue.

He’s been a careful student of his grandfather’s career and legacy. Adjusting the way his grandfather’s death is depicted is an ongoing project, as it was for his father. Back in 1937, friends (including Aurèle Joliat) trying to make sense of sudden death spoke of Morenz’s heartbreak. It didn’t take much for that notion to pass into the culture, an easy shorthand explanation that seemed to make sense in a country where the notion that being deprived of hockey might prove fatal to a man is anything but remarkable.

The family takes a different view.

“The broken heart, we felt, was really a romantic way of implying that he may have taken his own life,” the third Howie says. “We don’t believe that at all.”

There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report says that Morenz died “violently,” and it mentions cardiac deficiency and the fractured leg along with “acute maniacal excitement.”

“What could possibly go wrong with a broken leg that could lead to cardiac deficiency?” He believes that doctors may have diagnosed blood clots but delayed surgery.

His father spoke sometimes of a chance encounter with a nurse in Montreal in the 1950s. She’d been on duty the night the original Morenz died. It was negligence, she said. “I’m just not certain that he got the quality of care that was necessary in that hospital,” Howie III says.

His findings on his grandfather’s death fill two pages of Dean Robinson’s updated biography. Morenz III acknowledges that a definitive account of just what happened is unlikely at this point.

He does find comfort in the respect Morenz still enjoys. In Montreal, where the Canadiens continue to command an almost religious devotion, his grandfather remains a senior saint. His dash is represented in a statue outside the team’s home at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And he was recognized earlier this year when the NHL named its top 100 players of all-time.

The third Howie Morenz takes pride, too, in his grandfather’s legacy beyond the ice, his stature as a family man, a friend. “I’d like him to be remembered that way,” he says. “We all lost something a lot more than just a hockey player.” His regret? “That I didn’t know him. I can only read about him.”