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.

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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.”

 

hockey players in hospital beds: no more will I put my face in front of the puck

Plante Show: Jacques Plante indicates where a puck hit his mask in May of 1970. Visiting is Mrs. Ruth Frohlichstein, a St. Louis neighbour of the goaltender’s who was also described by some contemporary newspaper captioneers as Plante’s “favourite bridge partner.”

“Did you ever see how they kill cattle?” Jacques Plante said. “They use a sledgehammer and the cattle just drop dead. That’s how the shot felt when it hit me. Without the mask I wouldn’t be here today.”

He was in the Jewish Hospital in St. Louis by then, early May of 1970. Eleven years had passed since he’d first donned his famous mask and started a hockey revolution. At 41, with seven Stanley Cup championships to his name, he was nearing the end of his playing days, but he wasn’t there yet. In his second year with St. Louis, he was a favourite of fans, and had helped the Blues reach their third consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.

Coach and GM Scotty Bowman had used three goaltenders through the early rounds of the playoffs. As the Blues prepared to face Boston in the finals, Bruins’ coach Harry Sinden said, “We recognize Plante as their number one goalie, and I never want to see him in the nets against us.” Bowman didn’t oblige: Plante was the starter on Sunday, May 3, as the Blues opened the series at home at The Arena.

Boston’s Johnny Bucyk scored in the first period, Jim Roberts tied the score for St. Louis early in the second. Then, as recalled next day in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The 41-year-old Blues goalie was struck on the fiberglass mask above the left eye on a deflection of a shot by the Boston Bruins’ Fred Stanfield.” Another correspondent from the same paper had him “felled by a puck.”

UPI: “nearly had his head torn off Fred Stanfield’s screamer.”

Stanfield’s “brow-bender,” was Harold Kaese’s contribution, in The Boston Globe.

“The Boston player’s drive, which started out low, glanced off Phil Esposito’s stick and smashed into the veteran goalie’s mask, cracking it.” (Post-Dispatch)

He fell facedown. For two minutes he lay unconscious on the ice. Blues’ doctor J.G. Probstein and trainer Tommy Woodcock “worked on” him, the AP said. After about five minutes, they got him to his feet. He wobbled. They brought out a stretcher, but he wanted to skate off.

Ernie Wakely, 28, was the Blues’ back-up. He came in and did his best, but the Bruins kept coming, and won by a score of 6-1 with the aid of Bucyk’s hattrick.

Later, Dr. Probstein said it was a concussion and that while Plante’s condition was “satisfactory,” he’d be hospitalized “for an indefinite period of time.”

Plante’s first words (“after his head cleared”) were said to be: “The mask saved my life.”

He phoned his wife Jacqueline in Montreal. “She was relieved to hear from me,” he said later. She made a habit of not watching her husband on TV, but his children had the game on that night. It was almost when she passed through the room and noticed that Plante was absent from the net. Only then did the youngest son calmly mention what had happened.

Monday, a reporter among many visiting Room 223 at Jewish Hospital described the patient: “He had a whelp over his left eye and a slight cut and he smiled very little for his audience.”

Plante: “My head hurts every time I move it.”

Joe Falls was there, sports editor of The Detroit Free Press.

“Hockey writers,” he’d write, “happen to like old Jacques.”

He’s a good guy and always good for a story and so before we went up to see him I chipped in two bucks with a couple of Montreal writers and we bought him some flowers.

Jacques, he like that very much. He is a very sensitive man and was moved by the sentiment.

“Merci beaucoup, merci beaucoup,” he kept repeating.

Of course we’d signed the card: “From Fred Stanfield, with love.” He pretended not to notice.

Did Plante change rooms? Also Monday, Boston Globe columnist Fran Rosa found him asleep in 219. Barclay Plager had spent the night at the hospital, too, and he was the one to wake Plante up. The Blues defenceman was admitted after passing out on the Blues’ bench during the third period of Sunday’s game; now he was being released.

Plante talked about his future. “I don’t think I’ll be here next season.” With Buffalo and Vancouver coming into the league, summer would see an expansion draft. Plante didn’t think he’d be protected.

“Look,” he said, “Hall is three years younger than me and Wakely is the goalie of the future so what do they want with me?”

Plager had injured himself trying to hipcheck Boston’s Johnny McKenzie, damaging ribs when he bounced off and hit the boards. “The doctor didn’t exactly call it a fracture,” he confided. “He seems to think it was a separation. He said he hadn’t seen anything like it before and he’s going to write a paper on it.”

Monday, the Bruins held a light practice. Towards the end, coach Harry Sinden called the players together and led them in an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Fred Stanfield was turning 26.

Plante said he’d never been hit so hard. From his Montreal days, he recalled a tough night against Toronto: “Red Kelly shot and hit me in the face and the rebound went to Mahovlich. When I dove for the puck, it hit me where the mask protects my eyes. All I had that time was a nosebleed. No cuts.”

Dan Stoneking of The Minneapolis Star phoned Plante on Monday, said he sounded “groggy.” He also noted his “unmistakable French-Canadian accent.”

Another report from Plante’s bedside noted his “slight French accent.”

Joe Falls from Detroit’s Free Press opened his column with this:

Monsieur Jacques Plante, he leaned back on ze pillow in ze hospital room and he say: “Le masque m’a sauve la vie …”

“It only hurts when I laugh,” Plante told Dan Stoneking.

“I’ve got the world’s biggest hangover,” was another quote in another paper.

“Nothing ever felt like this,” Joe Falls heard. “My head, it is still spinning. I feel like I am floating. I feel like I want to throw up all the time.”

“I can still feel it in my head,” was another thing Plante said on the Monday. “The way I feel right now, I don’t feel like playing any more. That’s today. I don’t feel like eating or anything. Then I know as I get better I’m sure I’ll play again. But I do not know I will play in this series. I just don’t know.”

Also on Monday, Mrs. Ruth Frohlichstein dropped by. That’s her, above. The newspapers who ran photographs of her visit described her variously: as “a neighbourhood friend” and “Plante neighbour and favourite bridge partner.”

St. Louis coach and general manager Scotty Bowman had yet another goaltender waiting in the wings, 37-year-old Glenn Hall. Originally, Bowman had said he’d wanted to see how Plante played in the first game before he made any decisions on later starters. “He doesn’t play well in Boston,” Bowman said, “Glenn Hall plays well there.” With Plante out, the coach didn’t waver from that: Wakely would keep the net for Game Two in St. Louis before giving way to Hall when the series moved to Boston.

plante down

Bodycheck: St. Louis defenceman Al Arbour arrives on the scene in the moments after Fred Stanfield’s shot laid Plante low.

Continue reading

mars fatal

mars fatalHowie Morenz died late on the night of Monday, March 8, 1937, in his hospital room at Montreal’s Hôpital Saint-Luc. Many Montrealers would have first known the shocking news next morning through the pages of Tuesday’s morning paper, The Gazette, Le Canada, La Patrie. None of them had much light to cast on just what had happened, how the leg Morenz had fractured in late January on the ice at the Forum could now have killed him. His doctor reported that his heart and his pulse had been normal on Monday, according to La Patrie, and yet he’d died in his sleep.

Amid the many tributes and reviews of Morenz’s career, La Patrie also saw fit to remind readers that there’s no more mournful month in Montreal Canadiens’ history than March. It was just 11 years, after all, since legendary goaltender Georges Vézina had died of tuberculosis at the age of 38, four months after opening the 1925-26 season in the Montreal net. Seven years before that, Canadiens’ notorious 37-year-old defenceman Joe Hall had succumbed to pneumonia he’d contracted while suffering from Spanish influenza.

A terrible thing that was, of course, if not entirely fair to March. La Patrie had a key detail wrong: Hall actually died on April 5, 1919.

Back on March 19, he was still resting in his room in Seattle’s Georgian Hotel, one of several Canadiens to have sickened while the team was battling the Seattle Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup. Transferred to the Providence Hospital in early April, Hall was saidto be improving, his temperature a steady 103. With five games of the six-game Stanley Cup series in the books, the ravaging flu had by then forced Montreal to forfeit the deciding game on April 1. When Seattle manager Pete Muldoon refused to accept the forfeit, the championship was abandoned.

On April 3, Montreal manager George Kennedy announced that his players were not all, as rumour had it in Eastern Canada, on the verge of death. Hall’s condition had, however, worsened. “He still has a chance for his life,” The Vancouver Daily World wrote the day before he died, “and he is fighting hard.”

In 1937, Canadiens were scheduled to play the Maroons the night after Howie Morenz died. The team planned to cancel, but Mary Morenz insisted that her husband would have wanted the game to go on. Two days later, on Thursday, his body would lie in state at centre ice in the Forum, but on Tuesday it was hockey night.

The referees and players on both teams wore arm-bands; ushers and program-sellers had black ribbons pinned to their jackets.

Canadiens president Ernest Savard spoke to the crowd of 10,000. “It is with sincere regret and deep emotion that we announce the death last night of the one and only Howie Morenz,” he said. “He was a gentleman and the finest hockey player ever known.”

Two minutes of silence followed his words. “The monotonous whirling of the ventilating fans alone broke the stillness,” The Canadian Press reported, “until the drums of the Victoria Rifles began to roll. Then, the bugles sounded Last Post.”

Canadiens’ goaltender Wilf Cude cried, The Gazette noted, “unashamedly,” and defencemen Walter Buswell and Babe Siebert “had to skate to his side and talk to him.”

In the dressing room, coach Cecil Hart said, “You know, boys, there is little I can say on an occasion like this.” He told them to “forget all your troubles, to go out there and play — play as Howie would have played if he were here.”

“The game that followed helped make those in the Forum a bit forgetful of the tragedy of the night before,” was the way The Gazette described it. “A fighting Canadien team saddened by the loss and minus two regulars, Aurel Joliat and Toe Blake, hurled itself at Maroons.” They couldn’t overcome: the final score was Maroons 4, Canadiens 1.

jacques plante’s new face-saver

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Mask + Man: Before he added his famous mask to his game equipment one night in 1959, Jacques Plante was protecting his face in practice. After having both cheekbones broken in training mishaps in 1954 and ’55, he first tried a welder’s mask donated by a fan. He later switched to the plexiglass apparatus he’s holding above, the creation of a St. Mary’s, Ontario, inventor by the name of Delbert Louch. “Louch’s New Head-Saver” had its shortcomings: it left a goaltender’s forehead vulnerable and tended, too, to fog over on the ice. Plante modified his, as shown above, by cutting out eye-holes. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

You can guess, maybe, the species of shot that truly distressed Jacques Plante. “Oh brother, that damned slap shot!” he wrote, to the point, in 1971. “You have no idea what an effect the slap shot has had on goalies.” Heading into a game against Chicago, he said, knowing he was gong to facing Bobby Hull, his nerves would start their rattling two days before the teams hit the ice.

Plante was 41 by then, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs — with another three seasons to go before he’d wrap up his 21-year professional career. He was wearing a mask by then, of course — had been for 11 years, ever since the night in 1959 when Andy Bathgate of the Rangers moved in on him in early minutes of a game in New York.

You know the story. It was this week, 57 years ago, November 1. It wasn’t a slapped shot that did the damage and launched a Heritage Minute. No, Bathgate’s effort was a malign backhand. He told Plante biographer Todd Denault that he’d done it on purpose, vengefully — Plante had tripped him into the boards, he was bleeding, and mad. “I gave him a shot right on his cheek,” he said.

The puck struck Plante to the left of his nose. Dave Anderson: “He toppled face down on the milk-white ice at the right side of the net.” Red Fisher, covering the game for The Montreal Star, would describe Bathgate rushing in and lifting Plante’s head.

Plante stayed down for 15 seconds. He got up with a towel fixed his face, skated off under escort by Maurice Richard and Dickie Moore. A pair of Garden policemen helped him to the medical room. Rangers’ doctor Dr. Kazuo Yanagisawa sewed in seven stitches. After 20 minutes, Plante was ready to return. There are varying versions of the conversation that took place between coach and goaltender before Plante rejoined the game. In his biography Behind The Mask, Raymond Plante (no relation) has Plante lying on the medical table, seeing Blake, saying I want to play with my mask on. Blake: We’ll see, we’ll see.

Dave Anderson wrote a Plante feature for The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. As he tells it, Blake is the one to mention the mask, tell Plante he can put it on. Good, Plante told him, because I wouldn’t go back without it.

Todd Denault’s biography is Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (2010). He has a stricken Plante departing the medical room, heading back out to the ice (where — a superior detail — the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), then on the Canadiens’ dressing room where he had it out with his coach. Continue reading

leafs at training camp, 1935: what’s a guy got to do?

maple-leafs-k-pkstrk

Squat Squad: Leafs and Stars line up in Kitchener’s Victoria Park with PT instructor Major Harold Ballantyne presiding at rear. Far row, in front of him, left to right: Andy Blair, Ken Doraty, Mickey Blake, Red Horner, Nick Metz, Joe Primeau, Pep Kelly. Middle row: Buzz Boll, Phil Stein, Chuck Shannon, Norval Fitzgerald, Bill Gill, Reg Hamilton, Jack Howard, Art Jackson (?), Normie Mann. Front row: Flash Hollett, Bill Thoms, George Hainsworth, Fido Purpur, Frank Finnigan, Bob Davidson, Hap Day, Jack Shill.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were the NHL’s best team in the spring of 1935 — everybody knew that, and said it, right up until the Stanley Cup finals, when they lost to the Montreal Maroons in three straight games.

Maybe that had something to do with the switch that Conn Smythe made, come the fall, when the Leafs headed to Kitchener to spend October preparing for the upcoming campaign — a new(ish) venue might do the team some good.

Since Smythe first conceived of subjecting his Leafs to a training camp in 1928, the team had wandered Ontario, ranging from Port Elgin up to Parry Sound and back down to Niagara Falls in the pre-season. They’d tried Kitchener already, in 1933, shifting to Galt, a little to the southwest, in 1934 — modern-day Cambridge — before this return.

There was a lunch, first, in Toronto, where Smythe addressed the troops. Then the team headed west. For the Leafs, it was the most populous camp in the team’s history, with 35 players making the trip. Some Assistant manager Frank Selke thought it might be the largest pro hockey training camp ever, which means he hadn’t read the papers: with Bruins and farm-hand Cubs on hand, Art Ross was watching over 41 players at the Boston camp in in Saint John, New Brunswick, while Canadiens coach Sylvio Mantha had 38 on the ice in Quebec City.

It was snowing in Winnipeg as Montreal’s other team, the Cup champion-Maroons, made their way west by rail. The train gained Billy Beveridge and Joe Lamb in Ottawa, and goaltender Alec Connell, who’d backstopped the Cup victory, was at the station to talk to manager Tommy Gorman, and there was talk that he’d changed his mind about retiring, but no, he was still on the platform when the train pulled out. Lionel Conacher and prospect Ken Grivel got on board in Sudbury. Toe Blake was waiting at Coniston, and Jimmy Ward, Earl Robinson, and Bob Gracie joined the journey at Kenora. Cy Wentworth was supposed to get on in Toronto, but he missed the rendezvous, and had to make his own way.

Lester Patrick’s New York Rangers were also training in Winnipeg in 1935. Captain Bill Cook showed up from his Saskatchewan farm in “tip-top shape.” “Burly” Ching Johnson arrived with “physique tuned up by horseback riding on his small California ranch.” All-star defenceman Earl Seibert stayed away, as he tended to do on an annual basis, waiting this year for the Rangers to agree to pay him $6,500 for the season ahead.

The Chicago Black Hawks were in Champaign, Illinois, where coach Clem Loughlin was searching for two solid right wingers to replace Billy Kendall and Lolo Couture, traded away in the summer. He’d bought helmets for all his Hawks and was telling his players they’d better get used to wearing them.

Equipment belonging to Red Dutton’s New York Americans’ arrived in Oshawa, Ontario, in early October, with his players getting in a few days later. Of all the NHL teams, only Jack Adams’ Red Wings stayed home, doing their conditioning in Detroit.

In New Brunswick, Art Ross barred the public from watching the Bruins skate. “He and coach Frank Patrick decided to keep the practice sessions private,” noted a dispatch in The Montreal Gazette, “in belief this policy would assist the training and eliminate any nervousness that the presence of critical fans might cause among prospects trying out for places with the teams.”

The worry for Canadiens was Aurel Joliat: he was back in Montreal, refusing to sign the contract business manager Jules Dugal had proffered.

For the Leafs, many of the stalwarts who’d almost won the Cup were back: captain Hap Day and King Clancy, Charlie Conacher and Joe Primeau, goaltender George Hainsworth. Pep Kelly was back, and Nick Metz. Other familiar names included Red Horner and Buzz Boll. A couple of veterans were gone, Hec Kilrea and Baldy Cotton, traded away to Detroit and the New York Americans respectively.

Mickey Blake and Jimmy Fowler and Fido Purpur were among the free agents and amateurs hoping for a break, George Parsons and Normie Mann, and Jack Markle looked like he might have a shot, last year’s International league scoring champion, and former University of Saskatchewan ace Jim Dewey, and the brilliant Sudbury junior Chuck Shannon, and Knucker Irvine, one of the best players in the Maritimes, and Norval Fitzgerald, too, and Busher Jackson’s little brother Art. Most of them were destined to play out the year as farmhands for the IHL’s Syracuse Stars. The Syracuse coach was in town, Eddie Powers, to lend a hand to Leaf boss Dick Irvin. Along with Tim Daly and his training staff, Major Harold Ballantyne was standing by to play the part of PT instructor.

Ballantyne, whose regular job was with the Kitchener school board as director of physical education, was the fourth soldier to take charge of getting Leaf teams into trim since Conn Smythe started sending his players away for the pre-season in 1928.

Twenty-nine players assembled in Kitchener’s Victoria Park to do his bidding on the morning of Thursday, October 17. King Clancy was missing yet, nursing an infected foot back home in Toronto, while Charlie Conacher was holding out for a better contract.

Of those who did take part, several ended up wounded by the end of the day. Normie Schultz, acquired from Detroit in the Kilrea deal, went down with a badly sprained ankle. Bill Thoms knocked his head on somebody’s knee and cut his lip in two places.

“Later on,” The Globe chronicled, “while catching a rugby ball, a finger on his right hand was dislocated.” Not to worry: coach Powers yanked it back into place. Buzz Boll bruised a thigh. Coach Irvin warned the players that Ballantyne was just warming up, and he didn’t rule out handing out bucksaws and sending the players to work on the woodpile — though “someone caught the coach passing that one off with a wink.”

Day two included an hour’s stay at the park. The Globe:

Major Harold Ballantyne sent his charges through a gruelling workout, including relay racing and football, aimed at building up stamina and wind. Members of the squad agreed today’s workout was more killing than any the Major staged when they were here two years ago.

Ballantyne had his favourites, and they were named: hardworking Normie Mann, Jack Shill, Art Jackson.

Clancy arrived on Friday, later on, and so did Fido Purpur. Conacher too, having agreed to a contract that was rumoured to be worth $7,000, the league limit. He denied he’d been holding — “other business” had kept him in town. Never mind that now, though: he’d arrived just in time to tee off with his teammates at the Westmount Golf Course. Later that night, the Leafs’ star was reported to be joining Major Ballantyne to aid in opening (unofficially) the local badminton season.

The players got the weekend off, with most of them heading home to Toronto. Before they left, though, they reported for a weigh-in, from which the news was soon transmitted to the wider world:

Conacher was the heftiest Leaf, at 203 pounds — a five-pound increase for him from a year earlier. Busher Jackson had added six pounds, which put him to 202. Lightest of the Leafs: Pep Kelly and Joe Primeau at 155 pounds apiece, and goaltender George Hainsworth at 153.

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a fighting, snarling star (a good-natured, likable cuss)

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End of the summer, 1939, and as the world headed for war, Babe Siebert was back home in western Ontario in the little crossroads village of Zurich, where he’d grown up. At 35, Siebert the younger had played the last game of his monumental NHL career in the spring of the year, March, going out as captain of the Montreal Canadiens as they lost in the first round of the playoffs to Detroit’s Red Wings. Slowed, in his final season, by a wrenched back, he’d scored the last of his NHL goals in February against Toronto. Once, as a Maroon in Montreal early in his career, he’d plied the wing, joining Nels Stewart and Hooley Smith on one of the league’s most feared lines, but he’d finished up on defence. Lending his experience to guide the Canadiens, too: when, midway through the season, the Canadiens fired coach Cecil Hart, after Frank Boucher and Herb Gardiner were said to have turned down the job, club secretary Jules Dugal took up the team’s reins with Siebert as a playing assistant.

There was talk again, after the season, of Frank Boucher taking over the team, or maybe Bun Cook? But most of the betting was on Siebert, who was indeed named to the post in early June.

In August, on the occasion of his father’s 80th birthday, Siebert travelled west to Zurich from Montreal with his family. A month still remained before the Canadiens would gather to train for the season’s start in early November. On this day, August 25, 1939, newspapers bore dispatches of imminent war in Europe. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was appealing to Adolf Hitler to back off his threats to Poland; Pope Pius XII asked the world to pray for peace.

Babe Siebert took his daughters for a swim, Judy, 11, and 10-year-old Joan. Lake Huron wasn’t far, a few miles to the west. Siebert was there with his girls and two of his nieces, and his friend from Zurich was with them, Clayton Hoffman. One of the children let go of an inner-tube and when it began to float off, Siebert called the children in and went after it himself. He was 150 feet out when he got into trouble.

“The wind was carrying it parallel to the shoreline,” Hoffman later said, “and it was soon apparent that he was in difficulty. I was standing on the shore fully dressed when I heard his cries.”

Hoffman reported going into the water but getting tangled in his clothes. Siebert was 35 feet away. “Before I could reach him, Babe had gone down for the last time.”

Miss Burnette Mouseau of Zurich was sitting in a car on the beach and she raised the first alarm. Hoffman ran to a nearby house to seek aid. Would-be rescuers dove down to search at the spot where Siebert was last seen, but he was gone. Eventually, a fishing boat was summoned from Grand Bend to help in the search. was It was three days before his body was found by his brother, Frank, on the lake’s bottom, about 40 feet from where he’d vanished. Continue reading

that week: if he were a forest, he’d be a national park

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“There will never be another Gordie Howe,” is what Bobby Orr was saying last week, in the days following Howe’s death on June 10 at the age of 88.

“You couldn’t invent Gordie today,” Orr told Dave Stubbs from NHL.com. “If he was playing with today’s rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn’t take liberties with him. The way he played, he’d do real well.”

“He was everything to me,” Wayne Gretzky told NHL.com.

Adam Gopnik wrote a Howe tribute for The New Yorker. “Perhaps only Mark Messier, among players bright in our contemporary memory, combined the same qualities of grit, skill, desire, and accuracy,” he mused. “As Gretzky lived on the edge of his skates, Howe lived in his wrists: the accuracy, power, and quickness of his shot are the first things those who saw him up close, in his prime, often reference (after they reference the elbows that rose above those wrists).”

“My best Christmas ever, I was five years old and my dad — I mean Santa Claus — bought me a Gordie Howe sweater, which I wore for the whole year.” That’s Gretzky again, back in 1994. The same article, from Reuters, goes on to say that when young Wayne pleaded with his father, “a barber,” to cut his hair Gordiewise, Walter Gretzky had to explain that Wayne had too much hair and Gordie too little.

“His elbows were the best,” Joe Peacock wrote in 1997.

Gretzky, last week, helped to clarify that old Reuters story: “I was seven or eight years old and I’d go to the barber shop … and I’d say, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut.’ I was enamored by him at a young age.”

Eddie McCabe, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, circa 1979, said this: “Gordie is such a decent man, he makes up for the yahoos and the boors.”

Frank Selke said there was no-one better. “Gordie Howe is the greatest all-round hockey player I’ve ever seen,” he opined in 1961 when Selke was managing director of the Montreal Canadiens. “He’s a composite of some mighty fine players through the years, and I’ve been watching them all, amateur and professional, since the 1910s around my old hometown, Kitchener. I’ve never known any player combining so many faculties. He’s the greatest of them all.”

Gordie’s dad didn’t necessarily agree. Gordie wrote about this in his “authorized autobiography,” and … Howe! (1995):

According to my Dad, Vic was always the better player, better than me. He was so funny. And Vern, my oldest brother, was the best of us all, so Dad said. It wasn’t until Dad was old, on his death bed, that he finally gave me more credit. He was kidding me, and said, “Aw, I saw a few gams on television. I guess you were better than your brothers.”

“In street clothes, he looks quite slim, an impression heightened by his long arms, rather long neck and narrow face.” This is Peter Gzowski, from a famous Maclean’s profile of Howe from 1963. “His most outstanding physical characteristic is the slope of his shoulders; his trapezius muscles — the muscle you feel if you stretch your arm out to one side — rise into his neck at an angle not far from 45 degrees, while his deltoids, at the top of the arm, look scarcely better developed than the average dentist’s. The enormous strength he displays in hockey flows from him, rather than exploding, and the easy grace with which he moves on the ice, and which has given so many hockey fans pleasure over the years, is also evident in his loose, almost lazy walk.”

“He’s always at the outer edge of the rulebook,” Eric Nesterenko told Gzowski. “You never know when he’s going to slip over into what’s dirty.”

Howe’s longtime linemate concurred. “Gordie gets away with more than anyone else in hockey,” said Ted Lindsay. Andy Bathgate of the New York Ranger indicted Howe for “deliberately inflicting head cuts, of deliberately cauliflowering at least one ear, and of deliberately raising the puck at other people’s heads.” He did not spear, Bathgate said, nor butt-end. Gzowski: “He is a recognized master of ‘high sticking,’ an action that is almost impossible for the fans or even the referees to separate from an accident, and which has carved his signature on a good many faces around the league.”

Gary Ross wrote about Howe in 1978, the year Number 9 turned 50 playing for the New England Whalers, “If Gordie Howe were a building, he’d be sandblasted and declared an historic site. If he were a forest, he’d be made a national park. In an age of $100,000 flakes he’s the real thing. A hero, a wonder, a natural phenomenon.”

When a 45-year-old Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to play with sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who told him to go for it. “I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you’d find similar musculature,” Dr. Bailey said. “It’s a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That’s almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80.”

Herbert Warren Wind was first to profile Howe for the pages of Sports Illustrated. “When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone,” he wrote in 1955, “doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot. Also invisible is Howe’s great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete’s forearm.”

Mark Howe, in his 2013 memoir Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey: “He always regretted dropping out of school and felt that somebody from the hockey club should have stopped him. I think that’s why he took up crossword puzzles — a big-time passion of his — to improve his vocabulary.”

“His success is due in part to the fact that he has the ‘perfect body for hockey,’” Larry Bortstein was able to disclose in 1970. “His shoulders slope so sharply into his huge biceps, which flare out into huge forearms, wrists, and hands. His legs are very strong. ‘I conserve them by sitting down at places where I don’t have to stand,’ he says.”

“When Howe is on the ice,” Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964, “Detroit’s Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable.”

King Clancy was the one who suggested someone ought to bottle the man’s sweat: “It would make a great liniment for hockey players.” Continue reading