fix you

Hold Still: Bill O’Brien, on the right, was trainer for the NHA Renfrew Creamery Kings going back to 1910, but it was as a mainstay of the Montreal Maroons’ support staff that he was best known, all the way through the 14 years of their illustrious history. In 1940, he took up as trainer for the Canadiens. Here he’s tending winger Ray Getliffe at the Habs training camp at St. Hyacinthe in October that year. A good glimpse here, too, of Montreal’s alternate white sweater, introduced in 1933. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

 

double take: what the camera shows, and doesn’t, of the barnstorming 1929 new york americans

On The Oregon Trail: The New York Americans line up outside the Portland ice Arena in April of 1929. From left, that’s Roy Worters, Harry Connor, Tex White, Billy Burch, Tommy Gorman, Lionel Conacher, Leo Reise, Johnny Sheppard, Rabbit McVeigh, ? Beckett.

They’re some of the biggest names in hockey, standing there in their skates on the pavement, as though surprised by a photographer in their attempt to escape the bounds of the rink in Portland, Oregon, or maybe of hockey itself. That’s the dominant Canadian athlete of the first half of the 20th century in the middle, Lionel Conacher. Beside him is T.P. Gorman, a.k.a. Tommy, who as an NHL coach and manager was involved in winning four Stanley Cup championships with three different teams. The other future Hall-of-Famers here are Billy Burch, to Gorman’s right, and the tiny mighty goaltender Roy Worters, out on the end at far left.

There’s a mystery man lined up here, too, over on the right. Inquiring hockey minds have wondered about him, in recent years, who was he, what was his role with the team, how did he end up crossing sticks with Rabbit McVeigh outside the Portland Ice Arena in the spring of 1929? In another version, he’s in between Burch and an even happier Conacher:

Take Two: From left, Harry Connor, Tex White, Bill Burch, ? Beckett, Lionel Conacher, Leo Reise, Johnny Sheppard, Rabbit McVeigh, Roy Worters, Tommy Gorman.

Thanks to photographer Theo Mentzer’s annotations we know his name is Beckett. Beyond that — I haven’t been able to find out too much more about him. Not that the first photograph doesn’t have surprises to spring. I came across those recently, as I looked for traces of him. As surprises go, these ones aren’t particularly momentous, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth waiting for. They seem to have been concealed for decades in … well, no, not exactly plain sight, I guess.

Some background, first. For that, we tunnel back to April of 1929 and the end of the NHL’s twelfth season. The Stanley Cup finals had wrapped up at the end of March, with the Boston Bruins collecting their first championship by overcoming the New York Rangers in a two-game series.

There were ten teams in the league at this point, and the New York Americans were one of the good ones. For all the team’s star-power, coach Gorman had failed to urge them past the first round: two weeks earlier, they’d been ousted from the playoffs by the Rangers, in a close-fought two-game, total-goals series.

The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, had ridden a bye into the second round of the playoffs, but they faltered there against the Bruins. To ease the pain of defeat — and supplement the club’s coffers — both disappointed teams, Canadiens and Americans, went west, departing on a post-season exhibition tour, a common practice for NHL teams in those years.

As April got going, as the Americans arrived in Oregon, for the first of six games they’d play on the Pacific coast, the NHL was concluding its last bit of business for the season, announcing the year’s individual trophy winners. Among them was Roy Worters, who had the high distinction of being winner of the David A. Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. It was the first time in the trophy’s six-year history that it had gone to a goaltender. Worters wasn’t deemed to be the best at his own position, it might be worth pointing out: in 1929 it was the Canadiens’ goaltender, George, Hainsworth, who was named winner of a third consecutive Vézina Trophy.

Hainsworth didn’t join his teammates in the west that spring: along with defenceman Sylvio Mantha and star winger Aurèle Joliat, the goaltender stayed home. I don’t know about the other two, but Hainsworth had a job to do, heading home to Kitchener, Ontario, where he worked as an electrician during the summer months. To tend to their goaling in his absence, the Canadiens borrowed Clint Benedict from the Montreal Maroons. He had just one more year left in his NHL career: the following one, 1929-30, was his finale, featuring a pair of fearful facial injuries suffered at the sticks of Boston’s Dit Clapper and Howie Morenz of the Canadiens, a prolonged absence, and a revolutionary (if ultimately unhappy) experiment with a mask.

Benedict and the Canadiens would play four games in Vancouver that April in ’29. In the first three, they took on the Vancouver Lions, Frank Patrick’s team, who’d just wrapped up the championship of the new four-team Pacific Coast Hockey League (PCHL), Frank Patrick’s newly launched loop. Notable names in the Vancouver line-up included Red Beattie, Art Somers, and the Jerwa brothers, Joe and Frank. Percy Jackson was the goaltender: according to Frank Patrick, he was the best backstop there was, anywhere in hockey.

Ahead of the first game between Montreal and Vancouver, on the basis that the former were the best of the NHL’s Canadian-based teams, Patrick boldly declared that at stake in the three-game series between Canadiens and Lions would be nothing less than the “professional championship of Canada.”

This was news to NHL President Frank Calder, already wary of the PCHL, a more or less outlaw operation, in the NHL’s view, not to mention a possible threat to its hockey hegemony. One of the rumours making the rounds that spring was that Patrick was preparing to expand his operation eastward, setting up a league to rival the NHL there. That would never be, of course: this incarnation of the PCHL would fizzle out after a second season of play, with Frank Patrick heading east, eventually, to become managing director of the NHL, under Calder, in 1933.

Back in 1929, Calder was quick to kibosh the championship talk, noting to Montreal reporters that the PCHL was merely a “minor league” operation, “and it is therefore absurd to say that a minor and a major league team can be engaging for the championship.”

“Then there is the fact,” Calder continued, “that Canadiens went west with only half a team. They left Hainsworth, Mantha, and Joliat behind, and that surely is half their regular club.

“When the team left for the west understrength, I anticipated there would not be any big success for the Canadiens, and when I read advance notices that the games were being booked for the Canadian championship, I took steps to stop this, as it was not correct. But the enthusiasm of some of the western writers has overcome their discretion apparently, for the championship booking is repeated, and I have notified President Frank Calder to discontinue such references. These are merely exhibition with no championship involved.”

True to Calder’s lack of confidence, Montreal lost two of its three games against Vancouver, going down 2-0 on April 6 before rebounding two days later with a 4-1 win. On April 10, the Lions prevailed by a score of 3-2. A shot from Howie Morenz knocked Percy Jackson cold that night, if not out: the aforementioned Vancouver goaltender was revived and, as happened as often as not in those years, he carried on.

Cleaned Up Good: The Americans, again, suited up in Portland in April of 1929. Back row from left, they are Tex White, Harry Connor, Lionel Coancher, Billy Burch, Leo Reise, and Tommy Gorman. Coruched, from the left: Bullet Joe Simpson, Johnny Sheppard, Rabbit McVeigh, and Roy Worters.

Gorman’s Americans, meantime, had alighted in Oregon. That’s them there, above, in their civvies in what seems to be yet another Theo Mentzer photograph. It has to be said: they’re looking great. No Beckett here, but another player makes an appearance, one who doesn’t show up in the top two photographs, Bullet Joe Simpson. Take a note of that, if you would: we’ll come back to him and why, though he was on the ice for New York throughout their tour, he happened to be absent from these pictures.

The Americans played two games at the Portland Ice Arena, beating the PCHL Buckaroos on April 1 by a score of 2-1 (in overtime) and again on April 4 by a score of 4-3. Portland had a couple of future NHLers in its line-up in centreman Paul Runge (a Bruin-, Maroon-, and Canadien-to-be) and left winger Red Conn (who’d join the Americans in the early ’30s).

The second game was a costly one in that Lionel Conacher was injured, sent to hospital when his head accidentally met up with a skate belonging to Buckaroos defenceman Ted Jacques. The cut he suffered behind one ear took 16 stitches to close, and while he tried his best to get back on the ice the team’s final game on April 15, medical prudence prevailed and he sat out.

Lacking Conacher, the Americans did borrow a defenceman for the rest of the tour from the Buckaroos, Earl Armstrong, who seems to have acquitted himself well, though this was as close as he’d come to skating in the NHL.

The Americans went to Seattle next, where they split a pair of games (6-4; 1-4) against the PCHL Eskimos, who had Jack Walker leading the way on the ice.

Finally, New York followed the Canadiens to Vancouver. Montreal had completed its series with the local Lions, who New York now met, and beat, 1-0. Bullet Joe Simpson notching the decisive goal. Notable names in the Vancouver line-up included Red Beattie, Art Somers, and the Jerwa brothers, Joe and Frank.

The Americans played one last game, returning to Vancouver’s Denman Arena on April to outlast their NHL rivals from Montreal by a score of 5-3. Worters was outstanding in the New York net, came the report from the coast, while Benedict was only ordinary. Billy Burch scored a pair of goals for the Americans, with Johnny Sheppard, Harry Connor, and Earl Armstrong contributing the others. Battleship Leduc (with 2) and Armand Mondou scored the Montreal goals. Referee Mickey Ion called not a single penalty.

And that was all for the (non-championship) tour. The Canadiens had been planning to carry on to Portland and Seattle, but those games were cancelled. West-coast interest in hockey was waning as the spring sprang, apparently; Portland, it was reported, had lost money on its two games with New York.

As for the Americans, they headed home to nurse their wounds. Joining Lionel Conacher on the clinical ledger were Harry Connor, cut for seven stitches on the head after a Seattle collision with Smokey Harris, and Joe Simpson who (the Montreal Gazette reported) “had his right wrist twisted.”

Which brings us back to the photograph we started with.

As mentioned, historians and others who pore over the hockey past have puzzled over the second man in civilian clothes (after Gorman), including several of us who frequent the virtual byways of the Society of International Hockey Research, where no detail of hockeyana has yet proven too abstract or obscure for study. The fact that his name — his surname — has been preserved hasn’t (so far) been a factor in the investigation into his role with the Americans (if any) or how he happened to be lining up with the players that April day in Portland.  

Was Beckett maybe a bootlegger? Prohibition had been the law in the United States since the Volstead Act went into effect in 1920, and it would be 1933 before it was repealed. SIHR speculation has hovered over the possibility, the bottles prominent at Beckett’s feet having wetted speculation, at SIHR and elsewhere, around that possibility. That notion might be plausibly fortified by the fact that the Americans were owned by the prominent New York rum-runner Bill Dwyer who, starting in 1925, had spent more than a year in jail for his efforts attempting to bribe members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Or maybe was Beckett a boxer? That’s been hypothesized, too, if not proven out. An Oregon newspaper did note that fight promoter Herb Owen would be coinciding in Portland with the Americans that first week of April, and that his “party” planned to attend the hockey game, so maybe Beckett was with him, and could have been invited to pose with the visiting hockey players?

But there’s no further corroborating evidence to substantiate either one of the bootlegging or boxing theories — none that I’ve come across, anyway.

The likeliest answer is that Mr. Beckett was a railway porter. Jim Coleman identifies him as such in a 1942 Globe and Mail column, and he has the authority of Roy Worters himself behind him on this: Coleman describes studying one of the same rinkfront photographs we’ve been looking at in Worters’ own office at the Toronto hotel he ran (with Charlie Conacher) at the corner of Lawrence and Dufferin.

Along with everybody else in the first decades of the 20th century, hockey players took the train. In the NHL, that was the case in the 1920s whether it was the Ottawa Senators going to Montreal for a regular-season encounter with the Canadiens, or bands of barnstormers crossing the continent.

The history of Black railway porters in Canada is a long, fascinating, and oftentimes fraught one in its own right. The points where that history intersects with professional hockey are worth investigating, too. I’m waiting for someone to file a feature on Hamilton, Ontario’s own Norman “Pinky” Lewis, for example. He was a beloved figure in his time, and would serve as trainer for the football Tiger Cats in his hometown, where one of the city’s downtown recreation centres is named in his honour.

Columnist Jim Coleman thought he ought to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his services to the game. In the 1920s, when he worked as a sleeping-car porter for the CPR while also working as trainer for Newsy Lalonde’s WCHL Saskatoon Sheiks (for whom George Hainsworth was the goaltender, in those years). By 1929, Lewis was trainer for the C-AHL Newark Bulldogs, where Sprague Cleghorn was the coach. Lewis himself went on to coach, notably for the OHA’s Owen Sound Greys.

Someone else could look into the bow-tied and behatted man who appears in a photo from another coastal barnstorming tour, this one from the fall 1922, when the Toronto St. Patricks, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, played a series of pre-season games in the west. Above, the team poses aboard the ship they took from Vancouver to Seattle. The man standing between Harry Cameron and Babe Dye is identified as F. Williams, though there’s no consensus on that initial: another contemporaneous version of this image calls him H. Williams, identifying him as a CPR porter while also adding the more than slightly disturbing designation we see here: “mascot.” I’ve never found any other trace of him and his time with Toronto.

The erasure of Messrs. Williams and Beckett, their names and contributions and experiences, isn’t unprecedented, unfortunately, or surprising. Maybe the blanks can be filled in: I hope so. It’s not impossible to imagine that they’re gone forever.

The past does have a way of continuing to churn, and of pressing its artifacts to the surface. These aren’t always of high importance or lasting significance, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold their value. Sometimes you might even have been staring at them over a period of years without noticing what you were seeing.

Look again at the photograph we started with. Later commentaries on what we’re seeing here (one from 1942, another from 1960) reveal that Bullet Joe Simpson would have been in it, alongside his teammates — if only he hadn’t climbed into the car you can see behind Tex White and Billy Burch for a nap. By one account, the photographer, Mentzer, was taking too long in setting up his gear. In the other, Simpson was just plain tired.

Then again, if you study the second team photo, there does seem to another player in the line-up, next to Tommy Gorman on the far right, who’s been … excised? Is that Simpson, possibly? Why leave him out?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I can report that shenanigans were at play that day. The car in the first photo, you may also have noticed, is … not all there? Take a look: it seems to be missing its front half, including one wheel. This suggests a long exposure, and movement, of car, camera — maybe both. Which leads to the second surprise. It’s one that Montreal Gazette columnist Vern DeGeer revealed when he wrote about the full, uncropped version of this photograph, a copy of which Tommy Gorman used to have hanging in his office at the old Ottawa Auditorium.

Here’s DeGeer on what that, in its glory, looked like:

When the picture was developed there was much guffawing in the ranks. It showed the impish Roy “Little Squirt” Worters at both ends of the group.

The photog had used a panoramic camera. He started at one end with Worters and slowly swung the magic lantern down the line. As he was doing this Worters sprinted behind his mates, and was at the end other end of the group when the camera completed its arc.

They say that whenever Tay Pay Gorman feels depressed or tired, or just plain nostalgic, he parks the picture on his desk and laughs, and laughs and laughs.

So while Joe Simpson napped, Roy Worters scampered from one end of the line to the other. Knowing that, is it possible to surmise that something the same was going on in the other photo from that day, and that the shoulder next to Tommy Gorman belongs to a second Harry Connor? Maybe so.

I wonder where Gorman’s office copy is parked now. It may well be hanging on someone’s wall, somewhere, generating guffaws as it has since 1929. All that’s left to us in our vandalized version of the photograph is the edge of Roy Worters’ oven-mitt blocker and a bit of the butt-end of his stick, not far from the bottles, next to Mr. Beckett, on the far right:

And just to be clear: Worters would, of course, have had to have sprinted behind the photographer, rather than his teammates, on his way to replicating himself.

Double Take: A cartoon illustrating Vern DeGeer’s 1960 telling of the tale came complete with a car-napping Joe Simpson and double Roy Worterses — but no Beckett.

il est malade

Old Goaler: Georges Vézina outside Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena in November of 1925.

Heading into the NHL new season in November of 1925, Montreal Canadiens managing director (and co-owner) Léo Dandurand wasn’t sure whether Georges Vézina was going to play or not. The goaltender was 38 that fall, and he had a cabinetry business to run in Chicoutimi, his hometown. He’d served his time with Montreal down through the years, maybe earned his rest, nobody could argue otherwise: since 1911, Vézina had, astonishingly, been the one and only goaltender to defend the Canadiens’ net. He’d seen the NHA come and go in that time, and the rise of the NHL in 1917, and had suited up for every competitive game for the Canadiens in the eight years since then. The only break Vézina had taken in 14 years came in 1922, when he’d ceded his net to serve a slashing penalty against Ottawa, with teammate Sprague Cleghorn filling in on an emergency backstop.

In 1925, Vézina left it late to agree to play another season. Dandurand finally got him to agree to it on November 10, after (as the Montreal Star reported) “some busy long-distance telephoning.” This was to be his swansong. “There is little doubt that this is to be Georges’ last season in hockey,” the newspaper noted. “His business in Chicoutimi needs his attention more and more, and it was only in view of the fact that he had given the Canadiens the impression earlier that he would be with them again that he has made special arrangements for this season.”

Showrunner: Léo Dandurand

Dandurand was making contingency arrangements of his own, signing an understudy in 28-year-old Alphonse (a.k.a. Frenchy) Lacroix, the Newton, Massachusetts-born goaltender who’d backed the U.S. Olympic team to a silver medal at the 1924 Chamonix Olympics. “Even though Canada scored six goals against him in the Olympic hockey final,” the Star advised, “he was given credit for staving off a worse defeat than that.”

Vézina arrived in Montreal the following Monday, November 16. He saw his first action two days later, in an exhibition match-up with Lester Patrick’s Victoria Cougars, the same WCHL team that had beaten the Canadiens in four games the previous March to claim the Stanley Cup. The Cougars prevailed again this time out, outlasting Montreal by a score of 5-3. Despite the loss, the hometown Gazette reported that Vézina’s “eagle eye” was intact, rating some of his first-period stops “heart-breaking to the Victoria attacking division.” A defenceman, Gord Fraser, scored Victoria’s last goal in the third period — the final goal ever to be scored on Vézina.

The following week, with their goaltender reported to be suffering from “a severe cold,” Montreal cancelled a series of further exhibition games against Tommy Gorman’s New York Americans in Hamilton, Ontario.

Still, Vézina was in his net at the Mount Royal Arena on the night of Saturday, November 28, when the Canadiens took Pittsburgh’s mighty Pirates. Steered by a former Canadien, Odie Cleghorn, who served both as right wing and coach, with Roy Worters in goal, the Pirates ended up winning the game, 1-0, on a goal by Tex White. The Pittsburgh Press carried a lively narrative next day, in which Montreal’s Howie Morenz featured both for storming offense and pugnacity. In the first period, he took a penalty for “bumping;” in the second he had “a fist fight in the corner” with Jesse Spring.

Only briefly did the Press note a line-up change at the start of the second period:

 Lacroix was in the nets for [sic] Canadians at start of second period. Vézina was reported ill.

 Montreal’s Gazette carried a more detailed report under the sub-head “Vézina Was Shadow:”

But the high spot of the evening for the Canadien supporters came at the beginning of the second period when Lacroix, former United States Olympic goalkeeper went into the Canadien goal in place of Georges Vézina. The veteran goalkeeper started the game with a high temperature. He was pale and haggard looking as he turned shots aside in the first period. At the rest interval it was decided to replace him and for the first time since he took up hockey eighteen years ago, the veteran goalkeeper was forced to drop out of play. He remained in the dressing room with only his pads off hoping to pick up a little and get back into the game. But he was not in condition and with Lacroix well settled in the play, the former amateur was left in to the last.

The Star detailed an even more desperate scene:

His temples throbbed with fever, his face, while on the ice, was flushed, pale and drawn, and though he should have been home and in bed, he insisted on remaining till the end, impatiently sending out [Canadiens assistant trainer] Pat Kennedy and ither messengers, to find out how the battle progressing.

When the Canadiens went to Boston for their next game, Vézina stayed home. “Dandurand left instructions with a doctor here,” the Star reported on December 1, “to give Georges a thorough examination today to see if anything really serious is the matter with him.”

By the end of the week, the verdict was out: Montreal’s iconic goaltender had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. The Star ran a long story under the headline

Greatest Hockey Goal Keeper of Past
Decade Will Never Play Again

that featured Leo Dandurand’s (more or less?) embroidered account of Vézina’s turbulent final weeks in Montreal.

Sick List: A Montreal newspaper with the Vézina news in November of 1925.

It was Dandurand, remember, who’d played a large party in fashioning his famous goaltender’s image over the years, certainly in the English press, in Montreal and beyond. Vézina wasn’t interested in publicity, kept mostly to himself and to the French language, allowing (or suffering) Dandurand to fill the void. It was the Canadiens’ owner, for instance, who’d launched the myth, a persistent one that still, today, comes back to life from time to time, that Vézina was the father of 22 (or maybe was it 17?) children.

Dandurand’s account from this week in 1925 may be the straight goods; it does have, it has to be said, an air of having been over-crafted.

Tuberculosis isn’t mentioned, oddly: instead, Dandurand is quoted as saying that “poor Georges has the battle of Christy Mathewson to fight.” That would have held no mystery for sports fans: news of the great New York Giants pitcher’s death from the disease at the age of 45 had rippled across North America that same October.

Announcing the goaltender’s retirement, Dandurand added the news that Vézina had left for Chicoutimi without bidding farewell to his teammates, who had returned to Montreal to meet the Maroons on Thursday, December 3. Dandurand framed this as “Vézina’s last act of devotion to the club he loved so well,” quoting the goaltender himself. “Perhaps they will play better if they think I am coming on,” he’s supposed to have said. “When I’m not on they will soon forget about me in the excitement of the play.”

Dandurand had more to disclose. “I had known from the first that Vézina was not the Vézina of old. He did not look well when he reported, but assured me he would improve. That too was typical of him. But he lost weight in an alarming fashion, and it was not by accident that we signed Lacroix. I saw Vézina was nearly done, and though he insisted on going through his last game with a temperature of 102 degrees, and even then gave a good account of himself, he never recovered. Perhaps his insistence on playing the game spelled his doom. He was taken to bed that night, stayed there for a week, and when doctors examined him, it was found he had lost 35 pounds since coming to the city. Further examination revealed that his lungs were in bad shape ….”

Dandurand described the goaltender’s final visit that Thursday to Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena dressing room. Vézina found his usual corner. “I glanced at him as he sat there, and saw tears rolling down his cheeks. He was looking at his old pads and skates that [trainer] Eddie Dufour had arranged in George’s corner thinking that probably Vézina would don them that night. Then he asked one little favour — the sweater he wore in the last world series. Then he went. I doubt if hockey will ever know his like again.”

Vézina was soon home in Chicoutimi. Within four months, before the end of March of 1926, just 39, he was dead.

cleveland’s dr. no

Stitch Up: Crusader goaltender Gerry Cheevers looks out from the cover of an Edmonton Oilers program from November of 1975. “Cleveland’s Dr. No” the accompanying story was headlined. On the ice, the Oilers won the game, 4-1.

A judge in district court in Boston was considering whether Gerry Cheevers still ought to be a Boston Bruin on a Wednesday of this same date in 1972, but that didn’t keep the 31-year-old goaltender from strapping on his pads for the Cleveland Crusaders as the upstart WHA dropped the puck, 50 years ago tonight, for the first games of its seven-year history.

Cheevers had won a pair of Stanley Cup championships with Boston, including one in the spring of ’72, but when Cleveland came calling that summer, he’d signed a seven-year, $1.4-million contract and headed west. His was one of several WHA getaways that the Bruins attempted to block in court: as hockey season rolled around, they were also doing their best to reel back Derek Sanderson and Johnny Mackenzie from the Philadelphia Blazers.

Cheevers, for one, had judicial permission to play on, and so was able to open his WHA account with a 2-0 home win over the Maurice Richard-coached Quebec Nordiques, stopping 21 shots to record the new league’s first shutout. “I’ve played seven years with the best club in hockey,” Cheevers said after it was all over, “but this was the easiest shutout I’ve ever had.”

Boston’s lawsuit failed to bring Cheevers back; he went on to win 32 of the 52 games he played for Cleveland, securing the Ben Hatskin Award as the league’s best goaltender. His WHA adventure lasted not quite four seasons as he made his return to the Bruins in 1976, playing a further five NHL seasons before he retired at the end of the 1979-80 campaign.

Pictured here in 1975, his famous mask was designed and built by a former plumbing superintendent in Boston, Ernie Higgins, though it was Bruins trainer Frosty Forristall who gets the credit for its famous decoration. Here’s Cheevers telling the tale in Unmasked, the 2011 memoir he wrote with an assist from Marc Zappulla:

The protection the mask afforded me gave me more time on the ice and less time in the locker room getting stitched up, which was nice. However, I hated the color of that thing. It was white. I hated white. I seldom even wore white socks. And if I happened to look down when I did, I felt a fright as if I was exposed to something with ill consequences. Call it what you want: a phobia, or outright disdain for this wholesome shade. The sight of this glimmering, shiny, white mold engaged to my facial pores drove me nuts. The color itself is a sign of purity and that wasn’t me. I was quite the opposite. In fact, I was driven by an unconventional thought process and a wayward nature my whole life; the white had to go.

And so?

One morning I tried to get out of practice, which, again, was the norm for me, not the exception. I was in net when a puck flipped up and grazed mask. The puck’s force was so softly propelled, that, had I not been wearing the mask I seriously doubt I’d have so much as a scratch on my face. It was weak, but I faked like it wasn’t. I winced in pain, came off the ice, and headed into the dressing room. I sat down and sparked up a cigarette when [Bruin coach] Harry Sinden came in and said, “Get your ass out there, you’re not hurt!”

So, before I collected myself and got back on the ice, Frosty the trainer said, “Here, hold it.”

Frosty broke out a sharpie and drew in four or five stitches where I had undoubtedly been hit, right above the eye, I believe it was. Everyone got a kick out of it, so I told Frosty, “Fros, every time I get hit with a puck, or the stick comes up, take care of it.” He did, and all the marks were legit.

 

4thought

It was this week in October, 69 years ago, that Jean Béliveau signed his first contract with the Montreal Canadiens, putting pen to paper in managing director Frank Selke’s Forum office on Saturday, October 3, 1953. Later the same day, the 22-year-old Béliveau joined his new teammates on the ice as the reigning Stanley Cup champions an array of NHL all-stars in the league’s seventh annual showcase. Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk foiled the Canadiens, mostly, as he led his team to a 3-1 victory, with New York Rangers’ winger Wally Hergesheimer scoring a pair of goals on Gerry McNeil into the Canadiens goal. Maurice Richard scored Montreal’s goal, rapping in a rebound of a shot by Béliveau that the Montreal Gazette qualified as smoking.

Béliveau had worn number 9 while starring for the QMHL Quebec Aces, but that was already claimed in Montreal by the Rocket. In the five games Béliveau had played previously as a call-up, he’d tried 17 and 20 (a game each in 1950-51) and 12 (three games in 1952-53). It was in September of ’53 that he posed, above, with Canadiens trainer Hector Dubois to commemorate his switch to number 4.

There was nothing specially to it, apparently. “Big Jean,” the Gazette duly noted, “said the number he wears is immaterial to him.” Pre-Béliveau, it had been passed around: Ivan Irwin, Reg Abbott, Eddie Litzenberger, and Calum Mackay had all taken a turn with Montreal’s 4 before he made it his own. There’s an argument to made that it should have been plucked from circulation before Béliveau ever arrived on the scene: 4 was the number that the great Aurèle Joliat donned when he joined the Canadiens in 1922, and the only one he wore throughout his 16-year career in Montreal. Canadiens did eventually get around to recognizing Joliat’s tenure as number 4, adding him as a “co-retiree” in 1984, 13 years after the team honoured the number in Béliveau’s name.

(Image: La Presse)

tommy woodcock, 1933—2022

Sorry to see news of the death earlier this week of Tommy Woodcock, the first trainer the St. Louis Blues ever had, and a veteran of the dressing rooms of the Hartford Whalers and San Jose Sharks. He was 89.

In Providence, Rhode Island, Woodcock grew up as the son of the manager of the local Arena, and he got his first job there in the 1940s when, as a 12-year-old, he served as (in his words) “a squeegee boy, helping brush the excess water off the rink after it had been flooded.” On his skates, he played centre and right wing, and scored some goals in the 1950s on New England senior amateur ice and, briefly, in the Eastern Hockey League.

As the story goes, Buddy LeRoux, trainer of Boston’s Celtics and Red Sox, was the one to suggest he take up as a trainer. Woodcock started out tending college teams at Brown, in Providence, and worked with the AHL Providence Reds, as well as with local baseball and football teams before GM Lynn Patrick hired him in 1967 to be the trainer for the expansion St. Louis Blues. With the Reds, he was a protégé of trainer George Army, a local legend who maintained that he’d learned to stitch hockey wounds by slicing up oranges and then sewing them back together.

Woodcock was 34 when he started in St. Louis. For 16 years he tended the Blues, who vied their way (in vain) during that tenure through three Stanley Cup Finals. The times, they were simpler, back then, as Woodcock recalled for NHL.com in 2008: “The players did a lot. They carried their own bags. We never washed the underwear, we just hung it up to dry.”

Woodcock’s other duties, in his day, ran the regular gamut. He sharpened skates, maintained and modified equipment, stitched wounds, ministered to aches, pains, scuffs, concussings. He wielded tape — a lot of tape. For a cheerful newspaper profile in 1970, Woodcock estimated that the Blues’ annual roll-out of tape was some 212,000 yards for socks-securing and another 3,300 yards for sticks.

In 1973, Woodcock organized his expertise into a book.

In 1979, around the occasion of his 1,000th NHL game, Woodcock testified that Bernie Federko was the most talented player he’d had under his care, while original Blues’ captain Al Arbour rated the highest pain tolerance of any of his charges. Garry Unger, meanwhile, had “the best set of muscle structure” in Blues’ history. “That’s why,” Woodcock said, “he never has any pulled or strained muscles.”

“Arbour was typical of some of the old-timers,” Woodcock waxed in ’79, “he was totally dedicated to the game.” The biggest change he’d seen in his time in big-league hockey? “The young guys coming into the league now aren’t dedicated. They aren’t willing to work to improve themselves. If they’re not doing well, they’ll blame their stick or a part of their equipment — but never blame themselves or try to work harder.”

One then-current Blue was excused from this indictment: Brian Sutter. “He’s the last of the real dedicated hockey players,” Woodcock said.

In 1983, Woodcock followed former Blues’ GM Emile Francis to the Hartford Whalers. In 1991, GM Jack Ferreira hired him to be the first trainer for the expansion San Jose Sharks. He would continue to work as a consultant with the Sharks well into his 70s and in so doing, in 2008 attended his 40th NHL training camp. All told, he presided over more than 3,000 NHL games, regular-season and playoff.

In 1973, Woodcock became the first NHL trainer to organize his experience and expertise into a book when he published Hockey From The Ice Up, a helpful how-to aimed at aspiring young players, their parents, and coaches. It counselled on equipment and pregame meals, ran down conditioning best practices, delineated hockey injuries (from butterflies to tongue-swallowing), and identified some key dos and don’ts for those hoping to succeed in hockey (stay away from alcohol and solvent-sniffing).

In 2003, Woodcock was inducted into the Hall of Fame that the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society curates under the auspices of the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Lefty Wilson, Skip Thayer, and Eddy Palchak in the pantheon.

 

checkpoint charlie

Renovation Room: A gathering of Rangers in the training room at New York’s Madison Square Garden from (I think) the 1948-49 NHL season has Ranger trainer Frank Paice (standing third from left, framed by lamps) seeing to the battered likes of (from left) Alex Kaleta, Ed Slowinski, Wally Stanowski, and (leg up on the table) Allan Stanley. That’s goaltender Charlie Rayner laid out longwise. Paice, who hailed from Jamaica, N.Y., was 34 that season, and in his first year as Ranger trainer, having graduated from the minor-league New York Rovers.

tuning peg

It’s A Wrap: Born on a Thursday of this same date in 1913, Peggy O’Neil played the right wing for the Boston Bruins in the 1930s. He was named James at the start, Jim, originating in Semans, Saskatchewan, which you’ll find on the map between Punnichy and Elmer Lach’s hometown of Nokomis. (O’Neil played parts of couple of seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, too.) Here, in a scene from February of 1937, O’Neil undergoes a restorative wrapping by Bruins’ trainer Win Green at Boston Garden. (Image: ©Richard Merrill, Boston Public Library)

terry sawchuk: he groped for his stick and gloves and, defiant, went to work

Like The Gangster in the Howard Hawks Film: Terry Sawchuk’s last NHL duty was with the New York Rangers in 1969-70. He also padded up for Detroit, Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles during his 21-year career.

Born in Winnipeg on a Saturday of this same date in 1929, Terry Sawchuk was a four-time Stanley Cup champion and a four-time Vézina Trophy winner; he was elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1971, the year after his death at the age of 40. Did any goaltender in NHL history wear his puck-stopping pre-eminence so painfully? Here’s Dick Beddoes writing in 1990, recalling a night in ’67, when a 37-year-old Sawchuk helped the Toronto Maple Leafs to a Cup.

His single most commanding performance occurred that spring, on April 15, in the fifth game of an engrossing Cup semi-final between the Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks. He replace a shaky Johnny Bower in the second period of the fifth game with the best-of-seven series tied 2-2 in games, and this pivotal game tied 2-2 in goals.

The Hawks, in the noisy three-tiered cavern of Chicago Stadium, pressed in the first two minutes of the second period, clamorous action boiling around Sawchuk. Bobby Hull pivoted 15 feet to Sawchuk’s left, almost parallel to the goal, an impossible angle from which to score. Hull shot, hard and high. The puck struck Sawchuk’s left shoulder like a crowbar and knocked him down. Other players skated around the Toronto net, circling, looking, needling.

Pierre Pilote, the Chicago captain, crafty, canny, aimed his barbs. “How’d you feel, Terry? Should’ve let it go, Terry. Might’ve been a goal.”

The scene was caught, pinned forever in a reporter’s memory. Bob Haggert, the Toronto trainer, skidded across the ice from the Toronto bench to Sawchuk. “Where’d you get it, Ukey?”

Sawchuk, on his knees, “On my bad shoulder.”

Haggert, leaning down, “Think you’re okay? Can you stay in the game?”

“I stopped the fucking shot, didn’t I?” Sawchuk struggled to regain his feet. “Help me up and I’ll stone those sons of bitches.” He groped for his stick and gloves and, defiant, went to work.

It is a 23-year-old story, a footnote in clutch exhibitions, how he went home again to glory, how he stopped 36 shots in Toronto’s 4-2 conquest, frustrated the most insatiable shooters in the game, shut them out with the remnants of the young Sawchuk: down the glove, out the arm, over the stick, up the glove, shutting off daylight the shooters thought they saw — all in a kind of desperate epileptic action. You were left wondering who choreographed the most stylish goaler in the galaxy.

pause for patchwork

For Lorne: That’s Gump Worsley’s eyebrow we’re seeing here, after the Montreal Canadiens’ long-suffering goaltender took a puck just below his (unmasked) eye in the third period of a game at Montreal’s Forum on Saturday, December 23, 1967. It was a battle of last-place teams, with Canadiens dwelling in the cellar of the NHL’s East Division while the visiting Oakland Seals anchored the West. With Worsley here is Canadiens defenceman (#3) J.C. Tremblay with (probably) team medic Dr. Doug Kinnear ministering and (possibly) trainer Larry Aubut standing by — unless it’s Montreal’s other trainer, Eddie Palchak. Off in the middle distance is Oakland defenceman Ron Harris. Worsley stayed in the game, despite his wounds, seeing out Montreal’s 4-2 win. (Image: Pierre McCann, Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

stand and deliver — and, if you can get away with it, knock your net off its pegs

Love Displace: Detroit Red Wings’ assistant trainer Lefty Wilson tends Toronto’s net in January of 1956, unmooring it, as described in accounts of the game, to stymie Detroit winger Marty Pavelich.

Everybody loves an EBUG — just ask David Ayres, the 42-year-old sometime Zamboni driver who stepped into the breach at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena in early 2020 as Carolina’s goalie-of-last-resort and backstopped the Hurricanes to a 6-3 win over the Maple Leafs.

Ayres wasn’t , of course, the first emergency back-up in NHL history, not by a long shot. Nor can he lay a claim (yet) on being the busiest stand-in on the league’s books. Born in Toronto on a Wednesday of this date in 1919, Ross (a.k.a. Lefty) Wilson filled in on three separate occasions in the 1950s, for three different teams. His career numbers may be meagre, but they’re nothing to be ashamed of: 81 minutes played, one goal allowed, one tie and an average of 0.74 secured.

As the Detroit Red Wings’ assistant trainer and sometime practice goalie in the ’50s, Wilson was (i) readily available and (ii) willing to lend a pad and a glove at a time when NHL teams didn’t usually dress a spare goaltender.

His NHL debut came in 1953 when, aged 33, Detroit’s own Terry Sawchuk had to withdraw from a game in Montreal with a cut on his knee. For 16 third-period minutes, Wilson faced the likes of Rocket Richard, Boom-Boom Geoffrion, and Jean Béliveau, stopping four shots as he preserved Detroit’s 4-1 lead.

In 1956, Detroit was playing at home to Toronto when the Leafs’ Harry Lumley twisted a knee. Wilson played 13 minutes on that occasion, staring down Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay as he blanked the team that paid his salary. Detroit won that one all the same, also by a score of 4-1.

In his dispatch for the Globe and Mail, Rex MacLeod described what would seem to be the scene captured in the photo above:

One Detroit rush was frustrated with Wilson in goal when the Toronto net came loose from its moorings. There was no explanation for the accident but Wilson was a No. 1 suspect.

Marshall Dann of the Detroit Free Press was able to track down a witness to the crime willing to testify for the prosecution:

[Detroit winger Marty] Pavelich was skating in for a shot when the goal suddenly became unanchored and Wilson swung it sideways to prevent any shot. Knowing Lefty, Pavelich figures it was too much of a coincidence.

Wilson’s final appearance in an NHL net was in 1957 in Boston when the Bruins’ Don Simmons went down mid-game with a dislocated shoulder. Now 38, Wilson played 52 minutes on Boston’s behalf that night, giving up a goal for the first time in his big-league career, not to Howe or Alex Delvecchio, but to Wings’ defenceman Jack McIntyre as the teams fought to a 2-2 tie.

Lefty Wilson continued in his off-ice duties with the Red Wings until 1962. He also served as Team Canada’s trainer at the 1976 Canada Cup. He was 83 when died in 2002.

 

 

 

boston’s worn + torn

Hurt Locker: Born in Newmarket, Ontario, on a Saturday of this date in 1907, Hall-of-Famer Dit Clapper played wing and defence during his 20 seasons with the Boston Bruins, and indeed he was the first player to make the NHL All-Star team as both a forward (1931) and as a defender (1940, ’41, ’44). He captained Boston for six seasons, and ended up coaching the Bs, too. That’s him here in the towel and stripy sock, eyeing the camera, in 1939 or so, under the care of Bruin trainer Win Green (in the rubber gloves). Over Clapper’s ankle is a diathermy (heat therapy) machine. In the foreground, taking a break from the funny pages, resting his wounded head, is Boston winger Charlie Sands. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)