fray dates: over the boards and into the crowd with ted lindsay

Up + Over: Detroit goaltender Terry Sawchuk follows his captain, Ted Lindsay, into the crowd at Detroit’s Olympia in November of 1954. That’s Glen Skov, number 12, getting ready to follow their lead.

There’s a scene midway through Goalie, the new Terry Sawchuk biopic that opened across Canada this month, and it’s a key one in the story of our beleaguered hero’s unwinding. It’s early in his career in Detroit, and Sawchuk, as rendered by Mark O’Brien, is already starring for the Red Wings, though the cost is already starting to tell. The puck that lies tauntingly behind him in the Detroit net has passed him by with maximum malice, which we know because he’s down on his knees, spitting out his teeth, bleeding his blood.

But that’s only the start of it. In the nearby stands, out of the Olympia hubbub, a needling voice rises: “Sawchuk! Sawchuk!” He’s nothing new, this heckler, just an everyday loudmouth, but Sawchuk has had it, enough. When Marcel Pronovost points him out, Sawchuk charges. Downs stick and gloves, skates headlong for the fence, which he scales quick as a commando.

Oh, boy.

But before the goaltender can clamber his way up to the fourth or fifth row to tear his tormenter apart, the man flees in a panic. Sawchuk’s the taunter, now. “Yeah,” he jeers, “you better run.”

Realizing where he is, he also apologizes to the fans whose midst he’s invaded. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

That’s the movie. The history is that Terry Sawchuk did scale the wire at Detroit’s Olympia, in 1954, in pursuit of a vociferous fan, though it wasn’t really about him, the goaltender was really only acting in a supporting role, backing up teammates.

Credit where credit’s due: it was Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay who led the charge. Lindsay didn’t have to do any climbing, it might be noted: whereas Sawchuk was on the ice and saw fence-climbing as his only option to join the fray, Lindsay was already off the ice, on his way to the dressing room, when he identified his antagonist and went at him.

In the days since his death on March 4 at the age of 93, Lindsay has been praised as a hockey giant, which he was, no question. A dominant force on ice, Lindsay was a tenacious leader who could do it all, and did, mostly on his own terms. His dedication off the ice to the cause of players’ rights has been highlighted, as has the price he paid for not backing down in the face of lies and intimidation of the men who were running the NHL.

Here, for the moment, we’ll focus on a lesserly known episode from his career, a single season among the 17 Lindsay played. I’ll propose that it offers insights into his later battles with the NHL, and more: it also adds context to events that exploded this very March day, 64 years ago, in Montreal.

To do that, we’ll follow Ted Lindsay through the 1954-55 season, which means pursuing him into the crowd for what must (I think) count as his most cantankerous year as an NHLer — it might be one of the most cantankerous season any player played, ever.

Lindsay was in his eleventh season with the Wings, his third as team captain. He’d finished the previous season third-best in league scoring, and was elected to the 1st All-Star. His Wings were on a roll: the defending Stanley Cup champions had won three Cups in five years.

The NHL’s 38th season is and forever will be charred at the edges by Montreal’s season-ending Richard Riot. It’s with no intent to diminish the importance or damages inflicted by those ructions, nor with any disrespect to Richard, that I’m going to posit here that, when it comes to instigating uproar, Ted Lindsay’s ’54-55 is a remarkable one in its own (if mostly forgotten) right.

Also: imagine, if you would, a circumstance by which, in today’s NHL, one of the league’s marquee players, captaining the defending Stanley Cup champions, finds himself implicated in altercations with spectators, not once or twice, but on four separate occasions. It would be the story of the season — though not in ’54-55. Is it possible that this player would still be around to be to contribute to his team’s winning a second successive Cup? It is, and was — in ’54-55.

A bit of background is in order here. Early in November, 14 games into the season’s schedule, Detroit traded centre Metro Prystai to Chicago in exchange for a mostly untested right winger named Lorne Davis. A valuable cog in the Red Wings machine that won Stanley Cups in 1952 and again in ’54, Prystai was also a good friend and roommate of Lindsay’s and Gordie Howe’s at Ma Shaw’s rooming house. With Howe out with an injured shoulder, Prystai had moved in to take his place on Detroit’s top line, alongside Lindsay and Dutch Reibel.

For the defending champions, this wasn’t so much a hockey trade as a league-mandated equalization pay-out. Detroit didn’t pull the trigger so much as the NHL decided that the swap would help out Chicago, of the league’s perennially worst teams.

Conn Smythe, Toronto’s owner and martinet-in-chief, seems to have engineered the whole affair, chairing a meeting of league moguls in New York for the purpose of improving have-not teams like Chicago and Boston. “A unique professional sports move toward sharpening competitive balance,” is how Al Nickleson described it in The Globe and Mail; The Detroit Free Press dubbed it a hockey “Marshall Plan.”

Call it collusion, set it aside as an exhibit for some future (never-to-be-launched) anti-trust ligation — to the men in charge of NHL hockey, it was merely good business. Four players were involved upfront: Chicago got Prystai and Montreal’s Paul Masnick, while Boston landed Leo Boivin from Toronto. The Leafs got Joe Klukay; Detroit landed Davis; Montreal’s piece of the pie was to be named later.

“We’re trying to apply logical business sense here,” Smythe pleaded in the days before the redistribution went through. He only had the customer in mind, he would continue to insist. “What we want to do is present hockey at its highest calibre in every rink in the NHL.”

But Detroit was seething. “Is big-time hockey a legitimate sport or just a family syndicate?” Marshall Dann wondered in the local Free Press. Marguerite and Bruce Norris co-owned the Red Wings while another brother, James Norris, ran the Black Hawks. The word was that Red Wings’ GM Jack Adams didn’t know about the Prystai deal until it was already done, telling Prystai, “I’m sorry, they ganged up on us.” Adams accused Smythe of trying to break Detroit’s morale. No more would he serve on NHL committees, he said, and he vowed that he’d be boycotting Red Wings’ road trips to Toronto forthwith, as well.

The Wings had a home game the week of the Prystai trade, on the Thursday, against Smythe’s Leafs. Before the Wings hit the ice, Lindsay demanded that the Norrises, Marguerite and Bruce, meet with the players and explain to them why Prystai had been shipped out. In his 2016 memoir, Red Kelly says it was just Bruce who showed up, and that the players weren’t impressed by his explanation. They talked about sitting out the game to make clear their unhappiness. “We weren’t going to go on the ice that night, no way. The people were in the stands, but we didn’t care.”

Somehow, someone convinced them to play. They did so, let’s say, in a mood.

Ted Lindsay’s didn’t improve as the evening went on. In the second period, he unleashed on Leafs’ defenceman Jim Thomson, punching him in the face as they tangled near the Toronto bench. “They both went at it,” the Globe’s Al Nickleson wrote, “with no damage done.”

As order, or something like it, was being restored, Leaf coach King Clancy chimed in. “That’s the first time I ever saw you drop your stick in a fight, Lindsay,” is how Nickleson heard it. What he saw, next, was Lindsay throwing a glove at the coach. “The glove — it belong to Thomson — brushed Clancy and was lost in the crowd behind the bench.” Lindsay threw a punch at Clancy, too, but missed his mark.

Toronto won the game. Sid Smith scored the only goal and Leaf goaltender Harry Lumley, a former Wing celebrating his 28thbirthday, contributed a shutout. That can’t have lightened Lindsay’s temper, and when a fan spoke up as the Wings were headed off the ice, the Detroit captain decided to climb the wire and chase him down.

It’s from the scene that followed that director Adriana Maggs’ Goalie drew when she had her Terry Sawchuk climb into the crowd. Here’s Nickleson on Lindsay’s non-movie incursion:

He may have landed a blow or two — certainly he was swinging — although the action was partially hidden by fans, and by other Detroit players clambering over the high screening. Even Sawchuk, goal pads and all, made it with the help of a boost from a teammate.

Bernard Czeponis was the heckler. A blow of Lindsay’s that did land blackened his eye. He was only too happy to describe what happened to Marshall Dann from the Free Press. “I only asked Glen Skov if he wanted my crying towel,” Czeponis said. “He used foul language. Then Lindsay, instead of stopping it as a club captain should, came after me and hit me.”

Continue reading

winterspiele 1936: u + s + a

The U.S. Olympic hockey team played one last game before they sailed for Europe in January of 1936 to battle in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics. At Madison Square Garden they played a shortened exhibition (two 15-minute halves) against the EHL New York Rovers, the Rangers’ farm team. The Olympics won, 2-0, on goals from Franks Spain and Stubbs.

Several weeks later, mid-February, as the tournament was about to launch in Germany, a letter from a concerned citizen showed up in the pages of The New York Times. “I am a veteran follower of Canadian and United States hockey,” reader William Gill wrote from Boston, “and here is a prediction Canada will win the Olympic hockey trophy again. The United States is not up to its former teams, lacking experience, as college sixes usually do.”

Arrayed here before the Rovers game are, back row, left to right: Malcolm McAlpin, Fred Kammer, Phil Labatte, John Garrison, Frank Stubbs, and Frank Shaughnessy. Front: Elbridge Ross, Paul Rowe, Thomas Moone, Coach Walter Brown, John Lax, Gordon Smith, and Frank Spain.

 

prologue to a riot

Sticks swung in Boston: that was where it all started, near the end of the NHL’s regular season, when Maurice Richard was the first to strike — unless it was Hal Laycoe. When it comes to the riotous events in Montreal in 1955, it’s Thursday, March 17, fest of St. Patrick, that mostly resonates.

But it was the previous Sunday, March 13, where the violence that convulsed Montreal later in the week got started, 500 hundred kilometres to the south, in Boston’s cavernous Garden.

It was the last week of the NHL regular season. Montreal, battling the Detroit Red Wings for first place, had beaten Boston 2-1 at home on Saturday night. Sunday’s encounter had the Bruins leading 4-1 halfway through the third period when Bruins’ defenceman Warren Godfrey took a holding penalty. On another night Montreal coach Dick Irvin’s desperate gambit might have made more news: with six-and-a-half minutes to go, he pulled goaltender Jacques Plante to give his team a two-man advantage. That’s when the first moments of the Richard Riot began to play out.

The most comprehensive account of the whole affair is the one that Sidney Katz would publish in Maclean’s in September of 1955.

Here’s how he narrated what happened on Boston ice between Richard and Laycoe as the Montreal’s powerplay revved up:

Richard was skating across the Boston blue line past Boston defenseman Hal Laycoe when the latter put his stick up high and caught Richard on the left side of the head. It made a nasty gash which later required five stitches. Frank Udvari, the referee signaled a penalty to Laycoe for high-sticking but allowed the game to go on because Canadiens had the puck.

Richard skated behind the Boston net and had returned to the blue line when the whistle blew. He rubbed his head, then suddenly skated over to Laycoe who was a short distance away. Lifting his stick high over his head with both hands Richard pounded Laycoe over the face and shoulders with all his strength. Laycoe dropped his gloves and stick and motioned to Richard to come and fight with his fists.

An official, linesman Cliff Thompson, grabbed Richard and took his stick away from him. Richard broke away, picked up a loose stick on the ice and again slashed away at Laycoe, this time breaking the stick on him. Again Thompson got hold of Richard, but again Richard escaped and with another stick slashed at the man who had injured him. Thompson subdued Richard for the third time by forcing him down to the ice. With the help of a team mate, Richard regained his feet and sprang at Thompson, bruising his face and blackening his eye. Thompson finally got Richard under control and sent him to the first-aid room for medical attention.

Richard was penalized for the remainder of the game and fined $100. Laycoe, who suffered body bruises and face wounds, was penalized five minutes for high-sticking and was given a further ten-minute penalty for tossing a blood-stained towel at referee Udvari as he entered the penalty box.

Richard’s emotional and physical resistance were at a low ebb on the night of the Boston game. It was near the end of a long exhausting schedule. The Canadiens had played Boston only the previous night in Montreal. Richard had been hurled against a net and had injured his back. The back was so painful he hadn’t been able to sleep on the train trip to Boston in spite of the application of ice packs. On the morning of the game he confided to a reporter, “My back still hurts like the dickens. I feel beat.” He never considered sitting out the Boston game. There was too much at stake. With three scheduled games left, the Canadiens chances of finishing first in the league were bright. Furthermore, Richard was narrowly leading the league for individual high scoring. If he won, he would receive a cup, $1,000 from the league and another $1,000 from his club. He was still brooding over an incident that had threatened his winning the top-scoring award. In Toronto the previous Thursday, he had been in a perfect position to score when he was hooked by Hugh Bolton of the Maple Leafs. Bolton was penalized but it still meant that Richard was deprived of a goal he desperately wanted.

We have Richard’s own account, or at least a version thereof. In 1971, guided if not ghosted by Stan Fischler, he published an eight-chapter memoir of his career that was appended to Fischler’s The Flying Frenchmen: Hockey’s Greatest Dynasty.

Chapter Four is “The Riot.” Richard notes that Laycoe, one of hockey’s few bespectacled players, had once been a teammate of his with Canadiens. He says he wasn’t particularly rough or dirty, but nor was he entirely pacific.

In Richard’s version, he recalls hitting Laycoe, who went down. “As he fell he hit me in the eye with his stick, opening up a bleeding wound over my eye.”

The parties involved would subsequently be summoned for a hearing with NHL president Clarence Campbell at NHL HQ in Montreal — we’ll get to that tomorrow. For the moment we’ll skip ahead to his findings, which he released in a statement that ran to 1,200 words.

Richard, Campbell wrote, skated by and Laycoe high-sticked him on the side of the head.

That doesn’t quite rhyme with what Laycoe told Tom Fitzgerald of The Daily Boston Globe the day after the incident. “Richard and I were both going for the puck,” he said then. “I was hooking the puck away from him, and he brought his stick up over his shoulder hitting me over the bridge of the nose. I was stung and I acted automatically. I admit I brought my stick up then.” Continue reading

and a fighter by his trade

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The Boston Bruins’ 32-year-old defenceman Hal Laycoe (above left) hangs out with boxer Jimmy Carter, lightweight champion of the world, at Boston’s Ye Garden Café in May of 1955. Carter, 31, was gearing up to defend his title that spring: in June, he’d meet the challenger, Wallace “Bud” Smith at Boston Garden. He lost that bout in the late rounds — a stiff right in the 10th from the underdog Smith seems to have turned the tide, followed by a sweeping left to Carter’s eye. The two fighters met again that fall, in Cincinnati, but Carter couldn’t reclaim his crown.

And Laycoe? This day that same year (March 16 was a Wednesday in 1955, too), he caught an early plane in Boston and flew north to Montreal. “Shortly after arriving there,” wrote an anticipatory Tom Fitzgerald The Boston Daily Globe’s, “Hal will appear before NHL Pres. Clarence Campbell to tell his version of the hectic happenings in the Garden Sunday night when Laycoe was involved in a brawl with Maurice Richard, the noted wood-chopper.”

The season was almost over; another week and the playoffs would be underway. Montreal was battling with Detroit for first place overall; the Rocket was duelling with teammate Boom-Boom Geoffrion for the league’s scoring lead.

In Boston what had happened was that Canadiens were losing 4-1 with about seven minutes left in the game. With Boston’s Warren Godfrey in the penalty box, Montreal coach Dick Irvin pulled his goaltender, Jacques Plante. What happened next was not, perhaps, what the coach (or anyone) had hoped for.

Richard carried the puck toward the Boston net. Laycoe’s raised stick caught him on the side of the head. Referee Frank Udvari called a high-sticking penalty. Fitzgerald:

Richard raised a hand to his head where Laycoe’s stick landed. When the hand came down crimson-covered, Rocket waved it at referee Udvari, then he went berserk.

“Richard rushed at Laycoe and swung his stick,” was The Associated Press version of it: “Laycoe parried the blow, dropped his stick, eye-glasses and gloves and went after Richard. Richard hit Laycoe on the shoulder with his stick.”

Fleming Mackell retrieved Laycoe’s stick for him. Linesman Sam Babcock tried to separate the belligerents, in vain. They wrestled and fell to the ice. A Richard uppercut cut Laycoe under the eye.

The other linesman, Cliff Thompson eventually pinned Richard to the boards. Richard hit him under the eye; Thompson tried to hit him back, but missed. Richard then got his stick back and, said the AP, “whacked Laycoe a solid blow on the head.”

After the game, Boston Police Lieutenant Frank Gannon was ready to arrest Richard — Dick Irvin, too, when he raised a fuss. Bruins’ president Walter Brown dissuaded him, though, and the policeman had to be satisfied with a stern warning: next time.

So it was up to Clarence Campbell to decide on punishments. The hearing was set for 10.30 a.m. on the Wednesday. Laycoe planned to say his piece and head straight back to the airport to catch a 1:15 flight back to Boston. I guess he wasn’t expecting a suspension: his aim was to get back in time for the Bruins’ game that night with the Red Wings.

(Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)

winterspiele 1936: boston strong

usa afloat

Manhattan Project: The U.S. hockey team aboard the SS Manhattan as hey prepare to sail from New York on January 3, 1936. (Back, left to right) Malcolm McAlpin, Fred Kammer, Phil Labatte, Frank Stubbs, John Lax, Frank Shaughnessy, manager Walter Brown. (Front, left to right) Paul Rowe, Tom Moone, Frank Spain, Elbridge Ross, Gordon Smith. Missing is Johnny Garrison.

The Americans took a more orderly approach to compiling their team for the German Olympics in 1936. That’s how it looked, anyway, compared to what went on in Canada.

Walter Brown was the man in charge, from Boston, where he managed the Boston Garden. He’d led the U.S. to their first hockey world championship in 1933 in Prague; later, he’d also buy the Bruins, help launch the Basketball Association of America, and found the Celtics. In the fall of 1935, his job started with winnowing down the 1,000 hockey players who’d been nominated for Olympic consideration to a more manageable 59.

They came from across the hockey-playing map, Benjamin Langmaid and Audley Tuten, Rauld Morton, Frank Megaffin. In early December Brown brought them to New Haven, Connecticut, for a try-out camp incorporating three exhibition games. Following those tests — against Yale, New York’s St. Nicholas club, and Princeton — Brown and two colleagues would select 13 players for the tournament.

The squad they came up with had a strong Boston flavour, and included three men who’d helped the U.S. win a silver medal at the 1932 games at Lake Placid. Their initial line-up looked like this:

Goal
Gerry Cosby (New York); Tom Moone (Boston Olympics)

Defence
Johnny Garrison (Boston Olympics); Frank Shaughnessy (Montreal Victorias); Phil Labatte (University of Minnesota)

Centre
John Lax, Frank Spain (Boston Olympics); Ding Palmer (St. Nicholas)

Right Wing
Elbridge Ross (Colby College); Gordon Smith, Frank Stubbs (Boston Olympics)

Left Wing
Paul Rowe (Boston Olympics); Mike Baldwin, Ding Palmer (St. Nicholas)

That list shifted a little before the team sailed for Europe in early January: Jerry Cosby had to drop out, leaving Tom Moone as the only goaltender, and Ding Palmer was excused, too, with Malcolm McAlpin from New York brought in for him.

While they were still at home, Walter Brown had his charges on a frenetic schedule. In Boston, two days after Christmas, they played three different area teams in three successive periods. They beat North Cambridge 3-1 in the first, followed by Worcester Club 5-0, before ending the night with a 6-1 dismissal of the University City Club. The combined 14-2 victory was, The Boston Daily Globe reported, quite an evening’s work for the Olympic outfit, even if they were only seen to extend themselves when a goal seemed likely. Frank Spain got three of those, along with five assists on the night.

us aThey went to New York on the last day of the year and word of the game they played there carried up to Canada. Brown’s men, it seemed, had beaten the New York Rovers by a score of 2-0. This was news, and seen as potentially worrying for the Canadians: the Rovers were co-leaders of the Eastern Amateur League, with a line-up handpicked from various Western Canada clubs by Lester Patrick, Ranger manager. True, the game was a truncated one, limited to two 15-minute periods, and the Rovers were in the middle of a schedule that would see them skating four nights out of five, but still, the Rovers couldn’t get going against the Olympic squad owing to the close checking of the Americans and the clever goalkeeping of Tom Moone.

A breathless Canadian Press report from the southern front was also making news in Canada, revealing that the Boston Olympics team for which many of the American Olympians were drawn had long been furtively coached by Frank Patrick and Art Ross from the Bruins with the specific, traitorous aim of overthrowing Canada at the Olympics. To wit:

At the end of last season the team was being whipped into first–class shape when a visiting reporter wandered into the Garden rink there one Sunday afternoon and found the prospective Olympians in the midst of a secret practice. The wandering news hound was heaved out twice before slipping in and remaining unobserved to watch the proceedings. The opposition furnished the Olympic candidates was provided by veteran amateurs and French-Canadians living nearby. The latter were generally led by Joe Patrick, son of Frank.

The brain-trusters apparently realized they had not the natural material with which to develop a team capable of stepping out with Canadian opposition and providing a wide-open free scoring display. Therefore the honorary coaches apparently strove to instill in their proteges’ minds the old Canadian axiom of “cover your man.”

The result was evident in the Olympians’ game with the Rovers, apparently: their puck-carriers seldom got away for a clear shot on goal without some player hanging on his neck. All in all, to a Canadian eye, Walter Brown’s team looked more formidable than the one with which the U.S. had tied Canada in the final game in 1932.

The Olympians played one more game before they sailed, against Princeton, winning 2-1 in a hard-fought battle starring goaltender Tom Moone. The team sailed from New York on January 3 aboard the SS Manhattan. Accompanying the 12 hockey players on the crossing were 15 U.S. skiers, five speed skaters, and 13 bobsledders. The light rain that was falling didn’t disturb the hundreds of well-wishers who’d come to the dock to bid the athletes farewell. It was a jolly, happy crowd. Captain A.B. Randall was in a fine mood, too, quoting with a grin what he maintained was an ancient Chinese proverb: when you start a voyage in the rain, it washes away the devil and brings good luck.