Sad news tonight that Ralph Backstrom has died at the age of 83. A son of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, he played parts of 13 seasons at centre for the Montreal Canadiens starting in the late 1950s and on through the ’60s, winning six Stanley Cups and a Calder Trophy along the way. He skated for the Los Angeles Kings, too, and the Blackhawks in Chicago. In the WHA, he played for Chicago’s Cougars as well as the Denver Spurs/Ottawa Civics, and the New England Whalers. He later coached at the University of Denver and with the IHL Phoenix Roadrunners. He was a founder, too, of the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles.
Dave Stubbs has a good look at Backstrom’s memorable career at NHL.com, here.
(Top Image: Louis Jaques, Library and Archives Canada)
Born in Ottawa on a Friday of this date in 1944, goaltender Gary Smith is 77 today. The nicknames he acquired during his career don’t really need a whole lot of explication, but here goes: Suitcase referenced his travels around the NHL, WHA, and minor leagues, wherein he played for 13 teams in 16 seasons during the 1960s and ’70s; Axe underscored his propensity for swinging sticks at passing opponents. His father, Des Smith, played defence starting in the late 1930s for four NHL teams, including Boston; brother Brian was a left winger for Los Angeles and Minnesota in the latter ’60s. Gary shared a Vézina Trophy with Tony Esposito for their work in the Chicago Black Hawks’ crease in 1972, and Smith backstopped the WHA Winnipeg Jets to the 1979 Avco Cup.
The following year was Smith’s last in hockey; it happened to be Winnipeg’s first in the NHL. Defenceman Barry Melrose was a teammate that season, and it’s to him we go for this news of Smith’s in-game rituals.
“He wore 13 pairs of socks in his goalie skates,” Melrose recollected in 2009, “because he hated pucks hitting his feet. He also wore long underwear and after every period, he took off all his gar and had a cold shower. Can you imagine the laundry the trainers had to do? It was 50-some socks per game plus four sets of underwear. The Axe was a weird dude.”
A birthday today for Gerry Cheevers, born in St. Catharines, Ontario, on a Saturday of this date in 1940: he’s 80. He launched his NHL goaltending career with a pair of games for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1961 before he got into the Boston Bruins’ net in 1965. Steering over to the WHA in 1972, Cheevers played parts of four seasons with the Cleveland Crusaders. He won the Ben Hatskin Award as the league’s best goaltender in his first season there, and anchored the Canadian net when the WHA selects took on the Soviet Union in 1974. He returned to the Bruins in 1976, playing a further five NHL seasons before he retired at the end of the 1979-80 campaign. 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.
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 you 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.
Ted Green won a Stanley Cup in 1972, his second as an unforgiving defenceman on the Boston Bruins’ blueline, but by all accounts it was a forlorn experience for the 32 veteran of 11 seasons. “The man nobody seems to care about anymore,” a columnist called him a couple of May days before the Bruins claimed the Cup with a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. “The only time Green ever gets on the ice is when [Bobby] Orr needs a quick ice pack on his sore knee.”
He’d slowed down, lost his edge, his grit. “The fans at Boston Garden were tolerant of him for a long time,” Dwayne Netland wrote in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “They cheered his good plays and ignored his mistakes, but finally they turned on him and now they roast him for every bad pass, every missed check.” Bruins’ coach Tom Johnson’s merciful solution: “He just doesn’t put Green on the ice unless he has to.” Game five at the Boston Garden, with Orr playing every shift, Green took none: he never left the bench. “He had not felt part of the team, part of the victory,” Fran Rosa later recalled in the local Globe. When the Bruins returned to Boston with the Cup, Green slipped away from his teammates and the crowds awaiting them at Logan Airport to hitchhike into the city on his own.
That sad story got a happy ending: a year later, almost to the day, Green was back at Boston Garden captaining his new team to a championship, the very first in WHA history. Forty-seven years ago today, on a Sunday of this date in 1973, Green’s New England Whalers beat Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets to claim the inaugural Avco World Trophy in five games.
“I can’t say I was thinking about last year,” Green said in the aftermath. “When they gave me the cup and told me to skate around with it, I might have thought a little about Johnny Bucyk skating around with the Stanley Cup last year.”
Green’s joyful teammates that day included Larry Pleau, Tom Webster, Rick Ley, and goaltender Al Smith. Together they paraded their cup and kissed it, filled it with Gold Seal champagne, which they drank and also dumped on one another.
But if the feeling was right, the cup was (as Fran Rosa put it) wrong: instead of the Avco World Trophy, the silverware that WHA president Gary Davidson handed to Green was a stand-in. The next day’s Boston Globe identified it as “the Division Cup” — i.e. the Whalers’ reward for topping the WHA’s Eastern bracket.
Whalers’ owner Harold Baldwin told Ed Willes a different tale for the latter’s 2004 history, The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association. While the league had sold naming rights for the cup to Avco Financial Services before the season started, it occurred to Baldwin ahead of game five that he had yet to see an actual trophy.
“Everyone’s going, ‘Where’s the Cup? We don’t have a Cup,’” he told Willes. “I sent my PR guy out, and he came back with this huge trophy he bought from a sporting-goods store. I think it cost $1.99, but it looked good on television. It kind of looked like the U.S. Open tennis trophy.”
With Steve Milton assisting on the writing, Baldwin published his own memoir in 2014, and in Slim To None: My Wild Ride From The WHA To The NHL All The Way to Hollywood, he refines the story a little. “Right before the game I had this vague feeling I’d never seen the league championship trophy,” he writes. This time it’s his co-owner, Bill Barnes, who dispatches an unnamed PR guy to a local sporting goods store. “He comes back with this large trophy that cost 20 bucks. It was cheap but big, and it was shiny, so it looked good on 1973 television.”
No word on what became of that temporary trophy after its brief fling with the limelight. Let me know if you have it, or know where it ended up.
The real thing was designed in Toronto by Donald Murphy, creative director of the ad firm Vickers and Benson, and rendered, in all its Lucite and Britannia-silver’d glory, by Birks jewelers at a cost of $8,000 (about $50,500 in 2020 money).
The first public sighting Boston seems to have had of the Avco World Trophy, as far as I can discern, came in September of ’73, at an event at a new restaurant on the city’s waterfront. I don’t know if there was a formal presentation. Accounts of the Whalers’ 1973-74 home opener that October don’t mention it.
Back in May, while Ted Green still had the faux Avco in his clutches back at the Boston Garden, Howard Baldwin was quick to issue a Stanley Cup challenge. The Montreal Canadiens were still a few days away from beating the Chicago Black Hawks for their 18th Cup as Baldwin offered to play the winner in a one-game, neutral-site playoff for all the toys.
He meant no disrespect, he said, “to either of those two fine teams or the National Hockey League.”
“This is a challenge intended only to restore to the people to see a true champion decided in this, the world’s fastest sport.”
The Boston Globe duly reported all this, amid the coverage of Ted Green’s redemption, while also noting this: “No reply was expected from the National Hockey League.”
Sad news from Strathroy, Ontario, where Pat Stapleton is reported to have died of a stroke last night at the age of 79. His years working NHL bluelines got going in 1961 with the Boston Bruins, but it was as an offensively minded Chicago Black Hawks defenceman that he made his reputation. He served as Chicago’s captain during the 1969-70 season, succeeding Pierre Pilote. In 1972, he was a member of Team Canada’s epic struggle against the Soviet Union, famously scooping up the puck with which Paul Henderson scored the series-winning goal and (probably) hanging on to it. After a decade in the NHL, Stapleton played five further seasons in the WHA with the Chicago Cougars, Indianapolis Racers, and Cincinnati Stingers. As playing coach of the Cougars, he steered the team to the Avco Cup finals in 1974. Stapleton also coached the Racers in 1978-79, just before the WHA dissolved.
(Image: from December 24, 1966, Library and Archives Canada)
Willie O’Ree was 37 in the fall of 1972, lacing up for his 17th season in professional hockey with the WHL San Diego Gulls. Eleven years after O’Ree skated the right wing for the Boston Bruins, the first black player to play in the NHL, the league was still waiting for a second. Alton White, 27, wasn’t focussed on that: he just wanted his chance to play. Born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, he’d grown up in Winnipeg. A right winger like O’Ree, he could score, and did aplenty, in the IHL and AHL. He attended the New York Rangers’ training camp in 1966; in 1970, he tried his luck with the Oakland Seals.
“I think speed is one of my strong points,” he said then. “I’m a pretty good skater, and I try to be a hustling type, two-way player.” When it didn’t work out in California, or any other NHL territory, White signed, in ’72, with the New York Raiders of the upstart WHA. He played four seasons in the WHA for four different franchises. He finished the ’72-72 season with the Los Angeles Sharks, for whom he scored 20 goals and 37 points. He ended his hockey career in 1976 playing senior hockey in British Columbia for a team fantastically named the North Shore Hurry Kings.
Newspaper profiles from those WHA years often focussed on the fact that he was the WHA’s only black player.
“I don’t consider myself the Jackie Robinson of hockey,” he told one writer in 1972. “He really had a lot of hardships. I have no problems.”
Of his early years, he recalled moving to Manitoba at the age of eight. “Nova Scotia was 90 per cent white and Winnipeg was probably 95 per cent. It was hockey country and I just naturally played hockey. My older brothers played peewee hockey and junior, but there was no other black that I played with or against in Canada.”
He had his hopes for the future. “In the future, there will be a lot more black hockey players. As I travel from city to city, I see some of the junior hockey programs, and I see more and more blacks participating. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t see any.”
Born in Örnsköldsvik in Sweden on this date in 1951, when it was a Sunday, Anders Hedberg made his original North American mark as a right winger playing for the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets in the mid-1970s before he and linemate Ulf Nilsson migrated to the NHL’s New York Rangers. Nicknamed the Swedish Express, Hedberg won the Lou Kaplan Trophy as the WHA’s top rookie in 1975. Teamed with Nilsson and Bobby Hull on Winnipeg’s Hot Line, he helped the Jets win a pair of Avco championship trophies.
Deserving of more hoopla than it’s ever received is Hedberg’s record from the winter of 1977 when, at the age of 25, he became the first player in major-league hockey history to score 50 goals in fewer than 50 games. A 23-year-old Maurice Richard, of course, scored 50 in 50 for the Montreal Canadiens in 1945, and Hull did it at age 36 for the Jets during their 1974-75 campaign. Going into Winnipeg’s February 6, 1977, game against the Calgary Cowboys at the Winnipeg Arena, Hedberg had 48 goals. It was Winnipeg’s 49th game of the season, and the 47th that Hedberg had played in. Hedberg, who’d finish the year with 70 goals, scored two that night on Calgary goaltender Gary Bromley — that’s the second one he’s celebrating, above — and another into an empty net, sealing Winnipeg’s 6-4 win. “They’ll see Richard,” the winger said later, “they’ll see Hull in the record books, but they’ll still ask, who’s that Hedberg?”
Another Lou Kaplan Trophy-winner would subsequently surpass Hedberg’s mark, of course: in 1981, aged 20, Wayne Gretzky of the NHL Edmonton Oilers scored his 50th in 39 games.