a code of his own: colliding head-on with phiery phil

Phil Watson’s hair was wavy brown, and parted in the middle; his eyes were alert and green. This was in 1947, when Watson was 32 and a prominent right winger and sometime centreman for the New York Rangers, a talented, tireless, and conspicuously belligerent veteran of a dozen NHL seasons. According to Robert Lewis Taylor, Watson was one of the best-looking players in the game in those years — and it is true that he was, a decade earlier, recruited to double for Clark Gable in a hockey movie that was never released. Watson’s smile, Taylor wrote, was “uncommonly pleasant,” if “largely synthetic” — to replace the four top front teeth he’d had knocked out in the line of duty, the Rangers bought him the dental bridge he wore when he wasn’t doing battle on the ice.

Watson was born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1914; he died in 1991 at the age of 76. The man they called Phiery Phil got his name of the Stanley Cup twice — with the Rangers in 1940 and, in 1944, when wartime restrictions kept him home in Canada, as a member of the  Montreal Canadiens. In 13 NHL seasons, he proved himself to be a skilled defensive player as well as a first-class annoyance to his opponents. He also contributed offensively, and led the league in assists in 1941-42.

As a coach, he got two cracks at steering the Rangers during the 1950s and another, in the ’60s, behind the Boston Bruins’ bench. He coached two seasons in the WHA in the ’70s, guiding the Blazers in Philadelphia and subsequently in Vancouver.

For views of Watson’s background, unruly prowess on ice (think Brad Marchand before he reined himself in), and surpassing eccentricity, I recommend the long, droll, eventful profile Robert Lewis Taylor published in The New Yorker in 1947 under the title “Disorder On The Rink.” I count it as a bit of a lost classic of hockey non-fiction, well worth your while, particularly if you’re looking to round out your understanding of just how outlandishly unrestrained the excesses of NHL hockey once were.

It doesn’t extend to Watson’s coaching years, and it bypasses several key episodes in the Watson story. It doesn’t delve into the circumstances under which Watson annoyed his own Ranger goaltender so thoroughly that Chuck Rayner attacked him in the team’s dressing room. Also missing: his brief 1938 brush with Hollywood stardom wherein he served as Clark Gable’s skating and puckhandling stand-in opposite Myrna Loy in an ill-fated feature called The Great Canadian.

A taste of what Taylor does offer up in his portrayal of Watson’s tempestuous tenure in the NHL, in three excerpts:

The two most effective methods of taking a puck away from an advancing opponent are probing for it with a stick, which is known as “poke checking,” and slamming into the man bodily, which is called “body checking.” At these two arts, Watson has no master. A head-on collision with any moving object smaller than a pick-up truck provides him with the sort of comfort that some bankers get from foreclosing on a valuable farm.

Most hockey players consider it bad form to strike a referee with a stick, and the rules are explicit on the subject — the striker is subject to a fine or to suspension from the league. Watson, displaying a kind of instinctive legal ingenuity, has detected loopholes in the code: there is no mention of spitting in a referee’s face. In moments of extreme urgency, he performs this act and generally draws a severe penalty, under whatever rule the referee feels may be stretched to cover the case.

On one occasion, when he was relating an anecdote to Lew Burton, the Journal-American sportswriter, in the Rangers’ dressing room after a game which had featured a really spectacular brawl between him and the Detroit Red Wings, Burton interrupted to ask, “How’d it get started, Phil?” Watson jumped up, cried, “I tell you, Lew, they started it like this!,” and brought a hockey stick crashing down on Burton’s head, benching him for about twenty minutes. “It was the wrong way to tell that story,” Watson frequently says, with a gloomy inflection.

jacques plante, 1970: no dizzy spells, no headaches, I don’t see double

Face First: In 1970, 11 years after he first wore a mask in an NHL game, Jacques Plante poses with a young goaltending colleague to show off the junior version of his new Fibrosport mask.

Fans in St. Louis sang “Happy Birthday” on this day in 1970 as Blues goaltender Jacques Plante celebrated his 41stwith a 20-stop 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. Playing in his 16thNHL season, Plante had been named earlier that same week to the roster of the Western team for the NHL’s upcoming 23rdannual All-Star game. While that was a match-up that his team would lose, 4-1, to the East, Plante’s performance was immaculate: in relief of Bernie Parent of the Philadelphia Flyers, he stopped 26 shots in the 30 minutes, allowing no goals.

Plante would leave St. Louis that summer, signing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but not before he’d steered the Blues to their third successive Stanley Cup finals. The man who’d introduced the goaltender’s mask to regular NHL duty in 1959 only played a part in the first of the four games the Boston Bruins used in 1970 to sweep to the championship: a shot of Fred Stanfield’s hit Plante square in the mask, which broke. He was down and out and — soon enough — on his way to hospital, leaving Ernie Wakely and Glenn Hall to finish the series in the St. Louis nets.

“I feel great,” Plante said in June, up and at ’em and strolling around at the NHL’s annual summer meetings in Montreal. “I’ve had no dizzy spells, no headaches, I don’t see double.”

“But the doctor in St. Louis told me not to be afraid to tell everybody that if it wasn’t for the mask, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Even so, Plante had a new mask in hand, one that he’d been developing with the help of — well, as The Windsor Star had it in 1969, “moon workers” from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Plante been involved in the mask-building business for as long as masks had been mitigating the impact of the pucks that were finding his face in the NHL. Mostly he’d worked with Bill Burchmore, the young Montreal sales manager from Fibreglas Canada who’d designed Plante’s original mask.

Now Plante was launching a company of his own, Fibrosport, to develop and market face-protection for goaltenders of all sizes and skill-levels. That’s one of the junior models pictured above: they retailed for about C$12–$15 (about $75—$100 in 2018 money). Come the new season, the president of the company would be sporting the revolutionary professional model himself. One of those would set you back about C$22.50 ($150ish).

At the league’s June meetings in Montreal, Plante was ready to do some selling. While previously he’d been talking about NASA scientists — “They are experimenting with some new, lightweight material that can be poured right over your face,” he said in ’69 — the word now was that this new model had been developed in cooperation with the engineering department at the University of Sherbrooke. It weighed just nine ounces, he said, and fit the face better than any previous model known to goaliekind. Most important, it was superstrong. The secret? Resin and woven fibres. That was as much as Plante was revealing in public, anyway.

“We’ve been making tests with it,” he told reporters, “to see how much it can take and it didn’t even budge with shots at 135 miles per hour. That’s pretty good when you consider the hardest shot in the NHL is Bobby Hull’s. He shoots 118 miles an hour.”

The mask he’d been wearing when he was felled in St. Louis had resisted shots up to 108 mph, he said. The helmets astronauts wore, Plante happened to know, could withstand up to nine Gs of force. “After that, they can go unconscious. When I got hit with that puck, it was something like 12 or 14 Gs. That’s why I was knocked out.”

To prove the point (and sell the product), Plante arranged an exhibition of the new mask’s superiority. He’d brought along what the papers variously described as “a short-range cannon,” “an air-powered cannon,” and “a machine that fires pucks at 140 mph.” Set up in a conference room at a distance approximating Phil Esposito in the slot, it fired away at Plante’s newest (uninhabited) facade, which was firmly fixed to a stout backboard.

The Futuramic Pro was what Plante was calling the mask that Leaf fans would get to know over the next few years. (He’d don it, too, for subsequent short stints with Boston and WHA Edmonton.) It didn’t disappoint in Montreal that June, withstanding the hotel bombardment no problem at all.

Not so the pucks fired in the demo: in the press photos from that week, they appear misshapen and more than just a little ashamed.

Man of the Futuramic: During his final stop in the pros (with the WHA’s 1975-76 Edmonton Oilers), Plante wore a version of the mask he’d introduced at the NHL’s summer meetings in 1970.

 

frank mahovlich: guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music

Frank Mahovlich scored a pair of goals on this date in 1968, the day of his 30thbirthday, powering his Toronto Maple Leafs to a 2-1 win over the visiting Detroit Red Wings. But the man they called the Big M wasn’t long for the Leafs at that point: a little more than a month later, after almost 12 years in the blue-and-white, Mahovlich was traded to those very same Wings in a seven-player deal. Heading for Detroit with him were Pete Stemkowski, and Garry Unger (along with Carl Brewer’s rights); the return for the Leafs was Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith, Norm Ullman, and Doug Barrie.

Born in 1938 in Timmins, Ontario, Mahovlich grew up to be a golden boy in Toronto, of course, starting in the mid-1950s with a starring Junior-A role as a St. Michael’s Major. Profiled by Hockey Pictorial’s Margaret Scott after he won the Calder Trophy in 1958 as the NHL’s superlative rookie, Mahovlich divulged his boyhood heroes (Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay) and discussed what he liked to eat on a game-day (steak at lunch, eggs around four o’clock). In terms of his record collection, well, he admitted a partiality for musicals like Oklahoma! and the “semi-classical” stylings of Mantovani. An “enthusiastic” dancer, Mahovlich acknowledged that no-one had to coax him onto a dancefloor, unless the music playing was rock ’n’ roll. “I guess you could say I like dancing to after-dinner music,” he told Scott. “Something nice and quiet and not too fast.”

The impact that Mahovlich continued to have as a Leaf left winger is hard to overstate. Twice named to the NHL’s First All-Star team, he featured on a very good Toronto team that would win four Stanley Cups in six years through the 1960s. Writing in Maclean’sin ’61, Peter Gzowski thought he could be a defining figure in NHL history, the rightful heir to Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. At 23, Mahovlich was, Gzowski felt, “making an honest, exciting and, it appears now, worthy bid to claim the new era for his own.” Even if that didn’t quite work out as planned, The Globe and Mail’s Louis Cauz had no trouble deeming him “the most productive goalscorer the Leafs have ever had.”

That was in 1967. Earlier the same year, Leaf legend King Clancy offered this on Mahovlich: “He’s as nice a man as I’ve ever known in this game. Perhaps that is his trouble. He has the talent to be the greatest hockey player who ever lived, if only he was a little meaner. But he isn’t, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

For all the goals scored and the Stanley Cups hoisted, it’s true that life as a Leaf came with a cost for Mahovlich, who was twice treated in the 1960s for what the papers variously termed “emotional breakdown,” “tension,” and “nervous depressions.” The second time, in the fall of ’67, Mahovlich missed 11 games. Gordie Howe was one who weighed in with a diagnosis at the time — of the Leaf faithful. “If Toronto fans would appreciate his great talent and give him the cheers he deserves, instead of booing him, maybe the pressure wouldn’t cook the guy.”

Mahovlich had his ups and his downs when he returned to the fold in ’67, dominating one night, lagging some others. The boos continued. Leafs coach and GM Punch Imlach was said to be dissatisfied, too, with Mahovlich’s defensive play, and by time Imlach sent him to Detroit in March of ’68 all the talk of rifts between coach and fans and player meant that the trade didn’t come as a surprise to many.

That’s not to say it didn’t traumatize Toronto. Indignant fans jammed the switchboard at Maple Leaf Gardens with complaining calls the morning the deal was announced, while others out in front of the rink stopped traffic on Carlton Street with their moody milling. In the wake of the trade’s announcement, The Globe and Mail reported that shares in MLG Inc. fell by $1.50 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

For Mahovlich, the shift to Gordie Howe’s Red Wings was as good (on the ice) as a rest: he would thrive in Detroit, scoring a career-high 49 goals the following season, 1968-69. He eventually went to Montreal, where he enjoyed his best years, statistically, in a three-and-a-half-year stint that saw him help Canadiens to Stanley Cup championships in 1971 and ’73. Mahovlich played three seasons in the WHA after that, returning to Toronto as a Toro in 1975 before following the team when they moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and reconstituted as Bulls.

Lightly interrogated by Norman Brown for the 1965 edition of Canadian Boy, a magazine published by the Boy Scouts of Canada, Mahovlich had said he thought he had another eight years of hockey in him. “I don’t know. I’d say I might quit around 34 or 35.”

As it was, he was 41 in the fall of 1979 when he made a bid to return to the NHL with the Red Wings before deciding that it wasn’t to be. “He gave it everything he had,” said Detroit coach Bobby Kromm. “When the exhibition games were over, he came to us and said he didn’t think he could hack it. I’m glad it happened that way, that we didn’t have to go to him. He was a great player.”

 

 

 

 

blazer focus

Face Time: The WHA’s Blazers made a home in Vancouver for two seasons in the early 1970s, neither of which was particularly successful. (Pre-B.C., the franchise played a year in Philadelphia; afterwards, they transformed into the Calgary Cowboys for two final campaigns.) In 1973-74, the four goaltenders who shared the guard of the Vancouver nets included Pete Donnelly and George Gardner. In 1974-75, the man pictured here mostly took over, Don McLeod, playing a league-leading 72 games over the course of the season while allowing 233 goals (also tops among his peers). Nobody’s goals-against numbers were exactly stellar in the high-scoring WHA that year: Ron Grahame of the Houston Aeros led the pack with 3.03 average, while McLeod (3.34) finished tenth-best, just back of Edmonton’s Jacques Plante.

ab mcdonald, 1936—2018

Later on, in 1972, Ab McDonald would captain the original WHA Winnipeg Jets, but he was a distinguished veteran by then, with a 15-year NHL career behind him. He got his start in 1957 in Montreal, winning three straight Stanley Cups with the juggernaut Canadiens before a trade took him to Chicago in 1960.

Born in Winnipeg in 1936, McDonald died there on Tuesday. He was 82.

The Stanley Cup followed him to Chicago in 1961, when the Black Hawks surpassed Montreal in the semi-finals before defeating the Detroit Red Wings for the championship. Rudy Pilous was the Chicago coach that year, as he was in the fall of 1962, which is when he posed here, above, with McDonald ahead of the Black Hawks’ home opener. By then, McDonald was a member of the Scooter Line, skating the left wing alongside centre Stan Mikita and right wing Kenny Wharram. McDonald made subsequent NHL stops in Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis before taking his talents back home to Winnipeg. Bobby Hull was the big noise then and there, of course, though a court challenge kept the Gilded Jet out of the Jets’ first game in New York on October 12, 1972. With Hull benched (he was also the Winnipeg coach that year), McDonald took it upon his 36-year-old self to poke Jean-Guy Gratton’s pass by goaltender Gary Kurt to open the scoring in the Jets’ 6-4 win over the hometown Raiders, and register the first goal in franchise history.

jets propellant

Winnipeg beat the Nashville Predators last night to advance to the Western Conference finals where they’ll meet the Vegas Golden Knights to see which of them of them will play for the Stanley Cup. That seems reason enough to visit with a former (WHA) Jet, Anders Hedberg, seen here in February of 1977. He had reason to revel: having just scored three goals in Winnipeg’s 6-4 win over the long-lost Calgary Cowboys, Hedberg now had 50 in the 49 games his team had played that season. (He’d missed two games, injured). That put him into the annals of hockey history, ahead of Maurice Richard, whose first, famous 50-in-50 came in 1945, as well as own linemate, Bobby Hull, who’d repeated that feat over the course of the 1974-75 WHA season.

There doesn’t seem to have been much disputing Hedberg’s achievement at the time, though it can’t exactly have pleased the rivalrous governors of the NHL. Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders would notch 50 of his own in 50 games in 1980-81, and the very next year after that, Wayne Gretzky would, playful as ever, score 50 in 39. With the demise of the WHA, Hedberg’s feat has been shuffled, along with Bobby Hull’s, into the footnotes: in hockey’s NHL-dominated universe, those goals you scored in that other league only count as a novelty next to an asterisk. The way the NHL sees it, you have to score 50 in your team’s first 50 games. Five different players have done that, including Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull, twice. Gretzky did it three times in his career.

“I can’t explain how it feels,” Hedberg told reporters after the game in ’77. The Swedish Express, they were calling him back then, noting that he did his scoring with one of hockey’s hardest wrist shots and what had to be the best backhand in the business. “I don’t think Anders has taken a slapshot this year,” said his other linemate, Ulf Nilsson.

It wasn’t all good news for Hedberg that night: playing Calgary that record-setting night also strained some of his ligaments, which put him out of the line-up for ten days. He made up for lost time when he got back, finishing the year with 70 goals. As for the Jets, they were the defending Avco Cup champions that year, and did indeed make it to the finals again, only to fall to the Quebec Nordiques. They did roar back to win two further championships in 1978 and 1979, in the WHA’s last two seasons.

(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, PC 18, A 84-49, Box 5)

the thing about ulf

 Date: April 24, 1977 Heading: Hockey 1964-1979 Caption: Ulf Nilsson Call Num: PC 18-6669-001neg

“The thing about Ulf is that he seldom, if ever, misses a play. The reason we come out of our own end so easily is because Ulf gets himself into position to get the puck and then never gives it away. Anders and I work ourselves into position and he always finds a way to hit us with the pass.

That was Bobby Hull talking, back in 1976, about his Swedish linemates with the Winnipeg Jets, centreman Ulf Nilsson (seen above in 1977) and over on the right wing, Anders Hedberg. It was May of the year and the Jets had just beaten the Houston Aeros by a score of 6-3 to move closer to winning the WHA championship and the Avco World Trophy that went with it. Nilsson had a hat trick in the game and (as the Associated reported) he’d “also glared steadily into the eyes of Aeros’ players, prepared to drop the gloves if necessary.” Jets’ coach Bobby Kromm couldn’t ask for any more. “He played super hockey, offense and defense, scored goals and hit people. What else is there to do?”

Forty years later, the NHL Jets are set to honour Nilsson and his wingers: tomorrow, at a luncheon ahead of the weekend’s Heritage Classic, the trio will be the first players to be ushered into the team’s new Hall of Fame. The Swedes will be there in Winnipeg, but not Hull: as Paul Friesen of The Winnipeg Sun advises, Hull is staying away because — well, “it’s believed he’s upset with media references to his past legal trouble, which involved claims of spousal abuse from his former wives and his daughter.”

Nilsson was 24 when he first arrived in the Manitoban capital in 1974, Hedberg 23. They hailed from Nynäshamn and Örnsköldsvik, respectively. Nilsson had starred for AIK and Hedberg at Djurgårdens IF; both were stalwarts of the Swedish national team.

Was Nilsson maybe the toughest Swede ever to play big-league hockey in North America? Murray Greig says so, in Big Bucks and Blue Pucks (1997), a history of the WHA. Like Borje Salming and Inge Hammarström, who’d crossed to the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs a year earlier, Nilsson and Hedberg found themselves … not exactly warmly welcomed the North American game. They were hacked and insulted — “took their initiation lumps,” as Mark Goodman later put it in Weekend Magazine.

It didn’t keep them from scoring. They both scored goals in the first game of the season and with Hull’s assistance, they kept on going. Nilsson finished the regular season with 94 assists and 120 points, while Hedberg (who also took home the league’s rookie-of-the-year trophy) notched 53 goals and 100 points.

Hull had seen enough of what he called “goon hockey” by the fall of the following year that in October of 1975 he staged a one-man wildcat strike, to protest hockey violence. “It’s been buggin’ him for a long time,” Jets GM Rudy Pilous said, “last year as well as this year.”

He was back after sitting out a single game. Did anything change? Hard to say. A few years later, in 1979, Anders Hedberg looked back on the nastiness he and Nilsson suffered when they first got to the WHA. “It’s always a problem when you let in anyone strange,” he told Goodman. “When something is established, you don’t want it to change because there’s no good reason to change it.” It made him think about Jackie Robinson. “Maybe we were a little bit like that when we first went to Canada. Through the press, guys would say, ‘Don’t come and take our jobs.’ But I think it enriches a sport for people from all over the world to play it. I like to think we bring something new to the game.”

Hedberg looked like he belonged in a Viking movie, Goodman said, and he had more speeds than a racing bike. Nilsson resembled “an American high school senior;” he handled the puck “like a Thai stick juggler.” By the time they left Winnipeg, they’d scored 376 goals between them in four seasons.

They jumped to the NHL in 1978. There was talk that they wanted to go to the Leafs, but they ended up as the New York Rangers’ best-paid players. They prospered in Manhattan, even though their production did decline (as yours would, too) without Bobby Hull on the wing.

The NHL wasn’t a whole lot easier on them than the WHA had been. Asked why referees didn’t call more penalties on players who attended the star Swedes with sticks and elbows and unpleasantries, Rangers’ coach Fred Shero thought about it for a moment.

“Well,” he said, “if we went and played in Sweden and Russia, we’d get the same treatment. I imagine the world is the same all over. Nobody likes a foreigner. What can you do? When it comes to foreigners playing here, we got to almost murder them before they call something.”

Ranger goaltender John Davidson sparked a brawl at Madison Square Garden in December of 1979 when he went after the Bruins’ Al Secord, whom he accused of “cheap-shotting Nilsson.”

A subsequent Associated Press report was careful to explain to its domestic readership: “Swedish players, because they prefer a finesse game, often attract rugged play.”

Davidson was happy to elaborate after the game. “They have so many welts on their bodies it looks like they’ve been barbecued,” he said of Nilsson and Hedberg. The AP dispatch went on to include the sentence fragments “several Bruins entered the stands and fought with spectators” and “four fans were issued summonses for disorderly conduct.”

“The two Swedes are considered among the league’s most polished players,” Dave Anderson noted a few days later in The New York Times. “Ulf Nilsson is the Rangers’ leading scorer with 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists). Anders Hedberg, the Rangers’ other Swedish import, is second with 35 points (19 goals, 16 assists).”

He had a larger point to make about the game with the Bruins, too:

Instead of acknowledging the European style and accepting the imports, NHL machos prefer to continue testing their toughness.

Following the melee, the Garden needed city policemen to disperse 200 spectators who threatened to overturn the bus.

Al Secord justified tripping the 165-pound Nilsson because, he said, the Swedish center had blind-sided him early in the third period, as if the Bruin defenseman had never been blind‐sided before. John Wensink, another Bruin, later called Ulf Nilsson “a little wimp,” but the NHL, even the Bruins, would be better with more little wimps like him.

(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune fonds, PC 18-6669-001neg)