Born in LaSalle, Quebec, on a Monday of this date in 1952, the ever-entertaining Gilles Gratton is 69 today. While his pro goaling career lasted just six years in the 1970s, the man they called Gratoony the Loony made sure they were memorable ones. He started in the WHA, spending the 1972-73 season with the long-lost Ottawa Nationals, then moved west when the franchise shifted to Toronto to reform as the Toros. In 1975, he arrived in the NHL, where he suited up for a season with the St. Louis Blues and then another with New York’s Rangers.
When the great Roy MacGregor caught up with him in 1975 with a profile for The Canadian Magazine, the 22-year-old goaltender had signed a five-year, C$645,000 contract with the Toros that came with a bonus: a canary yellow Porsche 911-S Targa. “Nobody should be paid as much as I get,” Gratton told him. “In real work terms, I’m worth nothing. I’m not helping anyone, not making anything. What am I doing for the world? I’m stopping rubber — what’s that doing for evolution?”
That’s not all. “The difference between me and a hockey player is this,” Gratton continued: “when summer ends, a hockey player gets itchy, I feel like killing myself. If I never played hockey again, it wouldn’t matter. A real hockey player would be broken. Me, I’m liberated.”
The Chicago Cougars were blue in February of 1975, in a bleak place. I’m not referring to Toronto here, though that’s where they were geographically, on another stop on the WHA’s schedule. The funk that the Cougars were in related to the losing streak they rode into Toronto (they’d won just 3 of 16 games) as well as the team’s uncertain financial future. Before this, their third season in the upstart WHA, the original owners of the Cougars had sold the team to three of its prominent players, Ralph Backstrom, Pat Stapleton, and Dave Dryden. By February, with the new (playing) ownership having trouble finding further financial backing, there was talk that the Cougars might be upping skates and leaving Chicago — that, or folding entirely.
Toronto was a balm, actually, in the face of all this: the Cougars ended up beating the local Toros, 4-3 in overtime, on a goal by Rosaire Paiement. Reporting for The Globe and Mail, Jeff Goodman wrote that the Toros helped in the effort as best they could: his account of the game at Maple Leaf Gardens features the phrase erratic passing and the word sleepskating.
Pictured here in the fearsome mask is Chicago owner Dave Dryden, in the company of Toros defenceman Steve Cuddie and (in back) Chicago’s Darryl Maggs. “This win was something we needed badly,” said Chicago coach Jacques Demers when it was all over but the flood. “Things just weren’t going good. The players were depressed because they didn’t know where they stood.”
The Cougars finished the season, but the franchise didn’t live to see another one. After failing to make the WHA playoffs in April of ’75, the Chicago Cougars were dissolved. Many of the players (Maggs included) ended up with a new franchise, the Denver Spurs. They didn’t last long: by December of that same year, they’d folded, relocating to Ottawa, where they played out the season (but not beyond) as the Civics.
The Edmonton Oilers claimed Dryden in the draft that dispersed the Cougars, and he played there for five seasons, four of them as the WHA wound up and one as the team debuted in the NHL. He took his mask with him, apparently. A friend in Chicago by the name of Bob Pelkowski was an artist and painted its ferocious face, according to Michael Cutler’s 1977 book Hockey Masks and the Great Goalies Who Wear Them. Dryden told Cutler that he had made the mask himself in 1965 at a cost of $10, and it as the only one he’d ever worn during his pro career. When he got to Edmonton, he had Pelkowski repaint it, with drops of oil dripping down over the eyes. Did he subsequently change it up? Certainly this one, below, seems like a different model, with a different array of ventilation holes.
The Houston Aeros won the 1974-75 WHA’s championship — their second consecutive Avco Cup — with this pair stopping the pucks. On the left is Wayne Rutledge, who did back-up duty; at right is Ron Grahame, who led the league when it came to regular-season wins (33) and goals-against average (3.03) that year. He was elected to the WHA’s First All-Star team for his efforts, and won the Ben Hatskin Trophy as the WHA’s top goaltender, too, along with the league’s inaugural trophy for playoff MVPhood.
Born in Victoria, B.C., on a Wednesday of this date in 1950, Grahame is 71 today. He signed with the Bruins in the NHL in 1977, and was the starter in Boston for a year before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings for a first-round draft pick that turned into Ray Bourque. Grahame played parts of three seasons with the Kings and had stint, too, with Quebec’s NHL Nordiques. He went on to serve as athletic director for the University of Denver.
His son, John, was a goaltender, too, and he won a Stanley Cup championship with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. His mother, Ron’s wife, was the first in the family to get her name on the Cup: Charlotte Grahame was a member of the Colorado’s front office when the Avalanche went all the way in 2001. She’s still on the job today, as Colorado’s executive director of Hockey Administration.
It’s almost a half-century ago and whole other defunct league distant, but with the Edmonton Oilers set to open their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series tonight against the Winnipeg Jets, is it time to hearken back to when the teams met for the very time? It is. Yes, this is the old upstart WHA we’re talking about, which first took to the ice 49 years ago, in October of 1972, with 12 teams in two divisions, with Winnipeg’s Jets and the Alberta representing the north in the league’s Western Division.
It was a Sunday night, October 15, when the Jets welcomed the Oilers to the Winnipeg Arena for their home opener. A month earlier, the building had hosted Game Three of the Summit Series, wherein Canadians and Soviets tied 4-4, under the gaze of Canada’s queen. A crowd of close to 10,000 jammed the building that night; the Jets attracted a modest 7,200 for their debut. The Jets had pried Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Black Hawks, but he wouldn’t actually get onto the ice for another month, concentrating on coaching the team for the first few weeks. Still, the Jets were looking good, having won their first two games of the season on the road, while the Oilers had gone 1-2 to begin their season.
Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Jack McKeag was on hand to drop the inaugural puck that night: that’s him here between Jets’ captain Ab McDonald and Oiler skipper Al Hamilton. (Hull, in civvies, is lurking behind Hamilton.)
And the game, once the puck was in play? Vic Grant from the Winnipeg Tribune was on hand to see it and write it up for Monday morning’s paper. “There was no valid reason why Jets should lose 5-2 to Alberta Oilers,” he advised, “but they did, and the only excuse they can offer is stage fright.”
Coached by Ray Kinasewich, the Oilers jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Roger Cote and Val Fonteyne. The Jets would get goals from Dan Johnson and Christian Bordeleau, but the Oilers kept scoring, too: Ron Walters, Bill Hicke, and Eddie Joyal added to their tally. Ernie Wakely was in the Winnipeg net on the net, with Ken Brown guarding the Albertan goal.
“It was great seeing all those people out,” Hull said afterwards, “it’s just too bad the boys were tight. I can’t think of anything else but saying that they were tight before their first home crowd.”
“I wasn’t concerned when it was 2-0 and then I thought we were off when we scored and it was 2-1, but then we lost a couple of fac-offs and were dragging again. There was nothing going smooth. We couldn’t get anything in motion.”
The Oilers and Jets met again two nights later at the Edmonton Gardens, with the Albertans prevailing again, 3-2, on Walters’ overtime winner in front of a crowd of 3,285 hardy fans.
The Jets did, eventually, find their stride, finishing the season atop the Western Division, and making it to the WHA’s first championship final, which they ceded to the New England Whalers in May of 1973.
The New England Whalers compiled the best regular-season record over the course of the WHA’s inaugural season, 1972-73. And on a Sunday of this date 48 years ago, the Whalers beat Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets to earn the Avco World Trophy in five games — even though, sorry to say, the actual cup wasn’t on hand at Boston Garden for the occasion.
Al Smith was New England’s goaltender in that decisive game, and his preventative measures were sufficient to see the home team to a 9-6 win over the Jets. Right winger Tom Webster scored two goals for New England and added two assists; centre Larry Pleau chipped in with a pair of goals of his own. Webster, 24, had led the Whalers in scoring through the season, notching 53 goals and 103 points, which tied him for fourth on the league list— with Bobby Hull, among others — behind Andre Lacroix of the Philadelphia Blazers, who collected 50 goals and 124 points.
Phil Watson’s credentials as an NHL coach were forged out of a 13-year NHL career as a rumbustious right winger, all but one season of which he spent with the New York Rangers. Born in Montreal on a Friday of this same date in 1914, Watson took up behind the bench the year after he hung up stick and skates in 1948, at first with the New York Rovers, then of the QSHL, and later with the QJHL’s Quebec Citadelles.
In 1955, a 42-year-old Watson succeeded Muzz Patrick as coach of the Rangers. Pictured here is the end of his first campaign, which came on a March night in 1956. On their way to another Stanley Cup that season, the Canadiens dispensed with Watson’s Rangers in five first-round games, completing the job with a 7-0 demolition at the Forum.
Doug Harvey, Henri Richard, and Dickie Moore each scored a pair of goals; the shutout was Jacques Plante’s. The Gazette described the moment we’re seeing here: “When the siren sounded to end the game the Ranger players shook hands with their conquerors. Then Phil Watson and Toe Blake, the rival coaches, met at centre ice. Toe took off his hat when he received Watson’s congratulations. The crowd liked it and roared approval.”
Watson steered the Rangers through five not-specially-glorious seasons before he was fired midway through the 1959-60 season. He would go on to coach the Boston Bruins for another two seasons in the early 1960s. His coaching finale came a decade after that when he took charge of the WHA’s Philadelphia/Vancouver Blazers for two seasons in the ’70s.
Back when Gay Talese was writing hockey dispatches for The New York Times, he caught up to Watson after a game against the Boston Bruins. This was October of 1958; Watson explained the situation this way:
“My club is like a new car that has little things wrong with it. We got trouble with the windshield wipers, squeaks in the rear, and brakes need adjusting. It’ll take 10,000 miles to break this club in. In Boston I had piston trouble and we’re tied, 4-4. They also had the referee on their side.”
Legend of A Leaf: Born in Noranda, Quebec, on a Friday of this date in 1940, Dave Keon is 81 today. Does it seem wrong to frame him as anything but a Maple Leaf? A little bit, yea, but it is true that he ended his 18-year NHL career with three seasons, circa 1980, as a Whaler in Hartford, and had stints, too, in the WHA with the Minnesota Fighting Saints, Indianapolis Racers, and New England Whalers. In his 15 years in Toronto, Keon won Calder and Conn Smythe trophies and a pair of Lady Byngs, while helping the Leafs win four Stanley Cup championships. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986. In 2016, the Maple Leafs recognized Keon as the best player in club history.
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.
It is with great sadness we share that Colorado Eagles Founder Ralph Backstrom has passed away at the age of 83.
Luggage On The Left Coast: Gary Smith guarded Vancouver nets from 1973 through 1976.
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.”
Scorecarded: Born at Point Anne, Ontario, on a Tuesday of this date in 1939, Bobby Hull is 82 today. In the fall of 1976, he was in his fifth season left-winging for the WHA Jets when he hit the ice in his Jofa tracksuit at the Winnipeg Arena with figure skater Toller Cranston, winner of a bronze medal that year in the men’s individual figure skating competition at Innsbruck’s Winter Olympics. (Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune fonds, PC 18 A81-12 Box 3 Folder 97 Item 1)
Stitch Up: Gerry Cheevers on 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 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.