hallbent

Vaclav Nedomansky was 30 years old in the summer of 1974, a star centre for Slovan Bratislava and captain of the Czechoslovakian national team, when he took his family to Switzerland for a holiday. They did some paperwork while they were there, applying Swiss authorities for asylum and, subsequently, to Canada for status as landed immigrants.

“The office in Berne is not a busy one,” a Canadian immigration official commented at the time, “and because of this, his application was processed quickly. He had a job offer to play professional hockey. Because he is a good hockey player with a high degree of skill he was given high points for this. Good hockey players are in high demand in Canada.”

“Czechs’ Gordie Howe” the Toronto Star called Nedomansky when he signed that July for the Toronto Toros of the WHA. He played two seasons in Toronto, then another pair in Alabama when the Toros moved and became the Birmingham Bulls. In 1977 he jumped to the NHL where he divided six seasons between the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, and St. Louis Blues.

On Monday, Nedomansky will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame along with Guy Carbonneau, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Sergei Zubov, as well as builders Jim Rutherford and Jerry York.

mr. elbows

Born in Flin Flon, Manitoba, on a Tuesday of this date in 1933, Eric Nesterenko turns 86 today. Having made his NHL debut in 1952 as an 18-year-old right winger for Toronto, he played parts of five seasons with the Leafs and a further 16 in Chicago, helping the Black Hawks win the 1961 Stanley Cup. At the age of 40, he put in a single season in the WHA, 1973-74, for the Chicago Cougars. “He was a player who does everything well,” is a summing-up of Andrew Podnieks’. “He scored, played physically, stickhandled nicely, and backchecked.” He accumulated a whole parcel of nicknames over the course of his hockey career: Mr. Elbows, Nester, The Hinge, Eric The Great, Swoops, Sonja, the Shadow, the Silent One. Off the ice, he coached, worked for a brokerage firm, and as a ski instructor. He had a bit of an acting career, as well, featuring in a 1979 CBC movie about hockey violence called Cement Head. More famously, he took on the role of Blane Youngblood, father of the eponymous hero played by Rob Lowe in that 1986 epic of the ice, Youngblood.

ted green, 1940—2019

Crease Crowd: Ted Green, wearing Boston’s number 6, gets between goaltender Gerry Cheevers and Montreal’s Mickey Redmond, c. 1968-69.

Before he coached in the NHL, Ted Green skated its bluelines for 11 seasons as an unyielding defenceman for the Boston Bruins, with whom he twice got his name on the Stanley Cup, in 1970 and ’72. In the WHA, Green played a further seven seasons for the New England Whalers and Winnipeg Jets. He got his start as a coach with the Edmonton Oilers, first as an assistant to Glen Sather, then as co-coach (with John Muckler), before taking over as the top job in 1991. He was part of five more Stanley Cup championships during those years, and it was the Oilers who have announced that Green died last Tuesday, October 8, at the age of 79.

“Before I got hurt I was a good defenceman, a hell of a good defenceman.” That’s from High Stick, a memoir Green wrote with Al Hirshberg in 1971 recalling the grievous injury he suffered in a fight in a 1969 exhibition in Ottawa that nearly ended his life. He was, it’s true, a respected defender who played in two NHL All-Star games, in 1965 and ’69. The Ottawa incident saw both Green and Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues swing their sticks, with Maki’s finding Green’s head and fracturing his skull. Green underwent three brain surgeries in all; seven months later, doctors cleared him to return to the ice.

Both Maki and Green were subsequently charged by Ottawa police, the former for assault causing bodily harm, Green for common assault. Maki, who’d served a 13-game NHL suspension, was acquitted in February of 1970. “I accept the skull fracture as part of the game,” Green said at his trial, in May. In September, in acquitting Green, Provincial Court Judge Michael Fitzgerald noted this:

There is no doubt that when a player enters the arena, he is consenting to what otherwise might be regarded as assaults on the person. The game of hockey could not possibly be played unless those engaging in the sport were willing to accept these assaults.

A week later, Green was helmeted and, for the first time since the fight, back skating again. He was in the Boston line-up when the 1970-71 season opened in October, earning an assist on a Phil Esposito goal as well as a hooking penalty in a 7-3 Bruins’ win over the Detroit Red Wings.

 

 

 

 

 

coeur de lion

Richard Brodeur was born on this date in 1952 — it was a Monday there, then — in Longueuil, Quebec, which means he’s 67 today. Drafted by the New York Islanders in the seventh round of the NHL’s 1972 amateur draft, Brodeur decided instead to apply his goalguarding talents in the WHA, where he played five seasons with the Quebec Nordiques, helping them to win the 1976-77 Avco Cup.

As an NHLer, he played (not for long) with the Islanders and finished up (only just briefly) with the Hartford Whalers. In between, he featured for eight seasons in the nets of the Vancouver Canucks. In 1982, he helped steer the Canucks into a Stanley Cup finals meeting with the Islanders, who prevailed in four straight games. King Richard, fans nicknamed him then. Grant Lawrence was one such, and he wrote about his admiration in his 2013 book The Lonely End of the Rink:

Unlike many modern-day goalies, where less movement is more, King Richard would excite fans by seemingly throwing his entire body into every shot, making every save look incredibly dramatic and exciting, all four limbs always in action and in full extension. If King Richard was making a high glove save, the glove would shoot straight up in the air whiles his legs would do the splits and his stick hand would shoot out to the side.

During that Cup run in ’82, an Englishman who’d landed in Vancouver put together a group of fellow musicians (he called them King Richard’s Army) and recorded a cheerful dud of a tribute song in Brodeur’s honour. Sample “King Richard!” lyrics: “King Richard/ the lionhearted/ with you in command/ victory shall be ours.” Released as a single, it was given away to frenzied fans at Canucks’ games that spring. On the b-side? A cover of the national anthem of home hockey fans taunting a visiting team on losing night, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”

 

snub club

Contentious D: J.C. Tremblay takes a stand for his 1970-71 hockey card.

With the Hockey Hall of Fame set to announce its 2109 class today, the hour is now for all those with an impassioned plea or petition for a player who might have been, to date, overlooked or grievously slighted. Who have you got? Jennifer Botterill or maybe Kim St. Pierre? Sven Tumba, Alexander Maltsev? You could make a reasonable argument for Herb Cain or Lorne Chabot, even if the Hall probably won’t any time soon. What about Kevin Lowe? Theo Fleury? Paul Henderson’s name comes up annually; this year, on the January day he turned 76, he even got a birthday boost from Canada’s House of Commons when MPs unanimously resolved to “encourage” the Hall to induct him ASAP “in recognition of his incredible contribution to Canadian hockey and its history.”

One cold night last November a distinguished panel of hockey pundits played the Hockey Hall parlour game at a rink of renown in midtown Toronto. In front of a small audience not far from the ice of St. Michael’s College School’s Arena the panel parleying who should be in the Hall of hockey’s Fame but isn’t featured historian Todd Denault; Ken Campbell, senior writer for The Hockey News; Steve Dryden, senior managing hockey editor for TSN and TSN.ca; and Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons.

While there was some due given builders who deserve the Hall’s attention — Cecil Hart, Claude Ruel, and Bill Tobin got mentions — most of the talk was of players. Male players — arguments for outstanding women candidates like Maria Rooth or Kim Martin weren’t on the table.

There was plenty of discussion of just how measure greatness and of what constitutes a Hall-of-Fame career. It’s particularly difficult, the panelists agreed, to evaluate players from the distant past — “guys,” as Steve Dryden put it, “you haven’t seen.” Does Sid Smith deserve a place, with his three Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1940s and ’50s, two Lady Byngs, and a First Team All-Star selection? What about Herb Cain of the wartime Boston Bruins, the only player in history to have led the NHL in scoring not to have been elevated to the Hall?

Statistics tell a certain tale but not a complete one: how, for instance, do you properly appraise the career contributions of defensive defenceman (cf. the unrecognized likes of Lionel Hitchman, Bob Goldham, and Kevin Lowe) or of forwards who made a name as tenacious checkers and penalty-killers (hello, Claude Provost and Guy Carbonneau).

And what about Henderson? When his name came up, as it always does, the hero of the Luzhniki got both a hard nay and a robust yay. He was, Steve Simmons said, no more than a very good NHLer who had a great week in Moscow in September of 1972. Maybe so, but to historian Paul Patskou’s way of thinking, the cultural significance and legacy of his Summit Series performance is more than enough to earn him a place.

As the evening went on and the panelists made their presentations favouring particular players whom the Hall has (so far) failed to call up, the names of the missing kept coming: Lorne Chabot, Bernie Nicholls, Theo Fleury. Steve Dryden argued Keith Tkachuk’s cause while Simmons flew the flag for Rick Middleton.

Todd Denault made a compelling case for J.C. Tremblay, Montreal’s stellar defenceman who was a First Team All-Star in 1971 and helped Canadiens win five Stanley Cups. Asked once by Denault for the name of the one player he thought deserved a place in the Hall, Jean Béliveau didn’t hesitate to name Tremblay. Béliveau did, of course, serve on the Hall’s Selection Committee from 1981 to 1995, so it may well be that he did his best to make it happen. Tremblay jumped to the Quebec Nordiques of the WHA in 1972, and was one of the players dropped from the original roster of the Canada’s Summit Series team for that reason. At the confab at St. Mike’s, there was speculation that maybe the politics of a lingering bias against the WHA may have affected Tremblay’s chances for getting the Hall’s call.

But maybe not. What we do know is that deliberations by members of the Selection Committee are more or less opaque, and for all the clamouring we do here beyond the confines of their consultations, clamour is mostly what it amounts to. Still, once you’re committed to reading the runes, it’s hard to stop. Along with your Cains and Chabots and Provosts, the recognition that J.C. Tremblay fails to get may just be a matter of time: it’s 40 years now since he retired.

Starting in 1998, the Hockey Hall of Fame did have a category for Veteran Players that saw the likes of Buddy O’Connor, Fern Flaman, Clint Smith, Lionel Conacher, and Woody Dumart plucked from the far past. But since that was curtailed in 2000, the Hall’s view of the past has dimmed. Willie O’Ree’s induction last year came 57 years after he played in the NHL, but he’s something of a special case, and thereby an outlier. Beyond him, only twice in the past 19 years have players who’ve been retired more than 30 years been inducted. In 2006, Dick Duff was recognized 34 years after he’d stowed his skates, and the gap was the same in 2016 when Rogie Vachon finally got the call.

Hallworthy? Seen here in 1977-79, Rick Middleton is often mentioned by those of us who aren’t on the Selection Committee, which probably means he won’t be called.

 

(Images: Hockey Media & The Want List)

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.