Hockey cards or chocolate bars? Growing up in Nova Scotia, Ken Reid always knew the answer to the question.
“I remember as a kid my grandfather giving me 25 cents and I’d walk down Union Street in Pictou,” Reid told Curtis Rush of The Toronto Star in 2014. “I’d go to Mr. Fraser’s corner store and the decision was always easy. I could look at candy or I’d look at a pack of cards. To me, it was always a pack of cards.”
Reid lives in Toronto now, where he co-anchors the weeknight prime-time edition of Sportsnet Central with Evanka Osmak. If his hockey-card collection has grown over the years — it’s an accumulation, now, of more than 40,000 — his love of sports is what it always has been: intense. In a career in media spanning 20 years, he’s covered Grey Cups and Super Bowls, Olympics, and Stanley Cup finals. His books are all hockey-minded: he followed Hockey Card Stories: True Tales from Your Favourite Players (2014) with One Night Only: Conversations with the NHL’s One-Game Wonders (2016). For his latest, published this fall, he collaborated with an eponymous prolific former Washington Capital on Dennis Maruk: The Unforgettable Story of Hockey’s Forgotten 60-Goal Man.
Today, as part of Puckstruck’s ongoing series, Ken Reid recalls his first brush with NHL hockey.
The thought of seeing real life NHLers live and in colour was always a childhood dream for me — and when I say dream I mean dream. I grew up in Pictou, Nova Scotia. Basic geography tells you that’s a long way from any NHL rink, especially for a hockey-obsessed 10-year-old.
In fact, my grade 5 teacher Mrs. MacLean, even wrote a message in my yearbook: “You’ll get to see the Canadiens at the Forum one day.”
It turns out that one day was a very long two years later. Two years is a snap of the fingers for an adult, but an eternity for a kid. After years of prodding, we finally broke my Dad down. He was going to take my brother Peter and me to the Forum to see our first NHL game. (I went to an exhibition game in Nova Scotia a year earlier, but it was in a local rink, so I considered this to be the real deal.)
Peter and I hopped on a plane for the first time. We flew to Montreal with Dad and checked in to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
That night, Saturday, March 14, 1987, we saw the Montreal Canadiens play the Philadelphia Flyers.
The ice was so white. And so far away. We were at the top of the Forum, way up behind one of the nets. I remember having to bend down to see the play at the other end of the ice.
But I was there. The NHL was right in front of me. I couldn’t get over how clean the Forum was. And the building had escalators. Escalators in a rink! I can’t recall who won off the top of my head — although a quick check on the web tells me the game ended in a 3-3 tie. More than just the game sticks out — things like strolling Saint Catherine’s Street with my brother and Dad quickly come to mind. My brother and I were terrified of the big city on day one. By day two, we couldn’t get enough of it. And Dad took us to eat at the famous Bar-B-Barn.
On the Sunday night we saw Team Canada ’72 and the USSR play in a 15th anniversary game at the Forum. Then Monday, we were in the expensive seats for the Habs and the New York Islanders. We didn’t have to bend down in our seats to see the action that night: it was all mere feet away.
I was 11 years old and in heaven at the Forum. Thanks, Dad.
Saturday night’s Flyers game saw goaltender Ron Hextall play his best game in weeks, according to the Philadelphia papers. The Flyers were riding high atop the NHL’s Patrick Division; Canadiens were second in the Adams. Canadiens got goals from Mats Naslund, Guy Carbonneau, and Claude Lemieux. Dave Poulin, Mark Howe, and Scott Mellanby scored for Philadelphia to take the game into a fruitless overtime.
The ’72 game that Ken Reid saw on the Sunday night was the middle game in a three-game series pitting an assemblage of oldtimers most of whom had played in the epic Summit Series against a similarly staffed touring team of Russians. The latter, featuring Vladislav Tretiak, Valery Vasiliev, and Aleksandr Yakushev, had trained for three months ahead of the rematch; the Canadians, coached by Winnipeg Jets’ GM John Ferguson, were described in several newspaper reports as “mostly overweight and over 40.” Paul Henderson was there from the original squad, along with Mavoliches Pete and Frank, Dennis Hull, Serge Savard, Ron Ellis, Bobby Clarke, Brad Park, Rod Gilbert, Bill White, Red Berenson, and Yvan Cournoyer. (Ken Dryden had offered to play defence, but management had turned him down.)
The Canadians won the opening game in Hamilton by a score of 6-5, with Clarke, the 37-year-old Flyers GM, leading away with a pair of Flyer ringers as his wingers, Reggie Leach and Bill Barber. With Ken Reid watching in Montreal, a 41-year-old Jacques Lemaire took a break from his day job as Canadiens’ assistant GM to register a goal and two assists in a 6-2 Canadian win. The final game, in Ottawa, finished in a tie, 8-8. Yvan Cournoyer, 43, scored a hattrick for Canada. “After 15 years,” he said, “we realized that they are nice people, and maybe they realized that we are nice people.”
The New York Islanders were running second to the Flyers in the Patrick Division. Monday night saw Canadiens blank them 3-0 on the strength of Brian Hayward’s first shutout in four years. Gaston Gingras, Ryan Walter, and Claude Lemieux scored for Montreal.
I always thought I was. Even now, today, put me in front of a tabletop hockey game and I’ll be working those rods with same desperation as I did as a seven-year-old. Shunting those damned rods forward to shift those tin wingers down their little rink-grooves as though I could force them to finesse as the puck that wasn’t even a puck skittered away to that dead spot behind the net that was out of range for every player on the not-ice.
And still, as it was back in the rec room, I’m always only ever a flicker of the wrist away from alchemizing all that shoving and ricocheting into actual stickhandling and deking.
This is going back to the early 1970s when I first took up at table-hockey in the basement in Peterborough, Ontario. I was — six? seven? My older brother wouldn’t play, wasn’t interested. I probably volunteered my sister to duty, but she would have been too young to appreciate the responsibility involved in pushing around her Don Levers and Bobby Schmautzes with serious enough intent to make the game worth my while.
So it would have been up to my parents. They were patient if not always entirely willing. I was — obviously; always — Montreal.
Donald Munro started it all, table-hockeywise. That’s the story. In Toronto, 1932, in the dimlit Depression, he built the first mechanical hockey game as a Christmas present for his children. Coathangers and butcher’s twine figure into the telling, lumber cadged from coalbins. Then Munro built more, sold them at Eaton’s. It was more of a pinball affair in those years, with a flipper standing in for Charlie Conacher on the wooden wing, a ball-bearing pretending to be a puck.
By the time I got my Munro in the early 1970s, the game had developed without really having evolved. For all the molded plastic and bright NHL colours, the aesthetic was still fairly coathanger. I did love the flat simplicity of the players, even though, disappointingly, none of their grinning faces resembled any of the Canadiens I knew from TV. I was fond of the tiny nets, too, which I’d unmoor and carry with me, sometimes, just in case.
My Munro was a basic model, I think. The old ads I’m looking at show the Bobby Orr edition (regularly priced in 1972 at $29.95) and the Bobby Hull ($16.95). I don’t know that mine was Bobby-branded, though. The “working scoretower with puck-dropper” on the basic Coleco ($11.97) sounds familiar. “Pass, shoot, block and check — complete hockey fun,” the Munro ads promise; “over 1,000 square inches of exciting, action hockey.”
It wasn’t, though, was it? Yes, okay, I’ll accept there, from the physics point of view, that there was plenty of action. I’ll allow that there was much blocking and even, why not, the many inches — but there was never any hockey to the thing. No ice, no skates, nothing approximating a deke or shot, no rules, no penalties, no saves by the goalies. It was slow, rhythmless, much interrupted. It was only like hockey insofar as you could bring your imagination to bear to conjure Cournoyer and Lemaire and Dryden doing what they did and you couldn’t. There was risk in that, too, though: watching the actual Habs on Hockey Night in Canada, I’d find myself muttering at flesh-and-blood #29 for the 16 soft goals he’d allowed down in the rec room. Some of them, he’d hardly even moved.
I’m not saying it wasn’t fun. Frustratingly, and for hours and hours, it was fun.
Michael Winter played in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. He grew up there, and goes back. A couple of years ago when he was home he quarried out his old Munro, packed it up, flew it to Toronto. Now he and his son now sometimes carry on in the cause of trying to emancipate those poor old wingers.
I e-mailed Winter when I saw this painting of his. Pretty sure this is the same model I had in Peterborough, I wrote, the one where the puck slotted so pleasingly into the top of the gondola before, after a moment, dropping in for the opening face-off.
He wrote back:
I’m astonished at how my old instincts and training have kicked in, defeating the youngster with passes using finger-twirl muscles I haven’t activated in forty years.
I believe it’s a Munro 1974 model, though I could be off a year or two.
It comes with four teams: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Buffalo.
Yes, it has that very satisfying drop of the puck from gondola.
I found it under the stairs in the basement last time I went to Corner Brook.
Air Canada managed to break a corner of it during transport to Toronto, but I’ve patched it. Serge Savard, when he’s digging out the puck, says he doesn’t mind.
Read Winter’s book Into The Blizzard: Walking The Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, I suggest. For scores and updates, find him on Twitter @michaelwinternet34 , or (and) on Instagram, @michaelwinternet.
Ships sailed our coasts this year in celebration of Canada’s 150 years of Confederation, and there were concerts on Parliament Hill. There were discussions, too, of whether the fanfare needed more context, given this country’s thousands of years of Indigenous history. Amid all this, maybe you missed the big horticultural tribute that’s ongoing in a park in Quebec not far from Ottawa. MosaïCanada 150/Gatineau 2017 features 33 topiary wonders representating Canadian icons and animals and cultural touchstones, including musk ox and polar bear, a lumberjack, and a mounted RCMP officer. Paul Henderson’s there, too, with Yvan Cournoyer by his side to embrace him in commemoration of that famous Moscow goal that ended the Summit Series with the Soviets on this day in 1972.
MosaïCanada 150 continues until October 15 at Parc Jacques-Cartier, in Gatineau, Quebec, just over the bridge from Ottawa, near the Canadian Museum of History. For more information, there’s a website.
(Image: Dawn Smith)
Lanky law student was an epithet applied to Ken Dryden in 1971, the year he burst into the NHL by way of the Montreal net, helping the Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup. Phil Esposito was one prolific shooter he stymied that spring and he’s the one generally credited as the first to call the 6’4” Dryden an even-toed ungulate. Stan Fischler told the tale in Boys’ Life in 1972:
Somehow, Dryden managed to blunt Esposito’s best shots with his 42-inch arms or block them with his enormous chest. At one point the enraged Esposito crashed his stick against the protective glass, glared at Dryden and shouted: “You thieving, four-story giraffe!”
Born on this day in 1947, Dryden turns 69 today. That seems like reason enough to excerpt an interview he gave in 1976 to an unnamed writer for Maple Leaf Magazine, Toronto’ game-day program:
Q: Is there anything about hockey that is not so much fun?
A: Practices are not much fun. The least fun of all is being inactive. There is very little satisfaction in being a non-participant; those games I can do without. I watched a couple of games from the press box this year and I couldn’t stand it. Jeez, I felt like an idiot.
Q: Is that a comment about sportswriters, with their hot dogs and beer?
A: What I’m saying is that I felt uncomfortable, partly because I don’t enjoy sitting out hockey games and partly because the press box has got to be the worst place in the world to watch a hockey game. It is so far removed from the action. Very few customers, I think, would pay to sit there. You can’t blame the club owners for sticking the press way up at the top, back out of the way. You wouldn’t want all the press guys taking the expensive seats. But I have never yet seen an exciting game from the press box. You’re so far away that the game is slowed down to nothing. Cournoyer looks like a dump truck idling down the ice.
Q: You seem to be the original Cool Hand Luke, one of hockey’s great unflappables. Don’t you get just a little nervous down there, or are you good at hiding it?
A: Cool Hand Luke. You gotta be kidding me. He ate 50 hard-boiled eggs. Are you trying to say I’m one of hockey’s great egg-eaters? Or do you mean I play hockey with egg on my face?
Q: No, no. I was just trying to find out if you get nervous.
A: I rarely get nervous anymore. Very infrequently. Sometimes a bit nervous during the day of an important game. Most of the time I feel like I’m prepared, ready to play, without the physical elements such as butterflies or throwing up that are a part of being nervous. The most nervous I’ve ever been in my whole life was a few minutes before the end of Game Seven in Moscow in 1972. Paul Henderson had just scored the goal that had put us ahead of the Russians 4-3. I was watching from the stands. I already knew I had the starting assignment for Game Eight. The seconds ticked away. I realized that if we could hold on, Game Eight would be the decider. Were my knees jelly? Were my legs shaking? You bet they were. I had no idea what it was like, even though I’d already played in the Stanley Cup playoffs. From that point on and for the next two days I began to feel worse. My stomach started to churn. My legs got weaker by the hour. It stayed with me right up until game time.
(Maclean’s cover painting by Peter Swan)