Jul 072011
 

John Tonelli and I always got along although I didn’t know him as  well as some of the other NHLers. When the New York islanders traded him to Calgary in 1986 we rushed to Long Island to cover the story for Hockey Night in Canada. When our crew arrived at the Nassau County Coliseum we were told that Tonelli was very upset with the deal and that he was not talking to the media, not giving  interviews to anyone.

I asked the PR person for the Islanders to go to John  and plead with him to make an exception, since we’d some all the way from Toronto. She returned and said, “He’ said all right, he’ll do it for you, Mr. McFarlane.”

John gave me an excellent interview,  then packed and left for Calgary.

John had a long and productive career in hockey, beginning in junior with the Toronto Marlboros where he scored 49 goals in his final junior season. In the NHL he played in over 1,000 games and scored 325 goals. He was the MVP of the 1984 Canada Cup and played on four Stanley Cup winning teams–all with the Islanders.

We sat over coffee on Long Island one day and he reminisced about his early days in the game: Continue reading »

May 232011
 

Pat Stapleton talks with Brian McFarlane

I don’t have any bad memories of Team Canada in 72. There were a lot of things that you could go over  and decide that they were learning curves, but I could honestly say there was not a bad memory. I mean it was certainly a learning experience for all of us.

They say I was one of the guys who pulled off a lot of gags in Moscow. Well, that’s always important to a team, keeping things  light. There was enough stress and enough pressure being placed on us  by outside sources. I wouldn’t say from inside, but certainly from outside. The expectations were so high and having a little fun breaks the tension. Actually,  now that I think back on it, I have to blame Bill White for those gags I mentioned.  I had very little to do with them. And somebody has to take the  blame. The deal I think that was funniest, was when everybody got on the bus that was booked to go to the Chinese restaurant. Bill White and I were standing around and somebody  said, “Where have you guys been?” We said. “Oh, we just got back from a  great Chinese restaurant. I think we even had a name for it–the Pe King if I remember right. There was a game the next day and then after that everybody wanted to go for Chinese food because everybody was fed up with the food that they were getting. They thought that a nice Chinese dinner would be great. So they all agreed to go  and Bill and I  helped out by ordering  a bus.  Everybody showed up and got on the bus.  But Bill and I didn’t show. Continue reading »

Jan 102011
 

My friend in broadcasting, the late Dan Kelly, once referred to the 1969 stick-swinging battle between the Bruins’ Ted Green and the Blues’ Wayne Maki as “one of the most horrifying, most violent exchanges I’ve ever seen in hockey.”

It happened on September 21, 1969 during a pre-season game in Ottawa. Kelly was calling the play-by-play for a St. Louis radio station that night. Early in the game, Green and Maki collided in the Boston zone. Linesman Ron Finn, officiating in only his fourth NHL game, was close by when they bumped, close enough to feel the breeze when Green turned and swung his stick viciously at Maki, missing him by a few inches. Maki retaliated instantly with a stick swing of his own, catching Green flush on his unprotected head. Green dropped to the ice and lay there, barely conscious and groaning. Continue reading »

Jan 102011
 

At the Bob Gainey roast in Peterborough, Ken Dryden was at this eloquent best in talking about his former teammate. Later, at a reception, Red Fisher and I talked about Dryden’s presentation. As wordsmiths, we expressed our admiration for the brilliant verbal descriptions Dryden painted for his audience.

Dryden began, “The first time I was aware of Bob Gainey was during the draft of 1973. I was at home with the radio on. And the announcer said the Canadiens had drafted Bob somebody. I didn’t catch the last name, a player with the Peterboro Petes. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized the Canadiens had not drafted Bob Neeley but Bob Gainey. A few months later I left the Canadiens for a season to article with a law firm in Toronto and a few months after that I was at sports banquet in New Brunswick where many of the guests convened in a large room where there was a television set with a large screen. Because of the noise in the room I couldn’t hear the sound of the hockey game but I could see the images. Whenever I looked up at the screen I saw an image that I didn’t recognize. Whoever he was, this fellow could really skate. I decided right then that whoever I was watching would someday become a big star. A few months later I realized that I was wrong. The fellow I so admired couldn’t score. (laughter)

But that didn’t matter. I played with Bob Gainey for five years. In that time we played on four Stanley Cups and each year he played a larger role on the team. By the end of my time there he was really the driving force on the Canadiens. We put through a very difficult last season and in many ways it was Bob who held things together. He was a goalie’s best friend, in all senses. He made me look good in practice and even better in the games. I haven’t played in about four years now so I don’t get to see Bob play much anymore. But I have a very vivid image of him and when I close my eyes this image is very clear to me.

It starts at center ice and there’s a puck moving slowly out of the Canadiens’ zone. I see Savard or Robinson perhaps, skating up the ice slowly, somebody skating up the ice slowly. Then a pass, this one to Gainey in the centre zone. He’s the last player out of the Montreal zone and he comes from behind the play, bursting into the open. I can see him, bent over, looking like a train in an open field. Then an opposing defenseman comes into the picture, scrambling backwards with an eye on Gainey. It’s then you realize how fast Bob is skating. Now the defenseman is really scrambling, trying to keep up. I, in the net, straighten up from my crouch, and for four or five seconds the game seems to stop.

It becomes a contest, their contest, Bob and the defenseman. It’s a sprint, then they meet about the top of the circle. They bump at each other, strain against each other, then slowly and with great effort, Bob powers by. (Pause) Unfortunately, you know the rest of the story. (Laughter).

It was on that night that Dryden favoured us with an excerpt from the book he was completing, an excerpt that revealed his feelings about Gainey.

One time someone mentioned that Bob Gainey scored very few goals and my wife Linda turned to me, a little surprised. She said,” Do you know, while I’ve watched him play for nearly five years I never realized that.” Then she shrugged and went on to something else as if in Gainey’s case it really didn’t matter.

While a team needs all kinds of players with all kinds of skills to win, it needs prototypes, strong, dependable prototypes as examples of what you want your team to be. If you want a team to be cool and unflappable, you need at least one Savard to reassure you, to let you know that the time you need to do what you want to do is still there. If you want a team to be able to lift the level of the game, to find an emotional level higher than any opponent can find, you need players like Lapointe and Tremblay. Mercurial players who can take it to a higher level.

And if you want a team to succeed, where the goal is to win game after game, you need a player with an emotional and a practical stake in the team game, a player to remind you of that game, to bring you back to it whenever you forget, to be playing conscience of the game then you need a man like Bob Gainey. (Thunderous applause).

Ken Drydens’ Book, The Game (US) or The Game (Canada)

Sep 282010
 

Half Dressed

Canadian hockey player Danny Belisle from South Porcupine, Ontario played only a few games in the NHL although he played ten in the minors and went on to enjoy a successful NHL coaching career.  He told me the following story about getting ready for his fifth game as a rookie.

Brian, this took place in 1960 when I was playing for Vancouver in the Western Hockey League, a team owned by the New York Rangers. I was called up to the Rangers on Christmas Day and my first game was against the Montreal Canadiens. On their roster at that time was Jacques Plante, Boom‑Boom Geoffrion, Rocket Richard, Pocket Rocket, Dickie Moore and Jean Beliveau. They had a first place team and were headed for a fifth straight Stanley Cup. We had a sixth place team and were headed for the dumpster.”

Anyhow, I was fortunate enough to get a goal in my first game and I went on to play in another three games. Now I had played in four games and had two goals. Before the fifth game I was in the dressing room putting on my gear, and I must admit I was feeling pretty good about myself, pleased that I’d scored a couple of goals, and that I wasn’t on the ice for any of the goals scored against us, which was quite important in those days. So I was putting on my equipment (actually, it was Red Sullivan’s equipment because we were about the same size and he was injured). Camille Henry and Dean Prentice were also hurt and not playing. I had most of the equipment on when Alf Pike, the Rangers’ coach, came in the room and says to me, “Hey kid, take the stuff off, I think Camille Henry is ready to go.” I was disappointed but still, it was no big deal. I shrugged and began taking my equipment off. I’ve got it pretty well off when Alf Pike comes back in. This is like five to seven minutes later, and he says to me, “Hey kid, put your gear back on. We’re not sure Camille Henry can play after all.” So I’m all happy again, right? And I start putting my equipment back on, even though I’m beginning to wonder if I’m getting jerked around a little bit. But you didn’t dare say anything in those days, not as a rookie. Believe me. About ten minutes later, Pike comes back in again and he’s heading for me. I have most of my gear back on when he says, “Hey kid, we’re still not sure about Henry. I want you to get half dressed.”

Half dressed? At this point I guess I told myself that this had gone on long enough. I felt a bit foolish getting dressed and then undressed and dressed again. So I put the bottom part of my equipment on my jock, my shin pads and my hockey pants. Then, instead of lacing up my skates, I put my shoes on and then my shirt and tie. The other guys kept looking over at me and suddenly they began to laugh. I was standing there half-dressed, like I’d been told. The dressing room was in hysterics. Guys like Bathgate and Fontinato were making jokes about my wardrobe. I wish I could remember all their quips. And just then, sure enough, Alf Pike came trotting back in. He stood and gawked at me. Before he could say anything I said, “Hey, I’m half dressed like you told me.” He says, “Yeah, well take everything off. Camille Henry is ready to play.” I didn’t know it then, but I’d played my last game in the National Hockey League. I was sent back to the minors the following day.

Sep 202010
 

A Wild and Wacky Season Finish

Can you believe the Montreal Canadiens once considered starting a game without a goaltender?

Impossible, you say? Well, listen to this.

On the final day of the 1969-70 NHL season, the Canadiens faced the Chicago Blackhawks at the Chicago Stadium. That season finale has often been called “the wildest game in NHL history.”

It was farcical but fun to watch.

On the final day of the 1969-70 season, the battle to win a playoff berth was so close that any one of four teams–Chicago, Boston, Detroit or Montreal–could finish as high as first place or as low as fifth.

The duel for first place was between the Hawks and the Bruins. Detroit finished third after losing to the Rangers in an afternoon game. Now fourth place would go to either New York or Montreal, depending on how Montreal fared against the Hawks.

The Hawks badly wanted first place because they had finished deep in the league basement in the previous season.  Never before had a team roared from last place to first in one year.

When they took the ice against the Habs, the Hawks kept glancing up at the out-of-town scoreboard. If Boston should beat Toronto in another matchup, the Hawks would be in a must-win situation against Montreal.

But there was much more pressure on the Habs that night. The Habs found themselves in desperate straits after they learned the Rangers had walloped Detroit 8-3 a few hours earlier. Because the Rangers finished their season tied in points with Montreal, it meant the Habs must win or tie the Black Hawks. And if they lost to Chicago, Montreal would have to score at least five goals to surpass the Rangers’ goal total. In that era, when two teams wound up tied in points, then the team with the most goals over the season would earn the playoff berth. Get it?

Prior to Montreal’s crucial game with Chicago, Habs’ coach Claude Ruel, a chubby little guy who was blind in one eye, actually considered starting the game at the Chicago Stadium–without a netminder! He figured the Hawks would open up a big lead shooting into the Habs’ empty net. Then Chicago’s top players would be given a rest and Ruel’s Habs would go on to score at least five goals against rookie goaltender Tony Esposito.

Ruel came close to making a travesty of the game. I’m sure Toe Blake, Jean Beliveau and others told him to forget about the cock-eyed strategy. The media and the fans would be all over him.

As game time approached, Ruel came to his senses and nixed the bizarre move. He realized keeping goalie Rogie Vachon on the bench would be handing the Hawks first place on a platter. He also realized it would cost the Bruins a chance to finish on top and Boston fans would be ready to lynch him.

Ruel was in a tough position. To ask his players to score five times against Tony Esposito—a goalie Montreal had owned and let go—was asking a lot. But the margin might have been more. In the afternoon contest, New York had pulled goalie Ed Giacomin when leading 8-3 in an effort to score two or three more goals.

When the Chicago-Montreal game got underway, the out-of-town scoreboard indicated that Boston, playing in an earlier time zone, would defeat the Leafs. Now the situation was clearer. The Hawks knew that first place was theirs — if they could defeat the Habs.

In the third period, Chicago was leading Montreal 3-2 on goals by Jim Pappin, Pit Martin and Bobby Hull. Suddenly, Martin scored two more goals and the game was virtually out of Montreal’s reach.

Ruel’s priority then became goals, not points. His Habs needed three more scores–and in a big hurry. There were nine minutes left on the clock when Ruel stunned the crowd by yanking Rogie Vachon. He was conceding first place to the Hawks. He didn’t care how many goals the Hawks scored. His players must score three or they were done like dinner.

Despite the extra attacker, the Habs displayed hands of stone. They failed to get one decent shot on Esposito in almost half a period of hockey.

Meanwhile, the Hawks gleefully pumped goal after goal into Montreal’s empty net . The fans whooped it up when Eric Nesterenko, Cliff Koroll, Bobby Hull. Dennis Hull and Gerry Pinder all found the inviting target. At the buzzer, the score was 10-2. The Canadiens skated off in a daze, their playoff hopes squashed.

It was a bizarre moment in NHL history. In the off-season, the rules were changed to make team goal scoring irrelevant to the order of finish in the NHL standings.

The game is well-remembered for other reasons. The incredible finish saw a team score five empty net goals in a nine minute span–a hockey first. For the first time in history a team had soared from last place to first. Also for the first time, no Canadian team was part of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

You may wonder how the Blackhawks, with 99 points, fared in the 1970 playoffs. In the first round, they ousted Detroit in four straight games and by the same score each time–4-2. Then they ran into real grief against the Bruins and were swept in four straight. The Bruins went on to meet St. Louis in the finals and eliminated the expansion team in four games. The Bruins of Orr, Esposito and Cheevers captured the Stanley Cup with Orr providing the winning goal in overtime as he was pitchforked into the air by the Blues’ Noel Picard.

Everybody remembers Orr’s famous goal and the remarkable photo of it. But few will recall the bizarre series of circumstances leading up to it.

Sep 192010
 

Each year the NHL recognizes the most gentlemanly player in the league with the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. The New York Rangers’ Frank Boucher won it seven times in eight years. Wayne Gretzky captured it five times and Red Kelly four. But if the league ever decided to single out the all-time cleanest player in the game, I would nominate an unheralded former Red Wing, forward Val Fonteyne. Many fans won’t remember him but in my book he’ll forever reign as “Mr. Clean.”

Let’s check the facts. During one stretch in his 13 year NHL career, beginning in 1959-60, Fonteyne played in 185 consecutive games without serving any time in the penalty box. Later he compiled a second streak of 157 penalty-free games. Now there’s a player who never hooked, held, grabbed or clutched.

I recall Fonteyne as being a swift, lightweight winger–about 5’9”, 155 lbs. who excelled as a penalty killer in his Detroit days. He also played with the Rangers and the Penguins. In the course of his 820 NHL games he spent a grand total of 26 minutes in the box. Compare that to tough guy Randy Holt who once took 67 penalty minutes in one period! Or Chris Nilan, who once took ten penalties in one game! Or Tiger Williams who holds the record for most penalty minutes in a career–3,966 minutes.

Fonteyne is the only player to complete three consecutive seasons without taking a single minor penalty and the only one to record five penalty-free seasons during his career. Fight? Nah. Because he never fought, he never served a major penalty. Not one.

How come he never won the Lady Byng, you ask? Because there’s a proviso. The trophy goes to a player who is not only a gentleman but one who combines good conduct with a high standard of play. Top penalty killers are always overshadowed by top scorers. Fonteyene was in his 10th NHL season before scoring more than 10 goals. He scored 12 with the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins.

With today’s tighter refereeing, the game may never see another perfect gentleman like Val Fonteyne.

Jun 252010
 

THE GREAT McGEE

How I would have loved to have met the great Frank McGee, the Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby of his era.

The only player to score 14 goals in a Stanley Cup game was Ottawa’s blond McGee, one of the greatest scorers to ever grip a hockey stick or lace on a pair of skates. He weighed all of 140 pounds—if that—but he was a whippet on the ice, a wonder.

More than a century has passed since he played for the Ottawa Silver Seven. They said he was the stuff of legends, and they were right. We still write of McGee’s exploits today. Aware that sportswriters of the day wrote reams of copy about McGee, I culled old newspaper accounts of his Gretzky-like performances and the following, written by some long forgotten sportswriter, is a testament to his greatness:

I followed McGee’s playing career and every match was the same. Away from home, for example, in a furious Stanley Cup series with the Montreal Wanderers, with about 6,000 people all howling “Get McGee!” I saw Frank knocked cold half a dozen times in the one match and honest, he survived to score the last two goals that won the game. No one could slow him up. My, but he was game! Taking the puck and beginning a series of slashing attacks, he finally sailed right into the mouth of the net with two defenders doing their best to eat him alive. He took a dozen nasty cracks and still scored one minute before time. Seconds later, he repeated the feat and was able to skate off smiling.

In the dressing room, when he doffed his clothes, he was simply cut all up but he was game. That’s why the Ottawa fans loved him, idolized him.

There was another write-up:

How McGee came to the rescue of the Ottawa Hockey Club in 1905, how he played despite the loss of sight in one eye caused by a lifted puck in Hawkesbury one night, how he paced the Stanley Cup in the never to be forgotten series against Kenora, how he brought defeat to the Winnipeg Rowing Club, how he scored 14 goals or more in a single game against Dawson City, how he became the sensation of hockey, his feats at fullback with the old Rough Rider football club—of these facts Frank’s friends and admirers could talk on forever. No player of the present day can approach his brilliance. He will never be surpassed.

Billy Grant, sporting editor of the Calgary News-Telegram, once graphically described his first impressions of McGee.

They escorted me into an ice-cold rink and I wondered how people could stand the chill. Then someone cleared an aisle near me and I heard a strange clatter of steel as the Ottawa players clambered down the steps from their dressing room. The voices began to hum. Then a wild roar of applause and thousands of excited voices wildly shouting “McGee! McGee! McGee!” I looked around for a big, rugged, broad-shouldered athlete, one who would gaze around theatrically and acknowledge the spontaneous roar of applause that greeted him. I asked a man, “Which one is McGee?” and drew in my breath when he pointed to a fair-haired, blue-eyed stripling who came down last. His hair was perfectly parted, as though he had just stepped out of a tonsorial parlour. His spotless white pants were creased to a knife-like edge, his boots had been polished. For a minute or so I stood spellbound. Then someone formally introduced us and McGee quickly pulled off his gauntlet and held out a soft but muscular hand. Then he jumped over the rail amidst another wild whoop of delight.

He seized the puck at center ice, skated in with the speed of a prairie cyclone and shot. I saw him backcheck furiously, dodge here and there, flash from side to side, stickhandle his way through a knot of struggling players, slap the puck into the open net and go down in a heap as he did so. Then I ceased to wonder why this boyish, doll-like hockey star was the idol of the crowd. I too joined in the hysterical shouting for Frank McGee, the world’s greatest hockey player.

During his brief career, McGee played in only 23 regular- season games, but he averaged three goals per game. In the same time frame, he played in 11 Stanley Cup series, in which he scored an incredible 63 goals in 22 games. Again, just shy of three goals per game.

Despite the handicap of being blind in one eye, McGee served overseas in the First World War. He was killed on September. 16, 1916 during the great offensive on the Somme.

From one Ottawa newspaper:

None of Ottawa’s losses in the war will be more deeply regretted than that entailed in the death of Frank McGee who endeared himself to the sporting public as a member of the famous old Ottawa hockey team, the Silver Seven. McGee played center for the Stanley Cup holders at the height of their fame and was conceded to be one of the most brilliant and effective players who ever filled that position.

And from another:

Canadians who knew the sterling stuff of which Frank McGee was made were not surprised when he donned another and new kind of uniform and jumped into the greater and grimmer game of war. Just as in his sporting career he was always to be found in the thickest of the fray. There is no doubt that on the field of battle, Lieut. McGee knew no fear nor shunned any danger. The sympathy of his thousands of admirers will be extended to his family, which has suffered the loss of two (his brother Charles was killed a year earlier) noble members in the great struggle in France.

McGee was 35.

With the death of McGee, there passed one whose athletic fame will always be talked of, and one whose memory will never fade.

May 262010
 

I wrote this after I had the luck of spending a little time with Mario Lemieux during the summer of 1988.

An hour’s drive northwest of New York in the Catskills, I get the chance of a lifetime, to play right wing for Mario Lemieux. There I am, in my mid-fifties, pot-bellied, weak-eyed, weak-wristed awkward, nervous and slow afoot, trying to keep pace with one of the greatest players who ever lived.

Thanks to Hockey Night in Canada producer Mark Askin, who made all the arrangements, we are there to film Mario, Steve Duchesne, Larry Robinson, Dan Quinn and others, all of whom are guests of the hotel management. In return for a free week long vacation, they agree to spend a couple of hours a day instructing the children of guests at the hotel in the fundamentals of hockey. Their arena is almost laughable—one of the smallest ice surfaces I’ve ever seen–about 100′ by 50′. The day we arrive the players—their instructional chores over– are about to engage in an old-fashioned game of shinny.

“Got your skates with you?” someone says.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I have,” I reply

“Get em on. You can play wing for Mario.”

Moments later, I’m out there and these guys are flying. Click, Click, click. The puck dances from one stick to another. Players weave and bob and fake and deke. They laugh and whoop it up, as if they were kids again, sliding around some frozen pond. Goals pile up and I still haven’t touched the damn puck. These guys change direction so quickly by the time I pivot and turn they are at the other end of the rink. Mario slides a couple of hard passes my way and I lunge for them. They bounce off the blade of my stick and spin away. “Sorry, Mario” I grunt. There’s no reply. I figure he’s too polite to laugh.

I can almost hear his thoughts, though, Did this guy ever play the game? And I want to say, Geez, Mario, I’m 55 years old. Thirty years ago I was a pretty fair skater. I might have been able to almost keep pace with you guys. Now I’m out of gas, with two bricks for hands.

There are some great books written about the incredible contributions Mario Lemieux has made to the game, look for them at you local library or, in Canada, check out: Mario Lemieux: The final period

or in the U.S. Mario Lemieux: Over Time

Continue reading »

May 202010
 

In Florida, we’ve been blessed to have a talented former NHLer join us for the past couple of weeks. Bob Murdoch played over 700 games in the NHL with Montreal and Los Angeles and Calgary. He coached the Chicago Blackhawks and the Winnipeg Jets. He’s still got great moves and it never seems to bother him when we fumble his pinpoint passes or fail to get the puck back to him at the point.

“It doesn’t matter what level you play at,” he tells me. “In the NHL or here, players are always chatting on the bench. If only I’d done this or you’d done that, we’d have had a goal. Things like that.”

With his brother Doug, one of our regulars, we retire to a nearby pub for grilled cheese sandwiches and beer.

I put my tape recorder in front of Bob and ask him to tell me about a long ago skirmish he had with John Ferguson.

First, let me tell you about my first training camp with the Montreal Canadiens. This would be in 1970, after I’d played with Canada’s National team and the Nova Scotia Voyageurs in the American League.

Continue reading »