Jun 252010


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 182010

Jerry Toppazinni

On the golf course Jerry Toppazinni is a delightful companion. Over 18 holes in a charity tournament in Toronto he has lots of time to talk hockey–and his career with the Bruins (from 1952-53 through 1963-64).

“Did you know the Bruins’ Alumni honored me at their golf tournament in New Hampshire one summer?” he says. “All the old Bruins pick one guy who they feel represented what a Bruin should be. It felt good when Milt Schmidt, a man I’d played with, a man who’d coached me, came across the room and shook my hand. ‘Jerry, you really deserved it,’ he said. ‘You were one of the most honest players I ever worked with.”

“Did you have to make a speech?” I ask.

He laughs. “No way. They knew if they asked me to speak they’d never get me to sit down.”

“Jerry, you never won a Stanley Cup ring, did you?”

“No, but there’s an Englishman who may think I did.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Henri Richard and I were playing golf one day with a businessman from London, England. He didn’t know that Henri Richard had won 11 Stanley Cups with Montreal. In fact, he didn’t know much about hockey at all. On one hole he said to me, ‘Jerry, how many Stanley Cup teams did you play on?’ And I said to him, ‘Well, between Henri Richard and myself, it was eleven.’”

Then he tells me a story that’s a complete surprise.

“I’m at the NHL meetings in Montreal one summer–it was 1973–and I don’t have a job in hockey. But I’m hoping for something. The Bruins at the time were trying to hire Don Cherry as their new coach. But Cherry was reluctant to move to Boston. He owned 25% of the Rochester franchise and he’s really popular there.

“So I get a call from Lynn Patrick, who was then general manager in St. Louis. He says, ‘Listen, Jerry. It’s obvious Cherry is not going to Boston. You’d be ideal for that job. I spoke to Harry (Sinden) about you. Are you interested in coaching the Bruins?’ I said, ‘You kidding? Of course I’m interested.’ Continue reading »

May 092010

One Zany, Mean, and Tough Bruin

Despite the antics of Derek Sanderson, Mike Walton and others, Wayne Cashman was the zaniest, if not the meanest and toughest member of the Big, Bad Boston Bruins of the seventies.

“I knew I’d never be a 50-goal scorer so I  spent my career doing what had to be done,” Cashman told Sports Illustrated while toiling in the twilight of his career.

He played left wing on one of Boston’s most prolific lines, with Phil Esposito at center and Ken Hodge on right wing. He was counted on to do the dirty work in the corners, and to get the puck by fair means or foul to Espo in the slot. Goaltender Gerry Cheevers says, “Cash was the greatest of all the guys from our era when it came to digging in the corners and along the boards. And if someone gave Orr or Espo a cheap shot Cashman would be there in an instant, throwing punches, exacting revenge.” When he retired in 1983, he had served 1,041 penalty minutes to rank third among Boston sinners (behind Terry O’Reilly and Keith Crowder). At 38, he had served the Bruins well in 1,027 games, second only to Johnny Bucyk’s club record of 1,436. When veterans Serge Savard of the Winnipeg Jets and Carol Vadnais of the New Jersey Devils bowed out of NHL hockey a few days before Cashman’s final game, it made the Bruin left winger the oldest survivor of the Original Six league.

Master Of Mishief

Off the ice, he was a master of mischief. Three examples come to mind. Once he broke his foot while swinging on a chandelier and in Los Angeles one night, when the anthem singer was about to perform before a critical playoff game, Cashman spoiled the soloist’s rendition  by impishly cutting the microphone cord with his skate. In 1970, after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, he played traffic cop during the celebrations that followed. He stood on a Boston intersection waving cars in all directions until there was a mammoth snarl. Reluctantly, the cops arrested him and brought him to the station where he was told he could make one phone call. Did he phone his lawyer?  No, his call was to a restaurant—for an order of Chinese food.

One Heck of  a Party

Cashman, like millions of others, was stunned on the night of Nov. 7, 1975, to learn  the Bruins had traded his best pal Phil Esposito, along with  Carol Vadnais, to the hated New York Rangers in return for Brad Park,  Jean Ratelle and someone named Joe Zanussi. He organized a going away party for his former mates  in a Vancouver hotel room and before it was over there were damages to pay of $2,000.

Leadership Role Puts Creativy to Good Use

The following season, he assumed the Bruins’ captaincy and the hi-jinks became less frequent. Johnny Bucyk, who’d been wearing the “C”, returned from an injury, saw the leadership that Cashman was providing, and told him to keep the “C”. Manager Harry Sinden would say, “I don’t think I could have dreamed of Cashman becoming such a leader.”

He was durable enough to play in more than 1000 games, third highest in team history.

A  great player? Yes.  A different kind of guy? You bet.

Early Signs he’d be a Man who Loves the Game

Even as a child he was unpredictable. One day on the family farm near Kingston, Ontario, where he grew up, he acquired a new pair of skates. Told by his parents not to wear them outside until the weather warmed up, young Cash waited until his parents went off somewhere. Then he opened all the  windows, hooked up a hose, and flooded the kitchen floor with an inch of water. When it freezes, he reasoned, I’ll skate inside.

Apr 082010

What Hockey has Meant to Vladislav Tretiak

IPicture of Vladislav Tretiak was never so happy in my life as I was the first time I was a member of a world championship team. That was in 1970 when I was  18, serving as backup goaltender to Victor Konovalenko, a wonderful goalie with fantastic intuition. I don’t know of any Soviet player of that era who commanded more respect than Victor. He was respected for his sense of fair play, his devotion to hockey and for his valour and steadfastness.Often it seemed the pucks flew into his glove by themselves. He was twice my age but there was a bond between us. He patiently revealed to me the secrets of the goaltender’s art and he knew them all. Hadn’t he played on seven world championship teams? Hadn’t he been an Olympic gold medallist? At that young age, more than anything else, I wanted to be the kind of man, the  cool competitor, that Konovalenko was. I was also helped to the top by such world-renowned players as the brilliant forward Anatoli Firsov and  the reliable defenseman  Alexander Ragulin.

Later on, prior to the famous Soviet-Canada series in 1972, I would meet the fabulous Canadian goaltender Jacques Plante, who was kind enough to give me some tips on how to play the top NHL forwards prior to the Summit Series. Had it not been for that unique tournament, perhaps I would not have had an opportunity to have my own puck stopping abilities compared to future Hall of Fame goalies like Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito. More than any other hockey event, the 1972 tournament made it shockingly clear that there was very little difference between the Soviet national team players and the top NHLers.  Suddenly there was renewed interest in  world and Olympic hockey tournaments, and beginning in 1976, in the establishment of the popular Canada Cup competitions.  Today, as a fitting finale to hockey’s first century, we have the best of professional players competing at the Winter Olympics in Japan with a world-wide audience anticipating a thrilling race for the  gold medals and the coveted title “Olympic Champions.”

If you want to hear more about what the hockey experience was like from his Russian persepctive, you may want to take a look at Vladislav’s book Tretiak : The Legend.  At Amazon, Brian E. Erland says it “…provides an illuminating glimpse of those years… and examines the volatile games that took place when the ‘Eastern Block’ collided with the ‘Powers of the West.’ “

Continue reading »

Apr 072010

More About Orr

When Bobby Orr signed a contract to play for the Boston Bruins in 1966-67, for a base salary of $15,000 and a bonus of $5,000 for playing in more than half his team’s games, he became the highest paid rookie in NHL history. He went on from there to become one of the greatest players in the annals of the game.

“He was the greatest,” says  Don Cherry, his former coach.

In 1997, The Hockey News conducted a survey, attempting to discover who was the better player, Orr or Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky, who played eight more seasons than Orr, was the choice of voters by a narrow margin. The difference was less than one per cent.

In 2000, The Hockey News conducted another vote. A panel of experts was asked to name the most significant full season performance by an NHL player.

This time Orr edged Gretzky by the slimmest or margins–864 votes to 857.

Orr’s 1969-70 season, in which he  became the first defenseman to win the scoring title with 120 points, was seen as the most significant full season by an NHL player.  Gretzky’s 92 goal, 212 point season in 1981-82, received just seven fewer votes in the balloting.

Before knee injuries forced Orr to retire at age 30, he had helped the Bruins to two Stanley Cups and had smashed most  scoring records for  defensemen. During the 1969-70 season,  he won four major trophies: the Hart (regular season MVP), the Norris (best defenseman), the Art Ross (scoring leader) and the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP)

No other player has ever earned so much silverware in one NHL season.

Mar 142010

I enjoyed a bit of reunion with Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay the other night here in Naples. Ted is 84 now. He was about 50 when we worked together  for three seasons on the NBC telecasts back in the early fifties. He can look back on a career in hockey filled with fabulous memories of Stanley Cups and scoring accomplishments.  But he still retains a bitter memory of a juvenile championship that eluded him—and it shouldn’t have.

In the early 1940s, Ted played left wing on an outstanding juvenile team in Kirkland Lake, Ontario—Holy Name.

“We were said to be the best juvenile team in Canada,” he says convincingly. “But we got robbed in the playoffs.

“We played for the Ontario title and handled a team from Sudbury rather easily, carrying a two-goal lead into the second game of a two game series–total goals to count.

At the end of two periods in game two, we still maintained our two goal lead.

Then came the second intermission which stretched on for a good hour. None of us could understand the reason for the long delay. Turns out Maxie Silverman, a shrewd hockey owner who ruled the game in Sudbury, used the delay to hustle in four or five  of the top junior players in the area. Continue reading »

Mar 122010

We’re at the Skatium, a hockey rink in Fort Myers. It’s a Friday morning in early March, 2010. The dressing room is crowded with old farts getting suited up when a fellow I haven’t seen in 25 years pushes his way through the door.

“Brian, I’m Jim Dorey,” he says, grinning down at me.

“Hell, I know who you are,” I reply. “How could I ever forget Jim Dorey.”

I introduce him to the others, saying, “Guys, this gent set a record for penalties in his first NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens. What was it, Jim, 38 minutes in penalties? I broadcast the game with Bill Hewitt that night on Hockey Night in Canada and I’ll never forget it. You battled all of the tough guys on the Pittsburgh Penguins, one after the other.”

He smiles. “No, it was more than 38 minutes. It was 48 minutes by the time they added up all the five minute fighting penalties, the misconducts and the game misconducts.”

“Holy shit!” someone says.

“Got your skates with you? I ask Jim. “You can play today.”

“Nah, no skates. Maybe another time. I heard you were here and I just stopped by to say hello.”

I feel honoured. He hands me a business card. Dorey and Tolgyesi Insurance Brokers, Kingston, Ontario.

Good—there’s an email address.

We chat briefly about old times and then he is gone.

I drive home thinking of Jim Dorey and how good it was to see him again. I laugh out loud recalling his rookie season and his very first game. He fought about eight Penguins that night and got tossed from the game. He told me once that he sat in the dressing room alone, nursing sore knuckles and shaking his head in disbelief, wondering what the hell he’d done, how he could be so undisciplined, convinced that Punch Imlach was going to send him so far down in the minors he’d never re-surface.

A door swung open but he wouldn’t look up. He cringed when he heard footsteps enter the room. King Clancy, then Imlach. He braced himself for a verbal barrage from Imlach. But it was Clancy who spoke first.

“That’s the kind of fight we like to see,” the King cackled, slapping him on the back. “What a debut!”

“You beat the crap out of couple a Penguins,” chuckled Imlach. “Here’s a hundred bucks. Get the hell out of here before the media comes in.”

He grabbed the money and ran, relieved to know he would be back to fight another day. And the day after that. He rang up 200 penalty minutes in his rookie season and became a fan favourite in Toronto.

In 1971-72, veteran defenseman Tim Horton, a former Leaf but then a Ranger, whispered in manager Emile Francis’ ear. “Get me Dorey from the Leafs. He’ll be my defense partner. You won’t regret it.”

Dorey was traded to New York for an obscure winger–Pierre Jarry, I believe–and donned the Ranger red, white and blue. But only for a game. A single game! The WHA was about to debut and Dorey was offered a bundle to jump leagues. He deserted New York and joined the New England Whalers, more than doubling his Rangers salary. In leaving, he did his former Ranger teammates a huge service, especially the famous GAG (Goal a Game) Line of Rod Gilbert, Vic Hadfield and Jean Ratelle. And defenemasn Brad Park, of course. Ranger management feared the team’s best players would follow Dorey’s lead and jump leagues. Francis simply couldn’t afford to loose the GAG Line and Park. When Dorey bolted, their salaries jumped more than 100 per cent, moving from less than one hundred thousand a year to two hundred and fifty thousand. All the other Rangers got salary hikes.

Thanks Jim, they must have said. Your stay in Gotham made us all wealthy.

I’ll save some of my favourite Jim Dorey stories for another day.

Next week I’m arranging a hockey luncheon in Naples featuring a select few: Ted Lindsay, John (Goose) MacCormack, a former Leaf and Hab will be there. Both are 84. Minor league scoring star Len Thornson (500 career goals with Fort Wayne) and one or two others are committed. Bill Christian, star of the 1960 U.S Olympic Team, gold medal winners at Squaw Valley sent his regrets. He’ll be back in his home state of Minnesota that day for a hockey function. Dorey says he may be able to join us. What a bonus that will be.

Jun 032009

In Vancouver they were practically booed off the ice and deservedly so. Then Phil Esposito took over. He told Canada, “Hey, we were caught with our pants down. And we’re in half shape but we’re going to get in top shape. And, believe me, we’re going to win this cotton-pickin’ thing.” And they did. As far as I’m concerned Esposito turned in the greatest effort by an individual in any sport. Without Espo we don’t win that series. He was absolutely the best performer I’ve ever seen in any series.

meekerWe had a lot of guys play the best hockey they ever played in that series. The little red-headed guy from Chicago–Pat Stapleton–that little son-of-a-gun played super hockey. As did Serge Savard, the big Canadiens’ star. He was the key man back on defense, coming back from a leg injury he suffered in Vancouver. A lot of people don’t know he had to play hurt in the games in Moscow.

What hurt the Russians badly was losing their best player, Kharlamov. It was a very tough, mean, good player for Team Canada, Bobby Clarke, who took out Kharlomov with a chop to the ankle. Kharlamov was their best goal scorer, their best player to go wide around a not-too-mobile Canadian defense and that was a big blow to the Russians. It’s funny, you don’t see Clarke’s check on Kharlamov in replays of the game. I think the people who edited the plays said, “Lookit boys, let’s burn that one.”

The goaltending was comme ci, comme ca. Dryden was good at times, and then not so good. But I’ll say this. The key was Canada being down two goals with a period to play in game eight. And Dryden came up with three great saves after Canada got within one goal. He doesn’t make those stops and we don’t win the series.

Continue reading »