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)

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 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 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.

Oct 142009
 

REMEMBER BOBBY BAUN?

Not many readers will recall a long, looping shot taken by Leaf defenseman Bobby Baun in the spring of 1964. Baun’s blooper shot in the first overtime period in game six eluded Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk and won the game for the Leafs. Two nights later, on home ice, the Leafs captured the Stanley Cup.

That was forty-five years ago.  What made Baun’s winning goal memorable is that he scored it while playing on a broken leg–a hairline fracture of the fibula.

Let’s re-live that must-win situation for the Punch Imlach-coached Leafs.  Late in the game.  Baun blocks a Gordie Howe shot with his leg.  He feels the pain.  but plays on.  Moments later, he turns from a faceoff, hears something snap in his leg, and crumples to the ice.  Carried off on a stretcher, he insists on getting the damaged leg frozen, returns to play and early in overtime, he slaps at a rolling puck.  The puck flies at Red Wing defenseman Bill Gadsby, bounces off his stick and into the net behind Sawchuk.  The Leafs stay alive thanks to Baun’s overtime goal.  He admits the goal wasn’t a beauty but it was a game winner nevertheless—and one of the most famous goals in history.  Baun’s biographer, Anne Logan, ranks it right up there with Paul Henderson’s goal against the Soviets in ’72.  Sorry, Anne, but that’s a bit of a stretch.

Only after the Cup is won does Baun consent to x rays.  They reveal that he was indeed the victim of a broken bone in his leg.

Continue reading »