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 262010

Goat of The Game

Former NHL goaltender John Garrett, who joined our Hockey Night in Canada crew once his NHL career was over, will never forget the most embarrassing moment in his career. He was the starting goalie for the Hartford Whalers one night in Washington. One of the things that fascinated Garrett about the Washington arena was the huge screen on the scoreboard over center ice, a screen that enabled fans to watch video replays of goals and other exciting plays. Such screens are commonplace today but a novelty back then.

Garrett was pleased with his performance that night, and by the midway point of the hockey game he’d robbed the Caps of several goals. Then, suddenly, two Caps skated into the Hartford zone and one of them slipped the puck through Garrett’s pads into the net.

Garrett told me later, “I couldn’t believe it was a goal. I was sure the puck didn’t quite cross the goal line. So I looked up at the big screen to watch the replay. While I was watching it, the referee dropped the puck and play resumed. Seconds later, Mike Gartner, Washington’s top scorer, stepped over the blue line and rifled a shot at my net. But I was still looking up, watching the replay on the giant screen.

“I heard my teammates screaming at me. ‘John! John!’

But it was too late. Gartner’s shot zipped past me and the Caps scored a second goal. It was almost a record for the two fastest goals.

“Coach Don Blackburn waved me over to the bench and told me to sit down. `You can watch the next replay from the end of the bench,’ he snapped.

“My face was so red I wouldn’t even take my goal mask off.”

Garrett laughs and tells us another good story:

Gretsky Steals Car

“I suffered another embarrassing moment during the 1983 All Star game on Long Island. In the third period, the Campbell Conference All Stars held a 5‑2 lead over their Wales Conference rivals.

“I was with Vancouver then, an emergency replacement for the Canucks’ number one netminder Richard Brodeur, who was sidelined with an injury. I was probably the only player ever to appear in an All Star game without ever acquiring any votes to help get me there. Anyway, I made some good saves and Lanny McDonald kept reminding me I was in line to win a new car as the game’s MVP. Hey, wouldn’t that be a thrill.

“After I made a particularly good save Lanny skated over to me and said, `Great stop, John. That gets you the tires and the licence plate.’ After another save he said, `Now you’ve got the engine and the frame.’ And after a third save he said, `They’ll have to give you the keys to it now, John.’

“The car was a new Camaro Z‑28 and I was beginning to think it would look pretty good sitting in my driveway. Then, just as the ballots were about to be collected and the MVP determined, Wayne Gretzky scored a goal for the Campbells. Lanny skated right over to me and said, `Be careful, John. There goes the trunk.’ A few minutes later Gretzky scored again and Lanny said, `There goes the steering wheel, John.’ When Gretzky popped in a third goal Lanny shrugged and said, `I think Wayne just stole the keys to your car, Johnny.’ And when Gretzky scored a record fourth goal in the period, Lanny shook his head and said, `John, I think he just stole the damn car right out of your driveway.’

“Meanwhile, up in the press box, the writers were busy erasing my name from their ballots and writing in Gretzky’s. Aw, but he deserved to win it, even if it was the 13th car he’d won in hockey.”

Sep 212010

I’m at a sports banquet in St. Catharines, Ontario on Oct. 8, 2002. Scotty Bowman gets up to speak and tells a good story about his coaching days in St. Louis. “My team was in a close contest with Detroit and trailed 1-0 after Gordie Howe scored the game’s only goal. With five minutes to play, a young woman behind the Blues’ bench screamed at me. “Bowman, you dummy. Pull the goalie!

“Of course I ignored her but with four minutes to play she screamed again. “Hey, you dummy coach! Pull the goalie!

“She issued the same order with three minutes, then two minutes to play.

“Finally, with a minute left on the clock, I waved my goaltender to the bench and sent out an extra forward.

“Just then, Gordie Howe snared the puck and lofted it over everyone’s head and it landed in our empty net. Red Wings 2, Blues 0.

“The lady behind our bench blasted me one more time. ‘You dummy coach. You should have pulled the other goalie.’

“They didn’t know a whole lot about hockey in St. Louis in those days,” Scotty told his audience.

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


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 282010

During the 1993-94 hockey season, three women goalies were invited to display their talent in men’s hockey–at the professional level.

Erin Whitten

On October 30,  Erin Whitten, a 22-year old netminder from Glens Falls, New York, became the first woman to  be credited with a goaltending victory in one of the minor pro leagues–the East Coast Hockey League. Whitten led the Toledo Storm to a 6-5 victory over the Dayton Bombers. The former New Hampshire University star won her second game two days later. Even though she gave up 10 goals, her teammates scored 11. It is unlikely any goalie,  male or female, in any pro league, skated off with a win after allowing goals that reached double figures.

Manon Rheaume

Just one week later, 21-year-old Manon Rheaume, playing for Knoxville in the same league, became the second female goalie to win a game in pro hockey. Later she would move to Nashville in the ECHL and win five of six starts.

Kelly Dyer

Before the season was over, a third female goalie won a game, this time in Florida’s Sunshine  Hockey League, Kelly Dyer, 27, who was Tom Barrasso’s backup goalie in high school,  led her team, the West Palm Beach Blaze  to  a 6-2 victory over the Daytona Beach Sun Devils.

May 272010

Let’s Try to Score at Least One Goal

Can you imagine playing with a team and no one on your team can score a goal for  eight games?  Can you imagine being their coach?  Or worse, their fans?

Well, the players, coach and fans of the pioneer edition of the Chicago Blackhawks didn’t have to imagine, they lived it.

One of the great original six teams went eight games straight without scoring a single goal.  Not even by accident. And I wish I could report that it was just a very bad streak but unfortunately for everyone (but their opposition, they were just that bad.

In fact, they no doubt have they honor of being the worst NHL team in history.  They showed us  it is truly possible to be a professional and still not know what you are doing

It was their third NHL season and the Blackhawks won a mere seven games in a 44-game schedule. And yes, during one eight game stretch they were shutout eight straight times.But that’s not all, there were plenty more shutouts to come.   Over the course of the season the Hawks were blanked 21 times or almost fifty per cent of the time. Opposing goalies couldn’t wait to face them.

During the 1928-29 season, the Blackhawks set records for futility that have lasted for over 70 years.  Their  “top scorers” certainly must have felt embarrassed becasue they managed only 33 goals for the entire season… combined.  Less than one per game.

Forward Vic Ripley was  the Hawks lead goal winner with a whopping 11 goals and 2 assists for 13 points for the entire season.   That would barely get him an invitation to a friendly game of shinny  after the bars are closed on a Tuesday night–even if he pitched in to pay for the rink fees!

The Leafs’ Darryl Sittler almost equalled Ripley’s entire yearly production in one game in 1976, when he scored a record ten points against Boston.

The Hawks second leading scorer was Johnny Gottselig who tallied five goals and three assists for eight points in a year.

Fortunately, in 1928-29, the Hawks had Charlie Gardiner in goal or their record would have been even more notorious. They might not have won a single game. Gardiner happened to be among the league’s best netminders, posting five shutouts and a 1.93 goals against average in 44 games.

Gardiner deserved a trophy for sportsmanlike conduct.  Apparently he never blamed his mates for their shortcomings and his restraint would have taken a super human dose of professionalism.

It’s easy to laugh but in the end, it’s those Blackhawk players with the last laugh.   At least they played professional NHL hockey while most of the rest of us only played it in our dreams.

I don’t know this book but a quick glance at Amazon popped up this short 52 page book about Goalie Captains and it includes Charlie Gardiner, Roberto Luongo, Roy Worters, Alec Connell, George Hainsworth, Bill Durnan: 
In Canada:NHL Goaltender Captains
In the States:Nhl Goaltender Captains

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.

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