Monday, October 5, 2015


Tonight, marks the 55th anniversary of former NHL referee, Ron Wicks, participating in his first big league contest. Ron started out working the lines, but later became a referee when the National Hockey League expanded in 1967.

The above scoring summary was published in The New York Times after Ron worked his first game on October 5, 1960. He is the youngest individual to ever wear a striped sweater in an NHL contest.

Earlier today, at the NHL Oldtimers lunch, many of Ron's colleagues gathered to celebrate his career. It was my honour to give a speech outlining several highlights from Ron's 26 years in the big show.

Pictured above are...

Front: Ron Wicks standing between his son, Brian, and Will Norris.

Back: (L to R) Bryan Lewis, Ron Hoggarth, Bruce Hood, Bob Hodges, Allan Glaspell, Ron Asselstine and Joe Bowen, the voice of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

GIL MAYER: 1929-2015

The Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society has revealed that former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie, Gil Mayer, has passed away at the age of 86.

Here is a link to a story I wrote on Gil Mayer back in 2011 - LINK

Mayer played the bulk of his career in the American Hockey League and was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2007

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


While there was little controversy associated with Gerry McNamara's playing career, that all changed when he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs front office. But it took time for the avalanche to make its way down the mountain.

Prior to getting back on the saddle, McNamara was employed by Wellinger & Dunn (equipment manufacturer) as their pro representative.

On his way home from a business trip, he stopped off in Sudbury, Ontario and made a call home.

"My wife said Jim Gregory had called and was looking for me, something about a scouting job," McNamara recalled of the conversation. "I could hardly sleep. I got up at five-o'clock in the morning and went back to Toronto."

The next step in the process was to meet with the Leafs general manager.

"I went down to see Jim Gregory and he offered me the job."

To this day, McNamara is thankful to have been given a chance to return to the game.

"It is the greatest thing that ever happened to me, I was walking on air," McNamara proudly said. "Jimmy Gregory was the best thing that ever happened to me. He and Joe Kane."

In his new position, McNamara was given one task which led to his greatest find as a scout.

"Jimmy gave me the opportunity to be the special assignment scout, which gave me the opportunity to be called into his office and be told, 'Gerry, we want you to go over to Sweden and look at a goaltender'."

During his scouting mission in 1972-73 to Sweden, McNamara not only took a look at the goalie, but he came across two players who played for Brynas.

"I saw these players and I couldn't believe what I was watching. Inge Hammarstrom scored 5 goals and Borje Salming scored 2."

His chance to approach Salming came with three-minutes remaining in the third period. The native of Kiruna, Sweden was tossed from the game for making contact with the referee.

"Borje walked in front of me with the trainer and walked around the glass to the dressing room in the corner."

That is when McNamara made his move.

"I knocked on the dressing room door and the trainer opened it. I handed Borje my card and said, you play for the Toronto Maple Leafs."

Standing guard by the locker room, McNamara engaged Hammarstrom as he came off the ice. He delivered his pitch to the Brynas forward and arranged to talk later on the phone, as Hammarstrom had a better command of the English language than Salming.

"I told him that I thought both he and Borje could play for us and would they be interested. He said, 'yes', and I told him we would be in touch with him."

Not wanting to leave the door open for his competitors, McNamara called the Leafs hockey office and instructed them to add Salming and Hammarstrom to their protected list.

At the 1973 World Hockey Championships in Moscow, McNamara and chief scout, Bob Davidson, were on the prowl for additional talent. In addition to Salming and Hammarstrom, the Leafs had their eye on another Swede - Anders Hedberg.

To McNamara's dismay, things didn't go as planned.

"The only thing I'm disappointed in a little bit, Bob Davidson, and I don't mean to criticize him, but he didn't understand the Swedish mentality. One of the things you can't do is criticize the Swede's. They lose confidence in what their doing."

He provided an example of how Davidson's harsh tone may have influenced Hedberg.

"Davidson sat there and he talked to Hedberg. He asked him, 'what makes you think you can play for the Toronto Maple Leafs'?"

Based on this line of questioning, McNamara wasn't surprised when Hedberg didn't sign with Toronto.

On May 12, 1973, Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom inked contracts with the Maple Leafs.

"I remember Johnny McLellan (the Leafs coach) saying to me over the summer, 'Gerry you better be right'," McNamara stated concerning his appraisal of the two imports. "Bob Davidson was sitting right there and never said a word. I was taking the heat, but I didn't care because I knew what they were going to show."

"I remember the first practice they skated in and the jaws dropped. They (the Leaf brass) couldn't believe what they were seeing. The way they could skate and the way they could handle the puck. At that time, those guy's could do things with the puck that we couldn't do."

Looking back over Salming's time in the NHL, McNamara talks like a proud dad.

"I think he is one of the all-time best defencemen that has ever played in the National Hockey League. I would take him anytime and maybe over anybody, except for Bobby Orr."

Under the direction of Jim Gregory and the coaching of Roger Neilson, the Leafs were steadily improving and upset the New York Islanders in the 1978 playoffs. But that all changed the following spring.

"Mr. Ballard's biggest mistake was that he fired Jim Gregory," McNamara pointed out. "Everything changed at the Gardens, then."

Gregory was dismissed following a first-round exit in the 1979 post-season. In his search for a replacement, Ballard turned to the past and hired Punch Imlach as his new general manager.

"I'm sure "King" (Clancy) probably talked Mr. Ballard into bringing him in. Punch was a disaster. He got rid of all the players. He traded Lanny McDonald out of spite because he couldn't trade Sittler."

On the eve of training camp in 1981, Imlach suffered a heart attack.

"I was over in St. Catharines at camp and Mike Nyklouk (the Leafs coach) sort of took over. I went back to the Gardens because I had some scouting stuff to do. I was sitting at my desk and Mr. Ballard came walking by."

His chat with Ballard produced a positive result, but ultimately his rise up the chain of command put him directly in the path of a roaring avalanche of controversy.

The Leaf owner, while offering McNamara a promotion, laid his cards on the table.

As McNamara explains it, Ballard told him, "Gerry I want you to take over and if you can't do it, I will bring in someone else that can do it." McNamara told the boss, "I can do it."

At the start, McNamara was named acting general manager and prior to the 1982-83 campaign the acting portion of the title was removed.

It was a time of highs and lows for McNamara.

"One of the things about Mr. Ballard was he never allowed me to hire my own coach."

As though ready for detractors, who would question him for agreeing to this, McNamara quickly defended his position.

"I know some of you might say how could you do that, but I loved my job. I loved where I was and I loved the money. I wasn't about to say no I don't agree with it and I quit. I said you own the club and you have the right do whatever you want with the club."

This didn't mean McNamara stayed clear of suggesting coaching changes to Ballard.

One potential coach McNamara had in mind is currently employed with the Maple Leafs.

"I thought of Lou Lamoriello, he was coaching in Providence and I had a relationship with him," McNamara said of Lamoriello, who was hired as the Leafs GM on July 23, 2015. "I mentioned him (to Ballard) and he replied that, ' I don't want any college coach in here coaching this team'. And that was the end of that. Lou doesn't know that, I never mentioned it to him."

Despite the restrictions imposed by a bombastic and interfering owner, McNamara is proud of his performance.

"I grew into the job and I think I did a darn fine job if I must say so myself."

He pointed out his ability to evaluate young talent.

"Go take a look at my drafts and take a look at the drafts since I left. Tell me that we didn't draft well. In my last draft, six players went to the National Hockey League - Richardson (Luke), Marios (Daniel), McIntyre (John), Sacco (Joe), Eastwood (Mike) and Rhodes (Damian)."

One of the best junior players selected by McNamara was Wendel Clark in the 1985 Draft held in Toronto.

"I was enamoured by Wendel Clark," McNamara said of Clark, who is one of the most popular players ever to wear a Leaf uniform. "I didn't like the way he was up ice all night. I said to myself there is no way he was going to play defence for us. I'm going to make him a forward. He could shoot the puck, skate and he was tough. He had no sense of danger when it came to carrying the puck."

Once Clark arrived in Toronto, McNamara knew he had a gem.

"He made a world of difference to our team. He made the other players better. He made them tougher. And pound for pound, as tough as a guy as I've ever seen. Wendel Clark's not a big guy, but he took on everybody."

Not mentioning a name, McNamara revealed that someone in the hockey department wanted to take Craig Simpson over Clark.

"I said, I'll tell you what, it's my neck on the line. I'm going to make the decision this time and we're taking Wendel."

Gerry McNamara's run as general manager came to an end on February 7, 1988. His downfall came when he lost a power struggle with John Brophy, who coached the Leafs at the time.

"We needed a change and I spoke up," McNamara told reporters after getting the boot. "I did battle inside. I had to fight. I thought I could convince Ballard, but I lost."

No longer pinned against the ropes, McNamara came out swinging.

"I didn't have the authority to hire or fire coaches, so don't pin the won-and-lost record on me."

As sometimes happens, a story can take on a life of its own and involve innocent parties. In McNamara's case, he wanted to set the record straight on a couple of tales where he is falsely mentioned.

McNamara returned to scouting after getting his walking papers from Ballard. As a member of the Calgary Flames staff, he won a Stanley Cup in 1989. He wanted to make it clear he never recommended to the Flames that they make the Doug Gilmour-to-Toronto deal on January 2, 1992. When crunch time came, McNamara was on the road and couldn't reach a phone to voice his opinion.

On another matter, McNamara stated he had nothing to do with the 1972 scouting report on Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak. The report supplied to Team Canada indicated that Tretiak couldn't stop a balloon.

"Johnny McLellan and Bob Davidson went to see Tretiak," he said in identifying the two responsible for the miscalculation.

A tall man, McNamara stood up after his lengthy talk and took advantage of the chance to move about. He seemed pleased to have taken a trip down memory lane and at the same time straighten out some curves in the road along the way.

Monday, August 31, 2015


When the name Gerry McNamara comes up in a conversation, it is most likely in reference to the former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

However, long before he became the Leafs GM, McNamara put in his time as a player.

This month, Gerry McNamara was in the guest chair 'Inside the Room', as Mike Wilson (The Ultimate Leafs Fan) moderated another evening of hockey talk.

For a couple of hours on a hot August night, a casually dressed McNamara spent a couple of hours discussing his career as a player, scout and general manager.

"My dad sent me to St. Mike's when I was 15-years-old," McNamara stated as he began his talk. "I went as a student, not as a hockey player."

One weekend, McNamara's brother, who played hockey for St. Mike's, took him to Maple Leaf Gardens.

"My first impression of the Gardens was this isn't where they play hockey," he said of his visit to the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "The ice is too small."

McNamara provided an explanation for his thinking that way.

 "The stands made the ice look so small to me that I couldn't believe they played those games there."

As it turned out, McNamara ended up not only taking in the sights of the hockey shrine, but he got on the ice for a short period of time during practice. Since he wasn't officially part of the team, McNamara was ordered off the ice.

"I was out there and I'd never had a pair of goaltender skates on in my life. They gave me pads and the whole shebang."

Though his early efforts to earn a spot between the pipes for the St. Mike's Majors and Buzzers didn't materialize, he did catch on with the St. Mike's midget squad.

"We had a game at Weston Arena," McNamara noted. "I'm living at Bay and St. Joseph, and I don't know where Weston Arena is. I got on the Bloor car (streetcar) and went up and down twice and couldn't find it. I had all my equipment with me."

The frustration of not reaching his destination caused McNamara to reassess his situation.

"I said, if their not interested in getting me there, I'm not interested in playing."

McNamara concentrated on his studies, but opportunity would knock on his door the next school year.

At seven-o'clock one evening a Basilian Father at St. Mike's came calling and knocked on McNamara's door. After making sure he had the right individual, McNamara recalled that his visitor asked him, "how would you like to come out and practice with the Majors?"

Intrigued by the offer, McNamara decided to get back on the ice. Over the next 4 years he would be part of the St. Mike's Majors.

"I ended up being the starting goaltender (with the Majors) for the last two years ('53-'54 & '54-'55) and Ed Chadwick was the goalie for the first two years."

In his last season with the Majors, McNamara went 25-17-4 in 46 contests. Satisfied with the performance of their goaltending prospect, the Toronto Maple Leafs were ready to talk turkey.

"I got $2,500 to sign and $3,500 to play in any league, except for the American League, which was $4,000.

A car accident during the 1955 OHA playoffs, followed by a lengthy recovery period,  limited his action to 5 games the next year ('55-'56) with the American Hockey League Pittsburgh Hornets.

Back at full strength after his rehabilitation, McNamara was in the crease for several teams during the 1956-57 campaign.

"I started out in Winnipeg (WHL) and they sent me to Hershey and I played in the American League."

McNamara headed to Ontario in 1959-60 to join the Sudbury Wolves in the newly formed Eastern Professional Hockey League.

"In case anyone thinks that was a rinky-dink league...on the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens (were) the Rousseau's, the Tremblay's and Charlie Hodge. It was a very good league."

His 31 victories were the most recorded by any goalie in year one of the EPHL and he built upon his success in year two with the Wolves.

"I got a call from the Maple Leafs on February 12 (1961) to say that Johnny Bower got hurt, so I got called to the Leafs."

Prior to making his National Hockey League debut on February 15, 1961, against Montreal at the Gardens, 26-year-old McNamara talked with Joe Taylor of the Toronto Daily Star.

"I'm nervous, I guess," he told the reporter. "But I think it helps you. You can't play well unless you're keyed up. It's not exactly nervousness - it's more of an edge that keeps you on your toes."

If McNamara had butterflies in his first NHL start it didn't show. He kept the Leafs in a close contest, as the Habs scored an empty net goal to give them a 3-1 victory.

Rex MacLeod of The Globe and Mail wrote that, "...Gerry McNamara, the large fellow (6'2") who replaced Johnny Bower in the Leafs' net, acquitted himself with unusual skill and poise in his first league game."

Next up for McNamara was a Saturday night tilt against Chicago at Maple Leaf Gardens. After giving up first period goals to Ken Wharram and Tod Sloan, McNamara slammed the barn door shut and Toronto skated to a 5-2 win.

Twenty-fours hours after registering his first NHL win, McNamara and the Leafs were doubled-up on the scoreboard in a 4-2 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

McNamara earned his second win when the Leafs downed Montreal on February 23 at The Forum. Although happy with the two-points, there was a downside to his outing.

"I got hurt and I was out for three-and-a-half weeks. They put a cast on my knee."

Now needing a goalie to replace McNamara, Toronto once again turned to the Sudbury Wolves.

"Cesare Maniago was taking my place. He would go up to Sudbury and play, and then he would come back to Toronto and play."

Gerry McNamara wouldn't return to the Leafs line-up until the final regular season game in New York on March 19, 1961.

With both Sudbury goalies at his disposal, Toronto GM and coach, Punch Imlach, had to decide on a starting goalie for the finale. Would it be Maniago or McNamara?

And there were no shortage of individuals offering an opinion to Imlach concerning his dilemma.

Wren Blair, general manager of the EPHL Kingston Frontenacs, even managed to get word to Imlach. In a tight-race with the Wolves, Blair got Ed Houston, the EPHL president, to get on the blower with Punch Imlach. McNamara just happened to be in the trainers room when his boss took the call.

"Blair figured if I was sent back there (to Sudbury), he could win because Maniago would be down here."

But Imlach wasn't having any of this and wouldn't let any outsider dictate to him how he should run his team.

"Imlach turned to me and asked, 'are you ready to play'? I said, yes I can play."

Confident that McNamara was healthy enough to return, Imlach was ready to name his goalie for the encounter against the Rangers.

"He said, 'okay, you're coming with me tonight'," McNamara said of the travel plans following Toronto's Saturday night game at home.

This decision by Imlach had major ramifications.

The Leafs were battling Montreal for first-place in the standings and Johnny Bower was in contention for the Vezina Trophy (fewest goals against). They trailed the Canadiens by one-point going into the last night of the regular season. While the Leafs were in The Big Apple, Detroit played host to the Habs.

Late in their game at MSG, the P.A. announcer informed the crowd of the final score between the Red Wings and Canadiens.

"He said that Montreal had won 2-0, so that meant the Leafs were in second-place," McNamara noted of the final standings.

In the hunt for the Vezina, McNamara didn't let his teammate down. The Leafs and Rangers finished deadlocked at 2-2. As Red Burnett chronicled in the Toronto Daily Star, "McNamara had no chance on the pair that beat him."

By the end of the night, Bower and his replacements edged out Chicago's Glenn Hall by 4 goals (180 to 176) to capture the Vezina.

Bower told Burnett, "those two rookies did a great job while I watched from the sidelines. You can't beat that youth."

When the playoffs began, Cesare Maniago got the nod against Detroit. Imlach indicated to McNamara that his turn would come in the next round, but the Leafs were eliminated from post-season action by Detroit.

Over the next two seasons ('61-'62 & '62-'63) McNamara mostly played in the AHL with Pittsburgh and Rochester.

After a partial season ('63-'64) with the Charlotte Checkers in the Eastern Hockey League, McNamara put the brakes on his playing career.

"I quit and the reason why was I had a young family. I felt I should be with them."

Out of the game for two winters, McNamara answered his phone one day and got an offer he couldn't refuse.

"I got a call from Joe Kane a tremendous individual and a great friend of mine. He did so much for me. He wanted me to play for the Varsity Grads. I got myself into halfway decent shape and played pretty well."

He suited-up for 68 games between 1966-67 and 1967-68 with the OHA-Sr. "A" Grads and Toronto Marlboros.

"When the team folded, I got the crew together and made a deal with Orillia (Terriers) and ten of us went there to play. The second year ('69-'70) when I was in Orillia, we practiced at Maple Leaf Gardens. Mr. Ballard gave us the ice for nothing and gave us some equipment."

Staying close to the action at 60 Carlton Street had its benefits for McNamara.

When goalies Marv Edwards (Nov. '69) and Johnny Bower (Dec. '69) suffered ligament injuries, Bruce Gamble was the only fit netminder on the Leafs roster. To fill the void, McNamara took on the task of being Gamble's back-up. He was on the bench for Toronto's New Years Eve clash against Oakland.

"I don't think I'll even get in a game," McNamara told the Toronto media. " But if I do, I think I'll be ready. I've been playing with the Orillia Terriers senior team all along and, to tell you the truth, I consider myself to be a better goaltender than I was when I was still playing pro."

Evidence that McNamara wasn't just blowing smoke can be found in the fact the Terriers were finalists in the 1970 Allan Cup.

As he predicted, McNamara was firmly planted at the end of the Leafs bench and didn't get any meaningful work to showcase what he could do in his second go around in the NHL. In fact, he only hit the ice for parts of two games.

On January 14, 1970, the New York Rangers came to town and blasted the Leafs by a 7-1 score. McNamara replaced Bruce Gamble following the Rangers fifth goal at the 6:44 mark of the third period. Facing NHL shooters for the first time since March 1961, McNamara was beaten by Arnie Brown and Dave Balon.

His last appearance in the National Hockey League came on January 23, 1970, in Oakland. Once again, Bruce Gamble got the hook and McNamara played the final ten-minutes.

The jinx for Leaf goalies continued when McNamara suffered an injury to his catching hand in practice on February 13, 1970.

He returned to action with Orillia and hung-up his pads for good after playing in one Allan Cup contest with the Barrie Flyers in 1973.


Monday, August 17, 2015


There was a special birthday bash last Monday, when the Oldtimers luncheon celebrated Johnny McCormack's 90th. John Ronald "Goose" McCormack was born in Edmonton, Alberta on August 2, 1925.

The festivities began with the unveiling of Johnny's plated chair, an honour bestowed upon those in the group that reach the age of 90.

"John McCormack - Toronto Maple Leafs," Al Shaw declared as he read into the record the wording on the plaque affixed to Johnny's chair.

Then, a string of speakers made their way to the microphone to salute the guest of honour.

"A good husband, a good father, a good athlete, a good businessman and a good sense of humour," Ron Hurst said in summing up Johnny McCormack the man and hockey player.

"I loved playing with guy's like Johnny, and it was such a privilege to play with the NHL Oldtimers," Brian McFarlane told the room. "You and Wally (Stanowski) were two of my favourites."

"This is a great privilege because John is such a great guy," Ivan Irwin proclaimed. "We certainly welcomed him into our Oldtimers group. He had to be the one that forechecked."

Ivan explained how difficult it was to play against Johnny.

"You're going around the net with the puck, and BOOM, John was there. It looked like he was out by the blueline and there was enough room to get around him. Then, his arm would stretch out and you'd bring the puck back a bit, but John's arm kept coming out. I don't know how long that arm of his is. I had the puck between my skates. No wonder I couldn't get out of my end."

Former NHL referee, Bruce Hood, was the final individual to pay tribute to Johnny.

"Growing up in Milton, Ontario, we had a guy named Enio Sclisizzi," Hood said in reference to the former Detroit Red Wing and Chicago Black Hawk player. Enio, also a native of Milton, played 81 NHL games starting in 1946-47 and was a regular at the lunch right up until the time of his passing.

"All the old names like Wally Stanowski, Johnny McCormack and Ivan Irvin, these were the names I grew up with and listened to on the radio. I was so honoured in later years to be a part of what these people were. So, every time I come here, I feel humbled to be in the company of Johnny and the others."

Saving the best to last, Johnny McCormack had the last word.

"I played in Montreal for 3 years and in my middle year, I scored one goal," Johnny said of his season in 1952-53. "And that is a pretty good record if you can stay in the league by scoring one goal."

"I worked at Blue Bonnets Racetrack in the summer and some guys said everybody (on the Canadiens) was going to get a raise because we won the Stanley Cup in '53."

Not wanting to miss out, Johnny made a trip to the Montreal Forum.

"So, I went to see Mr. Selke (Montreal's GM) and I said, Mr. Selke I'd like a raise. He suppressed a laugh because I only scored one goal all season."

Sensing that he wasn't getting anywhere, Johnny tried a different pitch.

"I told him I had a toothache and needed some dental work. He said, 'smile,' and looked inside my mouth. Needless to say, I didn't get the raise, but I did get to play another year with Montreal."

Here is a timeline of Johnny McCormack's career as a player:

-In 1943, Johnny travelled east to play junior hockey for the Toronto St. Michael's Majors.

-In the spring of 1944, he was loaned to the Trail Smoke Eaters to play in the Memorial Cup. Trail lost hockey's junior championship to the Oshawa Generals.

-The next year, on April 23, 1945, Johnny was a key member of St. Mike's as they won the Memorial Cup by downing the Moose Jaw Canucks.

-While in junior, Johnny perfected his signature move - the poke check.

-In the fall of 1945, Johnny attended the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp, but was knocked out of action when he underwent an appendectomy. When he recovered, the Leafs assigned him to the Tulsa Oilers in the United States Hockey League.

-On October 3, 1946, an announcement was made that Johnny would leave hockey and return home to begin his studies to join the priesthood.

-Following a one-year absence, Johnny returned to the game in 1947-48 and played for the Senior Marlboros.

-In January 1948, Johnny was summoned by the Leafs for a three-game trial when Syl Apps suffered an injury.

-He played his first National Hockey League game on January 31, 1948 at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs edged Detroit by a score of 3-2.

-After his trial period ended, Johnny returned to the Sr. Marlboros and went on to become the co-winner of the Robert "Moose" Ecclestone Trophy, which was awarded to league scoring champion.

-In 1948-49, John once again suited up the Sr. Marlboros and also, played one contest for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

-On January 12, 1950, John signed his first professional contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. At the time, he was up from the Sr. Marlboros on another three-game trial.

Johnny gets a royal tour of the Leafs hockey office by Hap Day after signing his contract
-During one of the trial games, on January 7, 1950, Johnny scored his first NHL goal when the Leafs hosted Chicago.

-The following year, 1950-51, Johnny divided his time between the Leafs and Pittsburgh Hornets (the Leafs primary farm team).

-On September 23, 1951, Johnny was traded to the Montreal Canadiens and in his second year with the Habs he won a Stanley Cup.

-The Stanley Cup victory resulted in Johnny playing in the 1953 All-Star Game.

-He played parts of the 1951-52 & 1953-54 seasons with Montreal's AHL farm club, the Buffalo Bisons.

-On September 15, 1954, the Chicago Black Hawks claimed Johnny off the waiver wire and he played 63 games with the Hawks.

-In the off-season, Johnny was shipped to Detroit in an 8-player deal.

-His final year in pro hockey was in 1955-56 with the WHL Edmonton Flyers.

-After he retired, Johnny performed with the NHL-Toronto Oldtimers hockey team.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

GUS MORTSON: 1925-2015

For the second time this summer, Leaf Nation has lost one of their hockey legends.

In late June, they mourned the passing of Wally Stanowski, who held the honour of being the oldest living former Toronto Maple Leaf at the age of 96.

Then, on August 8, the news broke that former Leaf defenceman Gus Mortson had passed away at the age of 90.

Scouted and signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mortson quickly worked his way up to the National Hockey League. He played his junior hockey with the Toronto St. Michael's Majors ('43-'44 & '44-'45), then the Leafs sent him to Tulsa (USHL) to play for the Oilers in 1945-46.

His big break came in October 1946.

After a brilliant year with Tulsa, where he recorded 48 points in 51 games, Mortson was assigned to the Pittsburgh Hornets training camp roster in the autumn of 1946. The Hornets played in the American Hockey League and were Toronto's main farm team.

During the week of October 8, the Hornets participated in back-to-back exhibition games to prepare for the upcoming season.

On Monday night they faced the Tulsa Oilers at Jock Harty Arena in Kingston, Ontario. In a close affair the Hornets edged Tulsa 6-5.

The next night, Mortson and the Hornets tangled with the Maple Leafs at the Barton Street Arena in Hamilton, Ontario. This time around, Pittsburgh was defeated as the Maple Leafs came out on top with a 4-1 victory.

During these two exhibition encounters Gus Mortson's play didn't go unnoticed by those running the Maple Leafs, in particular, Leaf bench boss, Hap Day.

In his game story following the Hamilton game, Bunny Morganson of The Toronto Telegram, wrote that Mortson, "...has earned a thorough trial with the Leafs for that fifth and extra defence position." Also, he noted, "...the Leafs' management received glowing reports of the big fellow's peppy play for the Hornets' 6-5 win over Tulsa in Kingston on Monday night."

Paired with Jimmy Thomson on the Leafs blueline, Mortson made his National Hockey League debut  when Toronto opened their regular season in Detroit on October 16, 1946.

Gordon Walker of the Toronto Daily Star wrote that the Mortson-Thomson duo, "...showed well (and) didn't allow a goal while they were on the ice." The Leafs and Red Wings skated to a 3-3 tie.

Mortson made the most of his opportunity with the Toronto Maple Leafs and remained in the NHL from 1946-47 to 1958-59.

A couple of days after Gus Mortson's passing, I had the chance to chat with Johnny McCormack about his former teammate and friend.

"He was probably my closest friend," McCormack said of Mortson. "We roomed together at St. Mike's, Tulsa Oklahoma, in Toronto and Chicago. So, I had a lot of exposure to him and I was really blessed to have him as a friend."

Like most, when asked to describe Mortson's style of play, McCormack keyed in on one aspect.

"His strength," McCormack replied without hesitation. "He was one tough dude."

Mortson was given the nickname "Old Hardrock" because of the toughness he displayed on the ice. His use of physical force often resulted in nagging injuries. However, they didn't prevent him from playing through the pain.

"If anything, he taught me how to play hurt," McCormack proudly stated of the standard set by Mortson.

His ability to play a contact game and not let injuries slow him down came in handy when you were part of a team coached by Hap Day.

"Never play the puck, always play the man," Mortson once said of the defensive system employed by Day. "If the other team had the puck in our end, the idea was to knock down anybody who skated in front of the net. Never leave a man standing up."

Another dimension of Mortson's game may come as a surprise, taking into account his reputation as a rugged competitor. As McCormack put it, "he was one of the most graceful skaters."

Like his talent for dishing out crushing hits and remaining off the injured list, Mortson's skating and puck handling skills helped him to stay out of Day's doghouse.

Mortson explained what was demanded of a defenceman by Hap Day when a face-off took place in Toronto's zone.

"If the face-off was in our end, the centre got the draw back to a defenceman, he carried it up the ice, and the forwards' job was to take out the other team's forwards."

 When teamed with Jimmy Thomson,  the task of lugging the puck up ice belonged to the smooth-skating Mortson.

Highlights from Gus Mortson's career included a Memorial Cup championship with St. Mike's in 1945 and four Stanley Cups - 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951 - with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was named to the First All-Star Team in 1949-50 and played in seven other NHL All-Star Games.

In addition to Toronto, Mortson spent time with the Chicago Black Hawks and Detroit Red Wings.

Friday, August 14, 2015


Today, marks the 43rd anniversary of the first workout for Team Canada 1972. The collection of Canada's hockey elite gathered on a summer day at Maple Leaf Gardens to prepare for their eight-game series against Russia.

Last month, former NHL defenceman, Bill White, was the special guest of Mike Wilson (The Ultimate Leafs Fan) for his 'Inside the Room' series of hockey talks.

A member of Team Canada 1972, White discussed his participation in what many consider to be the greatest hockey series ever played.

However, before getting into his Team Canada experience, White provided a brief history of his journey up hockey's ladder.

"I was brought up in the Toronto Maple Leafs chain," White began. "I started my career with Shopsy's and worked my way through the minor system with the Marlboros. I played Junior "A" with them."

After his time in junior came to a close, White remained in the Leafs organization.

"Then, it came time to turn pro with Punch Imlach at the Leafs training camp in Peterborough," White told the gathering. "The Leafs were well stocked with defensemen and I was assigned to Rochester in the American Hockey League."

White noted that he, "spent two seasons in Rochester before being traded to Springfield in a 5-for-1 trade for Kent Douglas."

In Springfield, White played for the legendary Eddie Shore. A standout defenceman with the Boston Bruins (1926-27 to 1939-40), Shore captured the Hart Memorial Trophy (League MVP) three-times.

When he ran the AHL franchise in Springfield, Shore ruled with an iron-fist. His coaching and management methods were considered to be extreme and antiquated.

"Eddie was getting a little out of hand and suspending players and going crazy," White recalled. "Dale Rolfe, Dave Amadio and I went on strike. We told Eddie we're not playing at this time.

Both sides dug in their heels and wouldn't budge.

"He tried to get some players in to play in our places," White said of Shore's initial response. "We got Brian Kilrea (involved) and there was a young lawyer at that time by the name of Alan Eagleson in Toronto. He came down with one of his partners, Bob Watson, and we gave Eddie an ultimatum - you either lighten up or you lose your franchise."

Sticking to their guns, White and his teammates prevailed.

"Eddie reluctantly gave in," White noted of the final outcome. "A lot of us feel that was the start of the players' association."

When expansion occurred in 1967, Jack Kent Cooke was awarded an NHL team in Los Angeles and the Springfield club served as his main farm team.

The new landscape allowed Bill White and many of his colleagues to make the leap into the National Hockey League. Following two seasons in the big-show, White established himself as a solid NHL defenceman.

In year three with Los Angeles, White and the Kings began to have their differences. White told a story about how Cooke misinterpreted a comment he made.

"One time, I was in the whirlpool looking after a knee injury. A reporter asked me how I liked LA. I said it was beautiful and there was a lot to see. But being from back east, I still liked the four seasons. I found the hot weather and playing hockey very strange. They didn't seem to go together. So, Mr. Cooke took from that that I didn't like LA."

Contract squabbles eventually led to White's departure from sunny California. He was dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks on February 20, 1970.

"When I played against the the Hawks when I was with LA, I loved the Chicago Stadium and the crowd. I liked the size of the rink. In my estimation it was perfectly built for a defenceman."

Teamed with Pat Stapleton on Chicago's blueline, the pairing soon found their groove. Asked by former Toronto Sun reporter, John Iaboni, as to why the combination worked so well, White replied, "I don't know why, we never practiced anything, it just worked out."

By the time the selection process began for Team Canada 1972, White and Stapleton were at the top of their game and earned invitations.

"I was at the cottage and I was asked if I'd like to be part of it," White remembered about the telephone call he received. "To this day, I thought I was going down to the Gardens for a tryout."

This brings us to day one for Team Canada 1972 on August 14, 1972.

"The first fellow I met in the parking lot on Wood Street was Frank Mahovlich," White recalled of his arrival on day one. "We walked into the dressing room and here's all these players we just finished playing against. There were four or five guys from each (NHL) team. A lot of us weren't the best of friends. It was a whole different feeling in that dressing room. It took time before you could see things blending together."

As the start of the Summit Series approached, the Russian's remained to be a mystery.

"We knew they won the Olympics and World Championships," White said of Russia's track record. "In the scouting reports they mostly talked about Tretiak (Russia's goalie). They said he couldn't stop a balloon. As it turned out, he was pretty good."

Harry Sinden's line-up sheet for game one in Montreal didn't include Bill White and Pat Stapleton. Did this omission surprise White? "No, because we were told we were only going to play in one game and maybe that wasn't our game. I was disappointed by the final score."

Canadian fans hoping for a knock-out punch in game one, were floored when Russia toppled Team Canada by a score of 7-3.

On the sidelines for game one, White and Stapleton hooked-up with their teammates during the first intermission.

"We watched in the crowd and the team started out well. After the first period we went into the dressing room and you could see the guys were starting to fade because of the lack of conditioning."

I asked White about the mood in the room following the crushing defeat.

"It was quiet and there was a real sense we could be losing our national pride. Especially, when we thought it was our game. There was a little panic involved."

The lopsided victory for the visitors in the opener, resulted in adjustments being made by Canada.

"After that, Harry Sinden and John Ferguson made changes and we (White & Stapleton) played the next seven games."

Game two at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto ended with Team Canada pulling even with their opponent in the win column.

"The second game was very important. That had to be won," White stressed. "From there, we went to Winnipeg and tied and lost the last game (on Canadian soil) in Vancouver."

Canada's inability to explode out of the gate on their home turf and establish consistency in their game allowed Russia to gain the upper hand. The stakes were high and other factors began to creep into the storyline.

"The series was formed to improve the relationship between the two countries," White noted of its original intention. "Then, the roof fell in. A lot of pride was at stake now and it didn't turn into a friendly situation. It became a very political war against two systems. It really wan't pretty."

Bill White still remembers the aftermath following game four.

"We left Vancouver on a bad note as we were booed off the ice. Phil Esposito made his famous speech after the game. That is when Phil actually became our captain. Although there was no captain, that's when he became our leader."

Prior to landing in Russia for the last-leg of the competition, Team Canada touched down in Sweden to face their national team. The stopover did a world of good for the Canadian squad.

"When we went to Sweden that's when the team really came together," White stated. "The guys started to know each other."

More importantly, their physical conditioning was improving. After going through an off-season, it took time for them to get their game legs and hands in gear.

"The Russian's would take one month off. They were ready and prepared. We went into Russia and we were ready."

With a renewed sense of urgency and energy, Team Canada was determined to turn their fortunes around in Russia.

It came down to game eight for all the marbles. After Paul Henderson connected for the go-ahead goal late in the third period of the final encounter, Harry Sinden went with Bill White and Pat Stapleton to defend the lead.

"We looked over at the bench and no one was really getting up," White said with a chuckle.

Russia's lack of a counter-attack for the equalizer baffled White.

"I was really surprised. I had the puck just inside my blueline and I lobbed it out and their defenceman picked it up before the icing call."

Finally, I asked White to name the Russian player he was most impressed with. He immediately identified Alexander Maltsev.

"He was a very elusive player. He never said much, but always seemed to be in the right place at the right time."

The right place and time for Team Canada 1972 was 43-year-ago today, when they stepped onto the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens and began their historic adventure.