In January 1964, the Toronto Daily Star offered a series of forty-two action photos featuring players from the National Hockey League. The package was called Hockey Stars In Action. The photos, slightly larger than 4x6, were in glorious colour with the flip side providing a brief biography of the star depicted on the front.
|Hockey Stars In Action - 1964|
"In a typical play in this picture, Brewer is checking Bob Beckett of the Boston Bruins from behind," revealed the text.
Every time I glanced at the photograph, I couldn't help but observe the Bruin player engaged in the physical struggle with my hero. Not only did he have to contend with Brewer, but his focus also was on maintaining control of the puck. The enormous strain of this swashbuckling sword fight is evident in his facial expression.
Often, I would wonder, who is this guy? Who is Bob Beckett?
During Christmas week in 2003, while watching a classic game on Leafs TV, my ears perked-up when Bill Hewitt's voice called out a member of the Boston Bruins. Quickly, I raised the volume on the TV and moved to the edge of my chair.
The Leafs TV broadcast went back in time to a trio of games played in the early 1960s. Action was limited to twenty-minutes from each contest. Boston and the Maple Leafs rung in the festivities with the opening face-off of period three from Maple Leaf Gardens on December 23, 1961.
At the 3:06 mark, Dick Duff brought the crowd out of their seats when he beat Bruins goalie Don Head. This made the score 5-2 in favour of Boston. Following this power play goal by Duff, Boston made a line change. With the drop of the puck, Hewitt went to work. At this point, I maneuvered down the cushion of my chair. One of the first names to come out of the speaker was Bob Beckett.
Playing on a line with centre Cliff Pennington and Dick Meissner at right wing, Beckett patrolled the left side. On this shift, Beckett picked-up a loose puck at centre ice and carried it into the Leafs zone. His shot on goal was deflected by Tim Horton and never reached the Toronto goal.
For most of the final frame, Beckett looked after his responsibilities in the Bruins end and sought out open ice when on offence. The only blemish came late in the period when Leaf captain George Armstrong scored while Beckett and company were on the ice.
Throughout the rest of the Leafs TV telecast, I thought about seeing Beckett. When Hewitt first called his name, the 1964 photo instantly flashed before me.
My next encounter with Bob Beckett came about a year-ago. While sorting through a stack of hockey cards at a local shop, one item caught my attention. For some reason the player looked familiar. I continued with the task at hand, digging deeper and deeper into the box. As time passed, my thoughts kept coming back to the card which captured my eye. Not being able to proceed any further due to my curiosity, I started backtracking until the piece came into view. This time, I noticed a name sprawled down the left side. Against a black backdrop in white letters, I read the name - Bob Beckett.
The reverse side supplied additional data on Beckett: "A workman-like forward who exhibited both offensive and checking skills, Beckett was the prototypical NHL foot soldier. Unfortunately, his play did not inspire headlines which meant his subtle contributions were overlooked by the media though appreciated by general manager Lynn Patrick and coach Milt Schmidt."
Again, the Hockey Stars In Action picture appeared as a mental image in my mind.
Talking to the sales clerk, he informed me the card was produced by Parkhurst. It contained players from the 1956-57 NHL season and is known as the Missing Link set.
After sliding my loonie across the counter, I tucked the card into my pocket. At home, it was placed in my hockey card binder.
Although I knew a bit more about Beckett, he still seemed to be a mystery. The description on the card indicated he was a player who performed beneath the radar line. The type of teammate who's quiet contributions didn't go unnoticed by his co-workers and those in-charge.
Did these few short lines sum-up the Bob Beckett story?
Some 46-years after receiving Hockey Stars In Action, I attended my first lunch of the NHL Oldtimers group in March 2011. After filling my coffee mug, I turned to walk back to my table. However, I stopped dead-in-my-tracks when I observed a gentleman sitting nearby. Could it be?
My inquiries confirmed what I thought. It was indeed Bob Beckett. It was time to finally answer the question - Who is Bob Beckett?
Earlier this month, I sat down with Beckett and started the process of getting to know Bob Beckett.
Born in Unionville, Ontario on April 8, 1936, Beckett first played organized hockey as a pee-wee in the Agincourt Minor Hockey League. Being a young lad, he naturally followed the National Hockey League. "I liked Syl Apps and I would listen to Foster Hewitt's broadcast every Saturday night," Beckett fondly recalled.
In 1953-54, Beckett suited-up for the Scarborough Rangers, a Junior "B" team which played in the Toronto suburb.
"Eddie Crouch coached me in Junior "B" in Scarborough and that was critical as he really worked with me," Beckett recalled.
The following campaign, Beckett graduated to the Junior "A" level in the OHA. He became a member of the Galt Black Hawks. Beckett was joined by future NHLers Floyd Smith and Hec Lalande. In forty-nine games, he scored 16 goals and put up 38 points.
When the Galt team folded, Beckett moved to the Barrie Flyers in the OHA to start the 1955-56 hockey year. In Barrie, he played for the legendary Hap Emms.
"I got along with Hap Emms. He liked me and made me the captain. He was a tough man and sometimes was over tough. He was very strategic. He always had a plan for every team. I remember we were playing St. Mike's and their star player was Frank Mahovlich. We had a player named Gord Loveday and Emms told him to follow Mahovlich wherever he went. If he goes to the bathroom, you go to the bathroom he instructed Loveday," said Beckett with a hardy laugh. " The Big "M" was strapped and he was their main man."
This strategy came in handy when Barrie faced the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks in the 1956 OHA quarter-finals. Loveday's assignment was to shadow Stan Baluik. The best-of-seven affair went to eight games before the Flyers ousted the Canucks. In addition to Loveday's effort, Bob Beckett made a huge contribution. He pounced on goalie Claude Dufour for 10 goals in the opening round.
A newspaper report praised his offensive prowess, "Beckett with 16 goals and 20 assists during the regular season, has suddenly blossomed out as a scoring threat."
In the semi-finals, Hap Emms and his crew met St. Mike's. This is when Emms unleashed Loveday on Mahovlich as Beckett alluded to. Barrie pulled off the upset by eliminating the Majors. The best-of-five showdown went the distance with Barrie winning the deciding game by a score of 2-0.
As Barrie prepared to play the powerful Toronto Marlboros in the final, Boston Bruins general manager Lynn Patrick commented on the prospects in the organization. " I like Beckett. He does a lot of work," commented Patrick.
Coached by former Leaf goalie Turk Broda, the Marlboros were rich in talent. Lead by captain Al MacNeil, their line-up contained many future NHL stars. Included in this category were Bob Pulford, Bob Nevin and Carl Brewer. They played up to expectations and took a stranglehold on the series by emerging victorious in the first three matches.
Playing game five in Maple Leaf Gardens, the defending Memorial Cup champions rose to the occasion. Fueled by Bob Pulford's four-markers, Toronto sent the Barrie Flyers packing. Scoring on a rebound off a shot by Morton, Beckett produced goal number 16 in 18 matches.
It was an eventful final year of Junior hockey for Bob Beckett. His play certainly caught the eye of Bruins management. When the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League required a reinforcement, they looked no further than the Barrie Flyers.
Beckett beamed with delight when he spoke of his first taste of professional hockey. "Hershey had some players missing and I guess they wanted me to have a shot and take a look at me. Baldy Cotton picked me up and drove me down there and I played in the game. At the time, Hershey had Don Cherry and Murray Henderson. Murray coached me in that game. It was a Sunday and Baldy drove me home right after. It was quite an experience."
Looking forward to getting his pro career in motion, Beckett attended the Bruins training camp in the fall of 1956. "I had a good camp and I was one of the leading scorers in the exhibition games," noted Beckett. When it came time to trim the roster, Beckett found himself a long ways from home.
"They sent me down to Victoria and I didn't do too well when I was out there. The playing coach had his favourites and some of us never got a chance. I spoke with Lester Patrick and asked if he could get me moved. That's when they shipped me to the Quebec Aces," said Beckett of his first year out of the Junior ranks.
He dressed for 16 games with the Victoria Cougars of the WHL and Beckett's numbers confirm the difficulty he experienced in getting his game going. He failed to register any points on the score sheet, but managed to accumulate 5-minutes in penalties.
Moving east to Quebec, Beckett hoped to get his game back on track. His new boss in Quebec was George "Punch" Imlach. The future head honcho of the Toronto Maple Leafs arrived in La Belle Province following World War Two in 1945.
"I consider him one of the best hockey men I've played for. Don't tell the Leafs that because they didn't like him," Beckett said with a chuckle. "He was a gentleman. When I first arrived in Quebec he picked me up at the airport. I had supper at his place and met his family."
If the Victoria episode was a downer for Beckett, the feeling quickly passed with his arrival in Quebec City. Not only did he recapture his knack for scoring by potting two tallies and two helpers in his first game, but the change in scenery built-up his confidence. After suffering a cut in his initial contest, he required stitches from the team doctor.
While the doc was patching up his patient, he said to Beckett, "Two goals, two assists, two stitches. If I put in a third stitch maybe you'll get a hat trick."
Sensing the physician could be on to something, Beckett replied, "Go ahead, doctor, put in the third stitch. Maybe I'll get the third goal."
Quebec hockey fans had the pleasure of watching some talented players perform with the Aces. Topping Imlach's list in this regard were Jean Beliveau, Gaye Stewart, Orvil Tessier, Joe Crozier, Marcel Bonin and Armand Gaudreault. Included on this list was Bob Beckett.
"Maybe they weren't all what you'd call great players, in comparison with Bobby Hull and Frank Mahovlich and some of those, but they were good hockey players," wrote Imlach in his 1969 biography Hockey is a Battle.
Like most young players, Beckett's goal was to someday reach the National Hockey League. At the age of twenty, Beckett understood he had to fine tune his skills and work hard. One of his great assets was his size.
"I wasn't the type of player that ran all around, but I wasn't afraid to go into the corners and hit someone. I didn't get many penalties and I had the odd fight. I was considered big at 5-foot-11-inches, 200 pounds. At that time it was a good size."
This physical edge didn't escape the watchful eye of Bruins management.
When Boston played the Detroit Red Wings on December 20, 1956, the two clubs scored one goal apiece and settled for a tie. Although happy with gaining one-point in the standings, the Bruins were concerned over an injury suffered by Vic Stasiuk.
With their big left winger out of the line-up due to a torn side-muscle, the Bruins turned to Quebec and summoned Bob Beckett.
The Christmas holiday resulted in Beckett getting his first exposure to life in the National Hockey League.
For Beckett, his short time up with the big league team was a learning experience.
"I can't remember too much about about it. I was nervous and a bit fearful as you want to do a good job. You don't think about things too much once you're called-up. The Boston players were always good to me especially being a young guy. They tried to help you out."
Late in January 1957, Beckett once again joined the Bruins for a few games. Following his two brief stints in late 1956 and early 1957 with the NHL team, he failed to produce a single point. On each occasion, Beckett returned to Quebec and waited for another opportunity.
On February 7, 1957 the Bruins travelled to Detroit for an encounter against the Wings. Detroit, one of the top clubs during the 1950s, were also one of the toughest. Jerry Toppazzini of Boston discovered this when Ted Lindsay introduced his hockey stick to Toppazzini's face. Suffering severe facial injuries in the February 7th game, it was expected the Bruin would be sidelined for the balance of the season.
Conferring with coach Milt Schmidt, general manager Lynn Patrick made the decision to go back-to-the-well one more time to promote Beckett.
Speaking to the media, Patrick explained the reasoning behind the move. "There were several reasons we thought why Beckett was our best substitute. Topper did most of the bumping for that line, so Beckett's size was a factor. Playing with tricky fellows like MacKell and Regan requires drive on the part of the third member of the line and he has that."
Not only did Beckett have to adjust to the NHL style of play, but he was about to be thrown into a new position. Having experience at both centre and left wing, he now was penned in as Toppazzini's replacement on the right flank.
His first contest with line mates Fleming MacKell at centre and Larry Regan at left wing, came on February 9th in Boston Garden versus the Montreal Canadiens.
Getting his feet wet, Beckett assessed his play. "I feel I've been doing a bit better since getting in good shape, but I hope I can start helping out with the scoring soon. I haven't been much help in that way yet," Beckett told the Boston press core.
This scenario would change in Beckett's next game. On February 10, Boston welcomed the Maple Leafs to town. Beckett gained an assist on a goal by Fleming MacKell, thus earning his first point in the National Hockey League. During this stretch on Boston's roster, Beckett added two more helpers - February 16th vs. Chicago (Larry Regan) and March 2nd vs. New York (Larry Regan) - giving him three points over 14 games. On March 9th, Beckett made his first visit to the Boston Garden penalty box for an infraction at 2:06 of the first period against a Red Wing.
And he lived up to Patrick's expectations relating to "bumping" the opposition. As a matter of fact, Lynn Patrick got an up close look at Beckett in full flight. In a game at Maple Leaf Gardens, Patrick was seated behind the Bruins bench. Beckett, in pursuit of Leaf forward Rudy Migay, sent his target flying with a solid check. Not only did Migay go for a tumble, but his stick left the playing area. The projectile struck Patrick and he required stitches to men a cut on his eyelid!
Recovered from his injuries, Toppazzini returned alongside MacKell and Regan on March 13th in Madison Square Garden in the Big Apple.
|1956-57 Boston Bruins. Bob Beckett, first player back row left|
In 18 NHL games during the 1956-57 schedule, the line on Bob Beckett was zero goals, three assists and two penalty-minutes. The chance to score an NHL goal was now out of his grasp as the return of Toppazzini marked his reassignment to Quebec. The trip back to Quebec City would be the icing-on-the-cake in a wild hockey year for Beckett.
Competition for the 1957 Edinburgh Trophy pitted Quebec against the Brandon Regals. Hailing from Manitoba, the Regals were guided by playing coach Don "Bones" Raleigh who was a former New York Ranger. The best-of-nine series opened on April 28th with all the games being played in the Province of Quebec. Quick out of the gate, Quebec built-up a four games to one series lead. With Brandon facing elimination, game six took place on May 9th. Going scoreless in the first five, Beckett would fire the game-winning-goal in game six and help his team capture the Edinburgh Trophy.
Over the summer of 1957, the Boston Bruins signed a new affiliation agreement with the Springfield Indians in the American Hockey League. Previously, they were sponsored by the Hershey Bears. Lynn Patrick's first step was to staff the Indians with personnel he was familiar with. The new general manager in Springfield was Punch Imlach, with Cal Gardner being named playing coach.
Changes were not restricted to the front office. Bob Beckett found himself in new surroundings. Wanting to have their prospects close to home, Beckett became a member of the Springfield Indians.
As fate would have it, the Hershey Bears and Springfield Indians met in the 1958 Calder Cup Final. The Bears jumped out to a three games to one lead. On the road, it was a must-win situation for the Indians in game five.
Faced with another do-or-die challenge, Springfield was hoping for a similar result in game six. In a close game, the teams went into the third tied at 1-1. The deadlock was broken at 16:55 when Willie Marshall took a pass from Dunc Fisher and beat goalie Claude Evans.
Bob Beckett would be denied a second straight championship as Hershey was king of the American Hockey League.
In his first trip through the AHL in 1957-58, Beckett beat the opposition goalies 17 times and finished with 33 points. During the year, he played in nine games with the Boston Bruins. Beckett still was unable to corral his elusive first NHL goal.
Looking forward to his sophomore season in the AHL, Beckett found himself on a new team. This came about when the Bruins, for the second consecutive summer, played musical chairs with their farm team. Dropped from the organization were the Springfield Indians and a new agreement was entered into with the Providence Reds.
The 1958-59 campaign was a case of mixing the new with the old for Beckett. The new part consisted of being in uniform for 32 games with the Reds. Expecting more offence from Beckett, he only netted 5 goals for his new AHL club. In January 1959, he was shipped to his old playing grounds in Quebec along with Buddy Boone for Pete Panagabko. In 25 matches with the Aces, Beckett scored 6 goals.
Beckett, for the first time in his pro career would be anchored in one city. He spent the entire season in 1959-60 with the Providence Reds. In 57 games, he put up decent numbers, scoring 11 goals and adding 31 assists for 42 points. For most of the year, he was teamed with Stan Baluik and Danny Poliziani.
In the off-season, Providence owner Lou Piere, made a significant coaching change. Out was former Boston Bruin Jack Crawford. The owner and coach were embroiled in a contract dispute. Crawford's replacement behind the bench was another ex-NHLer, Phil Watson.
Watson's reputation as a coach can best described as fiery. While coaching the New York Rangers, he constantly battled with his players.
For Bob Beckett, his new coach in 1960-61 had the opposite effect. Taking Beckett under his wing, Watson's straight forward approach produced positive results. His first instructions pertained to Beckett's weight. He told his forward to drop 30 pounds. This added speed to Beckett's game and helped his overall conditioning. Lynn Patrick spoke of Watson "lighting a fire under Beckett."
Talking to the press, when both he and Beckett were promoted to the Bruins in 1961-62, Watson reflected on his time with Beckett in Providence. Watson said, "He was my old reliable with the Reds. I used him as a regular left wing, he killed penalties and worked on our power play. He did a fine job for me and he knows I appreciated his work."
Beckett told me he had no beefs with Watson, despite the horror stories relayed by many players who toiled under the former New York Ranger. "I can't say anything bad about him. Sometimes he went overboard saying silly things. I've seen him bounce the medical table around the dressing room and cursing while doing it. I was quiet in the room and he never bothered me. He was always good to me."
The change in his game was evident on the ice. In 1960-61, Beckett put together his finest year in professional hockey. He regained his scoring touch by filling the net 22 times in 72 contests. His 34 assists brought Beckett's point total up to 56.
Red's general manager, Terry Reardon had glowing comments concerning Beckett. "Bob has always been a boy with plenty of potential. He has the size and weight and ability, but what he lacked was aggressiveness. For the past two seasons Bob has been using his weight more, and it has paid off. There's no one tougher than Bob in the corners, just ask the players."
Filled with confidence, Beckett was full of anticipation for the 1961-62 season. With Phil Watson now roaming behind the Bruins bench, Beckett made his return to the National Hockey League. "We understood each other in Providence and we understand each other here," stated Watson.
Beckett joined the parent club for a match-up against Detroit on October 26, 1961.
After two games at home, Boston hit the road for a tilt against Montreal on November 2nd. It would turn out to be a very special night for Bob Beckett. At 16:48 of the second period, with Boston in front 3-2, Beckett scored his first NHL goal. With assists going to Jerry Toppazzini and Cliff Pennington, Beckett beat Habs legendary goalie Jacques Plante.
|Scoring Summary. Bob Beckett's first NHL goal, November 2, 1961|
Unfortunately for Boston and Bob Beckett the good times didn't continue. As a result of a shake-up in January 1962, Beckett was sent down to Providence. Also on the move were goalie Don Head to Portland (WHL) and forward Terry Gray to Kingston (EPHL). Elevated to the Bruins were goalie Bruce Gamble and two forwards, Larry Leach and Tommy Williams.
In 1962-63, Beckett spent the entire year in Providence. Early in the campaign, he played on a line with a couple of newcomers to the Reds, Willie Marshall and Norm Corcoran. Marshall, is considered one of the greatest stars ever to perform in the American Hockey League.
"He was smart. He didn't have size, but he could handle the puck and he knew how to score," Beckett told me about Marshall.
Statistics show Beckett played in 62 games with Providence in 1962-63. He contributed 12 goals and 25 assists for 37 points.
Bob Beckett's final year in pro hockey came in 1963-64. Like most players whose careers are winding down, Beckett took on a defensive role with the Reds. He was joined by Harry Ottenbriet, Ed Mazur and the three formed the BMO Line. Later, Larry Leach would replace Ottenbriet in the combination. Paying special attention to his defensive responsibilities didn't hamper Beckett's ability to hit the twine. His 29 points in 33 games were made-up of 14 goals and 15 assists.
Fernie Flaman raved about Beckett's ability to play a total game. "Bob's been our best two-way player this season and I'd definitely have to rate him one of our most valuable players."
I asked Beckett what it was like playing for his former teammate in Boston. "He really couldn't coach as he was still playing. He couldn't handle the team properly because it was impossible to both coach and play. He was a great guy. I remember when I first joined the Bruins he was captain of the team. He took me out after a game. He was a terrific gentleman."
|1963-64 Providence. Bob Beckett, 3rd player from right, middle row|
Known as an even tempered player, Beckett became the focus of a bizarre incident which took place on October 26, 1963. At the conclusion of play between Providence and Springfield, an altercation involving several members of the Reds and linesman Al Fontana erupted. Fontana came out punching as the matter escalated. Beckett and three other Reds were disciplined by AHL president James Balmer. Many were shocked with the revelation of Beckett's participation. This included Reds owner Lou Pieri. After further investigation, it was determined Beckett had nothing to do with the commotion as he wasn't even on the ice when the incident occurred! His $100 fine was successfully appealed and Beckett's reputation remained intact.
Beckett had his final go-round with the Bruins in 1963-64. Lacing up for seven NHL games, he recorded one assist.
In a total of 68 National Hockey League matches, Beckett posted 7 goals and 6 assists for 13 points. He spent a total of 18-minutes in the penalty box. He didn't see any playoff action with Boston.
Late in February 1964, Beckett broke a ankle and returned home to southern Ontario from Providence.
"I use to cut in off the right wing and once I got going it was hard to stop. On the play, goalie Cesare Maniago came sliding out and put his pad out. I went into the boards and broke my ankle," said Beckett in describing the play which lead to his injury.
On the subject of goalies, I asked Beckett about one of his teammates in Providence, Eddie Giacomin.
"I knew he was going to be good because he worked hard. I consider that I helped him quite a bit. He asked me to stay out and take shots on him after practice. He wanted to improve and he did."
Sensing the need for a veteran presence, the Portland Buckaroos secured Beckett's services and brought him to training camp to prepare for the 1964-65 season. Playing in the Western Hockey League, Portland coach and general manager, Hal Laycoe, had high hopes Beckett's ankle was on the mend. It didn't take him long to determine his prized acquisition couldn't make a go of it.
"I went to camp but I couldn't play because every time I put on my skates, the ankle would swell. Then arthritis set in. Even to this day there is soreness," stated Beckett some 47-years after attending his final pro camp.
Laycoe expressed his concern over the situation. "We recruit only a few players compared to most other teams in the League and when one of those is lost, particularly one that we were counting on as a potential all-star, it has to create a situation of major concern. It's next to impossible to replace a player of this caliber at this late date," voiced the ex-NHL defenceman.
Under these circumstances, Bob Beckett's professional hockey career came to an end.
Living and working in Providence was a joy for Beckett. He makes every effort to attend reunions, like the one which took place this summer. "It was great to see all the players. The City was a great place. The fans were amazing. They were behind us 100 percent.
The highlight of his career in the game he loved to play?
"Coming home and playing my first game in Maple Leaf Gardens. Everyone wanted tickets and wanted to see me play which was very nice."
Beckett told me a wonderful story involving his dad.
"The Rocket tried to hit me in one game and he bounced back and fell down. That is all my dad could talk about," said Beckett with a beaming smile.
When each hockey year came to a close, Beckett would return to his home in Ontario. "I had a summer job as a millwright. I took it up as a trade and kept at it following my hockey career."
By the mid-1960s, Beckett was back on the ice with the NHL Oldtimers. With his new teammates, he played in a couple of games per week and the club would practice every Sunday morning in Maple Leaf Gardens. On many nights, the Oldtimers would teach their opposition a thing or two. Going up against a much younger squad in the Varsity Blues from the University of Toronto, the former NHL stars played them to a 3-3 draw. Keeping pace with the fresh legs from U-of-T was Bob Beckett who scored one of the goals for the Oldtimers.
|Bob Beckett, October 2011|
Coming full circle, I asked Beckett about the photograph of himself and Carl Brewer.
"I remember it was in the Star Weekly Magazine. Most of the article was about Carl. He had his arms wrapped around me and I was sort of carrying him. The strain is visible on our faces. The play developed as I was coming around the net. I still get people sending me copies of the photo to autograph."
For many, it was the initial step in getting to know Bob Beckett.