Thursday, May 31, 2012

Gretzky said What?

For a brief moment, I thought the heat was finally causing damage to my brain cells. Somehow,  messages were being scrambled or, perhaps, a simple case of not believing what was before my eyes.

What brought all this about? A headline at which read, "Gretzky: Playoff MVP Award Should Be Named After Beliveau".

Beliveau, being Jean Beliveau, the legendary captain of the Montreal Canadiens. The sports network quotes Gretzky from a piece penned by Larry Brooks of the New York Post.

"What I'd like to see is the Conn Smythe Trophy be renamed the Jean Beliveau Trophy, and have Beliveau come onto the ice with the commissioner to present the award to the MVP and then stay by the commissioner's side for the presentation of the Stanley Cup," explained Gretzky to Brooks.

As a youngster living in southern Ontario, Gretzky followed the exploits of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada. He watched with his grandmother, Mary Gretzky. During the broadcast, young Wayne shot rubber balls at his willing grandmother.

The Leafs were his team, although his favourite player was Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe.

Being a true student of the game, Gretzky always displayed a respect for the rich history of the sport. He showed an appreciation for those who built the game one brick at a time.

Howe was his hero, someone he admired both on and off the ice.

Gretzky met Gordie Howe in 1972 at the Kiwanis Great Men of Sports Dinner in Brantford, Ontario. At the time, Gretzky was 11-years-old.

When called upon to address the audience, Gretzky froze. Seeing his admirer struggling to get his words out, Howe sprang into action. He literally came to Gretzky's rescue.

"When someone has done what this kid has done in this rink, he doesn't have to say anything, " Howe told those in attendance.

At the age of 16, Gretzky joined the Soo Greyhounds to begin his time in Junior "A" hockey. Through his agent, Gus Badali, Gretzky insisted on being assigned the number 9, in honour of Gordie Howe. Unfortunately for Gretzky, Brian Gualazzi, a three-year veteran, already laid claim to the number. And coach Murray MacPherson wasn't about to make him relinquish it.

To start the season, Gretzky wore number 19, then 14, but he couldn't get use to not pulling a number 9 jersey over his head.

When Phil Esposito was traded in November 1975 from Boston to New York, the Rangers encountered a similar dilemma. Donning sweater number 7, Esposito's number in Boston, for New York was Rod Gilbert. No one, including New York's new acquisition, expected Gilbert to give-up the number he possessed since arriving on Broadway in the early 1960s.

Rod Gilbert hung up his skates for good after the 1977-78 campaign. On October 14, 1979, prior to a contest between New York and Washington, Gilbert's retired number 7 was lifted upwards to the rafters in Madison Square Garden.

Back in '75, the solution in Manhattan called for Esposito to wear 77, instead of 7.

If this pleased Espo, the Soo Greyhounds were of the opinion Gretzky should have no problem agreeing to a similar compromise. In the wink of an eye, Gretzky switched from 14 to 99.

Gordie Howe and the famed number 9 meant that much to Gretzky.

Later in his career, Gretzky made certain Howe was present, no matter the location, if he was on the verge of overtaking his idol in the NHL record book.

This concern and desire to recognize those who paved the way, makes Gretzky's current statement relating to Beliveau a tad puzzling.

Sure, most of us can understand that on one hand he is attempting to honour a Montreal icon.

In the same vain, he is making light of Conn Smythe's enormous contributions. Why rob Peter to pay Paul?

It can be said Conn Smythe saved professional hockey in the city of Toronto in 1927. The Toronto St. Pats, playing in the National Hockey League, were not performing to expectations on the ice, and this reflected on the box office receipts. Ownership, suffering from financial hardships, received an offer to purchase from interests in Philadelphia.

Sensing the consequences of selling to a group south of the border, Smythe assembled an ownership group and put in an offer.

History was put in motion. Smythe changed the team name to Maple Leafs, and Maple Leaf Gardens emerged on the Toronto landscape in November 1931. Stanley Cups followed and Hockey Night in Canada became an institution, first on radio, then TV.

This is one suggestion by the Great One that isn't so great.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sticking it to the Opposition

When I saw this vintage ad for Northland hockey sticks, one player popped into my thought process - Bobby Hull.

To this day, the image of Hull gaining speed from deep inside his own zone, then unloading a wicked blast, is embedded in my mind. As a youngster, it captivated my imagination. Looking back, it was my expectation that Hull might mortally wound a poor goalie, who was just trying to do his job!

For goalies in the Original Six era and beyond, it was a nightmare.

In his autobiography, Johnny Bower wrote, "facing Bobby Hull, let me tell you, it was scary no doubt about that."

"He had about the hardest shot in the National Hockey League as far as I'm concerned," noted the Hall of Fame goalkeeper for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"When he would wind up with that warped stick of his, look out. He had such good control of that stick, and there was no whip in it. It was hard as a rock. Just like a stiff golf club," wrote Bower in The China Wall - The Timeless Legend of Johnny Bower - with Bob Duff.

For hockey fans, it was a sight to behold. A Bobby Hull rush could bring the crowd out of their seats. The anticipation of what he was going to do with the puck, would keep them standing, holding their breath until it was time to exhale.

"Of all the shots in a hockey game, the one best loved by the fans and dreaded most by goalkeepers is the slap shot, " wrote Hull in his 1967 autobiography (Hockey Is My Game with Jim Hunt).

"The goalkeeper can see even less of it, because it's coming straight towards him. Usually the only chance a netminder has to stop a slap shot is by getting his pad in front of it, and I have heard at least one say that even through his pads the puck had a bite of a branding iron," noted Hull in another passage.

"Any player with experience will usually know the first time he uses a stick whether or not it suites him," the Golden Jet advised his young readers.

For Bobby Hull, his weapon of choice was the Northland Custom Pro.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

An Honour for Cummy Burton

It is always a special occasion when a former member of the Original Six era is saluted by his community.

Last week, I highlighted the NHL career of former New York Ranger Bill McDonagh,  who enters the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame on June 13, 2012.

This time around, a profile of Cummy Burton's National Hockey League journey with the Detroit Red Wings. He joins McDonagh as the newest inductee from hockey's golden age to be recognized by the Hall in Sudbury, Ontario.

A native of Sudbury, Burton tipped the scales at 170 pounds and measured five-foot-ten during his time in the game. Playing right wing, he started his junior career in 1952-53 with the Windsor Spitfires.

After one campaign in Windsor, Burton finished out his time in the OHA with the Hamilton Tiger Cubs. He spent a total of three years (1953-54 to 1955-56) in Hamilton, a club sponsored by the NHL Red Wings.

In his final year with Hamilton, Burton got the telephone call every player dreams of answering. He was being summoned by Jack Adams and the Detroit Red Wings.

Beyond the normal relationship between player and team, there was another connection involving Detroit and Cummy Burton. His uncle, Larry Aurie, was a former star with Detroit.

Aurie, spent 12 seasons in the Detroit organization, beginning in 1927-28 with the Cougars. Small in size - five-foot-six, 148 pounds - Aurie, patrolled the right wing. He captured two Stanley Cups (1936 & 1937), and topped the list for goal production in 1936-37. He lead the NHL by beating opposition goalies 23-times.

Cummy Burton fell under the influence of his famous uncle at an early age. Prior to playing junior, young Cummy would practice with the Oshawa Generals (OHA), who were coached by Aurie. It was a case of a mentor taking every opportunity to pass on his knowledge to a willing student.

Once Burton joined the junior ranks in Windsor, Aurie would travel from his Detroit home to observe his nephew in-action.

"Larry was like a brother to me," stated Burton when assessing his bond with Aurie.

The hard work paid-off in mid-March 1956 when the Red Wings came calling. Upon completing his final year in Hamilton, Burton joined the Red Wings to participate in practices.

His status changed when forward Murray Costello suffered a broken nose. Burton took his spot on the roster, having been called-up under the terms of the amateur tryout agreement.

Since his retirement in 1938-39, following one last game in a Detroit uniform, no player wore Aurie's number six. Although the number wasn't officially retired, Jack Adams kept it in mothballs.

When the opportunity arose for Burton to pull a Red Wings jersey over his head, consideration was given to his wearing number six. It would serve as a tribute to Uncle Larry.

"I don't want to wear number six until the day I join the Red Wings as a regular. I'll save it until I'm big enough for it," said Burton, who wore number twenty-one for three matches late in 1955-56. Also, he suited-up for three contests in the 1956 playoffs.

In 1956-57, Burton skated for the Edmonton Flyers in the Western Hockey League.

The next year, 1957-58, Burton once again found himself in the big-show with Detroit. He split the season between the Red Wings (26 games) and the Edmonton Flyers (35 games).

Watching Cummy Burton perform on video, provides insight on his style of play.

From the archives, I dusted-off a tape container with the label reading October 12, 1957. The two combatants were the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. In the line-up for Detroit was Cummy Burton.

Broadcast from Maple Leaf Gardens, the start of period two was just getting underway. Both clubs, having registered three goals apiece.

Early in the second, Detroit coach Jimmy Skinner sent out a line with Forbes Kennedy at left wing, Dutch Reibel at centre, and Cummy Burton at right wing.

It didn't take Burton long to get the attention of a national audience.

Inside the Leafs blue line, Kennedy propelled the puck behind Toronto's net. Marc Reaume, a defenceman for Toronto, gained control to the left of the Leafs cage and began to move up ice. As he skated forward, Reaume had difficulty maintaining possession. This caused him to peer down, putting himself in a vulnerable position. Cummy Burton, cruising along the right wing, had a line on Reaume.

And he didn't misfire.

Reaume, "took a terrific crash there, a good solid body-check," is the way Foster Hewitt described the play for those watching on Hockey Night in Canada.

The massive hit levelled Reaume. It was as though he skated right into a brick wall. Dazed, the Leaf rearguard was unable to get up for several moments. He required medical attention and seemed to be favouring his left shoulder.

At first glance, like so many others plying their trade in the game on October 12th,  Burton didn't appear to be an overly aggressive player when it came to physical contact. His walloping of Reaume was an indication Burton didn't shy away from a chance to take-out an opponent.

Later, Hewitt made reference to Burton as being "a rugged player."

Similar to his counterparts in the Original Six era, Burton played a positional game. His assignment being to protect his side of the ice. This was accomplished by going up and down his wing and looking after his responsibilities.

On offence, Burton pursued loose pucks, diligently forechecking to wrestle the frozen disc of vulcanized rubber away from Toronto. The aim, to apply pressure, hoping for a turnover.

When action shifted towards Detroit's end, Burton went on defence, looking to pick-up and snag his check. He would become entangled with his opponent, using a glove or stick to gain any advantage.

With time dwindling down in the later stages of period three, Burton demonstrated some jam on offence.

At Toronto's blue line, he scooped-up the puck along the right boards. He eluded Leaf winger Sid Smith by cutting to the middle. Sensing open ice, Burton set his sights on Toronto goalie Ed Chadwick. Using defender Jimmy Morrison as a screen, Burton fired a low shot. His scoring chance being denied by Chadwick, who kicked-out his skate to deflect the puck.

The visitors from the Motor City, departed Toronto with a 5 to 3 victory.

There is a twist when investigating Burton's point totals in the National Hockey League. Reference guides and other sources supplying statistical data, all credit Burton with accumulating two points. Both recorded in the assist column.

I came across at least three separate scoring summaries, which indicate he was awarded an assist on a goal.

The first two pertain to helpers in early 1957.

In a 6 to 3 loss in Montreal on November 2, 1957, Burton received an assist on Don Poile's goal at 9:10 of period three.

On November 9, 1957, Burton and his teammates visited Maple Leaf Gardens for a tilt against Toronto. At 12:54 of the final frame, Forbes Kennedy scored to pull Detroit even with Toronto at three-all. The officials gave a lone assist to Burton.

Of note, a game story written by the Star's Red Burnett, provides a description of Kennedy's tally. "In the ensuing scramble Cummy Burton caromed a pass off Jim Morrison's skates to Forbes Kennedy, who snapped it past Chadwick," wrote the Star scribe.

It is possible, Burton may have been stripped of his contribution towards Kennedy's goal. This makes sense as the puck hit Leaf defenceman Morrison, prior to landing on the stick of his linemate.

Cummy Burton's last kick-at-the-can with Detroit came in 1958-59. He was recalled from the Seattle Totems in February 1959.

With the Boston Bruins venturing into the Olympia on March 3, 1959, Cummy Burton produced his final NHL point.

And this wasn't just another late season encounter.

Billed as "Gordie Howe Night", the Detroit ace was showered with numerous gifts and tokens of appreciation. None bigger than a brand spanking new station wagon, containing several important passengers - Mr. & Mrs. Howe - Gordie's father and mother. It was the first chance for Mr. Howe to see his son perform in an NHL game, in-person.

Thanks to Marcel Pronovost, the home team jumped out to a first period lead at the 11:01 mark. The helpers going to Johnny Wilson and Cummy Burton. Detroit built-up a 2 to 0 margin, but Boston fought back with goals in the second and third periods. The contest ended in a 2 to 2 draw, with former Red Wing Johnny Bucyk beating Terry Sawchuk for the equalizer.

The Windsor Daily Star, described Pronovost's goal (Wilson/Burton) as follows:

Johnny Wilson out fought Don McKenney for the puck in the corner and Cummy Burton flicked the disc back to Pronovost, a couple of strides inside the Boston zone. He moved up and let fly a low, 30-footer that caught the cage past Lumley's right side for his seventh goal of the season.
Over a span of three seasons, Cummy Burton laced up his skates for 43 NHL regular season games. All with the Detroit Red Wings. Come playoff time, he took part in three post-season matches, but didn't register a point.

So, what became of the idea for Burton to wear his uncle's number six? The plan being he would don a number six jersey once he earned a regular spot in Detroit's line-up.

That time came following the Wings training camp in 1957.

A brief passage appearing in the Hockey News on October 12, 1957, shed light onto how the Wings were going to proceed when assigning numbers.

"...Burton is a nephew of the late Larry Aurie and will wear the famed number six that Aurie wore so well for Detroit...," informed the bible of hockey.

Harry Lawrence "Little Dempsey" Aurie, passed away on December 11, 1952.

There is little doubt he would have given his stamp-of-approval for Cummy to be the next-in-line to wear his number six. Not to mention, his nephew being inducted into the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Coaches Corner

While researching an obituary on Jerry Toppazzini, I came across an interesting coaches poll conducted late in the 1957-58 season.

Appearing in the Toronto Daily Star (March 1958), it provides wonderful insight into the state of the game, and identifies players who were performing at the top of their game.

The coaches involved were Milt Schmidt (Boston), Rudy Pilous (Chicago), Phil Watson (New York), Sid Abel (Detroit), Billy Reay (Toronto) and Toe Blake (Montreal).

As mentioned in the Toppazzini obit, he was selected as the top penalty killer. Listed below are the other choices made by the bench bosses for the '57-'58 campaign.

Best and fastest skater - Henri Richard, Montreal

Smartest player - Gordie Howe, Detroit

Best passer and playmaker, Gordie Howe, Detroit

Hardest shot - Boom Boom Geoffrion, Montreal

Most accurate shot - Maurice Richard

Best stickhandler - Larry Regan, Boston

Best man on breakaway - Maurice Richard, Montreal

Best puck carrier - Gordie Howe, Detroit

Best referee - Eddie Powers

Best fighter - Fern Flaman, Boston

Best defensive forward, checker - Red Sullivan, New York

Best hustler, hardest worker - Red Sullivan, New York

Hardest bodychecker - Leo Boivin, Boston

Most underrated - Tom Johnson, Montreal

Most improved - Forbes Kennedy, Detroit

Best goalie on screened shots - Terry Sawchuk, Detroit

Best goalie, man against man - Terry Sawchuk, Detroit

Best defensive defenceman - Doug Harvey, Montreal

Best attacking defenceman, Bill Gadsby, New York

Nine of the above players played in the Stanley Cup final, which featured Montreal and Boston.

Montreal, who were in the midst of winning five consecutive Cups (1955-56 to 1959-60), captured their third straight prize on April 20, 1958. Montreal's 5 to 3 win in Boston Garden gave them a four games to two Cup victory.

The coaches poll providing a nice snapshot on the skills of those players who helped their clubs make it to the final.

Friday, May 18, 2012

More of the Blues

Recently, I penned a piece on the St. Louis Blues being the first 1967 expansion club to reach the Stanley Cup final - Full Story.

Coming across a VHS copy of the Blues first regular season tilt in Toronto, I couldn't resist watching the game. It was played on December 30, 1967.

The night previous to their encounter with Toronto, St. Louis hosted Pittsburgh at home. The Blues edged their opponent 2 to 1, with Gerry Melnyk connecting for the game-winning-goal.

Instead of departing for Toronto immediately after their Friday evening game, St. Louis travelled by air on Saturday morning. They arrived at noon, which left little time to prepare for the Leafs.

Toronto fans, hoping to see a couple of  established NHL stars now donning a Blues uniform, would be disappointed. Glenn Hall was a scratch due to the death of his father on Christmas Day. Former Canadiens winger Dickie Moore was sidelined with cracked ribs.

After spending many, many hours working on research, it is a pleasure to witness footage of events on tape, as opposed to digesting newspaper reports and content contained within a biography or historical account. Having just finished the research for the Blues Cup run in 1968, it only added to the anticipation of viewing the telecast from late 1967.

For the opening face-off, coach Scotty Bowman sent out a line consisting of Red Berenson (centre), Don McKenney (left wing) and Gerry Melynk (right wing). On defence, Barclay Plager and Jimmy Roberts patrolled the blueline. The starting netminder was Seth Martin.

Right from the get-go, it was evident Toronto found their skating-legs before St. Louis. At 1:36 of period one, Mike Walton scored to give Toronto the lead. The distinctive tone of public address announcer Paul Morris telling one and all of the vital statistics. The Leafs would add two more tallies in the opening frame (a second by Walton and one by Jim Pappin) and head into the intermission up by three.

Goalie Seth Martin was forced out of the game at 10:20 of period two with a pulled groin muscle. The Leafs were in command having built-up a 5 to 0 margin.

Martin's replacement, Don Caley, had a stunning resemblance to another goalie - Terry Sawchuk. Bill Hewitt and Brian McFarlane, working on the broadcast for Hockey Night in Canada, both commented on this aspect.

Caley had the Sawchuk "look" down-pat. His mask was similar to the legendary puck-stopper, who began his career with Detroit, and Caley adapted what has come to be known as the Sawchuk Crouch. While most in the goaltending fraternity kept the top portion of their body straight, Sawchuk bent over at the waist. This allowed him to maneuver more quickly on his skates and provided improved vision of screened shots.

Once in his cage, Caley was peppered with warm-up shots from his teammates. This is one tradition which sadly disappeared over time. For those who weren't fortunate enough to see an NHL battle in-person, it was a rare opportunity to witness the process.

Although the Leafs hammered St. Louis 8 to 1, the lopsided score didn't dampen the experience. There was so much to take-in. Don't forget, almost forty-five-years has passed since the NHL doubled in size.

Of course, the first thought is to compare the quality of the '67 game with the present day product. Very quickly, it becomes evident pursuing this avenue is a waste of time. Way too many factors come into play - different era, different equipment, different ice conditions, different coaching methods, different mentality - to accurately determine how much the game has improved or not improved.

One aspect remains in place - hockey is hockey - no matter the generation. The pure enjoyment of soaking-up two rivals fighting for every inch of ice never becomes mundane.

Here are some observations from December 30, 1967.

It was interesting how the flow of action wasn't all north-south. On numerous rushes, the last option involved a routine shoot-in. Instead, stickhandling and passing became key skills.

The most physical player for either squad was Bob Plager. A big, rugged defenceman, Plager dished out several punishing hits. Also, he didn't hesitate to expose himself to injury by dropping low to block shots. Without any head protection, a wicked blast could inflict major damage.

Away from the conflict at ice level, it was a delight to bask in the atmosphere and mood surrounding the event.

To start, the broadcast was recorded in glorious black and white. For many of us, this is the format we recall being on our TV screen as we enjoyed a soft drink and a snack, while watching with family and friends.

Crowd shots captured by the camera provided insight on the importance of attending a game at the Gardens. Both men and women, young and old, dressed in their Sunday-best. Sure they didn't make much noise, but their response to situations, good or bad, didn't seem contrived or over-the-top.

Then, there is the venue - Maple Leaf Gardens.

All eyes and attention glued to the ice surface, with no markings or signage causing a distraction. The place for promotion or marketing wasn't on the ice or boards. The location for this sort of material was situated away from the action.

Behind Johnny Bower, at the south-end of the Gardens, were two signs divided by a clock framed in a Christmas reeve. One sign read "MERRY CHRISTMAS", and the other "HAPPY NEW YEAR".

At the north-end, a sign promoted an upcoming game to be held at 60 Carlton. On January 7, 1968, the Italian Nationals were scheduled to take-on the Canadian Italians.

When the final bell rang to mark the conclusion of play between Toronto and St. Louis, balloons were dispersed from the Gardens rafters.

"We wish everyone, everywhere, a very happy, prosperous New Year, 1968," said Bill Hewitt to a national audience.

For the St. Louis Blues, it would be both a prosperous and happy New Year. Their initial trip to Toronto was one stop on their long journey to the Stanley Cup final.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

An Honour for Bill McDonagh

On June 13, 2012, Bill McDonagh will be inducted into the House of Kin Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame - Full Story.

McDonagh's brief period in the National Hockey League came with the 1949-50 New York Rangers. Weighing 150 pounds and standing five-foot-nine, McDonagh played left wing. He became property of the Rangers in a cash transaction, which occurred in the summer of 1949.

The Rangers '49-'50 regular season started with an encounter against Montreal in the Forum on Saturday October 15, 1949. It also marked McDonagh's debut in a Rangers uniform.

Montreal defeated the visitors from Broadway by a score of 3 to 1. In a losing effort, New York goalie Chuck Rayner faced 37 shots, and kept his team in the contest. The game was tied at one-apiece after forty-minutes of action. Third period goals by Elmer Lach and Rocket Richard led to Montreal's win.

Of note, McDonagh made his one and only appearance in an NHL Summary Sheet (other than being listed in the line-up). In the middle frame, McDonagh was assessed a minor-penalty.

The next night, New York was in Boston to help the Bruins kick-off the home portion of their season. With McDonagh in the line-up, the teams skated to a 2 to 2 draw. Scoring for New York were Edgar Laprade and Buddy O'Connor. Hitting the twine for Boston were Paul Ronty and Kenny Smith.

Prior to the opening face-off, NHL President Clarence Campbell, presented the Lady Byng Trophy to Bill Quackenbush. Another Bruin, Ronty, was awarded the Charles F. Adams Memorial Bowl. Voted on by Boston fans, it acknowledged the player deemed most effective during home dates in Boston Garden.

New York continued on the road, with an encounter versus Detroit on October 19, 1949. McDonagh and his teammates were no match for the defending league champs (the Wings finished in first place with 75 points in '48-'49). Detroit goalie Harry Lumley, missed out on a shutout when Buddy O'Connor scored in the final-minute of period three. The Red Wings coasted to a 6 to 1 victory.

After their tilt in the Motor City, the Rangers headed to Toronto for a match at Maple Leaf Gardens. McDonagh was a scratch, and didn't play for New York.

Bill McDonagh's performed in his final NHL game on October 25, 1949, in Chicago Stadium. In a close-knit contest, the Rangers earned their first win of the young season.

Chicago took a first period lead on a goal by Metro Prystai. Over the next forty-minutes, Rayner kept the Black Hawks off the scoreboard. The next two tallies were scored by Alex Kaleta and Edgar Laprade, giving New York a 2 to 1 win.

Former NHL players Cummy Burton and Jimmy Fox will also be entering the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame in June. Burton, will be featured in an upcoming story.

Monday, May 14, 2012

New York Rangers 1939-40

With their 2 to 1 victory in game seven over Washington, the New York Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. The Rangers are the lone Original Six franchise still in the hunt for Lord Stanley's silverware.

The Blueshirts from Broadway last won the Cup in 1994 against Vancouver. Fifty-four-years prior to this, the 1939-40 squad was the last Manhattan team to celebrate winning the big prize. Their first championship came in 1927-28, followed by another in 1932-33.

In 1939-40, the New York Rangers were guided by Lester Patrick and Frank Boucher. At the management level, Patrick served as general manager, and Boucher as assistant GM. Behind the bench, the roles were reversed, with Boucher as coach, and Patrick in the position of assistant coach.

Boucher, a superstar player for New York, was coming off his first year coaching the New York Rovers in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League. After one term directing the Rovers, he was elevated to the parent club. His appointment was announced in July 1939, during a press conference held in the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa.

Under Boucher, the New York Rangers finished in second-place with 64 points, three shy of league leading Boston. Following 48 regular season contests, New York amassed 27 victories, 11 defeats and 10 draws. In one stretch, they went 19 games without a loss.

Despite being a rookie NHL coach, Boucher proved be to no slouch at his craft. With a fresh face in-charge, came fresh ideas.

When the Rangers were attempting to pull-off their 20th game without a loss, they found themselves in-tough against Chicago. Late in the final period, New York trailed Chicago by a score of 2 to 1. As time ticked down, Boucher went to work, and introduced one of his new concepts. In the second intermission, he briefed goalie Dave Kerr on his strategy.

The plan was unique. With approximately 1:30 remaining, Boucher pulled Kerr, who was replaced on the ice by Ott Heller. At this point all-hell broke loose. Lester Parick, who was positioned by the penalty box, started yelling at his coach, stressing he had too many players on the ice. Paul Thompson, the bench boss for Chicago, heard Patrick shouting at Boucher. The Hawks coach immediately voiced his concerns to the referee.

Lester Patrick & Frank Boucher
Instead of action continuing, the on-ice official whistled down the play, and assessed a penalty against New York. No one took note of New York's net being empty. And this included the "Silver Fox", Lester Patrick!

Protests made by Boucher were ignored by the referee. The Rangers fell 2 to 1 in Chicago Stadium. In defeat, Boucher started a trend which is now the norm.

That wasn't the end to Boucher's trailblazing ways. In 1939-40, he focused on special teams, with attention to how his team performed when down-a-man.

It was customary for NHL coaches to concentrate on defence when their opponent went on the power play. Boucher, acting on a suggestion by Ranger Neil Colville, decided to try something different. His team would mount an attack, rather than sitting back and protecting the area within their blueline.

Like any decent coach, Boucher drilled this new philosophy into his team during practice.

Once everyone was in sync, Boucher implemented his new innovation. A forward line consisting of Mac Colville, Neil Colville and Alex Shibicky, were instructed to penetrate the offensive zone. Their objective being to hem-in the other team and create turnovers. Hopefully, these would be converted into scoring chances. While the forwards went deep, defenceman Art Coulter patrolled the oppositions blueline.

Writing in his autobiography ("When The Rangers Were Young" with Trent Frayne), Boucher described the results. "Over the season we outscored our opponents almost two to one when we were shorthanded," w Boucher.

When action turned up-ice to the Rangers end, Boucher had another trick up his sleeve - the box defence. In this alignment, Ranger players defending against a power play, formed a box. This forced play to the perimeter, resulting in low percentage scoring opportunities.

New York opened the 1940 playoffs at home against Boston on March 19th. The two clubs participated in a Semi-Final series (best-of-seven), while Chicago faced Toronto in a Quarter-Final series (best-of-three). The other Quarter-Final pitted Detroit against the New York Americans.

The Rangers won their showdown by eliminating Boston four games to two. In three of their four victories, goalie Dave Kerr posted a shutout.

Following their Quarter-Final wins, Detroit met Toronto in a best-of-three Semi-Final. The Leafs swept Detroit, setting the stage for the Stanley Cup Final to begin on April 2, 1940.

Although New York held home ice advantage, only two matches were held in Madison Square Garden. Due to a circus being booked into the Garden, games one and two would be it for local fans to stand and cheer their team.

Realizing the importance of this, New York made the most of getting some home-cooking. They won both encounters before heading north to Toronto.

In games three and four at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto evened the series with 2 to 1 and 3 to 0 wins. The heroes were Hank Goldup, who scored the winning goal late in game three, and Turk Broda, who shutout the visitors in game four.

Game five was a thrilling affair, with the score tied at one apiece after sixty-minutes. The extra-time extended to the second overtime period, when Muzz Patrick scored to put his team one victory away from a parade along Broadway.

On April 13, 1940, Toronto was faced with a do-or-die scenario. Once again, the drama hit a fever pitch, when two tallies by New York in the final frame forced overtime. A goal by Alf Pike at 10:01, knotting the score at two-all.

New York thought they scored a third marker at 17:14, when Phil Watson grabbed a loose puck in the crease and sent it past the goal line. The go-ahead-goal was waived-off by referee Bill Stewart. He ruled that Bryan Hextall, who was on top of Broda, made it impossible for the Toronto goalie to make a save.

Hextall, played on New York's third line with Dutch Hiller and Phil Watson. A native of Grenfell, Saskatchewan, Hextall would make-up for his faux pas at 2:07 of OT.

As Hiller carried the puck into Toronto's zone, he lost possession. His linemate Phil Watson, gained control of the black disc along the boards. Heading for the Toronto cage was Hextall. After taking a pass from Watson, an open Hextall lifted a back-hand into the net.

It was the Rangers second Cup win on Maple Leaf Gardens ice. Seven-years to the day, on April 13, 1933, New York captured all-the-marbles with a 1 to 0 victory over the Blue and White.

Looking back on the Rangers Cup win in 1940, Boucher heaped nothing but praise on the men who made it all possible. "It was the best hockey team I ever saw," noted Boucher.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Blues

Catching a couple of St. Louis Blues home playoff games on the tube took me right back to 1968.

St. Louis was the first expansion (1967) franchise to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. It seemed so strange to watch Montreal - the other Finalist - go up against a non-Original Six club for all the marbles.

With the dawn of hockey's second-season in the spring of '68, a new dance partner would emerge from the Western Conference to face one of the Senior teams. For fans who cheered in Toronto, Chicago, New York, Detroit or Boston, it would be a case of wait-until-next-year.

 It was an exciting time to be a fan of the National Hockey League. There was plenty to follow, with a flood of new players skating in the league.

In an era, where television was restricted to Saturday night and  mid-week contests, the Blues didn't receive much TV exposure in the Toronto market.

That all changed when St. Louis faced Montreal in the Final. Instead of just reading game reports involving the Blues, it was an opportunity to see them play in their home rink.

Like any new experience, there was so much to take-in. Forty-four-years later, several memories still remain.

Being a Maple Leaf fan, I was pulling for St. Louis to upset the Canadiens. It was bad enough the Blue and White didn't even qualify for post-season play. But to watch Montreal be crowned as new Cup champions would be too much to absorb. Remember, the Leafs were the defending champs. For one series, my allegiance shifted to another group of players - St. Louis became my team.

The second memory is the in-game presentation of a contest played in the St. Louis Arena. In particular, the work of organist Norm Kramer. His ability to churn out tunes which got the crowd clapping and involved in the action was thrilling to observe. The mood was set before the first drop-of-the-puck. When the St. Louis players stepped onto the ice, they were serenaded by Kramer's rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Built by general manager Lynn Patrick and his staff, the Blues were coached by Scotty Bowman. In 1967-68, St. Louis finished in third-place with 70 points. They trailed Western Conference leader, Philadelphia, by 3 points.

Come playoff time, St. Louis opened-up against Philadelphia, followed by the Minnesota North Stars. In each series, the Blues dodged elimination by taking the seventh and deciding games.

This set the stage for the Stanley Cup Final versus Montreal.

In addition to the newness of the event, several factors contributed to the fascination of St. Louis meeting Montreal.

The Montreal connection on St. Louis started with coach Scotty Bowman. His career began in the Montreal organization, with St. Louis providing employment at the NHL level. He took over the bench duties after Patrick stepped down early in the campaign to concentrate on his role as GM.

On the ice, St. Louis had several former Canadiens in their line-up. Included on the roster were Doug Harvey, Red Berenson, Jean-Guy Talbot, Jimmy Roberts, and Dickie Moore.

Standing-out in this group was Moore. Following his retirement in 1963, the Canadiens superstar attempted a comeback with Toronto in 1964. He only got into 38 games with his former rival. Moore signed with St. Louis on December 3, 1967. In 27 regular season matches, he potted 5 goals and 8 points.

His real value came in the Stanley Cup tournament.

The crafty veteran finished tied for second in playoff scoring, with 14 points in 18 games. Point leader Bill Goldsworthy amassed 15 points.

Could this collection of ex-Habs pull-off the ultimate upset?

Their cause was aided by superb goaltending from former Chicago Black Hawk Glenn Hall. From a competitive angle, St. Louis didn't disappoint.

In game one, in St. Louis, the two teams went into extra-time. The matter was settled when Jacques Lemaire scored at 1:31 of overtime. His tally giving Montreal a 3 to 2 victory.

Game two, was another tight contest, with the goal light only coming on once. The hero for Montreal was Serge Savard. The rookie defenceman was used primarily as a spare rearguard and penalty killer by coach Toe Blake. With Dick Duff banished to the box for two-minutes, Savard beat Hall to give his team a one goal advantage. The Blues were unable to beat  Gump Worsley, who manned the crease for Montreal.

Play shifted north for games three and four in Montreal. The pesky newcomers kept pace with Montreal in game three, but it was another cliff-hanger for their supporters.

Red Berenson, who was obtained from New York on November 29, 1967, tied the score in game three, with less than three-minutes remaining on the clock. His marker knotted the score at three apiece. In overtime, the Canadiens once again needed little time to claim victory. At 1:13, Bobby Rousseau hit the twine to put Montreal one game away from a Cup celebration.

On May 11, 1968, game four took place in the Montreal Forum. Similar to games one through three, the second contest in Montreal was a close affair. In a do-or-die scenario, St. Louis held a 2 to 1 advantage after forty-minutes of play. Dick Duff opened the scoring, but St. Louis rebounded on goals by Craig Campbell and Gary Sabourin.

While the middle frame belonged to the Blues, period three was Montreal's chance to shine. And the player firmly planted under the spotlight for Montreal was defenceman J.C. Tremblay.

Early in the third, Tremblay set-up a goal by Henri Richard. At the 11:40 mark, Tremblay got a goal of his own to give the home-side a 3 to 2 lead. Firing the puck from the face-off circle, Tremblay's blast got past Glenn Hall.

There was no further scoring, and Montreal became the first post-expansion Stanley Cup winner to break-out the champagne.

For the Montreal faithful it was both a time to rejoice, and a time to say goodbye to Toe Blake. The legendary bench boss retired, with Claude Ruel taking over the reins in 1968-69.

Commenting on the St. Louis series, Blake told the assembled press core, "St. Louis got great goaltending, and, because of it, were rarely behind in the score for any length of time in the games. That meant they didn't have to open up," said Blake. "They could play their tight, checking style and wait for the breaks. They stayed on top of us with their checking. We didn't get a chance to really break out against them," stated Blake prior to departing into the sunset,

Anyone expecting a lopsided Final, would have been disappointed. Although they didn't record a victory in the Final, St. Louis was a fine representative for the six new teams. With a game plan in place, St. Louis put their best-skate-forward, but it wasn't enough to defeat the more experienced opponent.

For St. Louis, there was cause for celebration, despite falling to Montreal in four-straight. Goalie Glenn Hall was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy (Playoff MVP).

There was no need for the organization, and their fans to sing the blues.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Who is the Greatest Player to never Win the Stanley Cup?

Who is the greatest player to never win the Stanley Cup? Names in the hat would include Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perreault, Pat Lafontaine, Mike Gartner and Phil Housley.

My vote goes to former NHL defenceman Brad Park.

Brad Park's finest NHL campaign came in 1973-74. In 78 contests with the New York Rangers, he posted 25 goals to go along with 57 assists. His 82 points placed Park in tenth-spot amongst league scoring leaders.

Over an eight-year period, Park was runner-up in balloting for the James Norris Trophy (Top Defenceman) on six occasions. His main competitors were Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin and Larry Robinson. In this case, Park is the greatest defenceman never to win the Norris Trophy.

In order to secure Lord Stanley's gift to hockey,  a player must first make it to the big dance. This is where Brad Park skates circles around the likes of Dionne, Gartner and Peter Stastny.  Park's playoff activity is the main reason he gets my nod as the greatest player never to win the Cup. Sure, defenceman Phil Housley and company may have produced better regular season numbers, but their stats are no match for Park's productivity come spring-time.

Park's participation in post-season action is documented in the NHL Record Book. His 17 consecutive trips to the playoffs gives Park a share of the fourth longest streak in league history (tied with Ray Bourque and Kris Draper). Also, he played in three Stanley Cup Finals - 1972 (New York), 1977 and 1978 (Boston).

He was no slouch once hockey's second-season got underway. He shares third-spot with Bobby Orr for "most goals by a defenceman, one playoff year." In 1978, Park scored nine goals for Boston. In 161 playoff matches, Park amassed 125 points (35 goals & 90 assists).

Noted for his skills on both offence and defence, Park was no stranger to the rough stuff. In an era dominated by the "Big Bad Burns," Park marched his hesitant teammates into battle. His competitive nature led to fisticuffs with Ted Green and Johnny "Pie" McKenzie. Two of the toughest warriors in the Bruins line-up.

Park was recognized for his leadership qualities by coach and general manager Emile Francis. After the 1973-74 season, Park added the captains "C" to his jersey.

In September 1972, Brad Park was a member of Team Canada. He suited-up for all eight games against the Soviet Union. He was one of only seven players to accomplish this feat. Following game eight, Park was named co-player of the game, along with Paul Henderson. This provides some insight into his contributions, taking into account Henderson scored the series winning tally.

His NHL totals tell the tale - 1,113 (games played), 213 (goals), 683 (assists), 896 (points), 1.429 (penalty-minutes), 5 (First All-Star Teams), 2 (Second All-Star Teams), 1 (Bill Masterton Trophy) - of a Hockey Hall of Fame career (1988).

A collector's issue of The Hockey News selected the Top 50 Players of All-Time. The list included several modern day players who never won a Cup - Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perreault and Brad Park.

Another individual not listed as a Cup winner is Newsy Lalonde. The Hockey News selections and corresponding data deal strictly with NHL statistics and results. He did, however, win a Stanley Cup in 1915-16, when the Montreal Canadiens were members the National Hockey Association.

In a confrontation versus the Portland Rosebuds, Newsy Lalonde and his teammates went the distance against the Western Champs. In a best-of-five Stanley Cup challenge, Montreal won the fifth and deciding contest by a score of 2 to 1.

There is an interesting historical aspect relating to the 1918-19 Cup Final. And Newsy Lalonde is part of the story. By this time, Lalonde and the Montreal Canadiens were part of the National Hockey League.

Montreal and the Seattle Metropolitans (PCHA Champs) faced-off in the Final. It was the first year of a new Cup format, where the series would be a best-of-seven affair.

After five matches, both teams collected a pair of victories. Game four ended in a scoreless draw, with officials halting play following one-hour and forty-minutes of overtime.

Due to an influenza epidemic, the Final came to a close with no Stanley Cup winner being declared. Cup trustees had no other option, but to move in this direction. In game five, players were falling ill, and subsequently required bed rest.

That was a best case scenario. Joe Hall, who starred for Montreal, didn't survive. He died of influenza on April 5, 1919, in a Seattle hospital.

Game two featured Newsy Lalonde taking centre stage. He netted all four goals in Montreal's 4 to 2 victory.

His opportunity of winning a Cup in the newly formed league came to a sad end after game five. Players from both rosters were stripped of a chance to have their names engraved on hockey's biggest prize. The impact of a medical emergency taking its toll, so powerful it took away lives, dreams and aspirations.

As a means of addressing the question at hand, Lalonde will be classified a Cup winner for his result in 1915-16. After all, a Stanley Cup Champion is a Stanley Cup Champion, no matter which league is handing out the silver bowl.

With this in mind, we are left with Dionne, Perreault and Park from The Hockey News list.

In this group-of-three, who is the player with a commanding edge in playoff experience? Brad Park.

The greatest player never to win a Cup.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Jerry Toppazzini: 1931-2012

After winning the first three games in their Memorial Cup showdown with the Winnipeg Monarchs, the Barrie Flyers were on the verge of a series sweep. With game four pencilled in for May 7, 1951, the obstacle facing Barrie wasn't the Monarchs, but the Winnipeg Amphitheatre.

Prior to game time, a valve broke in the ammonia plant, resulting in fumes being dispersed throughout the building, and game four being rescheduled  for the next evening, May 8th.

For Jerry Toppazzini and his teammates, the delay only strengthened their resolve to end matters as quickly as possible.

Playing in his final game as a junior, Toppazzini wasted no time putting Barrie on the scoreboard. His tally at 3:49 of the first period, against Don Collins, set Barrie on the path to victory. Toppazzini added a second goal early in the middle frame, as the Flyers coasted to a 9 to 5 win and a Memorial Cup championship.

On April 21, 2012, Jerry Toppazzini passed away at the age of 80.

Following his stint as an amateur, Toppazzini was assigned to the Hershey Bears to begin his pro career in 1951-52. His rights were held by the Boston Bruins. In 54 contests with Hershey, Toppazzini scored 20 goals and produced 45 points.

During the 1952 playoffs - the six-foot-180 pounds - Toppazzini was summoned by the Bruins for their series against Montreal. With both clubs winning on home ice, action shifted to the Montreal Forum for game five. Going along for the trip were Toppazzini and goalie Gordon Henry.

Although Toppazzini never took part in game action, it was an experience to be with the big league club, and to get a taste of what life was like in the National Hockey League.

Toppazzini's chance to stay with Boston came in 1952-53. To the surprise of many, he didn't crack the squad at his usual right wing position, but as a defenceman.

Coming out of training camp, Boston's blueline consisted of Hal Laycoe, Bob Armstrong, Warren Godfrey and Bill Quackenbush. When Armstrong couldn't answer the bell for a tilt versus Montreal, Boston called-up Frank Martin from Hershey. This plan fell through when it was discovered Martin had a charley-horse injury. The job fell to Toppazzini, who became Boston's fifth defenceman.

In this role, Toppazzini received spot duty from coach Lynn Patrick, filling in when necessary.

When Warren Godfrey went down with an injury, Toppazzini was given a shot at gaining a regular spot on the Bruins blueline.

His debut as a starter came when Boston faced Chicago on November 9, 1952. Toppazzini didn't disappoint. Not only did he tend to his defensive responsibilities, but he chipped in with two assists.

The star of the night for Boston, Fleming MacKell, scored a hat trick. Initially, MacKell's second goal was given to Toppazzini. During the intermission he claimed the goal wasn't his, and the officials credited MacKell with the goal.

It didn't take long for Toppazzini to record his first goal in the National Hockey League. A crowd of over 8,000 Bruin fans were in Boston Garden to witness the event on November 23, 1952. With Leaf rearguard Leo Boivin off for holding, the home team went on the power play. At 10:19 of period one, Toppazzini beat Toronto goalie Harry Lumley to provide Boston with a two goal cushion. The helpers on Toppazzini's first NHL marker went to Milt Schmidt and Woody Dumart.

As the '52-'53 season progressed, Toppazzini proved to be a versatile performer. By mid-February, he notched eight goals, with five scored at right wing, two at left defence, and one at centre.

The next year, 1953-54, Toppazzini was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks. The February 16, 1954 transaction saw the Bruins securing the services of Gus Bodnar in exchange for Toppazzini. Boston management, fearing an injury to Milt Schmidt would weaken their attack at centre, made the deal for Bodnar.

Over the next two years ('53-'54 & '54-'55), Toppazzini skated in 84 matches for Chicago. His point total only reached 35 with his new club.

An off-season trade in May 1955, sent Toppazzini to the Detroit Red Wings. Suiting-up for only 40 games with Detroit, he only scored once. He fired home Detroit's final goal in a 5 to 2 victory over Montreal on January 5, 1956.

There was a familiar face in the crowd when Toppazzini scored his lone goal as a member of the Detroit Red Wings - Lynn Patrick. Sensing Toppazzini could turn around his game with a second tour-of-duty in Beantown, Boston traded for their former prospect on January 17, 1956.

Lynn Patrick and company certainly assessed the situation correctly. In 1956-57, Toppazzini's goal production hit 15 in 55 games. Late in December 1956, he was asked about his sudden knack for lighting-up the goal lamp. "The big difference this season in confidence and experience. When I shoot the puck this season, I'm not just hoping - I'm expecting it to go in," explained the Boston forward.

Toppazzini's season was cut short due to a serious injury suffered on February 7, 1957. Detroit star, Ted Lindsay, described the collision between himself and Toppazzini, which resulted in the Bruin being hospitalized for a period of time. "He was coming at me head-on and I was moving towards him. I automatically brought up my stick," said Lindsay.

Lindsay's stick-work inflicted serious damage on Jerry Toppazzini's face. He suffered fractures and lacerations to the nose and face. He didn't return to the ice until a game in New York on March 13, 1957. He missed 14 games, and failed to score in the final 5 contests of the regular season. Many believe he was on pace to hit the twenty-goal mark for the first time in the NHL, a feat he would accomplish in the next campaign.

His most productive year on the goal front did indeed come in 1957-58, when he got 25 past opposition goalies. On the subject of his goal scoring prowess, Toppazzini said, "All I asked was a chance to play regularly. I had to learn to play all over again, and it wasn't until this season started that I began to feel right on the ice. My reflexes were gone, but they've been all right for some time now."

Also, Toppazzini earned a reputation for being an excellent penalty killer. In March 1958, the Toronto Daily Star conducted a poll which included all six NHL coaches. Toppazzini, was voted the top penalty killer.

The next year, he once again reached the benchmark of 20 goals, hitting the twine 21 times.

Toppazzini played in 783 National Hockey League games, amassing 407 points (166-Goals & 244-Assists). When his time in Boston came to a close after the 1963-64 season, he played in Pittsburgh (AHL) and Los Angeles (WHL). His final stop coming in 1967-68 with the Port Huron Flags (IHL).

As described previously, Toppazzini became a versatile asset with Boston during his early years in the organization. He held his own, tackling the difficult chore of converting from forward to defenceman, then getting back in sync as a right winger.

On Sunday October 16, 1960, Jerry Toppazzini completed the cycle.

When Boston goalie Don Simmons went down with a cut eye, courtesy of an Eric Nesterenko blast, the Bruins were in need of a goalie. With only 30-seconds left in period three, and trailing Chicago by an insurmountable score of 5 to 2, Boston selected not to employ a substitute netminder. Instead, Toppazzini guarded the Bruins cage, taking his spot between the pipes. He didn't bother exchanging his shin pads for goalie pads. The Hawks never got a shot on goal after Toppazzini replaced Simmons.

Jerry (Gerald) J. "Topper" Toppazzini was born in Copper Cliff, Ontario on July 29, 1931. He passed away on April 21, 2012.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Forty-Five and Counting

The headline beneath a photo on the front page of the May 3, 1967, Globe and Mail read, "Leafs Defeat Canadiens to win Stanley Cup."

It would be the last time Toronto fans experienced the thrill of rejoicing in a Stanley Cup championship.

On the evening of May 2, 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3 to 1, thus winning the Final  four-games to two.

Most of us are aware of Toronto's victory in Maple Leaf Gardens during Canada's centennial year, but how many can recall the last major championship to be won in the historic arena, prior to the Leafs in '67?

In May 1966, the Edmonton Oil Kings and Oshawa Generals took to the Gardens ice to battle for the Memorial Cup championship.

The Oshawa Generals, with Bobby Orr patrolling all zones on the ice, reached the Final by defeating the Shawinigan Bruins and North Bay Trappers. The Edmonton Oil Kings eliminated the Estevan Bruins in the Western Final.

Coached by Bep Guidolin, Oshawa were favoured to capture the Memorial Cup, with a line-up which included Orr, Bill Heindl, Danny O'Shea, Wayne Cashman, Nick Beverly, Bill Wilkins and Ian Young. Orr, who was already under the hockey spotlight for his brilliant play, suffered an injury in game one of the Final. The future Hall of Famer could control the pace of a contest on both defence and offence, thus making his injury a major concern for Oshawa.

L to R - Danny O'Shea, Ian Young, Bobby Orr
With Orr hampered by a groin problem, the Oil Kings were ready to take advantage.

Their roster included Garnet Bailey, Al Hamilton and Bob Falkenberg. On loan from the Estevan Bruins were Jim Harrison, Al Lonsberry and Ted Hodgson.

The Oil Kings took the series in six games, capturing the Memorial Cup on May 15, 1966, before 5,018 spectators in Maple Leaf Gardens. They defeated the Generals by a score of 2 to 1.