Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fern Flaman: 1927-2012

My encounter with Fernie Flaman came right out-of-the-blue.

Walking down Bay Street in Toronto on a blustery November day, I kept my head down to provide additional protection from the harsh winds coming off Lake Ontario.

As I glanced over my right shoulder to observe the Air Canada Centre, I quickly returned my focus to the steps before me.

Looking up, I noticed a gentleman approaching from the traffic lights ahead. Wearing a seasonal trench coat, he travelled at a decent pace.

With each forward advance, I became more and more convinced the person coming in my direction had a familiar face.

Finally, a light went off in my head. All doubt erased as the gap between us became smaller. I was about to come face-to-face with Hall of Fame defenceman Fernie Flaman.

I thought about that day when I read about Fernie Flaman's recent passing.

Fernie Flaman played in his first National Hockey League game with the 1944-45 Boston Bruins. The next season, Flaman once again appeared in one contest for Boston. His early arrival in big league hockey was due to many NHLers serving  time in World War Two. With a thinning line-up, Boston, like many NHL clubs, turned to the youngsters in their system to fill-out the roster.

Flaman, took full advantage of the opportunity. From the 1946-47 campaign to 1949-50, he donned the Bruins uniform in 208 games.

While patrolling the Bruins blue line, Flaman developed a reputation for being a solid stay-at-home defenceman, who excelled in the physical game. When Flaman took to the ice, opposing forwards were wise to take note of their surroundings.

Early in the 1950-51 hockey year, Flaman's career took a turn north, when he was included in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Joining Flaman in the November 16, 1950 transaction were Ken Smith, Phil Maloney and Leo Boivin. Going in the other direction to Boston were Bill Ezinicki and Vic Lynn.

Commenting on the deal, Conn Smythe noted, "Flaman, an aggressive player, will be on call at Pittsburgh (AHL) if we run into further injuries."

"He's a good player and could be a replacement for Juzda (Bill), who has only a couple of seasons left," said Smythe of future plans for Flaman.

Following the exchange with Boston, Conn Smythe made a trip to Cleveland to watch his new acquisition play in a road game.

"Pittsburgh's defence played well. Fernie Flaman, Pete Backor, Tim Horton and Frank Mathers were all good," Smythe told the press upon his return to Toronto.

If Flaman had any concerns about being buried in Pittsburgh with the Hornets, there was no need for him to worry. When defenceman Hugh Bolton suffered a shoulder injury in a Sunday tilt against Boston, the Leafs summoned Flaman for a Wednesday game versus Montreal on December 20, 1950.

It didn't take Flaman long to make an impression on the 12,639 spectators in Maple Leaf Gardens. Not to mention, coach Joe Primeau and general manager Hap Day.

Just past the five-minute mark of period one, Flaman opened the scoring by beating Gerry McNeil in the Montreal goal.

Then, late in the game, Flaman exhibited his ability to engage in the rough stuff.

His comments following a battle with Canadiens rookie Tom Manastersky, gave Leaf fans some insight into the nature of their new defenceman. "Manastersky cross-checked me across the ear. There's no reason for anything like that, so I swung at him," said Flaman.

At practice the next day, Primeau worked with his new rearguard, teaching him the ins-and-outs of Toronto's defensive system.

Fernie Flaman's time in Toronto worked wonders for his game. It was the opinion of the brain trust in Boston that Flaman wouldn't progress beyond his physical contributions. Eventually, with age, even those skills would diminish.

Arriving in Toronto, Flaman was given a chance to enhance his abilities. Working with his coach made all the difference.

"There is a more personal touch to the coaching. There's more interest taken in the individual," Bill Juzda told reporter Al Nickleson, a point shared by Flaman in Nickleson's piece.

"That helps a lot. It not only makes you a better player, but it makes you want to be a better player, so you can show them their personal instruction hasn't been wasted," stated Juzda.

"After all, practice makes perfect. I think that's a big point in the Leaf system and is what helps to make them the best coached team," added Flaman.

By the time playoff action rolled around in 1951, there was a noticeable change in Flaman's style. And it didn't come at the expense of his ruggedness taking a backseat.

Writing in the Hockey News, Bob Hesketh outlined Flaman's evolving skills:

And he developed into more than it looked as though he would. With Boston he had never impressed people in Toronto with any skating ability. Now Hap Day, Smythe's number one assistant, claims that his stride has lengthened, he's digging and he's skating and carrying the puck with the best of the back porch boys

On April 21, 1951, Flaman and his Toronto teammates celebrated a Stanley Cup win over Montreal. The Cup winning goal coming in overtime, thanks to Bill Barilko's historic tally.

Flaman would remain a Maple Leaf until an off-season trade in July 1954 sent him back to Boston. On the same day, July 20th, 1954, the Leafs shipped forward Danny Lewicki to the New York Rangers. Sensing a need to replace Lewicki with another scoring forward, Smythe and company dealt Flaman back to his NHL roots for Dave Creighton.

Over the next seven seasons, Flaman piled his trade for Boston. He became team captain in 1955-56 and under his leadership, Boston advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1957 and 1958. Unfortunately for Boston, they went up against a powerful squad in Montreal and couldn't wrestle Lord Stanley's mug away from the Habs.

The ultimate recognition of Flaman's contributions to hockey came in 1990, when he was elected as an honoured member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

As I talked with Flaman on that November day, he told me he was in Toronto for the Hall of Fame weekend. Flaman explained he made the trip each year to welcome new inductees into the fold.

I will never forget my brief chat with Mr. Flaman.

Fern Flaman was born on January 25, 1927 in Dysart, Saskatchewan. He passed away on June 22, 2012.

During the Original Six era, Flaman skated in a total of 910 NHL regular season games, amassing 208 points (34 goals & 174 assists) and accumulating 1370 penalty-minutes. His playoff numbers include 63 games, 4 goals, 8 assists, 12 points, and 93 penalty-minutes.

Fernie Flaman was named to the NHL Second All-Star Team in 1955, 1957, and 1958. He played in 6 NHL All-Star Games (1952, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959).

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