Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Huge Loss For Hockey

Last week, I shared my memories of meeting the late Pat Quinn.

In a very short period of time, the hockey world also mourned the passing of Murray Oliver, Gilles Tremblay and Jean Beliveau.

Murray Oliver was born on November 14, 1937, in Hamilton, Ontario. His first crack at NHL action came while he was still in junior with the Hamilton Tiger Cubs. When the Detroit Red Wings came to Toronto to play the Leafs on February 1, 1958, Gordie Howe was out of their line-up with a rib injury.

Since Hamilton was only a skip-and-a-jump away, Murray Oliver and his teammate, Brian Smith, were summoned by the Wings. Also getting a ticket to Toronto was NHL veteran Tony Leswick. A member of Detroit's farm team, the Edmonton Flyers, Leswick was expected to get the majority of playing time over the two youngsters.


The contest at Maple Leaf Gardens turned out to be a difficult outing for Detroit. Sparked by four goals from the brother duo of Barry and Brian Cullen, the Leafs hammered Detroit by a 9-2 score. In his debut, Oliver registered his first National Hockey League point, an assist, on a second period goal by Red Kelly.

"Called up by the Wings to fill injury gaps, were two juniors and an Old-Timer," Al Nickleson wrote in The Globe and Mail. "From the Hamilton Cubs came forwards Murray Oliver and Brian Smith. They certainly weren't the worst on the ice."

Both juniors accompanied the Wings to Detroit for the back-end of the home and away weekend games, but they didn't get off the bench. Oliver and Smith returned to Hamilton in time for the Cubs contest on Monday evening.

Only 19 years-old, Murray Oliver had a potential option if a life in hockey didn't pan out. In the summer of 1957, he signed a contract to play ball in the Cleveland Indians system. A centreman in hockey, Oliver played shortstop when he took to the diamond.

On the strength of his final year in junior (1957-58) Oliver's future definitely was in hockey. His 90 points in 52 games resulted in him being named league MVP and capturing the "Red" Tilson Trophy.

Beginning in 1959-60, Oliver earned regular employment in the NHL. He skated in 1,127 games with Detroit, Boston, Toronto and Minnesota. When his playing time came to an end in 1974-75 with the North Stars, Oliver had scored 274 goals and 454 assists for 728 points.

Gilles Tremblay was born on December 17, 1938, in Montmorency, Quebec. He began his journey towards the NHL in 1955-56 with the QJHL Quebec Victorias. The next year, Montreal placed him in the OHA. His new junior team was the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens.

While still in junior, Tremblay got a taste of the pro game in '58-'59 when the Canadiens main farm team, the Rochester Americans, called him up for a three game try-out. After the trio of games in the AHL, Tremblay returned to Hull-Ottawa.

Prior to graduating out of junior, Tremblay put in a season (1959-60) in the Eastern Professional Hockey League. The following year, he started in the EPHL, but after 14 contests the Montreal Canadiens wanted a close look at their prospect.

Early in 1960-61, Montreal hovered at the top of the standings, but were playing a loose defensive game. To help resolve this problem, the Habs promoted Tremblay.


His first National Hockey League game was played on November 12, 1960, at the Montreal Forum. Tremblay's big league career got off on a winning note as Montreal downed Detroit 4-2.

Next up for the rookie was an engagement on Broadway. After disposing of the Red Wings on Saturday night, Montreal travelled to New York to face the Rangers.

At the 15:26 mark of the opening frame, Gilles Tremblay netted his first NHL goal and it came against a future teammate, Gump Worsley. A UPI report described the tally as follows:

Tremblay's goal was a beauty. He took a pass from Jean Beliveau, skated around New York defenceman Jim Morrison and moved in alone on Worsley. The rookie left winger then faked Worsley twice before depositing the puck behind the confused Ranger netminder.

Impressed with how Tremblay handled himself, Canadiens management made a move to keep him on their roster. Another freshmen, Bobby Rousseau, was sent back to Hull-Ottawa while Tremblay remained in the big-show.

Over the next seven seasons, Tremblay was a mainstay with the Montreal Canadiens. He took part in 509 NHL games and connected for 168 goals and 162 helpers. A four-time Stanley Cup champion, Tremblay hung-up his skates in February 1969. An asthma problem was the major factor in his deciding to retire.

Gilles Tremblay remained in hockey as a broadcaster and excelled in his new craft. In 2002, Tremblay entered the Hockey Hall of Fame after being named the recipient of the Foster Hewitt Award.

Jean Beliveau was born on August 31, 1931, in Trois -Rivieres, Quebec.

After teasing Montreal management and fans of the club for several years, Beliveau finally took up residence in the Habs dressing room in 1953-54. It would end with him becoming a Honoured Member in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Many adjectives can be used to describe Beliveau's career on the ice. Iconic and legendary are the most fitting taking into account his status after making his exit in 1971. Along with Rocket Richard and Guy Lafleur, the Montreal faithful adored Beliveau. He set the example for his teammates and future generations.


Beliveau earned this reputation by rising to the top game-in and game-out and displaying leadership qualities. His pure talent and size allowed him to dominate. With this, came the accomplishments and awards (Stanley Cup, Hart Trophy, Art Ross, Conn Smythe, All-Star Game appearances, record setter).

"He was one of a kind, a classic," former New York Ranger Rod Gilbert told author Mike Ulmer in 1996. "Jean Beliveau was probably the best player in the NHL. He was a typical centreman with lanky strides and vision to both sides. You talk about Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, Beliveau was as good as them."

After the news of Beliveau's passing broke, I spoke to Danny Lewicki, who entered the NHL in 1950-51 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. To this day, Lewicki remains as the only player to have won a Memorial Cup, Allan Cup and Stanley Cup while still eligible to play junior hockey.

"There have been many great hockey players in my era and Jean Beliveau was certainly one of the tops," Lewicki said. "Not only as a player, but off the ice he was a complete gentleman. He was very caring and hospitable to anybody and everybody. He never said no."

During the age of the Original Six teams, ownership and management frowned on their players fraternizing with the opposition. However, once they left the game they were no longer tied to the shackles.

"Over the years we became very good friends Jean and I," Lewicki proudly stated. "In fact, on my 80th birthday he sent me his book and signed it 'to Danny Lewicki on his 80th birthday.' He was just a super guy."

Lewicki's analysis of Beliveau on the ice pretty well sums up the opinion of most connected to the game.

"He was a great hockey player. He wasn't dirty and he had the ability that a lot of people just didn't have in that era."





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