Monday, June 29, 2015
REMEMBERING WALLY STANOWSKI: 1919-2015
One of the great pleasures of spending time with Wally Stanowski came when he told a good ole fashion hockey story.
Like this one about when he arrived in Toronto to face the Oshawa Generals at Maple Leaf Gardens to determine the 1938 Memorial Cup champion.
"That was with St. Boniface," Stanowski told me back in February 2012. "It was terrible the first time. Artificial ice is a hell of a lot slower than natural," which Stanowski skated on in his hometown. "Our first practice at the Gardens, if you threw a pass to your teammate it wouldn't get there because the puck was slow. It took a while to get adjusted."
Then, Stanowski got to the meat of the story.
"It kind of surprised me," Stanowski said after informing his visitor of a bribe letter he received at his downtown Toronto hotel room between Memorial Cup games. "I was supposed to skate behind the net and pretend I was lacing my skate, which meant I'm going to go along with it."
After thinking the situation over, Stanowski, then an 18 year-old kid, knew he had to do the right thing.
"I gave the letter to my manager," Stanowski stated 73 years later. "I was going to do it as a gag, but I didn't just in case we lost."
And what compensation were the gangsters promising Stanowski for his co-operation?
"They offered me $100," he replied without a hint of regret that he didn't sell-out. His reward came when the St. Boniface Seals won Canada's junior title.
On June 28, 2015, hockey lost one of its oldest storytellers when Wally Stanowski passed away at the age of 96.
I first met Wally Stanowski when I began attending the hockey oldtimers lunch in Markham, Ontario. Over time, I interviewed him on numerous occasions for my blog and other projects I was working on.
Despite his advanced age, Stanowski's memory remained intact as he remembered the past.
Walter Peter Stanowski was born on April 28, 1919, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
"My dad was a blacksmith and mother didn't work," Stanowski stated in a lengthy interview I conducted for The Society for International Hockey Research in June 2014.
"My mother bought me a pair of skates for $2.95 and they were brand new," Stanowski recalled of his opportunity to ditch the lady blades he had been wearing. "They were size 9 and at that time I was wearing size 5, but I was suppose to grow into them," he said with a chuckle. "That is how tight money was in those days."
Due to the turbulent financial times in the 1920's, Stanowski's dad had doubts about hockey as a career for his son.
"My dad didn't want me to play hockey. He wanted me to be a blacksmith. He used to do some welding and repair all the wagons with wooden spokes. He made carts for the farmers as he was pretty good with his hands."
When asked if he played organized or pond hockey as a youth, Stanowski answer was one that many generations could relate to.
"We had quite a few open-air rinks in Winnipeg. They also built a cabin at the rink. The boards were about two-and-half feet high and the rest was snow, which we cleaned off before playing shinny."
While strutting his stuff on the outdoor rink, little Wally Stanowski's favourite hockey player was Boston's Eddie Shore. "He was an all-round type of player," Stanowski said of Shore's ability to execute at both ends of the ice.
Before becoming a teenager, Stanowski's first taste of organized hockey came in a playground league. "We played another outdoor rink team. There must have been 10 more more of those outdoor rinks."
While in junior with St. Boniface, the New York Americans added his name to their negotiation list.
"I attended their training camp at Calgary in 1938. I remember being told to slow down that I already made the team and I had nothing to prove."
There was a reason the New York Americans didn't want Stanowski displaying his "A" game at camp. "I didn't know they made a deal with Toronto," Stanowski said of the agreement between the two clubs. "Toronto had the rights to pick any player from the camp. That's why they told me not to skate so hard and take it easy. That's how I became a Leaf."
After winning the Memorial Cup, Stanowski turned pro with Toronto and spent the 1938-39 season in the American Hockey League with Syracuse.
He joined the Maple Leafs defence in 1939-40. His first coach in Toronto was Dick Irvin, who was behind the Maple Leafs bench in 1932, when they captured the Stanley Cup in their first year at Maple Leaf Gardens.
"He was a bad coach," Stanowski said of his new mentor. "He didn't teach me a thing. I thought here I'll learn something, but no."
In 1940-41, Hap Day, a former Leaf defenceman took over the coaching duties in Toronto. "Hap was very good. He got instructions from Smythe, but he did a lot of good things on his own."
His partner on Toronto's blue line was Bingo Kampman, with Stanowski being the take-charge guy.
"I was the one with the Leafs that if a puck came into our zone and I could get hold of it, they couldn't stop me from getting it out of our zone.
Stanowski's ability to effortlessly skate up ice and participate on offence, then motor back to attend to his defensive responsibilities was the greatest asset of his game.
"I would say as far as skating is concerned, in my opinion, Stanowski was the fastest skater," Boston Bruins legend Milt Schmidt told me in 2012, when I asked him to name the top speedster on Toronto's defence in the 1940's.
No one would argue with Schmidt's appraisal of Stanowski.
And that included Conn Smythe. On October 18, 1939, he described Stanowski's style of play to a local reporter.
"He plays defence as though he was swivelled at the hips. He skates sweepingly with legs spread out. You can rock him but he is harder to knock down than Joe Lewis," Smythe said of his rookie rearguard.
Under new coach, Hap Day, Stanowski's game flourished in his second term in Toronto. He earned a spot on the 1941First All-Star Team, joining Boston's Dit Clapper. This achievement was one of Stanowski's fondest memories.
In season three, Stanowski and his teammates reached hockey's tallest mountain. As a result of winning the 1942 Stanley Cup, Stanowski and the other Maple Leafs remain a part of hockey history. Unable to gain a win in the first 3 games against Detroit, the Leafs took the next 4 contests and remain as the only club to accomplish this feat in the Stanley Cup Final.
Like many players from that era, Stanowski's NHL time was interrupted due to World War Two. He returned to Winnipeg along with his friend and fellow Leaf, Pete Langelle, and served as physical fitness instructor in the RCAF. While in the service, Stanowski skated for the RCAF Bombers.
Upon being discharged, Stanowski returned to the Maple Leafs and added three more Stanley Cups - 1945, 1947 and 1948 - to his trophy case.
His Stanley Cup in '48 was bittersweet, as it marked the end to his wearing the Blue & White.
The background on his escape from the Maple Leafs and Conn Smythe is another delightful story that can only be told by Stanowski.
Decked out in a comfortable blue plaid shirt and with a stream of smoke billowing from the bowl of his pipe, Stanowski sat back in his chair during one of my visits and told me about his trade to the New York Rangers in June of 1948.
"That year they didn't play me and I thought I've got to go to a team where I can play."
To accomplish this, Stanowski knew he would have to be proactive in getting the ball rolling.
"I told a Toronto reporter of my intention to quit hockey and go into business on my own. He was the only one I told. My wife didn't even know."
Like a hunter who sets a trap, Stanowski took cover and waited for his trap to work.
"I knew the reporter would take that information up to Smythe. He was a tattletale and he would get a favour from Smythe."
As the story goes, the reporter did go to Smythe with the information and shortly thereafter, Stanowski was traded to the New York Rangers. This transaction only occurred after Stanowski talked with Frank Boucher, who ran the Rangers.
"I understand you are going to quit," Boucher said to Stanowski.
"I have no intention of quitting," Stanowski told his future employer.
Secure in the knowledge he had a commitment from Stanowski, the Rangers manager made the deal with Smythe.
Aware that he could lose one of his assets without getting a return, Smythe took the bait planted by Stanowski. He wasn't going to call Stanowski's bluff.
In New York, Stanowski played a full season in 1948-49, but he wasn't so lucky for the balance of his time in Manhattan.
When the Rangers came to Toronto for a contest on January 21, 1950, their coach, Lynn Patrick, commented on the impact injuries were having on his club.
"Injuries, especially the one to Wally Stanowski. That one really hurt. Wally was the key man in our defence in front of Rayner. To make matters worse, we don't know how long he will be out."
A knee problem kept Stanowski on the sidelines for an extended period of time, and he only saw action in 37 contests during the 1949-50 campaign.
At training camp preparing for the 1950-51 season. Stanowski suffered an ankle injury, which hampered him from getting into game shape.
"He missed six or seven games early in the season and with six defencemen hasn't had much chance to play himself into condition," Frank Boucher said of Stanowski's slow start.
But the worst and final injury of Wally Stanowski's hockey career came on December 23, 1951.
The career-ending mishap took place during an encounter between the Cincinnati Mohawks and Indianapolis Caps. An American Hockey League farm team of the Rangers, Stanowski was assigned to Cincinnati to begin the 1950-51 hockey year.
The Mohawks and Caps were locked in a 3-3 tie after sixty-minutes of play and went to overtime. But 47-seconds into the overtime period, Stanowski's skates got tangled with the boards and he broke his left leg. That would be Wally Stanowski's last game as a professional hockey player.
In his retirement, Stanowski continued to lace-up his skates and play hockey for the NHL-Toronto Oldtimers. Billed as "The Whirling Dervish" due to his flamboyant skating style, Stanowski continued to entertain crowds with his moves.
I last spoke with Wally Stanowski prior to the Chicago-Tampa Bay Stanley Cup Final and I asked him which club had the best chance of being crowned hockey's new champion. Needing no time to ponder his answer, Stanowski quickly told me Chicago would emerge victorious, the old pro demonstrating he still kept in touch with the game and could spot a winner.
The lunches on the first Monday of each month won't be the same now that Wally is gone. As the oldest living former Toronto Maple Leaf, he was the elder statesman of the group.
Similar to a hockey dressing room, Wally had his usual spot in the restaurant. When someone called attention to him, all eyes knew exactly where to turn to find Wally. That will no longer be the case, but we will have his rich and wonderful stories to remember him by.