Thursday, January 13, 2022

PHIL SAMIS: 1927-2022


On January 11, 2021, Dr. Phil Samis, the oldest living former Toronto Maple Leaf, passed away at the age of 94. He died at the John M. Parrott Centre located in Napanee, Ontario. Samis was born on December 28, 27 in Edmonton, Alberta.

At the 16, Samis travelled east to attend school and play junior hockey at St. Michael's College School in Toronto. At the high school, he captured a Memorial Cup championship in 1945. He closed out his time in the Ontario Hockey Association in 1947 with the Oshawa Generals. 

In the fall of 1947, Samis signed his first pro contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs and was assigned to their farm team, the Pittsburgh Hornets, of the American Hockey League (AHL). Though not a large man, his stout, but solid frame, enabled him to be a physical force on the Hornets defence.

Samis got his break in the NHL when the Leafs' post-season got underway in 1948. As a result, he became a Stanley Cup winner when the Leafs swept the Detroit Red Wings in the Cup final.  Samis is pictured above holding a photo of the 1948 Stanley Cup team.

The Maple Leafs of that era were well equipped on the blueline and although the team was satisfied with his performance in the playoffs, Samis was unable to gain a spot on the Leafs' roster. 

Dispatched back to the AHL, Samis remained with the Hornets until he was traded to the Cleveland Barons on April 6, 1950. On April 22, 1951, Samis and his Cleveland teammates, defeated the Hornets and were crowned champions of the AHL.

In 1953, Samis closed out his hockey career with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior Hockey League. He left the game to concentrate on his studies to become a dentist. Samis had a thriving practice in Montreal for more than 40 years.

I wrote a detailed piece on Phil Samis on his birthday in 2020. Here is a link to the story...


Saturday, December 25, 2021


click to enlarge

Left to Right

Seated: Ivan Irwin, Wally Stanowski, Jerry Junkin, Bert Conacher 

Second Row: Howie Menard, Ron Hurst, Howie Morenz, Jr., Santa Claus, Jim Morrison, Pete Conacher, Frank Mahovlich

Back Row: Gary Collins, Bob Nevin, Steve Vickers, Danny Lewicki, Ron Hoggarth, Bob Beckett, unknown, Ron Wicks, Bruce Hood

Monday, December 20, 2021

AL SHAW 1940-2021


As we gathered for the annual Original Six Alumni Christmas Lunch on December 5, 2021, one couldn't help but think of Al Shaw, who passed away on October 25, 2021.

Al was the heart and soul of our monthly lunch. He truly cared for those that mostly played for the love of the game. Al worked feverishly to make certain their stories and careers remained in the limelight. 

I remember thanking him for all he did, but Al wasn't having any of it. He told me, "It's not about me, it's about those guys that played the game." 

Each year, I updated a contact list that Al asked me to prepare. I suggested to Al, that in addition to adding new contact details, we delete those who died. Al looked at me and I could see the change in his expression. He just couldn't go along with the idea that the names of Wally Stanowski, Bob Beckett, and many, many more be permanently erased from list he looked at each month.

This shows how deeply Al cared about the Oldtimers, and even though they had passed, he liked to remember them as he made his monthly calls to advise of the date for the next lunch. I will miss that call from Al.

In addition to the lunch, Al planned our yearly visit to the Veterans Wing at Sunnybrook Hospital. He took great pride in this outing and made sure everything was just right. He had an amazing passion and dedication for this event. 

I will never forget the wide smiles when Johnny Bower or Dick Duff mingled through the jammed packed hall and stopped to chat, sign autographs, shake a hand or pose for a photo. Often, a veteran shared a memory of Bower and Duff to them, and it was time for the former Leafs to smile. All this was possible thanks to Al Shaw.

There was nothing more important to Al Shaw than his family. Al's daughter, Shelley, penned a heartfelt piece about her dad. Here are some excerpts:

"My dad was a kind and caring man. He extended his heart and wisdom to us and so many of our friends, neighbours and family ... He had lots of quotes that he left with the grandchildren to help them get through life, like 'stay well' and 'keep your stick on the ice' ... Our father was always a guiding hand and the memories of his love for us will be strong as we begin a new life without him. We have comfort knowing that he is watching over us and our special memories will always live on."

I last saw Al on October 16 at the celebration of life for his brother-in-law, Jim Anderson. We talked about the upcoming lunches and the continued impact of COVID. Al was determined to keep the ship on course and safely sail into the future.

Sadly, we have lost our skipper.

Friday, October 15, 2021



Last month, PBS aired the documentary, Muhammad Ali. It is directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon.

Of particular interest is the second episode, Round Two: What's My Name? (1964-1970). It includes a segment on the heavyweight fight between Ali and George Chuvalo at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Events leading up to the fight had a ripple affect that resulted in a Toronto hockey legend, Conn Smythe, taking a stand and not budging from same.

The "What's My Name?" in the title pertains to Ali changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. On March 6, 1964, the head of the Black Muslims, Elijah Muhammad, made the announcement that Cassius Clay would now be known as Muhammad Ali. Earlier, Clay, in accordance with his new faith, took the name Cassius X, but was thrilled with the change by Elijah Muhammad. "I am honored," said Ali upon hearing the news.

While Ali welcomed his new name, many inside and outside of the boxing world, refused to acknowledge or call him by his Muslim name. On every occasion when someone refused to address him as Ali, he would correct them and not let it slide. For opponents in the squared ring, who didn't call him Ali, they faced a ferocious physical assault and a fierce taunt from Ali asking them "What's my name?" 

Embroiled in hostilities with Vietnam, the war put Muhammad Ali and his religious convictions in conflict with the United States government. As a Muslim, he sought to have his draft status changed in March 1966, on the basis he was a conscientious objector. As Ali stated, "I got no quarrel with the Viet Congs. Why should I be drafted? These Viet Congs are fighting a very nasty war. There's a lot of people over there getting killed." 

With most Americans supporting the war, statements like this one made by Ali, didn't endure him with the public. And, it didn't sit well with various Athletic Commissioners across the States. A purposed March 29, 1966, tilt between Ali and heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell was rejected by a number of commissioners, including those in the boxing hotbeds of New York and Chicago. It was originally scheduled to be held in Chicago. Also, it was turned down by the city of Montreal.

On March 7, 1966, came the news the Ali-Terrell fight would take place at Maple Leaf Gardens. "The fight will take place in our building, unless there is disproval from the Ontario government," stated Maple Gardens vice-president Harold Ballard. "We're aware the fight is on the run, but by holding it here we've got a chance to replace Madison Square Garden as the site of big indoor bouts."

The next day, Leslie Rowntree, the labour minister for Ontario, sanctioned the fight. "This application is in order and complies with all the regulations of the Province which permit and control professional boxing," Rowntree told the press.

However, the heavyweight title bout was down for the count when Ernie Terrell pulled out because he didn't like his deal with Maple Leaf Gardens and Bob Arum of Main Bouts Inc. The current World Boxing Association champ was upset with changes related to the live gate guarantee, ancillary rights and expense money. "In the new contract, there is no guarantee," said Terrell. "I haven't received any expense money and Maple Leaf Gardens wants me to sign a contract whereby I would have to fight George Chuvalo two months later for Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto."

Just as quickly as Terrell dropped out, George Chuvalo signed a contract on March 11 to fight Ali at the Gardens. Chuvalo was represented by Irv Ungerman. "George has been training for three weeks, but not the way he would for a big fight," said Ungerman. "Now we have to get sparring partners and get to work in earnest by Monday."

What the Ken Burns documentary didn't mention was the huge impact the fight had on the inner workings of Maple Leaf Gardens Limited. Upon being advised of the Gardens' involvement, Conn Smythe put the wheels in motion to leave the company. 

Smythe and his associates purchased the Toronto St Patricks in February of 1927 and changed the team's name to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their next order of business was to construct a new edifice for the Leafs to play in and host other sports and entertainment events.

Maple Leaf Gardens, often referred to as "The House Smythe Built," first opened its doors on November 12, 1931, when the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Chicago Black Hawks. Smythe and J.P. Bickell were the driving forces behind the construction of the hockey palace on Carlton Street in downtown Toronto. It was an amazing feat that the building was put up in five months during the harsh depression of the 1930s. 

Right from the start, Smythe and his hockey team thrived in their new home. On April 9, 1932, they captured their first Stanley Cup at the Gardens. Under Smythe's supervision, they went on to win six (1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949 & 1951) Stanley Cups.

Smythe's rein as the ultimate hockey boss of the Leafs ended in 1957, and a review of the minutes of a board of directors meeting provided the details on the new hockey department set-up. At a board meeting on May 9, 1957, Smythe presented the following resolution: "That the Board of Directors approve the appointment of a Hockey Committee to consist of Messrs. John Bassett, Ian S. Johnston, Stafford Smythe, G. Gardiner, W. Hatch, G. Mara and J. Amell, to operate the hockey part of the Maple Leaf Gardens' business with respect to personnel, organization, operation and policy, but that the financial end will be the direct responsibility of the Board of Directors."

In November 1961, Smythe put further distance between himself and Maple Leaf Gardens Limited, when he sold his shares in the company to his son, Stafford Smythe. In the minutes of the board meeting on November 23, 1961, it reveals that Smythe went a step further: "... He, therefore tendered his resignation as President and Managing Director and coupled it with the nomination of Mr. Stafford Smythe to succeed him ..."

This didn't spell the end of Conn Smythe's tenure with the Gardens. After informing the board of his stock dump and packing in his job as president and managing director, the board moved to keep Conn Smythe in the fold. The minutes from the November 23 document what was up next for the elder Smythe: "Mr. Stafford Smythe then stated that he and his associates Mr. Bassett and Mr. Ballard, would like to nominate Mr. Conn Smythe to be Chairman of the Board, and Col. MacBrien to be Honorary Chairman. Col. MacBrien resigned as Chairman of the Board and on motion, unanimously passed, Mr. Conn Smythe was elected to the office of Chairman of the Board and Col. MacBrien was appointed to the office of Honorary Chairman."

Perhaps more than hockey, Conn Smythe's love for his country is what drove him as a person. His life in the military began on October 19, 1915, when he signed his Attestation papers to participate in World War One. It contained the following oath: 
I, Conn Smythe, do make Oath, that I will be faithful and bear Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs and Successors, and that I will as in duty bound honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, in Person, Crown and Dignity, against all enemies, and I will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, and all of the Generals and Officers set over me. So help me God.

During World War Two, Smythe encouraged everyone associated with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens to join a military outfit. He came to the realization that this included himself. Smythe explained his position in his 1981memoir, If You Can't Beat 'Em in the Alley:

For years I had been talking to hockey players in military terms - telling them what real soldiers were like, how much they would do for their team, how much they'd give, and how brave they had to be to survive, when war came I had to face that. Had I been talking fiction or fact? Was I a fraud or did I live up to my own principles? I had made myself out to be a warrior and tried to make my players be warriors too. I thought it was up to me to lead by example.

At the age of 46, Smythe formed a Sportsmen's Battery to take overseas. As the name indicates, it was composed mainly of people from the sports world. On September 5, 1941, with Conn Smythe as the commanding officer, the 30th Battery became active with the 7th Toronto Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery.

The 30th Battery, eventually made its way to Caen in France. On July 25, 1944, the unit came under attack and Smythe suffered a severe back injury when hit by piece of shrapnel. As Smythe put it, "The jagged piece of metal that apparently had done all the damage was still sticking quite a way out of my back." The pain remained with Smythe for the balance of his life.

With a past dedicated to service and principles based on the oath he took in 1915, Conn Smythe was livid when Harold Ballard and the Gardens agreed to be part of the boxing match that included Muhammad Ali.

The stark contrast between Smythe and Ali couldn't be any wider. These men were from very different generations; Smythe, though older than the normal age guideline, was part of the great generation that fought in World War Two; Ali was part of the silent generation, which incorporated the civil rights movement. Smythe's and Ali's deep rooted convictions were based on their social conditions, environment and faith. In the case of Ali, his Muslim faith played a huge part in his pursuit of an exemption from military service. 

Smythe was a decorated veteran, who fought in two World Wars, while Ali was trying to avoid the draft.

Under these circumstances, Conn Smythe, while on vacation in Florida, called John Bassett, who was now chairman of the board. As Bassett noted in a statement, "Col. Smythe phoned me on Monday morning (March 7) to say that if the fight went forward, he was so upset he would resign."

Smythe recalled his conversation with Bassett in his book. "This fight has been kicked out of every place in the U.S. because Clay is a draft dodger and a disgrace to his country. The Gardens was founded by men - sportsmen - who fought for their country. It is no place for those who want to evade conscription in their own country. The Gardens was built for many things, but not for picking up things that no one else wants."

The next day, Smythe sent a telegram to Bassett and repeated his intention to resign if the fight wasn't cancelled. Bassett took the position that Smythe only offered his resignation and at this point, the board wasn't accepting the offer. 

Another factor that bugged Smythe was the fact the content of the telegram was released. "I did not intend this wire to be made public because I didn't want to fight the case in the newspapers,"said Smythe. "I'd like to know how Mr. Bassett released it." The fact it was public knowledge left Smythe with limited options and he decided, as one expected, to voice his concerns through the media.

On March 8, 1966, Smythe took part in several interviews with the press. And he first addressed his offer to resign moving forward. "I intent to take proper steps to make it stand. I cannot go along with the policy of present management to put cash ahead of class. A fight that isn't good enough for Chicago or Montreal certainly isn't good enough for Maple Leaf Gardens." 

During another interview, Smythe continued his attack. "The Maple Leafs used to lead in class, but they have resorted to the slick and smart and the dollar conscious approach."

This reference to the almighty dollar approach mentioned by Smythe was a direct shot taken at Harold Ballard. At that time, Ballard was more involved in the business side of the Gardens than in the hockey operations. "If the commissioner considers it acceptable and it is approved by a minister of the crown, who are we to sit in judgement and say 'no,'" Ballard stated in defence of Maple Leaf Gardens. 

True to his word, Conn Smythe sent his letter of resignation on March 25, 1966, to John Bassett.

The covering letter reads as follows: "Enclosed find my formal letter of resignation from the Board of Maple Leaf Gardens, Limited, as requested by you on the 14 instant. I have decided to appear personally before the Board and will move myself that this resignation be accepted now, to take effect on April 2, 1966. Yours very truly, Conn Smythe." 

The official letter of resignation reads as follows: "I hereby tender my resignation to the Board of Directors of Maple Leaf Gardens, Limited, and request that this be accepted at the meeting of the Directors to be held on March 30, 1966, to take effect April 2. Yours truly, Conn Smythe.

Here are both letters. Click to enlarge.

A press report after the board meeting on March 30, 1966, confirmed that Smythe refused to reconsider his resignation. For good measure, he lofted one more grenade. "I can't condone anybody taking money out of Canada, when they don't show any patriotism to their own country."

As for the fight, Ali emerged with an unanimous decision over Chuvalo. Jack Silvers, the referee of the bout, was asked, "Did Clay throw his best punches?" He replied, "He threw his whole arsenal and Chuvalo took it."

The hardest punch of all landed on Conn Smythe, but it didn't drop him to the canvass. Smythe held his ground, but it came with a high cost. For the first time since 1927, he was no longer a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

Sunday, September 19, 2021


On the morning of September 8, the Funeral Mass for former NewYork Ranger, Rod Gilbert, was held in Manhattan at St. Monica's Catholic Church. Gilbert passed away on August 19, 2021, in New York City, at the age of 80.

Born in Montreal on July 1, 1941, the hope was Gilbert would rise through the Montreal Canadiens system, and if his development proceeded as planned, he would eventually join the Habs. But with the Canadiens franchise so deep in talent throughout the organization, Gilbert, on the advice of New York Rangers' scout, Ivan Prudhomme, decided to look elsewhere when his Junior B team, St. Eusebe, closed up shop. The St. Eusebe Juniors were sponsored my Montreal and when they withdrew their support, Gilbert was free to examine his options. 

The elsewhere for Gilbert was the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) and the Junior A team in Guelph, Ontario. The move in 1957 gave Gilbert the chance to flourish and he took full advantage of the opportunity. He was 16 years old.

In 1959-60, Gilbert earned exposure beyond the OHA when the Trois-Rivieres Lions of the Eastern Professional Hockey League (EPHL) called him up. Against more talented players, Gilbert showed he belonged when he scored 4 goals and 6 assists in 3 regular season games. In the playoffs, he produced 5 points in 5 games. 

Eddie Bush, the Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters bench boss knew it was only a matter of time before Gilbert, who played right wing, made his way to the New York Rangers. "Gilbert is almost ready," Bush said in February 1960. "But another year will put the polish on him."

That another year came in 1960-61, when Gilbert played his final season of Junior hockey with the Guelph Royals. In what can only be called an amazing farewell, Gilbert went on a scoring rampage as he led the league in goals scored with 54 (winner of the Eddie Powers Trophy) and points with 103 in 47 games. As a result, Gilbert with 7 out of 8 first-place votes, was named the winner of the Albert (Red) Tilson Memorial Trophy as the OHA's Most Valuable Player.

A major milestone for Gilbert took place on November 27, 1960, when he was summoned by the Rangers to play in a contest at Chicago Stadium. His one-game promotion was necessary when Earl Ingarfield and Brian Cullen were sidelined due to injuries. In his NHL debut, Gilbert assisted on an early third period goal by Dean Prentice. The goal enabled the Rangers to depart Chicago with a 3-3 tie. A reporter wrote of Gilbert's performance that he "showed plenty of promise and handled himself like a pro after taking the pass from Andy Bathgate and placing it perfectly on Dean's stick."

Things turned sour for Gilbert during the 1961 OHA playoffs. In a home contest against the St. Mike's Majors on March 3, 1961, Gilbert collided into the boards and left the game with a back injury. He slipped on a piece of paper that was thrown onto the ice by spectator.  It was another blow to Gilbert, who suffered several injuries to his back throughout the season. The diagnosis and prognosis of his latest back problem remained a mystery as Gilbert remained in Guelph's line-up. 

Guelph advanced to the semi-final round where they faced the Niagara Falls Flyers. Gilbert's physical problems continued when he was speared in the chest on March 22 at Niagara Falls. The incident occurred during the opening frame. A bruise resulted in his early exit for the remainder of the tilt. After the first period of the game on March 24, Gilbert was rested and saw no further action.

This was the end of the line for Gilbert's post-season run. On Saturday, March 25, Gilbert travelled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to have his back examined. The results were disclosed by Guelph Royals coach Emile Francis.

"The doctors have notified the New York Rangers that the operation was a success and Gilbert will be ready to play in the fall," stated Francis on April 5. "There was considerable damage to the vertebrae and a bone fusion operation was necessary. Bone chips were grafted from his knee."

Post-surgery, Gilbert had a scary time when clotting almost resulted in the loss of his leg. The matter was resolved and he continued to recover.

On August 1, Gilbert, at the age of 20, signed his first professional contract with the New York Rangers. Emile Francis said of Rangers top prospect, "He can shoot, skate and he knows what to do with the puck." These skills, in particular his ability to put the puck into the net, remained with Gilbert as his career continued from amateur to professional hockey.

Gilbert's recuperation lasted until early February 1962, when he joined the Kitchener-Waterloo Beavers of the EPHL. This allowed Gilbert to work on his conditioning and regain his hockey instincts. 

Eager to see the progress Gilbert made in the minors, the Rangers brought him up for a game at the Olympia in Detroit on February 15. Gilbert saw limited ice time in the Red Wings 4-3 victory. After a workout in Detroit, the Rangers sent him back to Kitchener for additional work on his game. In 21games with Kitchener, Gilbert netted 12 goals and 11 helpers. 

In their 1962 quarter-final playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Rangers lost the first two contests in Toronto and hoped for better results on home ice. And to help their effort, Gilbert was put on the roster on an emergency basis due to injuries. On April 1, Gilbert skated alongside Dave Balon and Johnny Wilson. The trio combined for three goals, including the game-winner by Balon in New York's 5-4 win. Gilbert earned his first NHL playoff point as he assisted on Balon's goal.

At Madison Square Garden (MSG), one of hockey's biggest stages, Rod Gilbert put on a performance in game four that made everyone take notice. And it didn't take him long to work his magic. Forty-one seconds after the puck drop to start the game, Gilbert put his team on the scoreboard. In the Toronto zone, Gilbert intercepted Dave Keon's pass to Allan Stanley in the face-off circle and his shot got past Johnny Bower. It was his first National Hockey League goal. Then, at the 15:46 mark of the first period, Gilbert's backhander eluded Bower and the Rangers went into the intermission with a 2-0 lead.

Gilbert's two tallies left the Leafs to play catch up and they never recovered. The Rangers won game four by a score of 4-2 and evened the series at two games apiece. Once again, Dave Balon scored the winner with Gilbert and Doug Harvey getting credit for setting up the goal. 

"I've never been so thrilled in my life, especially when I got my first one," said a delighted Gilbert in his post-game comments. His 2 goals and 1 assist showed he could come through in the clutch and make a contribution.

The Rangers fell to Toronto in 6 games, but for Gilbert it was a defining moment. It proved he belonged in hockey's biggest show and his back withstood the physical punishment handed out by opponents.

Still, at training camp in the fall of 1962, Gilbert knew there was work to do and people to impress. "Those playoff games gave me a lot of confidence, but I can't take anything for granted," stated Gilbert. "I know I've got to make the team. I'm in the best shape I've been in since the operation. But I haven't made the club yet. I know I've got to work hard to make it." 

As expected, Gilbert was in the line-up when the Rangers opened up the 1962-63 schedule. In his rookie season, Gilbert recorded 31 points. In his sophomore campaign, Gilbert upped his numbers and posted 64 points. This included 24 goals, with 20 being the benchmark for goal scorers. 

More important for Gilbert and the Rangers was his ability to play in all 70 regular season dates in his first  three years in the NHL. Any issues with his back didn't prevent him from losing ice time. A back brace helped Gilbert cope with nagging pain and discomfort. 

That all changed on February 1, 1966, when Gilbert underwent a second fusion of the vertebra at St. Clare's Hospital in New York. It was determined the procedure at the Mayo Clinic in 1961, wasn't a complete success despite initial reports to the contrary. 

Even the second time around, there was an extremely serious problem after the operation. Emile Francis, now coach of the Rangers, and Bill Jennings, the president of the Rangers, were present when Gilbert suffered a convulsion in the hospital. The attending nurse failed to find a pulse, but the doctor's pulled Gilbert through the life or death medical emergency. 

"They said I was dead for 45 seconds," stated Gilbert in a 1982 interview. "I was there. I could hear everything. I was just too weak to give a darn. The nurse was saying, 'Get oxygen! Get everything!' But it was like you read about these people being outside their body for a moment."

With the appropriate clearance from his health care team, Gilbert hit the ice for the final season of the Original Six era in 1966-67. He returned to form and potted 28 goals, his best total since becoming a regular NHL'er.

The height of his success with the New York Rangers came when teamed with Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield. Together, they formed the GAG (Goal-a-Game) Line. In 1971-72, all three placed in the top five of the leading scorers. Gilbert recorded a career highs in goals and points. He rung up 43 goals and 97 points. He equalled the 97 point mark in 1974-75. Gilbert and his linemates led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup final against the Boston Bruins. It was Gilbert's lone appearance in a Cup final. The Bruins captured the Stanley Cup in six games with a 3-0 victory at MSG on May 11, 1972.

Based on his stellar work, Gilbert's summer in 1972 was cut short when he was invited to play for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against the USSR. In 6 games, Gilbert scored 1 goal and 3 assists. Also, Gilbert suited-up for Canada in the 1977 World Championships and posted 4 points in 10 outings.

After his brilliance in 1971-72, Gilbert continued to be a consistent scorer. Up to his final season in 1977-78 with the Rangers, Gilbert scored 25, 36, 36, 36 and 27 goals.

A bump in the road came as the Rangers training camp got underway in September 1977. A dispute developed between Gilbert and New York's general manager John Ferguson. While many thought the root of the problem was money, that wasn't Gilbert's perspective or line in the sand. "I've said all along it wasn't a contract dispute," said Gilbert after both sides talked the matter out and made up. "I just wanted to know that I'm considered part of the team and part of the future, and management has made it clear to me that I am."

Ferguson presented his side to the media and fans. "He saw a lot of young, new faces with us, and he saw as we moved a lot of players over the past two years. He felt that with this youth movement, he was being eased out, which was never the case."

The elephant in the room was the two option years in Gilbert's contract. The Rangers refusal to pick up the options left Gilbert puzzled and unsure how he fit into the team's future. It wasn't the dollar amount of the options, but the activation of same. Ferguson stood firm on his position throughout the negotiations when he stated, "I couldn't give him the final two (option) years on his contract until I saw his performance this season."  

Gilbert returned to the family fold on October 4, 1977.

Back in the saddle, Gilbert, having missed training camp, was slow to get out of the gate. In his first 19 games, he scored only 2 goal and 7 assist.

On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1977, the New York Rangers pulled the plug on Rod Gilbert's future  as an active player. He was 35 years old. On the financial side, they offered to pay the balance of his contract for 1977-78 and a five year deal to work for Madison Square Garden as a consultant. All of this was predicated on his instant retirement as a player.

When Gilbert met the press on December 6, to announce his decision on his future plans, emotions were high as he spoke. It was about how his success on the ice translated to giving back New York and its hockey community. "I found myself giving to different people some of the admiration I had for my heroes," said Gilbert. "It was then that I understood my position and felt the urge to express my profession at a high level. This way, I could encourage kids by my example, and entertain other perfectionist in other fields by my efforts in my art."

He scored his final National Hockey League goal in his last game as a Blueshirt. On November 23, at MSG, Gilbert hit the twine on the power play for New York's 6th goal in their 6-3 decision over the Colorado Rockies. 

In his 18 seasons with the Rangers, Gilbert holds the record for most goals with 406 and points with 1,021 (including 615 assists) in 1065 games. He was a First All-Star in 1972 and a Second All-Star in 1968. Gilbert skated in a total of 8 All-Star Games.

In hockey's second season, Gilbert appeared in 79 playoff contests and scored 34 goals and 33 assists for 67 points.

On the trophy front, Gilbert has two that clearly reflects his contributions to the game. In 1976, he was voted the winner of the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance and sportsmanship. Given his ability to bounce back from two major spinal fusion operations, it isn't difficult to understand his winning the Masterton. In 1991, Gilbert was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy for his service to hockey in the United States. His promotion of hockey in New York spanned his entire playing career and beyond, and had a lasting impact on several generations.

Several other honours came Gilbert's way after his forced retirement. 

In a pregame ceremony on October 14, 1979, Gilbert's number 7 became the first number retired by the Rangers. "It looks awfully good up there," said Gilbert of his sweater hanging in the rafters at MSG.

Tuesday, June 8, 1982, wasn't just another day in the week for Gilbert. He received the telephone call that everyone in hockey dreams of taking. On the other end of the line was the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF) telling him he was voted into the Hall as an Honoured Member. "There were many flashes from the past," said Gilbert after the news. "There were many road trips and a lot of pain, but it was worth it."

His longtime friend and former teammate, Jean Ratelle, spoke about what it takes to reach hockey's hallowed shrine. "To be a Hall of Famer, you can't have a weakness. You really have to have all the qualifications, and Rod has them." Gilbert and Ratelle met when they were in their teens and played hockey at Roussin College in Montreal. 

The induction ceremony for the class of 1982 - Gilbert, Yvan Cournoyer, Norm Ullman & Emile Francis (Builder) - occurred on September 8 at the HHOF in Toronto. Gilbert described the moment as being "unparalleled."

Beyond hockey, Gilbert was a force when it came to charity work and helping others. As an ambassador for the New York Rangers, he became known as Mr. Ranger, and was often scene at the Garden chatting with fans, signing autographs and taking pictures. No request was denied. The same happened at his New York restaurant, Rod Gilbert's Cafe des Sports located on Third Avenue. 

Chris Drury, the current Rangers' president and general manager, released the following statement: "Everyone in the Rangers organization mourns the loss of a true New York icon. Rod's remarkable talent and zest for life personified this city and endeared him to hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike. Growing up a young Ranger fan, one of the first names I ever heard was Rod Gilbert - he was synonymous with Rangers hockey. It was an incredible privilege to get to know Rod. His passion and dedication to the Rangers will forever be a source of inspiration to me."

The following story best captures Rod Gilbert. It was told by teammate Pat Hickey at the news conference on December 6, 1977, when Gilbert announced his departure as an active player.

"It was awfully sad when we heard, on Thanksgiving, but it inspired me, too," stated Hickey. "I never met anyone more concerned with individuals than Rod. On Thanksgiving, I went to his place, to try and make him feel better, and instead he was consoling me, talking about my future, things I had to do now with my career. That's the way he is."

Thursday, August 26, 2021

'TONY O' 1943-2021


With NHL news curtailed to mostly late off-season free agent signings, the hockey world learnt of the passing of former Chicago Blackhawks legend, Tony Esposito, earlier this month at the age of 78.

"To the Blackhawks and the National Hockey League, Tony Esposito was a Hall of Fame goalie," began a statement from the Esposito family. "To us, he was a hall of fame husband, father, and grandfather. Chicago felt like home from the time Tony first arrived in 1969, thanks to the Wirtz family and those 18,000 Blackhawks fans who treated him like family every night at the Stadium win or lose or tie. As we mourn Tony's passing, we cherish the memories and the affection, when he was a player and later an ambassador. We are forever grateful for your support, and we feel blessed now to have your prayers at a difficult time. Tony was a private person, but he felt your love and he loved you back."

Prior to going the Chicago Blackhawks, Tony Esposito began his NHL journey with the Montreal Canadiens. He was signed by Montreal (Cleveland-AHL) in 1967. His pathway to Montreal included stops at Michigan Tech (1964 to 1967) and one season in 1967-68 with the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League.

At the Canadiens' training camp in September 1968, Esposito impressed new coach Claude Ruel, who took over from Toe Blake, by recording two shutouts in the first four practice scrimmages. With veteran Gump Worsley and Rogatien Vachon clearly established as the tandem between the pipes, Esposito was dispatched to the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League. His partner in the cage at Houston  was another Montreal prospect, Phil Myre.

On November 27, 1968, with Gump Worsley unavailable due to his fear of flying, Esposito was on the bench when the Los Angeles Kings hosted the Canadiens. On the way to Los Angeles, and unable to continue on the flight westbound, Worsley departed the plane in Chicago and boarded a train destined back to Montreal.

Montreal continued their west coast trip with a game in Oakland against the Seals on November 29. This contest marked Esposito's first appearance in an NHL regular season game. When Rogatien Vachon was felled by a shot that bruised an area above his right eye, Esposito entered the game at the 14:13 mark of the second period. He gave up Oakland's final two goals in their 5-4 upset over Montreal. 

With Tony Esposito now in the NHL, eyes were on the NHL schedule to see when the Canadiens next faced the Bruins. The dream matchup would feature the younger Esposito against his brother, Phil, a sniper with the Boston Bruins. At the conclusion of the season in 1968-69, Phil Esposito had racked up 49 goals in 74 outings. 

The stars were aligned on December 5, when Montreal and Boston tangled at the Garden. This was no ordinary game. Where else on the calendar could you find a contest which pitted one brother, a prolific goal scorer, against his sibling, who was starting his career as an NHL goalie?

When the game came to a close, the crowd went home having witnessed both Tony and Phil at their best. In a 2-2 tie, Phil scored both Boston goals against his brother, and Tony kept his team in the contest with several key saves.

Asked if he was nervous going head-to-head with his brother, Tony stated, "I was just worked up. I have to be that way all the time or I'm useless." 

During their post-game talk, Tony asked Phil, "What's the big idea? It's bad enough that you got one goal, but two, that's ridiculous."

Esposito's first notch in the victory column came on December 7, 1968, at the Forum. Fuelled by Bobby Rousseau's two goals, Montreal defeated Chicago by a score of 6 to 3. 

On January 27, 1969, Esposito was sent back to the Houston Apollos when Gump Worsley returned to the line-up.

Come playoff time, the Canadiens recalled Esposito and Myre to be available should Worsley or Vachon not be ready for action. The Habs were prepared for another extended run as they were defending Stanley Cup champions. 

After eliminating the New York Rangers in the quarter-finals, Montreal faced Boston in the semi-finals. In game three at Boston Garden, Worsley suffered an injury to his left hand. Down a goalie, the Canadiens went with Esposito as Vachon's back-up. Montreal advanced to the Stanley Cup final after taking the Bruins in six games. In the final, they swept the St. Louis Blues and Tony Esposito won his lone Cup as a player.

At the NHL draft in June, the Canadiens, with a full stable of netminders-Worsley, Vachon, Esposito, Myre-decided to expose Esposito. As a result, he was picked by Chicago in the first round. This allowed Montreal to put Peter Mahovlich back on their protected list. To make room for Esposito, the Hawks made goalie Jack Norris available. The last move in this chess match between Montreal and Chicago saw the Canadiens purchase Norris for the draft price of $30,000.

I wrote about Tony Esposito's first season with Chicago in a previous story in Hockey Then & Now. Here is the text:

In what only can be described as a spectacular rookie campaign, Esposito left little doubt he was ready for a starting job in the NHL. In 63 contests, he led the league with 38 wins to go along with 17 losses and 8 ties.

But the stat that jumps out of the page is Esposito's 15 shutouts. This set the modern record for most shutouts by a rookie NHL goalie. 

Tony Esposito's moment to enter the record book came on March 29, 1970, at Chicago Stadium. The visitors that night were the Toronto Maple Leafs. He only faced 23 shots in Chicago's 4-0 win, but as one newspaper story noted, "Tony Esposito, the rookie goaltender, included fantastic saves in his repertoire, on the few occasions that the Leafs made it necessary."

After the game, Esposito talked about his record breaking performance.

"It was a team effort. We controlled the game from the opening faceoff. My shutout was not significant."

Esposito was asked to recall when he became aware he was on the verge of making history. "Not until late in the game," he told reporters. The result is the important thing, not the score."

When the regular season came to a conclusion, Esposito was rewarded for his accomplishments between the pipes. He was named the winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy as the top rookie, the Vezina Trophy for fewest goals against, and was named the goalie for the First All-Star Team. His brother, Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins, joined him on the First Team at centre.

*  * *

Tony Esposito tended goal for 15 seasons with Chicago, before hanging up his pads at the age of 41. The Hawks decided to go in another direction and didn't invite him to training camp in September 1984.

His combined totals with Montreal and Chicago shows Esposito was in the crease for 886 games (52585-minutes) and he finished with 423-306-151 record. Esposito posted 76 regular season shutouts and 2.92 goals-against-average. 

A list of Esposito's achievements reveals how vital he was to the Hawks. After his brilliant rookie campaign, Esposito went on to capture two more Vezina Trophies, and was named to the First-All Star Team an additional two-times, and was a Second Team All-Star twice. He played in a total of six All-Star Games. He led all NHL goalies in wins in 1969-70 with 38, and in 1970-71 with 35. In the category of shutouts, he was tops in 1969-70 with 15, in 1971-72 with 9, and in 1979-80 with 6. Between 1969-70 and 1975-76, Esposito recorded 30 or more wins. In 1971-72, he led the NHL with a goals-against-average of 1.77 (GAA)

In the post-season, Esposito backstopped his team to two appearances (1971 & 1973) in the Stanley Cup final. On each occasion, the Hawks fell to the Montreal Canadiens. Looking back, he said, "I just wish we could have won it all for these fans." In 99 playoff games with Chicago, Esposito went 45-53 with 6 shutouts and a 3.07 GAA.

One of the greatest thrills any player can experience is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. There was little chance Esposito would be kept out of the exclusive club. On June13, 1988, it was announced that Esposito was voted into the Hall as an Honoured Member along with Guy Lafleur, Buddy O'Connor, and Brad Park. 

His induction meant Tony and Phil would be in hockey's shrine. Phil Esposito was part of the class of 1984. "I admire Phil very much, so it's very special for me to be in the Hall of Fame with him," stated Esposito at the time. Tony's dry sense of humour came through as he continued. "There was never any doubt that Phil would make it. I wasn't so sure about myself. In order to get in, you have to do something beyond the call of duty." 

Later that year, the Hawks honoured Esposito when his number 35 was retired in a ceremony held at Chicago Stadium on November 20, 1988. The number 35 was unique given the fact most goalies wore number 1 or number 30. Also, Glenn Hall's number 1 was retired during the event.

On February 6, 2008, Esposito was welcomed back to the family fold when Chicago named him a team ambassador. "I'm very proud of having played for the Blackhawks and happy to be back involved in this capacity," stated Esposito. "To me it's a great honour to be involved with the Hawks."

The next tribute for Esposito took place on March 19, 2008, when Tony Esposito was celebrated at the Stadium. With brother Phil in attendance, Tony wore his Hawks jersey and donned his goalie mask as the crowd saluted him. Made of white fibreglass, with white wiring protecting the eye area, the mask was unique and clearly identifiable with Esposito.

Any talk relating to Tony Esposito, the goalie, must include his distinctive style of play. Esposito used the butterfly to fend off opponents. The creator of this technique was Chicago legend, Glenn Hall. In this position, Esposito had two options to stop a shot. First, his stick was situated to block shots and with his skates/pads in a "V" shape (the butterfly), they were extended towards the goalposts to provide better coverage.

Recently acquired Blackhawks' goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, noted Esposito's butterfly style when he posted a statement on Twitter. "Tony had a huge impact on the National Hockey League and fans of the Chicago Blackhawks as a legend in net. He paved the way for the next generation of butterfly goalies with his style of play and success stopping pucks. I hope the Espositos know I'm proud to be following in his footsteps as a Blackhawk netminder."

When selected to play for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against the USSR, Esposito was solid in the four games coach Harry Sinden pencilled him in for action. After Team Canada's stunning 7-3 loss in game one at the Montreal Forum, Esposito got the call to replace Ken Dryden in game two. At Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Esposito out duelled fellow goalie Vladislav Tertiak and sparkled in Canada's 4-1 victory. His next appearance was in game three at Winnipeg that ended in a 4-4 draw. Esposito's only loss happened in game five at Moscow's Luzhniki Sports Palace. After the visitors built up a 3-0 lead in the first forty-minutes, the USSR outscored Canada 5-1 in the final frame and collected a 5-4 win. His final turn in the net was in game seven, which Canada won 4-3. Esposito was on the bench when Team Canada captured what many call the greatest series of hockey played in game eight.

After becoming a citizen of the United States, Esposito suited up for Team USA in the 1981 Canada Cup. In five games, he won two contests and lost 3. 

In the management side of the business, Esposito served as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins and as chief scout for the Tampa Lightning. In Tampa, Tony worked under Phil, who was the team's GM.

"I had played against Chicago and thought they had the makings of a real competitive team," said Esposito in 2008. "It seemed like a great opportunity, and it was." 

A great opportunity for Esposito and all those who followed our great game of hockey.

Tony Esposito was born on April 23, 1943, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. "I lost a very close friend today and one of the best goalies ever-Tony Esposito," wrote former Minnesota North Stars defenceman, Lou Nanne, on Twitter. Nanne and Esposito were part of a close-knit group of friends from the Soo that went on to play in the NHL. "Our condolences go out to Marilyn (Tony's wife) and family."

Tony Esposito died on August 10, 2021. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

Monday, August 2, 2021


 The iconic theme song for the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast was a beacon that called hockey fans their television to watch the game on the CBC. The catchy tune was written by Dolores Claman, who passed away last month at the age of 94.

She composed the theme while employed by Maclaren Advertising in 1968.

In June 2008, the rights to the song were sold to CTV for their NHL games on TSN. This occurred when the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Claman failed to negotiate a deal for the licensing rights. 

A newspaper report noted, "She wanted her song to reflect the narrative arc of hockey itself: the arrival at the rink, the battle on the ice, then the trip home." To this description, Claman added, "Plus a cold beer."

Former Toronto Maple Leaf and Hockey Night in Canada analysts, Howie Meeker, spoke with Canwest News Service in 2008 about the shift from the CBC to CTV. "To half the Canadians 40 years and over, we grew up with that damned thing. That's part of our history, part of our life, part of the enthusiasm for the game. When you heard that you thought Canada; you thought hockey; you thought CBC."