Friday, September 16, 2011

On A Wing and a Prayer

As the sun begins to set on the summer of 2011, one thought comes to mind - Good Riddance!

During the months of June, July and August, a large degree of planet earth fell victim to a rash of brutal attacks from Mother Nature. In Oslo, a deranged individual went on a killing spree, resulting in massive deaths. The world economy is in a major slump, with both the job market and stock market taking hit after hit.

In difficult times, one tends to seek relief and an escape from their troubles. For a ton of people, the escape route leads them to the nearest film house or a night of television viewing. Then, there are those who find refuge by turning to sports. They seek out an event which provides a distraction from the mundane chores and problems of everyday living. The ability to get lost in a close game and solely concentrate on what is unfolding before them.

On the hockey front this off-season, it has been a difficult task to find a door on which to hang our troubles. For the most part, the news has been all bad. It has come to the point where fans must first brace themselves prior to exploring for information. In the past, there was very little news, with the hockey community enjoying a well earned rest. On occasion, a club would make a trade or sign a new player to their roster.

This summer, however, the mold has been broken. No, make that shattered to smithereens. The papers and airways have been filled with one disaster after another. The unfortunate aspect being that the game itself hasn't been front and centre, but the people in the sport have dominated page one and the lead story. It has become a case where no news, is good news. Lives have been lost under very difficult circumstances. For loved ones, hearts have been broken. Souls have been emptied of all spirit. The impact replacing contentment with devastation.

One body blow followed by several more, but with greater velocity. Similar to a boxer trapped in the middle of a round, eyes swollen, with no strength left in his punch and legs which have turned to mush. Holding on for dear life. Hoping he will survive long enough to hear the bell. The rest in his corner, supplying time to recover and hope for better results in the round ahead.

It has been that type of summer for those who follow the great game of hockey.

The ultimate price has been paid. In the first round of tragic events, three National Hockey League tough-guys lost their fight to continue living. Derek Boogaard, who struggled with addiction, passed away in May. He was 28. In August, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, both dealing with depression issues, couldn't counter-punch this ugly disease. Rypien was 27 and Belak 35.

Hockey fans, with little time to take in these horrendous endings, were about to enter the ring and contend with the further stench of death. On September 7, the news from Russia had the ability to drop even the most rugged and battle scarred warrior to the canvass. It was the kind of news that takes several mentions before it really sinks in. An airplane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club crashed with no survivors. As the day went on, reports indicated two people were recovered alive. In total, 43 people perished. At this stage, the details rapidly took over, with each morsel coming like a hard swift kick to the gut.

Newspaper headlines possessed the ability to stop reader's dead in their tracks. The Toronto Sun captured the overall mood with this: HOCKEY WORLD MOURNS AGAIN. The Toronto Star published a headline that hit this writer right between the eyes. I immediately dropped the sports section on my lap and soaked-up the four words: THE TEAM IS GONE.

On Monday September 12, Alexander Galimov, the lone surviving player on Lokomotive, passed away from his injuries. This brought the death toll to 44.

Imagine, being a fan of a team and having the entire squad die in one single crash.

In August 1951, Toronto Maple Leaf supporters read the upsetting details relating to Bill Barilko's airplane crash in northern Ontario. Adding to the misery was the fact the search crews were unable to locate his remains. Newspaper headlines, early in the process, kept the public abreast of developments.

In the Original Six era, the main means of transportation was by train. With the majority of teams based in the east, the longest trip was to Chicago. As the National Hockey League schedule increased, the wear and tear of travel became evident. As an example, in 1949-50, the NHL added ten dates. Instead of 60 games, each franchise would participate in 70. To deal with the additional content, the Detroit Red Wings engaged in air travel during the first ten contests of the new campaign. On two road trips to Chicago, Montreal and Toronto, the Red Wings abandon the rails and took to the sky. Coach Tommy Ivan was more than pleased with the results, as his club won all three games.

Other factors came into play for giving consideration to airplane travel. When a club encountered nasty weather conditions and time became a concern, the ability to take flight was an option.

On February 3, 1951, the Toronto Maple Leafs played at home against the Chicago Black Hawks. After defeating Chicago 6-3, they headed out to Union Station in downtown Toronto for a train ride to Boston. On Sunday evening they skated to a 3-3 draw against the Bruins in Boston Garden. While there were no problems reaching Boston, Leaf management were aware there could be a problem departing. With a wildcat strike taking place in the Chicago railroad system, Conn Smythe and company required a back-up plan should train schedules across North America become altered. The idea was to arrange travel on two planes - one for the team and one for the media.

After the game, the Leafs were informed that no trains would be heading to Toronto. Instead, the hockey club would bunker down in Beantown for the evening. The next morning, they would depart by train to Montreal. Following a brief lay over in Quebec, the Leafs would continue their journey, arriving in Toronto early Tuesday. So much for intentions to travel by plane.

Speaking with former NHLer Bob Nevin on the topic of train travel, he was able to shed some light on the subject. Nevin played in the National Hockey League on a full time basis from 1960 to 1976.

"I can remember playing in Toronto and then getting on a train right after the game for Chicago," Nevin told me this week. "We would not get into Chicago until three o'clock the next afternoon."

Nevin pointed out there were many stories relating to train travel. He recalled one in particular, which included himself and Dave Keon. In their rookie season, neither player was looking to the initiation process. The veterans usually went looking for their prey on the train, as the new guys had no place to hide.

While Keon didn't escape, Nevin made a run for it.  He picks-up the story. "I walked down the train and there was another car next to ours and it was basically empty. So, I went to sleep in an upper berth."

On this trip, the Leafs were returning to Toronto from a game in Chicago. By the time morning arrived and sensing it was safe to do so, Nevin headed back to his quarters. "No sooner did I get off the train and got to my berth, than the car I was sleeping in was pulled to the side and left there. I would have been sitting in Detroit in my pyjamas," said Nevin with a chuckle.

With the dawn of expansion to 12 teams in 1967-68, it spelled the end for players boarding trains and setting off for their next destination.

I asked Bob Nevin if he had any fears switching from ground to air travel? "There are some moments which were a little scary, but all in all, I didn't have any problems."

As training camps open around the NHL,we can all look forward to talk about our wonderful game. We can escape from the horror and pain of recent tragedies and become absorbed in our favourite teams and players.

Although down for the count, we are slowly rising, with only one knee on the mat. Soon, we will be on both feet and looking forward to better times. As hockey fans, we will not be counted out.

We hope and pray.

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