Hockey's Historic Highlights

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand


The Last Straw

Posted April 15, 2017

   “The last straw” is an abbreviation of the old saying, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.”  Its origin is found is a real-life situation. In the middle ages, Arabic traders used to sell dried long grass or straw, which was used for weaving and building. This merchandise was transported by camel. Greedy merchants would attempt to make every trip count, so would load the animal as heavily as possible. While not actually referring to a single strand of straw, laying “just one more” item on the load sometimes caused the beast to collapse.                                                                                                                                                      

   In applying it to life it has countless applications:  a farmer with recurring poor crops is finally ruined by one more—the last straw; a parent, upset by repeated destructive conduct cannot take it anymore, and they must kick them out of the house—the straw that breaks the camel’s back; a furnace, reputed to be the latest and best, continues to break down on the coldest nights of the year, with the most recent incident causes water pipes to freeze and bust—prompts a lost temper—the last straw.

   The game of hockey is an ideal scene in which this emotion can erupt. It is fast-paced, highly competitive, and unpredictable. In the spur of a moment an errant stick, a careless elbow, or an impulsive shove can change the aura of the match. There have even been occasions when a cheap shot has caught an unrespecting skater, prompting instinctive retaliation.

   But the crux of it all is most glaringly demonstrated when a normally even-tempered, self-controlled, clean-playing competitor is fouled—either in a single dirty move—or in a “once too often” scenario. If and when he suddenly explodes uncharacteristically in a vengeful manner — “the last straw” has once again reared its ugly head!

   Shinny’s archives are dotted with examples of Lady Byng-type NHLers losing their cool in retaliatory acts, totally foreign to their normal deportment. In this missive, we intend to single out 11 such instances.

  One of the first instances of a knee-jerk violent rebuff took place during the 1926-27 NHL campaign. Two seasons later Frank “Raffles” Boucher would win the first of seven Lady Byng Trophies. In fact, after the final milestone he was given the award to keep, and a new one was constructed. By the way, he lost that precious memento which recognized his gentlemanly approach to the game in a tragic house fire.

   But even before his “Mr. Clean” deportment was officially acknowledged, his avoidance of on-ice misdemeanors was common knowledge. Still, even the most mild-mannered can reach the end of their tether. Boucher did, that season. On November 16, 1926, “Bad Bill” Phillips of the Montreal Maroons constantly annoyed the slim pivot with elbows, knees, and stick. Finally, he could take no more. When a free-for-all broke out, he entered into the fray, dropped his gauntlets and stick, and smashed his opponent with a right jab. The startled enforcer slumped to the ice; whereupon Frank lifted him to his feet and belted him again. But when he attempted to repeat the move, Philips grabbed his stick and bounced it off Boucher’s head. That ended the fight!

   Elwin “Doc” Romnes of the Blackhawks never earned more than eight minutes in the sin bin in a single year. He averaged two misdemeanors annually.  But during h 1938 playoffs, in the second game of the semi-finals, Toronto’s “Red” Horner had cross-checked the little guy in the face, breaking his nose in 6 places.  When the series moved to Chicago “Doc” was fitted with a with a football helmet, with a faceguard to protect his tender proboscis. Although there seemed to be no explanation for the time of his timing, at a random faceoff the hometown winger suddenly let all his frustrations loose. He headed straight for the Queen City rearguard and unleashed a vicious two-hander at the big carrot-top’s noggin.

   Hockey historian H.H. Roxborough wrote about the incident: “It was so brutal, had it struck, it would have separated his chin from his shoulders. Never before or after did Romnes exhibit such ferocity.”

   Syl Apps Sr. was the epitome of civility on the ice. Even though Conn Smythe, the owner and general manager of the Toronto NHL franchise, maintained that he wanted no Lady Byng winners on his squad (he actually had six) he doted on this stately example of manhood, proudly introducing as “my captain”. He used to boast: “Meet my captain who doesn’t drink, smoke, or swear!”

    He was highly-respected by friend and foe alike—even referees paid attention to his arguments over the questionable calls which were inevitable in a fast-moving game like hockey. 

   But Sylvanus Apps was still flesh and blood, and he was capable of losing his cool when the emotional dam burst. On March 28, 1940, in the best-of-three post-season series with Detroit, the Red Wings’ Don Grosso exhibited frustration in a losing cause, clipping both Nick Metz and Apps with his stick. The result was a donnybrook in which most players from both sextets were involved. Even Mr. Apps, who was still smarting from the high stick—but also at the belligerence of Jimmy Orlando, who had cut “Red” Horner with his shillelagh. 

   Although it was probably an exaggeration, according to the Windsor Star, the two went toe-to-toe for five minutes. It didn’t take long for Syl to realize he had tarnished his image. He sought to reconcile himself by totalling only 16 penalty minutes over the next five seasons—during one of them he committed no violations at all.

   When the 1948-49 campaign was put to rest, the biggest decision hockey writers had to make was in voting for one of the various season-end awards for individual players. Did forward Harry Watson of the Leafs, who incurred no penalties over the course of the 60-game schedule, or Detroit’s Bill Quackenbush, who also spent no time in the sin bin, deserve this special recognition? (If they could have used the playoffs as a gage, then Watson’s two minutes, and Quackenbush’s continuing clean slate, would have made it easier.) But they eventually gave the nod to the latter, since it is harder for a defenseman not to violate rules.

    The choice was not made easier by an incident which took place on March 19th that season. In a contest which pitted their teams against one another, a battle royale broke out, and with all the players milling around they came face to face. “Shall we waltz?”, asked Watson.

   “No! Let’s just get closer; they’re going to take pictures”, came the affable reply.

   So it was atypical when, just a year earlier, with the Leads and Bruins battling in the semi-finals, that same Watson did indeed get involved in fisticuffs. Toronto had been winning with ease, when “Knobby” Warwick high-sticked “Wild Bill” Ezinicki and cut him around the mouth. When “Ezzie” took steps to repay him, Murray Henderson tried to butt in. At that point the normally easy-going Watson had seen enough Boston ill-treatment, and pulled the Bruin heavyweight off his teammate. According to the Globe and Mail “Harry went berserk, shed his gloves, and started peppering Henderson with a series of short jab, landing at least eight of them—one right on his snoz—breaking it. He also knocked goalie Frank Brimsek flying, when the latter skated the length of the ice to get into the fray. It was one of only two dust ups the Toronto big winger was involved in during his career.

    Camille Henry was slippery around the opposition net, always managing to slip out of the reach of those defensing the crease. So they nicknamed him “The Eel”. He also approached the game in a gentlemanly manner, incurring 0 minutes in penalties twice, and two minutes in the sin bin on four occasions. He averaged six minutes a season. But, in 1964, 10 years after debuting as Calder Trophy winner, he was handed a 10-minure misconduct—a first for the Ranger captain. Wearing the “C”, he protested a sentence handed out to Arnie Brown. Irritated at what he felt was an unjust call, he yapped once too often and paid the price.

   That same year, the Boston Globe included this comment in the game report following the Bruins/Habs tilt on Feb. 9. “The display of violence was unusual for (Leo) Boivin, who never before put on such a demonstration of anger in his 10 years here (in Boston)”.

   Apparently referee John Ashley was suffering from tunnel vision that night, and was letting far too many infractions go unpunished. At 14:20 of the second frame the Canadiens’ Bill Hicke took a full swing at the grizzled rearguard with his stick. Both ended up being penalized; and on the way to the box Hicke brandished his stick in the same manner again. Verbal pleasantries were exchanged—and abruptly the seasoned veteran lit into his aggressor. He got so angry he not only smacked the youthful Montrealer, but a Boston policeman who was trying to intervene. It was a case of the “last straw” once more!

    Alex Delvecchio was rewarded for his clean play by being named the winner of the Lady Byng Trophy three times. He was not particularly thrilled about it, and a hockey magazine headlined a feature article about it: “The Byng is all Sting to Delvecchio”. It was not the “gentlemanly conduct” aspect of it which bugged him—but the “LADY” tag. He thought it smacked of being a sissy. Still, that was his normal approach to the game.

    After he was penalized in the Oct. 5, 1971 match he quipped, “There goes the Lady Byng!” He was on his way to the sin bin for what John McCauley called “freezing the puck”. According to Alex it was a totally unwarranted punishment causing his slow burn to finally erupt. He climbed up onto the penalty box bench and yelled at the whistle tooter over the glass, adding the choke sign for good measure. It added up to a 10-minute forced rest… four minutes more on the stink list that he had the entire previous campaign.

    On February 16, 1972, a Montreal shinny scribe gave an example of “hockey turning the most gentle practitioners into raging lions”. He referred to the major mood swing on the part of J.C. Tremblay, the Canadiens’ “Quiet Man”, noted for his “cool and reasonable approach to the game.” In an effort to relieve the pressure the “lop-shot expert” lifted the puck too high and it sailed into the stands. Referee Bruce Hood judged that it was deliberate and he assessed a “delay-of-game” penalty on the Mount Royal smoothy. The knee-jerk reaction was J.C.’s contesting the call so vehemently he was banished for two-minutes to cool off. It was only his second such display of exasperation in his 13-year tenure in the NHL.

  Dave Keon was recently named the Toronto Maple Leafs’ all-time best player. He was also one of those “Lady Byng”-types that owner Conn Smythe didn’t want on his team. Bad call, “Little Major”! He won it twice, and during eight seasons was assessed only a single minor infraction. It took 14 years before he ever was whistled for a fighting major. On April 7, 1974, the Maple Leafs closed out the season hosted by the Bruins in Beantown. When the winning sextet’s coach calls it “poor refereeing” it was more than bias which caused the Queen City side to criticize Dave Newell. The Toronto Staraccused him of allowing the home side to continually carry their sticks too high. Gregg Sheppard exemplified this trend when he high-sticked Keon and cut him near the eye. Add to the fact that his team was in a losing cause, and the slim pivot became vexed beyond the normal. He lit into his assailant, adding five minutes to the meager two he had accumulated up to that last scheduled match.

   The initial league expansion didn’t have a major effect on the way gentlemanly play was viewed in the hockey world. But with the intrusion of the philosophy of the Broad Street Bullies in the 1970’s on the NHL fraternity in general, respect for clean play began to wane. Over the next two decades “clutch and grab” tactics gained a greater foothold in the approach to the game. “Monkey see, monkey do”—and retaliation in kind caused the number of penalties in a game, overall, to soar. Next, the emphasis on speed created an added difficulty in being able to defend with last gasp attempts to thwart offense. Low penalty minute totals became few and far between. What’s more, there was an intrusion of bad mouthing rewarding players for their efforts to play without violating the rules. Alexander Mogilny’s refusal to accept the Lady Byng Trophy in 2008 was typical of the mindset that prevailed.

   Increasingly, winners of that award had their names engraved on the hardware despite comparatively high penalty minute totals. While Davey Keon was so honoured in 1963 with only one minor penalty preventing a totally clean slate, by the time Wayne Gretzky stood in the winner’s circle in 1980, 21 minutes had become an acceptable benchmark for “gentlemanly” competition.  Twelve years later he totalled 34 P.I.M., but won it then for a third time. Ron Francis was given the nod in 1998, on the basis of 10 trips to the sin bin with minor sentences; four-time winner, Pavel Datsyuk, averaged 21 P.I.M annually when he was the PHWA choice; and Anze Kopitar gained the most votes last season with a 16 penalty minute total.

   One needs to go back to 1977-78 to find a Byng winner who can match Keon’s skimpy totals—2 P.I.M. That was “Butch” Goring. He had zero minutes in 1980-81, but Rick Kehoe out-pointed him, and better fulfilled the criteria for the trophy.  And the most recent skater to go an entire campaign with a squeaky clean record, while at the same time achieving a respectable point total, was Kyle Wellwood in 2006-07—he was 166th in scoring.  Save for Alexander Wennberg a year ago (a holding call with just five games left in the season), Ryan O’Reilly is the only recent competitor to come close to a perfect record. In 2013-14 he made the mistake of not dropping a broken stick in time, and had to take an involuntary two-minute break.

  In the light of this entirely different mindset, focusing on the “last straw loses much of its punch. Although fighting gradually is eased out of the game, concern about sticking to the letter of the law seems passé for the bulk of NHLers. Still, even in the New Millennium an uncharacteristic tantrum on the part of normally peace-loving skaters sometimes catches the interest in shinny circles.

   On February 28, 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Bruins squared off in a match which didn’t end well for the Beantown gang. Besides losing 6-2, they had to play the entire third frame without the services of right winger Sergei Samsonov. With just three seconds left in period number two, things got out of hand. At that point the Hurricanes defenseman, Sean Hill, stuck out his knee in an effort to stop the Russian star. The normally mild-mannered forward took issue with the hit, and wound up in a scrap with Sami Kapanen, whom, he said, “just happened to be the closest opponent to me at the moment!”

   “I try to respect other players, but when something like that happens I lost control and got emotional!” When the smoke had cleared Samsonov had been assessed a total of 19 minutes in penalties—five for fighting, two for instigating, two for unsportsmanlike conduct, and a 10-minutes misconduct. He spent the entire third frame cooling his heels. When interviewed, the subject of the Lady Byng Trophy surfaced. Disinterest in the award again came to light, when he maintained “he didn’t want it anyway!”

   One of the recent candid looks at the scenario took place on May 12, 2009, in the sixth game of the Ducks/Red Wings match-up. Just previous to the horn sounding Pavel Datsyuk fired a shot at Jonas Hiller, which was turned aside. In the tension-filled moment that followed Ryan Getzlaf hooked the Detroit forward. Immediately players from both sides began to mill around, with Scott Niedermayer adding insult to injury by giving Pavel a push. Although he was voted Lady Byng Trophy recipient after the season ended, he resented the uncalled-for treatment and got into a scuffle with the big rearguard. It was his first NHL bout.

   Hockey will always have its cheap-shot artists. While they don’t necessarily single out clean-playing opponents on which to ply their dirty moves, from time to time those very players are victims of their assaults. Unfair as it is, occasionally these gentlemanly competitors are driven to the “point of no return” and, in the heat of the moment, the bubble bursts, and they lose their self-control.  And, as Dave Keon once admitted after a confrontation with the antagonistic Howie Young: “It was sort of a chain reaction!” He then added in mock repentance: “My image has gone to pot!”

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