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Please note that the following article contains a quote that uses a racial slur. We have chosen to reproduce the quote without censorship because the column is about hockey history, and changing the quote would amount to rewriting history. It is clear that such a slur does not belong in a civilized world, and the tone of the article should leave no doubt on this issue. This essay from Randall Kennedy, Professor of Law at Harvard University, provides an in-depth study on the matter and was used for guidance in our decision.
About a dozen years ago, when having a dog (or dogs) was on the verge on being a status symbol, two pooch prowlers happened to meet at the end of my driveway. The man and the woman (because of their mutual pastime) greeted one another like two car collectors who both had ’57 Chevs. And, while their canines rubbed noses, the lady spouted: “She’s been just dying to meet him!”
“Just dying” to see, do, have, go, or be, is a common way of expressing a keen desire—an popular expression heard often as one utilizes the idioms of our strange English language. Sadly, it is not an unknown scenario for people literally to lose their lives in their attempt to achieve these kinds of aims. “Dying” to be rich has led many a dreamer to armed robbery—only to be killed in a shootout with the law! “Dying” to test the top speed of a new automobile has left unwary drivers expired in their crumpled wrecks.
By the same token a number of professional pucksters have so committed themselves to Canada’s National sport, they have ignored the ultimate cost. In simple terms, there have been at least 28 hockey personalities who have faced death threats during the course of their careers. Happily, none of them lost their lives in the process.
It was in the autumn of 1953 that goalie Terry Sawchuck’s wife, Pat, viewed in person what her husband did for a living. Knowing very little about the game previously, she was shocked to see the man she loved, wearing no mask, the target of flying pucks and swinging sticks. She suddenly realized how much the ice-game meant to him, and commented that “he would have given his life for the Red Wings”. She discovered how close he came to doing just that.
He received an anonymous phone call before a crucial match, threatening him with the option of throwing the game or losing his life. The sophomore backstop informed Jack Adams, and then defiantly carried on as if nothing had happened. In fact it so enraged him that he played one of his best games, whitewashing the opposition with his stellar performance. Thankfully, nothing ever became of the warning.
Without a doubt the most publicized incident of this kind took the form of a double-barreled menace. It was sparked by the infamous “Rocket” Richard/Hal Laycoe bout in the spring of 1955. In a rage the Montreal winger punched linesman Cliff Thompson who attempted to quell the fight. As a result NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended him for the remaining games of the regular schedule and the post season. Two individuals felt the wrath of the Canadien’s fans, who, realizing Richard’s value to the club thought it was grossly unfair.
Campbell himself was the first victim. The league offices were deluged with phone calls, admonishing the loop’s CEO to change his mind, or face death. One anonymous note cautioned: “I’m an undertaker and you’ll be needing me in a few days!”
But the other target of the “Rocket’s” biased supporters put a strange spin on their acts of protest. None other than “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Richard’s teammate, became the target of disfavour. When the suspension was handed down, Geoffrion was second in league scoring, but well within reach of the cherished scoring championship. When it became apparent that he might catch the famed winger, or even pass him, he too received death threats by phone. One report stated that there was a warning his house would be burned to the ground if he persisted in scoring points, thus taking the Art Ross Trophy away from the “Rocket”. Indeed when he refused to play possum, and passed the banished star in points, he was rudely booed by the hometown Forum crowd.
The Boomer had already received a warning from an irate fan in the Big Apple two years earlier—a threat to send him into the great beyond.
A little more than a year after the Richard fiasco, Detroit and Toronto were embroiled in a spirited first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Games one and two were played at the Olympia in the Motor City. During the second match the Leaf’s Tod Sloan tangled with “Terrible Ted” Lindsay. Not long after, he and Gordie Howe skidded into the boards together, resulting in a separated shoulder for the youthful centre.
The Queen City faithful did not react kindly to the popular Leaf’s plight. But one took it far more seriously than others. Three anonymous phone calls to the Toronto Star with promises to shoot Howe and Lindsay caused no little stir, especially when the newspaper insisted on headlining the plan with: ‘WILL SHOOT HOWE AND LINDSAY TO AVENGE SLOAN”.
The news was withheld from the players until they arrived at the Gardens, but Gordie’s mom had heard about it by radio and broke down when she heard it. The players themselves treated it as a prank, and, typical of athletic humour, the team voted to have little-known rookie Cummy Burton skate up and down the ice, with Howe’s number 9 on his back, and Lindsay’s number 7 on his chest. He declined the offer, and the game went on as scheduled. As one journalist recalled: “The only shooting that night was by the Lindsay and Howe, who accounted for three of the team’s five goals, including the winner in overtime by the latter”. He was the last to leave the ice, and amused the spectators by circling the ice holding his stick like a rifle and muttering “rat-a-tat-tat”!
Three years passed before the next instance of this kind came to light. On that occasion the motive for harassment was racism. The immensely talented Willie O’Ree, who was burning up the QHL with the Quebec City Aces, was called up to the Bruins. It was after his first match with the Beantown six that he found hate letters in his mail box.
A carbon copy scenario surfaced in 1974 with Mike Marson, the next black to make it to the big time, bearing the abuse. He had been leading scorer and captain of the Sudbury Wolves Junior squad, and was Washington’s second choice, 19th overall, in the annual amateur draft. It soon became apparent that he was in for a rough ride.
Several death threats came by telephone. Others were paste-ups using letters clipped from newspapers and magazines. One read: “You’re skating on thin ice, black boy. This nigger is going to die if he thinks he belongs in a white man’s game!” His adversaries went one step beyond mere WORDS of caution. He found the wheel lugs loosened on his car, and found it necessary to check them every time he needed to drive.
After a respectable first campaign, the pressure rapidly began to tell on him. For the next three seasons he spent most of the year in the minors. There was even a last-ditch move, which took him to Los Angeles. But the damage was done. He candidly stated: “This garbage made me uneasy. How can you perform at your best as a professional athlete if you’re uncomfortable all the time? You can’t! It’s impossible!” He retired at age 25!
When Mike Bossy was habitually bulging the twine in 1981, threatening to surpass “Rocket” Richard’s scoring record of 50 goals in 50 games, he too came under police protection because of intimidation. After counseling a young women to kick her drug habit, the slim sniper was threatened by her boyfriend. Not only were patrols increased near his home, but he never went anywhere with security guards in tow. Bossy opened admitted he wanted out of New York, and would prefer to play in his native Quebec province.
A number of other forewarnings dot the pages of hockey history. Shortly after moving to Detroit, on March16, 1983, Danny Gare didn’t allow a death threat (which was directed to him for no apparent reason) to faze him—he scored 2 goals against the Leafs that night.
Proving that even fame of the highest order does not make one immune from this cowardly verbal assault, the “Great One”, Wayne Gretzky himself, was a victim on more than one occasion. In his autobiography he refers to “hate mail….the nut letters, people threatening my life”. In subsequent pages he gives specific examples—like the two people who had held such dastardly designs while the Oilers were on their way two their second consecutive cup triumph—and “the nut who wanted to kill me on my wedding day!” Further, after his trade to Los Angeles and the Kings had put the Oilers out of the post seasons, the same thing happened.
Many people were seriously upset with Eric Lindros when he refused to sign with the Quebec Nordiques who had picked him first overall in the 1991 draft. He already had a reputation for being uncooperative. When chosen by the Sault Greyhounds Major Junior team, he refused to make those long bus trips lest it might cause him to lose his year at high school. He held out and signed with Oshawa. It is said that he slept with a knife under his pillow during those amateur days because he feared for his safety. When he declined to move to Quebec, he was painted as “spoiled, immature, and greedy”. Both he and his family received death threats.
That same year Garry Galley, Boston defender, accidentally collided with the Flame’s Gary Roberts, resulting in damage to Robert’s knee. On the plane ride home the joint swelled so badly his pants had to be cut off before he could receive medical attention. Galley phoned Roberts and apologized. Roberts waved it off as “no big deal—it was an accident. But apparently Don Cherry thought differently; and when he criticized Galley on HNIC, the unsuspecting Beantowner received death threats because of his “dirty hit”!
The energetic whirling dervish, Doug Gilmour by name, may also be included in the list of NHL’ers who have had this scare thrown into them. In his case the motivation was different than the norm. It could be called a case of romantic sour grapes. During the 1994 playoffs he was given police protection after being menaced by an unidentified woman, who made calls from a number of Toronto phone booths. While the Maple Leaf pivot had no idea who she was, she, in turn felt he SHOULD recognize her. “He’s not giving me the time of day!”, she whined. “I’m going to get him! I’m going to kill him!”
The list of those experiencing this foreboding goes on and on: Claude Lemieux , Ron Greschner; Jose Theodore; Todd Bertuzzi; Brian Spencer; Brian Marchment; Gary Suter; Guy LaFleur; Pat Price; Paul Baxter; Glenn Anderson; Matthew Barnaby; Mike Richter; and even Phil Esposito.
The last significant one, as far as players are concerned (Gary Bettman was under the gun during the recent lock out) took place in 2009, with Alex Ovechkin getting the nod. Authorities investigated a communication posted on the Penguin’s message board, which declared: “I am killing Ovechkin. I’ll go to jail. I don’t care any more!” Whether it was a prank or not, police took it seriously. No motive, other than that it WAS possibly a lark, was ever disclosed.
Dying to playing hockey? Some came close to doing so.
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