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On April 1, 1937, the Montreal Maroons were getting set to meet the Rangers in a best-of-three playoff series. The mischievous Tommy Gorman, head honcho of the city’s English counterpart to the Habs, was endeavouring to create a relaxed atmosphere, and chose to focus on “Baldy” Northcott, to get the ball rolling. Having invited the team’s captain into his office, he offered him a cigar. “Gander”, as he was sometimes called, gratefully received the stogie and lit up. It wasn’t long until what he lit up BLEW UP—and, as the story has it—so did Northcott!
On that same date, 43 years later, sleepy-eyed listeners to Montreal’s CJFM 96 radio shook their heads several times to determine if they had heard right or not. According to the morning show host, Larry Robinson had just announced that he would be traded to the L.A. Kings for super-scorer, Marcel Dionne. Angry and stunned fans inundated the station with protest calls. Eventually most realized what day it was.
On April 1, 1981, David S. Kadis, spokesman for the King Key Corporation, broke this story to the press: he had sent a written purchase offer to Harold Ballard’s lawyers regarding buying the Maple Leafs. Stan Obodiac, Public Relations Officer at the time immediately commented that there was “a strong suspicion it was an April Fool’s joke.”
As we have done on other occasions, when featuring those whose birthdays coincide with a significant calendar date, we will begin with those who made their presence felt earliest in the chronology of passing time.
“Hib” Milks, whose surname invites all sorts of pun extremes, was born at Eardly, Quebec, in 1902. He debuted with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925, and was one of the originals with the expansion Steel City sextet, having skated with the city’s Yellowjackets of the United States Amateur Hockey Association the previous campaign. He teamed with such notables as Lionel Conacher, Roy Worters, Harold Darragh, and Harold Cotton, to form what looked like a formidable franchise. Indeed they made the playoffs that first campaign, even though the team never really caught the imagination of the Pennsylvania town.
After five hapless seasons the fraternity shifted to Philadelphia, where they became the Quakers. But they spanned only one more schedule filled with frustration before disbanding. And, so it was, when Milks and two of his Ottawa area pals made their way to the City Of Brotherly Love, they were stopped at the border by immigration authorities, and had to return to Montreal to await help from Cooper Smeaton, who was their head coach there.
Milks never set the statistical world on fire, but he is remembered by many historians for his involvement in an on-ice battle which heated up in the January 28, 1930, during the 6-0 drubbing the Pirates were taking at the hands of the Bruins. Milks, who had been sent reeling by “Cooney” Weiland, knocked down Boston’s George Owen. The rumble that ensued saw Owen sawing away at Hib’s neck with his stick, and retaliatory two-handers administered by the apparent victim. Not exactly a legacy by which grandchildren could remember him. Milks’ career was prematurely ended by a leg injury three years later.
Bill Kendall was a member of the Chicago Blackhawks when they copped the Stanley Cup in 1934. But over five seasons as an NHL’er—part of one schedule being with the Leafs—he participated in only 16 games, scoring ten goals. He has the rare distinction of being part of two championship teams in one season. In 1934, the London Tecumsehs captured the Oak Trophy, which was representative of the IHL crown. Shortly thereafter “the hustling right winger”, as he was called, was promoted to the parent Chicago Blackhawks, just in time to win all the marbles with the big club.
The Winnipeg native made this commute more than once, and in 1936 he arrived on the Windy City scene, just as Coach Clem Loughlin had reached the end of his patience with the sextet. In his first session in the locker room, he shared in getting a tongue lashing from the former NHL skater. He threatened everyone but the stick boy with demotion if the team failed to fare better. Even the great Howie Morenz, who had the misfortune to on the roster that season, was blasted with: “…that means you too, Morenz. If you don’t pull up your socks you’ll be gone!”
The bulk of his career was spent in the American league with the St. Louis Flyers, where he was a vital cog in that shinny wheel, and a steady scorer from 1937 through 1946.
Lex Chisholm, who was born in Galt in 1915, is hardly a household word in shinny’s annals, but that was partly due to World War II. After skating for the Oshawa Generals in the junior circuit, he was promoted to the senior club, where he stayed for five seasons. He led the loop in scoring, prompting his promotion to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1939. He participated in 28 games that year, and 26 matches the following season, during which time he managed to bulge the twine only 10 times. He joined the Armed Forces in 1941, where his hockey was limited to some ice time with the Halifax Army is the Nova Scotia senior loop. When he was discharged, he was never able to his regain his big league form, and concluded his career in the senior OHA with the Army Daggers.
Winnipeg native Ken Reardon came into this world in 1921. Tim Moriarty summed up this bone-crushing rearguard’s approach to hockey in these few words: “He loved body contact!” It was said that he would rather try to barrel an opponent than try to stickhandle around him. Because of his knock-em-down, drag-em-out approach to the game he had a generous following of fans who loved to hate him.
Even though he was voted to All-Star teams five times during his seven-season stint in the NHL, he almost didn’t make it in the game at all. Len Bramson, Montreal sports writer of days gone by, once penned this statement: “It would not be accurate to say that Reardon was a born hockey player. In fact had his older brother Terry not been a terror on the rinks, it’s doubtful if he would have played pro hockey!” During his minor hockey days he spent considerable time warming the bench. Yet, when he finally made the grade, Rangers’ coach, Frank Boucher, called him the most inspired player in the league—and it was that spirit which enabled him to climb the shinny ladder of success.
In short, he was a fierce competitor. His strange skating style, described as a “running, jumping stride” used to send him like a human dynamo down the ice, riding roughshod over everyone who got in his way. Maple Leaf Coach, Hap Day, called him the most demoralizing player in the game. “He can knock a whole team off balance, getting them to think of everything but hockey!”
Unfortunately, Kenny is most remembered for his infamous duel with Toronto’s Cal Gardner on January 1, 1949. The two stood toe-to-toe swinging their sticks like baseball bats at each other. Fortunately neither connected, or the results could have been disastrous. Bill Chadwick, who officiated the game, said it was the worst thing he had seen in all his years of refereeing. They were both suspended one game and fined $250.00 and $200.00 respectively—which seems a feeble punishment by today’s standards! It wasn’t the first time, or the last, that the combatants had clashed. Gardner cut Reardon for 14 stitches in 1945, and two months previous to this debacle, Kenny’s shoulder broke Cal’s jaw.
In the lighter vein, on one occasion, with 10 seconds left on the clock in a match against Toronto, Coach Dick Irvin motioned the big blueliner to take the face-off. He did so, winning it three times in six seconds. He followed through on the last one by firing the disc behind a startled Turk Broda—with three seconds left. In the dressing room after the game he strode up and down boldly announcing that he should play centre from then on. Not bad for a guy whose ambition was once to be a jockey!
In the window of time between Reardon’s debut and Scott Stevens’ coming into prominence on the NHL scene, fellow April Fool’s day babies Brian Johnson, Guy Trottier, John Wensink, Brad Berry, and Lee Giffin had flings in the Big Time.
Terry Caffery is not as well known as his brother Jack, who was 15 years his senior. The latter is remembered as the first NHL’er to hold his stick in the “reverse” mode on face-offs—that is, his bottom hand faced backwards—enabling him sort of “scoop” the disc back to his mates. He skated for the Leafs briefly, then for the Bruins, where he was tagged as “versatile”—particularly in penalty killing.
Terry, on the other hand, managed but 14 games in the Big Time, his legacy at that level being a line-score of 0-0-0-0. It is a bit of a mystery why he fell short of catching on in the world’s premier circuit, because he fared far better in the WHA, clocking 100 points with the New England Whalers in 1972-73. In fact he won the Rookie-of-the-Year Award in the loop’s initial season of competition. He just barely qualified for the honour, since 15 contests in major league shinny would have barred him from being considered.
In 1971-72, before jumping to the rebel WHA, he had also been selected as the winner of the Red Garrett Memorial Award in the AHL, emblematic of the best first year player in that circuit.
But none of the above came close to making the impact that Scott Stevens did. It would be accurate to say he started tentatively, having graduated to the Big Time after only one campaign in Junior A. Although his potential was obvious, the Washington Capitals adopted a “wait and see” stance during exhibition games in the fall of 1982.
He not only stuck, playing the complete schedule that season, but mid-way through the next campaign he was being praised for his maturity and his offensive creativity from his defense position. He was being tagged as “Mr. Tough” because of the way he knocked opposing players helter skelter, and took on all comers when it came to fighting. It wasn’t long until he no longer needed to drop his gloves—he had established himself as one who could take care of himself. It seemed incredible that the muscular, 6’ 1” 215-pounder, was urged by his potential Midget-age coach to play forward because he was too small for the blueline corps.
Jay Greenberg called him the “Hulking Devil”, and the now-defunct magazine, Inside Hockey, included a feature by Rod Beaton on the one he introduced as “The NHL’s raging bull!”. He wrote: “Stevens has become a serious force when he’s concentrating on hockey. He exudes the aura of raw power, an amazing blend of strength and mobility. His physique is second to none in the NHL!”
He retired in 2004 after 22 seasons, lest he endanger himself following a head injury in February of that year. His 1635 games set a new record for league rearguards. He was a five-time All-Star, winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2000, and captained both the St. Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils.
Kevin Dean, J.P. Dumont, Jason MacDonald, Nolan Yonkman, Esa Pirnes, Mark Schwarz, Mikko Lehtonen, and Reilley Smith are others whose careers spanned the time frame from the 1980’s through the New Millennium who share this unusual birth date.
. Reijo Ruotsalainen was the first foreign-born skater to intrude upon this rather restricted fraternity. He first saw the light of day on April 1, 1960, and 20 years later was the New York Ranger’s 6th round choice in the annual amateur draft. Fleet of foot, one NHL coach called him the “best pure skater in the league”! He tallied an amazing 56 points in his rookie season, including 18 goals—quite a feat for a blueliner seeking to adjust to the North American style of play. When he scored his first career hat trick, the fans responded in typical fashion, showering the ice with headwear of various kinds. It happened on St. Patrick’s Day in 1982, and Reijo got into the spirit of things by donning a green Irish bowler to acknowledge the applause.
Teamed with Barry “Bubba” Beck, who was 6’3” and weighed 216 lbs, at 5’ 8” and 170 lbs, the pair formed a regular Mutt and Jeff combination. Herb Brooks, his bench boss, maintained that he seemed to play all five positions at once. “I don’t know where he comes from or where he’s going, or how he got there!”
However, when Ted Sator took over behind the bench, the fast-skating Finn went sour, and was traded to the Edmonton Oilers. He played only 16 games, then returned to Europe. After three campaigns overseas he returned to the NHL, but split only 41 games between the Devils and Oilers, before bolting the world’s premier circuit for good.
Richard Shulmistra warrants a second glance, not because he took the pay-for-play scene by storm, but because he is (with Mark Schwarz) one of only two goalies to be part of this select fraternity.
In fact, Shulmistra stood between the pipes in the NHL for a grand total of 122 minutes during his 10 years as a pro backstop. Mind you, he was impressive in those two matches, allowing but three goals—the first time in 1997-98 in an overtime 2-1 loss, while taking Richard Brodeur’s slot. In 1999-2000, he had a 1.00 goals-against average while subbing for Mike Vernon of the Panthers.
He shone during his four campaigns in NCAA circles, and performed admirably as a second-team all-star in the AHL with Albany’s River Rats. He has the distinction of being featured in the video series, “Winning Hockey”, as the representative of the netminder’s union.
By the same token, Darren McCarty stands out from the infamous “April Fools” birth date crew, because he is the resident enforcer among his calendar peers. “Known more for his fists than his scoring”, is the way one profiler put it. That may readily be confirmed by scanning his statistics: in 758 games he lit the red lamp but 127 times. But he clocked 1477 penalty minutes, topping out this stat in ’93-’94 with 181 minutes while skating for the Red Wings (he had 278 P.I.M. the previous year with Adirondack).
As a diversion he rode motorcycles and led a rock band named “Grinder”. In 2013 he released an autobiography, “MY LAST FIGHT—The Story of a Hockey Rock Star”!
He also had “fights” away from the game, struggling with substance abuse, which eventually affected his play on the ice. He attempted a comeback with the Motor City sextet, but it was short-lived. He played out the string in the IHL and AHL.
Jussi Jokinen, another Finn, but no relation to Olli, got his start in the Big Time with the Dallas Stars. He quickly established himself as a shootout specialist, being successful on 10 tries in his initial campaign He first hit the headlines following his famous one-handed stab on Bruin goalie Tim Thomas in January 2006. Readers who had access to YouTube were able to watch this amazing feat. Going to his left, drawing the backstop with him, he then dragged the puck around to the right of the sprawling netminder, and slid it into the yawning cage. It is a smooth-as-silk move which was a delight to behold. By his own admission he had used the trick a total of three times that season. Detroit’s Manny Legace and Edmonton’s Dwayne Roloson are other victims. He has garnered the nickname “Juicy”, which is the way many Texans pronounce his first name, and whenever he bulged the twine the loud speakers at the American Airlines Center blared out the song of the same title.
He admits that until he came to North America he had never heard of April Fool’s Day. He is no fool but has spawned a new meaning for fooling cage cops with his stylish ploy.
Carter Ashton is the new kid on the block as far as the April first gang’s involvement in the Big Time is concerned. The only competitor from this fraternity to have a father (Brent) who played in the NHL ahead of him, he has made three attempts to break into the Maple Leaf’s lineup. In 2011-12 he wore the Blue & White for 15 games; the following year he didn’t make is past training camp; and this season he has dressed for 31 contests. Thus far he has not bulged the twine, and has but three helpers in those 46 games. Hard-nosed, he is not averse to dropping the gloves. He is far behind his dad, who, with nine different teams, potted 284 tallies over 14 campaigns. Maybe greener pastures might prove more fruitful for him as well.
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