Hockey's Historic Highlights

Firing Blanks

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

Firing Blanks

Posted March 18, 2019

Viewed 2358 times

Even Wayne Gretzky has had scoring slumps

   On October 12, 1984, 26-year-old Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally killed himself, while horsing around on the set of his TV series, “Cover Up”. Holding a gun loaded with blank cartridges to his head, he wondered “Let’s see if this will do it” He pulled the trigger and the force of the explosion fractured his skull. Six days after having had five hours of surgery, he lost the battle and passed away.

   Blank cartridges, if fired any closer than a distance of two feet, can kill. When this happens, tragedy follows. When hockey players “fire blanks” (have scoring slumps), distress is also present. There is loss of scoring for the team, and loss of self-confidence for potential scorers.

   Such goal-scoring dry spells are mysterious, unexplainable, and undefinable experiences, even for the best pucksters. “Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, once commented: “It’s (firing blanks) impossible to go through a long pro career without having slumps—you just have to keep plugging away and work out of it.

  The late and great Jean Beliveau put it this way: “I thought I’d never score again.  I was wasting 50% of my energy worrying before games started!”

   Howe was right. Some the game’s elite have suffered through agonizing dry spells — wondering, like Le Gros Bill, if they would ever see the red goal-light flash again.

   Howie Morenz has rightly been tagged “the game’s first superstar!”  Among his recorded accolades are:

    Following the 1932-33 campaign, the “Stratford Streak” was voted to the Second All Star Team. It was a worthy tribute, but a come-down from two years running as the First Team’s centre.  He had recorded 14 goals and 21 assists. It was a respectable total, but included 10 goals less than the previous season. With the opening of the following schedule, the wheels had not fallen off—but they were wobbling.  He failed to bulge the twine in his first 10 contests.  Fans began to boo him; and during the off-season he was shipped off Chicago. His first 10 games there were a repeat of the previous year’s commencement. 10 games is not an unduly long dry spell—except for a player like Howie.  “And folks—you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”  Extended goal-less famines dot the records of the world’s premier shinny fraternity. Just how distressing that might have been depended on two main scenarios—the era in which a skater competed, and, the position that he played.

   Harvey Rockburn, “Taffy” Abel, Percy Traub, and Vernon Ayres, for instance, were limited in their success because they were active in the early 1930’s—which meant both a comparatively few number of contests, and the fact that they were defensemen. At that juncture in the game’s history blueliners were expected to prevent goals, not score them.

   Traub, who had three markers to his credit in 86 previous matches, boasted an unblemished “line score” in 1928-29—0-0-0 in points.

   Harvey Rockburn, who was known for his flamboyant approach to the game, went through the entire 1930-31 campaign (42 games), with only one assist in his statistics column. His big numbers were in the P.I.M. department. He continued his same pattern, getting a lone assist midway through 16 contests, in the following season.

   Vernon Ayres imitated Truab, with that 0-0-0 contribution in 65 games over two seasons.

    The jovial “Taffy” Abel skated in 47 games during the 1932-33 schedule and came up empty-handed in the goal column. It was December 19 (the 16th match of the new season) in the following year that he got his first goal in two years.

  Even though the shackles were loosened as time went on, that limitation restricted blueliners for another three decades.  The result was that a host of defenders were saddled with goose-eggs recorded in their statistical biographies.

   Jimmy Thomson, whose goal-less famine stretched to 202 games, started this trend during this initial season with the Maple Leafs—in 1945-46. A review of his profile shows a total of seven campaigns without seeing the goal light’s glare. He made the best of it, however, being credited with some quotable quips related to his futility as a scorer. On one occasion he opined that “if he scored two goals during one schedule, they would expect him to tally three the next.”

   Another time, after finally hearing his name announced over the P.A. system following a goal, he snapped, “They can’t stop what they can’t see!”

   Likewise, he shared his philosophy about facing opposing netminders with: “The only way I get to see them is to send for their Bee Hive photo from the St. Lawrence Starch Company!”

  Fern Flaman was a contemporary of Thompson, a tough-as-nails defender, who started his NHL career with Boston, was traded to Toronto, then lined up again with the Bruins in the trade that brought Dave Creighton to the Leafs.  Two of the four campaigns that earned a zero on his goals-for column (not counting two one-game seasons) were after he had returned to the Bruins. In 1957-58 and 1958-59, he logged 130 consecutive contests without a single tally. One of “Red” Storey’s favourite yarns is about the rock-solid rearguard, who objected to one of the veteran official’s calls. He stood toe-to-toe with the whistle-tooter, and with his face right up against Story’s mug, he growled:

“I have one of the worst colds in Boston, and I hope I’m going to give it to you!”

   Bob Turner joined the Canadiens as a stay-at-home blueliner in time to be part of their milestone five cups in a row. He was a strictly defensive defenseman who had no illusions about how he compared with Doug Harvey and company on the pecking order. His seasons of firing blanks were spaced out over his career. But one of them was 1957-58, when he went all his 66 games without scoring. But he also failed to tally markers for 55 matches the season before, and was shut out for 12 games the following year—making a total of 121 goal-less matches.

   Jack Evans was nicknamed “Tex”—not because he spoke with a southern drawl, but because at a team party one night he grabbed a broom and started making out he was riding a horse. In the process he was singing cowboy songs as well. That was unusual since he was called the “Sphinx” because he was so quiet. He nearly blew the minds of his mates during one game when they were behind. He rushed to the bench and gave them a rabunxious pep talk.

   But he was quiet in the sniper department.  He clocked 14 seasons in the big time, and six of which recorded no goals — 195 straight games shooting blanks.

    Bob Armstrong, Bill Moe, Larry Cahan, Benny Woit, Lee Fogolin, Leo Reise Jr., Bob Goldham, Ernie Dickens, Dollard St. Laurent, and Bill Juzda are others from the 40’s and 50’s who failed to impress with their goal-scoring abilities.

    But Ivan “The Terrible” Irwin stands out in as an example of futility in this area. In five seasons, though two of them represented only a few games — four of them with zero goals — his total NHL collection is two. Perhaps Andy Bathgate’s comment sheds light on the reason. When criticizing Carl Brewer’s habit of cutting the palms out of his hockey gloves, he admitted trying it personally, and finding it a hindrance to his grip on his stick. He added: “Ivan Irwin used to do it, and his shot wouldn’t tear a wet piece of Kleenex”.

  Moving into the 1960’s we find at least two rearguards who can match the futility of the aforementioned crew.  

   Al Hamilton went four goalless seasons before he finally got the monkey off his back in his fifth one. His fledgling career started with the Rangers, and it wasn’t until he joined the Buffalo Sabres in 1971-72 that he potted his first two NHL markers.

   Terry Murray’s 224 games without a goal also included seven NHL campaigns of being denied by opposition netminders.

  Starting in the 1990’s Rich Pilon spent  a lot of time in the Big Apple—both with the Rangers and the Islanders. And 245 contests spelled “sour apples” to him in the stats column.

   A contemporary, a gentle fellows by the name of  Brooks Orpik carried on the firing blanks tradition for rearguards. Five full seasons of futility and a streak of 181 games without being able to raise his stick in triumph.

  But it is reserved for a modern era to record the futility of the champion holder of the longest goal scoring dry spell on record. Ken Daneyko, who skated for the New Jersey Devils from 1983 through 2003, failed to bulge the twine for 256 consecutive games. Additional calculation brings his totals during that drought to two goals in 361 contests.

   It seems a stretch to imagine that any forward could conclude a season without connecting at least once; but it has happened—though rarely.

   Back in the 1931-32 season, Hib Milks played a full year with the New York Rangers, with nothing to show for his former reputation as leading point-getter of the old Pittsburgh Pirates, and captain of the Philadelphia Quakers. He was referred to a dominant performer during those years—a pivot who played hard but clean hockey. But when he started the 1932-33 schedule with the Ottawa Senators, he played 16 scoreless games with the Senators before retiring.

    Bill Muckalt was Milk’s modern counterpart. In 2001/02 he patrolled the right-wing corridor for the Ottawa Senators, failing to record a single tally. He added two more games to his streak futility the following year.

   Dallas Eakins played for eight different NHL sextets, starting in 1993. He totalled 120 games during his on-again, off-again stint in the Big Time. But he never managed to put the puck behind a big league goalie over those 10 years. 

    Scott Gomez, Calder Trophy winner in 1999-2000 added a twist to this category. He made headlines in February of 2012, when the Fifth Estate blared the fact that he had gone a full calendar year with not a single marker to his name. Reports of his failure noted that he was not the first skater to go a full year without tripping the goal-light switch—but that he was the first earning a 7.5 million dollar contract to do so.

   Interestingly enough, when Nic Petan scored against Buffalo on March 2, it was reported that it had been more than a full calendar year since he last found the mark.

   Still another spin may be attributed to three different pucksters—namely, never scoring  any goals in a career.  The first on record to make this dubious claim was Gord Strate, who patrolled the blueline for the Red Wings over three successive seasons in the mid-1950’s. Not only did he fail to record a goal—but he had to no assists to his credit during those 61 contests.

  Starting in 1997-98, Steve Halko played parts of six seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. When he exited that NHL fold, demoted to the minors, he was totally whitewashed in the stats column that counts most for both a player and his team.

  In a rare NHL father/son combination, Carter Ashton followed father Brent’s footsteps into the shinny’s Big Time. In 54 games with the Maple Leafs he failed to dent the armour of opposing goalies even once.

In fact, in 2014-15 his “line score” was akin to baseball’s “no hits, no runs, no errors”—it was a perfect 0-0-0-0.

   Perhaps the most mysterious scenario involves proven snipers, who, for some unknown (and frustrating) reason, lose their pendent for putting the puck in the net.

  A dry spell which was of special interest to yours truly involved Sid Smith, who recently had a Toronto outdoor rink named after him. When Harry Watson retired, “Muff”, as he was nicknamed (for wearing earmuffs on the outdoor rinks in Toronto) became my favourite. He wore the same sweater number as I did; played the same position; and favoured the Lady Byng approach to competition.

   Called the “master of the tip in”, the 1954-55 season was a banner one for Smitty. He scored more goals than Gordie Howe—recording 33 tallies, was selected as the First All Star Left Wing, and won his second Lady Byng Trophy. But the wheels fell off the following year.  He didn’t score his first until December 8th –his second came six weeks later on January 29th. On December 21st it was noted he had only one goal in 24 games. By January 12th he was playing only six minutes a game. By mid-February he was sitting in the press box, and a week later he was benched for two contests, He finished the campaign with only four markers to his credit.

   Andy Bathgate seemed to be following Smith’s script in 1964. He had potted 35 markers the previous campaign, but in February he had only 15 tallies to his credit. He claimed that scoring only two goals in 18 games was—“the worst slump in my nine seasons!”, he moaned.

   After his brief sojourn in Toronto he was traded to Detroit where he experienced an even more disparaging dry spell.  In March 1964 he made hockey headlines again, but shedding the shackles that had hog-tied him for an incredible 36 games. In the same way he ended his former slump with a two-goal effort. 

  In 1972-73 Henri Richard experienced a 46-game dry spell.  On January 10, 1973 tallied his first two markers of the season. His previous goal had been on March 26, 1972.  He had even failed to get on the score-sheet during the 1972 playoffs. Ironically, the goal that broke the famine was a disputed one. Opponents claimed he had his stick above his shoulders when it went in. Much relieved, he grinned: “I got hot. Imagine — in a cold place like Minnesota. This gave the “Pocket Rocket” 953 points, just 12 short of his famous brother’s 965.

   But the most significant famine in scoring (not the longest) must be attributed to the “Great One” himself—Wayne Gretzky. The NHL’s all-time points leader once got stranded on a 21-game scoring sandbar. Although he managed 23 assists during that time, he went from December 31, 1996 through Februaru 19, 1997 without triggering the red goal lamps. The previous longest dry spell was nine games, back in 1985-86. Admitting frustration, he said: “Wayne Gretzky has been plain bad lately — the glaring weakness both on defense and offense.”

   The kind of helpless feeling that players in the midst of scoring droughts have, is expressed in this quote from Morris Lukowich: “…..I feel like I’m standing on the freeway watching all the cars whiz by, hoping that I don’t get hit by one!”

   The vanity of trying hard to overcome one, according to Gilles Hamel, is that “It’s like when you open a new jar of pickles. It’s hard to get the first one out!”

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