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Turk Broda's in a diaper sitting on a scale (Photo: HHOF)
I normally keep this column impersonal — but this article will be an exception to that rule. I will list 13 historical hockey moments — all of which are predominant for no other reason than that they hold that distinction for me!
I became interested in NHL hockey in 1947 — mainly due to the influence of my public-school classmates. Several of them sported replica NHL sweaters (and someone had given me a Maple Leaf version about the same time). Another brought a copy of Turofsky’s 1948-49 Hockey Album to school; and seeing all those individual photos and action shots only increased my becoming enamoured with the game. Foster Hewitt became my companion every Saturday night as I heard his exciting commentary on Toronto’s home games. Actually, the initial scenario is an off-ice incident.
…1. Turk Broda’s “Battle of the Bulge”. What is now referred to as “the Leafs Nation” was more than slightly shaken up when it was discovered that Walter ”Turk” Broda had been benched as of November 30, 1949. Someone had arranged for a daily copy of the Toronto Telegram to be delivered to our high school; and the first one to get to the library could enjoy the latest sports news. Personally I made a bee line for Bob Hesketh’s feature in which he wrote as a fictitious Maple Leaf rookie by the name of Hannibal Bodfish. His “letters” to the folks at home in Punkeydoodles Corners kept them abreast of how he was faring with his new team.
And so it was that I caught wind of the drama taking place at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Buds had lost five and tied one on their last six games — the most recent to the cellar-dwelling Blackhawks. The former champs were sluggish — and their “Fabulous Fatman”, goalie Broda, who had led them to three consecutive Stanley Cups, had whiffed on a couple of shots. Manager Conn Smythe had sniffed a fourth championship. But now all he got was a bad smell.
Too many players were overweight, including Harry Watson, Vic Lynn, Garth Boesch , and Howie Meeker (he said). But the guiltiest of all was “Turk” Broda. Once weighing 185, he was now at 197. He was replaced by minor league backstop Gil Mayer, with a trade for Al Rollins solidifying the situation. He was AWOL — absent without liking it. He could have his job back when he reached 190 pounds.
The press had a ball with it. His progress made headlines daily. There was even a photo of him wearing a diaper and sitting on scales. And Smythe bathed in the publicity it brought their way. Finally, the suspense ended. All players who were under the gun passed the weigh-in test—and especially Mr. Broda.
They won the next four, but had to settle for third place—and lost out to Detroit in the semi-finals.
2. Attending my first game at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was February 4, 1950, and the visitors at the historic arena were the Detroit Red Wings. My older cousin invited me to join him when his company, Fisher Gage Works (Mike’s family), took their bus trip to the Queen City for this match. Of course all casual seating was in the “greys”—about 8 feet from the roof in the back row. But the magnificent lighting meant that even the skaters who looked the size of chessmen were easily seen and recognized. Yes! They were all there: Gordie Howe, Red Kelly, Harry Lumley, Sid Abel, and Jack Stewart — Turk Broda, “Teeder” Kennedy, Jim Thomson, Max Bentley (and my favourite, Harry Watson).
I was so mesmerized by just being there, that I stumbled at my attempt to answer my pal’s questions about the players and game when queried on Monday. I do know it was a 3-3 tie — and, for the first time, realized the Wings wore red hockey pants, not brown.
3. Gordie Howe’s serious head injury. By the time playoff time rolled around in the spring of 1949, I had become very aware that my Leafs had has set a record of three Cup triumphs in a row. And that is why their March 19, 1950 5-0 drubbing of the Motor City Six was so significant to this 14-year-old hayseed. For the first time, I found an adult relative, my Uncle Joe, as excited as I was about it. By chance, visiting him in Beaverton, Ontario (where I would eventually move to live in 1991), led to that discovery, “They are picking up where they left off; and it will soon be four in a row!” I thought. (Of course they lost that series in the end).
While “Mr. Hockey’s” serious head injury coincided with this victory, it had escaped my mind that it happened during that game. In attempting to check Teeder Kennedy he ended up colliding with the boards. Most Detroiters accused Toronto’s gritty centre of butt-ending him, and were out for revenge. Later, when evidence was objectively reviewed, neutral investigation agreed with Kennedy’s denial about intentional harm. But it was sad to see such a great competitor sidelined in serious condition.
4. Bill Barilko’s milestone overtime winning tally on April 21, 1951. With the anticipation of a quartet of World Championships down the tubes, the Blue and White’s second-place finish in 1950-51, only six points behind Detroit, raised hopes for a revival of the their post-season success.. By then I had become so addicted to the team’s ups and downs (kept informed daily by the same Telegram) that my mother commented: “If you liked the Maple Leafs as much as Glen does, you’d go and live with them!”
The Canadiens had ousted the first-place Red Wings and Toronto had disposed of the Bruins, prompting the first All Canadian final since 1942. Competition was so close that every game went into overtime. On April 21, with the Leafs leading the series 3 games to 1, the fifth clash called for an extra frame once more. Down by a goal with at 18:33 of the final period, Coach Joe Primeau daringly yanked Al Rollins for a sixth attacker. It almost backfired, with Ken Mosdell coming within an ace of salting it away. But Kennedy won the draw, slipped the puck to Max Bentley, who passed it to Sid Smith. Smiths’s shot hit the post but Tod Sloan then banged it in.
It was nail-biting time again. Warned not so stray from the blueline, “Bashin’ Bill” Barilko eased toward the Habs’ net. Howie Meeker passed to Harry Watson from behind the net — over to Barilko, who backhanded the disc over Gerry McNeil’s shoulder at 2:53 of overtime! The Garden’s erupted as I cheered, and the cherished mug was back in the Queen City again! It has been called the most important goal in the team’s history.
5. Playing in Maple Leaf Gardens. Just a week short of one year later, my fifth special recollection took place. Thus far my delight has coincided with his events recorded in the NHL’s archives. But this one is strictly personal. On March 19, 1952 our team had won the All Ontario Juvenile “D” championship.
Anxious to sniff out even the remotest talent which might pad their skills pool, the Leafs arranged for us to play an exhibition game against the Marlboro AAA Midgets on April 12th—in Maple Leaf Gardens.
We lost 16—1, but just to have participated in the action in the “House that Conn Built” was an unforgettable experience.
6.Watching an old-fashioned demonstration of “puck ragging”. I never had the privilege to watch the magic puck-handling of several old timers who were known for their expertise at playing “keep away” during crucial moments in major league hockey games — usually during penalty killing. Johnny Gottselig in the 1920’s and 1930’s and Joe Primeau in the 1940’s and 1950’s were known for their adeptness in single-handedly keeping possession of the puck for the full two minutes while their teams played short-handed. Frank Nighbor, Andy Blair, and Aurèle Joliat were others gifted in this fashion.
But one evening, in 1958, even as a financially limited first-year Seminary student, I somehow scraped up the $2.00 for a standing room in the Gardens, and watched journeyman Paul Masnick imitate these shinny icons. “Paul who?”, some will say. He had already played with seven other professional clubs when he donned Toronto’s Blue and White. But that night, I saw the best demonstration of pure stick-handing I ever watched before or since. He just circled and circled at centre ice and wouldn’t let anyone else have the old boot heel.
7. The 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup Victory. Even the most casual follower of the NHL remembers that this was Toronto’s last hurrah—53 years ago. They had their names engraved on Lord Stanley’s famous silver chalice 11 times in their first 39 years—but since then, they have not even reached the final once.
But on May 2, 1967, I watched on our 12-inch black and white screen in our country parsonage, as they closed off the NHL’s 50th campaign, dispatching their long-standing rivals, the Canadiens. Sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, I waited with bated breath for the final whistle to end that tense competition.
My youngest daughter, now a teacher with three grown children was only three years old. In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined the only lingering exhilaration of that moment would be watching a VHS cassette of the game (yes I still use a VCR).
8. Stan Mikita’s amazing metamorphosis. When the Trophy Winners were announced by the NHL in June of 1967, there was one glaring surprise. That Stan Mikita should be honoured with the Art Ross and Hart Trophies was no surprise. But the Lady Byng, emblematic of gentlemanly conduct? Stan Mikita — often called the “Little Devil”, because of his feisty approach to the game (resulting in countless trips to the sin bin) — now combining effective play coinciding with clean play???
He had a total of 154 P.I.M. two campaigns earlier. That season he had but 12.
In his biography, “I Play To Win”, he confessed: “Was I a dirty player? I have to say at times I definitely was.” He went on to list some of his tactics: “butt-ends; elbows; kneeing, spearing; running a player from behind!” This was all in the name of fierce competitiveness.
But it all changed one day when his little daughter asked: “Daddy. How come when the man in stripes blows the whistle, Uncle Bobby (Hull) goes to sit with his friends; but you go to the other side and sit by yourself?”
That was the turning point — and he repeated the same three trophy hat trick the following season.
9. Bill Masterton’s tragic on-ice death on January 13, 1968. There is an 18th century British rhyme entitled “Who Killed Cock Robin?” It is often accompanied by a drawing of a robin red breast stretched out on his back, surrounded by mourning feathered friends. The poem immediately answers the query: “I, said the sparrow with my bow and arrow. I killed Cock Robin!”
When the North Stars’ Bill Masterton was checked heavily to the ice by the Golden Seals’ Ron Harris during that NHL regular-season contest, even though the rugged Harris continued to be haunted by the tragedy, the answer to this, the first league’s death attributed to on-ice action, cannot be explained as simply as the “sparrow’s” candid confession.
The fact of the matter is that even if his head had collided with the unforgiving frozen surface because he had stepped on a piece of debris — it was the unwritten policy of the world’s premier shinny circuit which did him in. Teammate J.P. Parise confessed that to don headgear during that era meant being called a “yellow belly”! All the arguments about helmets being too hot, or hindering vision, was just a ruse. The inherent philosophy was: “Real he-men wouldn’t stoop to that ‘sissy’ measure!”
The fact that it was a decade before the NHL finally made protecting one’s head mandatory indicates how engrained this mindset was the norm “in a man’s game”.
Continued investigation into his untimely demise unearthed the fact that he probably was already suffering from a concussion incurred when he was checked into the glass a few games earlier. Both his teammates and management, as well as his wife noted indications of head trauma. But his bare-headed collision with the ice on January 13 was “pride (not his personally) going before the fall!”
10. Glenn Hall’s goaltending magic in the 1968 playoffs. With the addition of six new teams, the post-season took on a brand new look. Winners of the new West Division took on the top dogs of the “Original Six” contingent to decide the world championship and the Stanley Cup winners. With the Canadiens on their perpetual roll, it was no surprise to find them relaxing waiting for whichever of the upstarts survived their divisional battles.
As it turned out, the third-place St. Louis Blues were victorious in that conflict — and were given about as much chance to offer any real challenge to the Habs as snow during a spring thaw. And, even though the challenge ended with a four-game sweep, the bristles of the Habitants broom were severely worn down before they could raise their arms in triumph. All four contests were decided on the strength of a single marker — with games one and three going into overtime. “Mr. Goalie” was the Missouri sextet’s secret weapon. Veteran shinny scribe Red Burnett wrote: “Some of his saves were seemingly impossible!”
Although I was limited to observing on the small screen, I have never seen a more brilliant display of guarding the twine than I did during those four contests. No player ever deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy as much as he did.
11. Paul Henderson’s ‘goal of the Century’ on September 28, 1972. It has been called part of “Canada’s most iconic sports event.” Peter Mahovlich called it “part of our national heritage”. For years the question made the rounds: “Where were you when it happened?”
I can remember where I was. I have no idea why I had to be in Toronto during that crucial moment. But I do recall being in the basement of Eaton’s College Street store — standing there with dozens of others who didn’t have the luxury to be sitting comfortably in their homes. I’m sure new joist had to be installed in the floor above after that thunderous cheer went up following Foster Hewitt’s “Henderson has scored for Canada!”
12. Gordie Howe playing with his sons for Houston. I have played on the same team as my son several times. It gives a kind of satisfaction all of its own. And in 1973, the unthinkable happened. With the WHA undercutting the NHL policy about age limits, the Houston Aeros inked Mark and Marty Howe to pro contracts. Since a nationally-televised movie covered all the bases in “Mr. Hockey”’s acceptance to join his boys as a member of that team, it is superfluous reiterate them in this missive.
But it remains a rare milestone in the game’s history recounted in the vigil of a 45-year-old NHL retiree, reviving his career to become the first NHL father to play as a teammate with his offspring, ages 18 and 19. Not only that, but he performed so admirably he was selected as league MVP. “Playing with Mark and Marty”, he said, “was worth more to me than the award.”
Amazingly enough, he continued in this family trio three more seasons with Houston; two more with the WHA New England Whalers, and one more with the NHL Hartford version of the club. Then he retired for good.
13. Darryl Sittler’s record-breaking night. Actually I didn’t even see the February 7, 1976 Boston/Leafs game. I was playing hockey that night in our area church league. In a convoy of vehicles our team braved a mini-blizzard to travel 25 miles to play the scheduled match.
But, my younger daughter was a fan and filled us in on the milestone details when we arrived safely home. Even though the full game is not available I have seen highlights of his 10-point performance a good many times.
Ironically, the abrasive Harold Ballard had been hinting that the team was lacking an iconic centre, and was even contemplating making a move. When he blurted “We’d set off a time bomb if we had a h--- of a centre”, the Toronto captain knew that jibe was directed his way. His response to the snide remark, though not with the specific intention of sticking it to his critic, was his six-goal, four-assist spectacular.
Between the second and third frames, the team’s PR Director, Stan Obodiac, drew his attention to the fact that, with seven points at that stage of the game, he was only one short of “Rocket” Richard’s eight-pointer. And by the time the final curtain fell, the quiet Kitchener product was the new record holder. I dare to predict that if Wayne Gretzky couldn’t equal or break it, it will remain etched in shinny’s stone for all time.
**Appendix number one: Because it cannot be included as an integral piece of the game’s history, this special recollection must come under the category of a P.S. I earlier mentioned that Harry Watson was my favourite player as I came to enjoy the game more and more. He played according to my ideals — a thorough overseer of the Left Wing corridor; a consistent scorer; and a clean-playing competitor. In 1994, I actually got the opportunity to visit him in his Markham home and reminisce about those glory days of the Leafs.
**Appendix number two: this also involves a visit — actually, a make-it-yourself noon lunch. This time it was at 24 Sussex Drive, the residence of the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada. It was May 19, 2007, during the SIHR AGM in Ottawa. I had been notified upon my arrival at the conference that I was to phone him. No one could have been more down-to-earth, as we sat in his kitchen eating sandwiches, viewing his NHL sweater collection, and chatting about our favourite mutual interest — hockey. It was a moment — different than all the others — but one I’ll never forget.
It has been said: “Sometimes you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” That applies perfectly to all of the above!
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