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My interest in NHL hockey may be compared to getting the flu: I caught it because it was going around.
My father had no interest in sports — including hockey. The exception to that rule might be going out with his pals to watch a local “intermediate” match in the dingy little rink seven miles from our farm. But “sports news” on the radio, following the weather forecast, was switched off post-haste.
To him the name Foster Hewitt might as well have been “Fluster Blewitt” as comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster used to call him when he participated in the skits on their popular programme. The only hockey stick around our place was a strangely-shaped cast off which someone tossed away because it was in the way.
When I was 13, in 1948, gradually my class-mates gained a fascination with the pro game, and often on Monday morning would discuss the scores, the outstanding players, the “Three Star Selection”, and, occasionally, a fight if it amounted to anything beyond the ordinary brief scuffle.
One day one of the guys showed up with a paperback volume called the Hockey Album, featuring Turofsky’s select photos. Some were posed (often the ones featured on Bee Hive hockey pictures); some focused on the action involving a goal scored — and a few pin-pointed brawls where the bulk of both line-ups were pictured in their bad-tempered stances.
Not long after that, copies of Ed Fitkin’s paperback biographies showed up one at a time. Career stories, with behind the scene insights into the human side of on-ice heroes — their triumphs and disappointments — opening up a whole new profile of those who made their living playing the world’s greatest game. “Come on Teeder” (Ted Kennedy); “Hockey’s Rocket” (Maurice Richard); and “Hockey’s Dipsy Doodle Dandy” (Max Bentley) provided entertaining and informative reading.
All this only whet my appetite for more in-depth insight into the game. And Foster Hewitt’s colourful commentary on Leafs games on Saturday nights more than filled that niche. His description was so finite that it was almost like seeing the contests on TV. His first broadcast of the Blue and White aired on 1927 when the St. Pats were purchased by Conn Smythe and renamed the Maple Leafs.
With the building of Maple Leaf Gardens, the gondola was designed to suit Hewitt’s advantages as a broadcaster; Smythe also gave him exclusive rights in 1931 to call the play in this spotless new shinny palace. Canada’s National Sport was no more just a sport reported on in the newspapers and on radio –it came alive in a way second only to attending the games in person. Some of the most memorable words in media history echoed across the Dominion every week in the introduction to Foster’s commentary: “Hello Canada…and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland”. Of course his original call every time the puck dented the twine was “He Shoots! He Scores!’
When the CBC took control of the broadcast in 1936 Foster’s crystal clear description on the on-ice action then became a coast to coast outreach. While it is estimated that some 100,000 tuned in to his debut from the new Gardens, by 1934 a survey reported that 74% of all people listening to the radio while he was on the air had him tuned in.
Unlike the days of TV, the listening choice was greatly limited. So, in our house at least, there was no conflict about what position the dial on the radio would have priority when the puck was dropped for the opening face-off at game time. There was little or no interest in anything else.
That exposure eventually, for me, morphed into a regular feature every Saturday night from 7:00 through 7:15 p.m. called “Sportsviews”. During the hockey season skaters who would be part of the competition in the upcoming match — usually one of the home-town Maple Leafs — would field Wes McKnight’s questions about themselves personally; the probabilities of that night’s tilt; and about hockey in general. For hundreds, like this country hick, the possibility of attending a game was virtually mission impossible — but just to hear the voice of one’s favourite had a thrill of its own. Even if one didn’t have a Bee Hive photo of that competitor, imagining what they looked like was half the fun.
But the coup de grace, as far as connecting the clashing of sticks, the echoes of the puck rebounding off the dasher, and the roar of the crowd with the arm chair fans sitting at home, was the popular Hot Stove League.
Between periods, listeners no longer had the option of making a peanut butter sandwich and hearing the musical strains of Luigi Romanelli. Without skipping a beat, hockey was still emanating from the speakers of the Marconis or Emersons.
Today it would be called a panel discussion. But the “panel” in this case consisted of an imaginary pot-bellied wood stove—one like one might find in a vintage corner store. Because he was actually host of the hockey broadcasts, the aforementioned McKnight almost automatically became a part of that collection of hockey icons.
Nevertheless, initially, he conceded to Court Benson, Vancouver-born actor, best known for his roles in the BBC Sunday Night Theatre, as well as starring in CBC dramas, as the original emcee. Doubtless chosen because of this recognition, he moderated the show — seeking to steer the discussions on course, and keeping them from getting lost on side-tracks. But his stay was relatively short, and CFRB’s programme director, and programme host, Wes McKnight, picked up the torch and ran with it. His identity was very familiar because of the programme formerly mentioned. He was the “league’s” mainstay until radio gave way to the TV version in 1952.
If there was a star in this cast it would have to be Harold “Baldy” Cotton, who at the time was the chief scout for the Boston Bruins. He was the only former NHL’er of the crew, having played at the game’s top level, seven of those years with the Leafs. Strangely enough, when Toronto’s owner, Conn Smythe, heard of the proposed between-periods feature, he paid Baldy to be his goodwill ambassador in that venue. He knew that Cotton loved to talk, and he would be valuable in this role of promoting the local sextet. Ironically, Art Ross also encouraged him to remain in the same role for the Beantowners — saying he did more to promote the B.’s than any other form of advertising.
Baldy was remembered for a number of idiosyncrasies – mainly always managing to get a word in edgeways whether there was room for it or not. He personally recalls that his payment for his contribution to the feature was a free can of Bee Hive Golden Corn Syrup.
Two of the members of that original troupe were newspapermen.
Bobby Hewitson was the sports editor of the Toronto Telegram. In a cartoon from the Imperial Oil archives the fact that he was on the chubby side was accented unmistakeably. An accomplished athlete despite his size, he played lacrosse and football.
But his capability as an NHL referee, from 1927 through 1934, stands out above all else.
He was nicknamed “the Pony Referee” because he stood only 5’4” and weighed 125 pounds. Yet he was fearless in carrying out his duties, often wading into a tussle involving much bigger men, taking charge and sorting things out. He refereed the opening game at Maple Leaf Gardens. As well, he was the first curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame — and was himself inducted in 1963.
The benefit of humour has long been acknowledged as it applied to every avenue of life. Solomon wrote that it is “like a medicine”. Elmer Ferguson kept this element alive in a venue which could easily get bogged down with elementary topics.
When Jim Coleman of the Globe & Mail paid tribute to the Montreal journalist, he wrote: “He is the dean of Eastern Canada Sports writers… He enjoyed an international reputation as witty, an exceptional skilful writer, and a very, very funny man!”. Harold Cotton opined that here was little room for sober reflection because Fergie “would have us rolling on the floor!”
His style was sardonic – tongue-in-cheek cynicism and sarcasm. Yet his knowledge of the game was encyclopaedic. He started writing for his own local paper in Moncton, but moved to the Mount Royal City where he soon became sports editor of the Montreal Herald. His career in that metropolis spanned 28 years.
While this handful of prodigies carried on for years, in 1945 they were joined by Jack Dennett, newscaster extraordinaire. He was probably the most popular in that field. It is estimated that 350,000 tuned in to his 8 a.m. slot on CFRB, while 165,000 listened in at 6:30 p.m. That had been the incomparable Jim Hunter’s spot until he passed away.
One former member of this elite crew recalled: “The show was homespun, salty, and completely unrehearsed. There was no script, or even a set format”.
Clarence Passmore, who created the idea in the first place, would meet with the men on Saturday afternoon and give suggestions concerning the themes which should be given attention. Wes McKnight, in an off-the-cuff manner, would informally steer the discussions in those directions. But, as “Baldy” Cotton used to say: “What general format there was usually went up in smoke once we got on the air!”
Even the unflappable McKnight got side-tracked on occasion. One night he asked Elmer Ferguson to comment on a situation. His request was answered — but then he posed the same question to Cotton.
Topics were often custom made. Although the general trends at the league level were common grounds for ventilation, a recent highlight could put that subject at the bottom of the informal list.
It could very well have been that on the March 28th session, the strengths and weaknesses of the six teams who had qualified for the post-season Stanley Cup competition would have been dissected and trisected from a handful of angles. But that theme was scooped on Tues. March 24/Wed. March 25. Because that night(s) the longest NHL game of all time was played. Detroit and the Maroons were deadlocked 1-1 at the end of regulation time, and overtime came into play. But not one, not two, not three, but at 16:30 of the sixth extra frame the Motor City’s Mud Bruneteau popped the disc behind a totally wiped Lorne Chabot for the win. That would have kept them scratching their heads for all the rhymes and reasons for such a rarity.
For some strange reason there is only one specific palaver out of the dozens I heard which I recall. It concerned a scoring funk being experienced by the normally productive Ted Lindsay. It could very well have been his sterile 1951 playoff series, when he managed only a single point — an assist. As the opinions about his famine made the rounds, one witty wise man offered: “Hey. The kid’s in love…….” I guess the conclusion was he couldn’t concentrate on filling the net when his head was filled with romance.
These and lesser incidents—some brought up on the spur of the moment – kept these experts comparing notes more plentiful than they had time to properly discuss.
There are several downers on record, which took place during the Hot Stove League’s tenure, which took the wind out of their sails (and that of hockey itself). Philadelphia Quakers (aka Pittsburgh Pirates) packed it in as of 1931; the Ottawa/St. Louis franchise ran out of gas in 1935; Montreal’s second team, the Maroons, ceased operations in 1938; and the original New York fraternity, the Americans, called it quits in 1942.
Three competitors, Russ McConnell, Dudley Garrett, and Joe Turner lost their lives in World War II. As well, the tragedy of Howie Morenz’s untimely demise all contributed to the dark cloud which formed over the pay-for-play scene.
But, despite all that, there were some lighter moments involving the otherwise uplifting contributions which produced an unplanned smile or two. Part of the duties of this warming up the shinny scene was the choosing of the Three Stars of the completed match. This task often fell to Elmer Ferguson, the only league member who tried to put a French twist on Rocket Richard’s handle by pronouncing it “REE-SHORE”.
His compadres revealed that he was often in a dither over this task, and that nervousness was revealed in his analyzing of his choices over the radio network. While he scribbled down three names which were sent up to Foster Hewitt to announce over the Garden’s P.A., he would cover the accolades which prompted his decisions.
On occasion he forgot those names, and spent more than ample time naming just about everyone who had made outstanding contributions to the game — sometimes adding up to EIGHT THREE STAR SELECTIONS. The result was bagsful of mail inquiring the name of the school where Fergie had learned his math.
Rick Boulton summarized the key spot the Hot Stove League held in favourite Saturday night programme in Canada:
“Foster Hewitt was the real hero on the radio broadcasts — more famous than even Leaf players… he did more than anyone to earn the respect and loyalty of listeners from coast to coast… but the Hot Stovers did their best with their panel discussions to hold people’s attention!” (That prevented a snack or an unfinished household chore prompting losing the ear about those engrossed in the action on the ice.)
It is common knowledge that in 1952 “Hockey Night in Canada” switched its emphasis to the small screen. The first telecast in English was aired in November 1952. Visual rather than mere audio automatically became the emphasis.
The veteran Hal Cotton, whose niche in this feature spanned every year on radio and on TV as well — a total of 20 years. No one was in a better position to acknowledge “the show never quite made the transition to TV!”
There used to be a novelty poem, supposedly a quote from the Lone Ranger’s Indian side-kick, Tonto:
“Hi ho silverware, Tonto’s lost his underwear. Tonto say, “Me no care, Lone Ranger buy me nudder pair!”
One could imagine Tonto composing a second stanza:
“Tonto glad to get the gift; though not fit the way they should. The first were made to last and last — because they were made of wood!”
Some things can never adequately be replaced, because they can never be the same. Like an old baseball glove, a perfect fit from years of being shaped through wearing; or a puppy given to a boy to replace his “best friend” who was killed by a careless motorist — some substitutes just cannot quality as adequate…
Our home never had a TV set as long as I lived there. But I was fortunate enough be invited by a friend to watch that first Maple Leafs’ televised match on November 1, 1952. He needed a 40 foot tower to facilitate decent reception.
The game itself was exhilarating, with the Leafs hosting the Boston Bruins. For one who had seen only one live NHL match (back in in 1949), it was a real treat.
But somehow the aura created by that unseen hockey huddle, and a company gathering around the old radio set, fell short. Reality can never live up to the imagery imagination can concoct.
Not that the new format was not well done. Instead of an attention-getting voice calling fans to tune in, there was a mock Imperial Oil service station attendant, in the person of actor Murray Westgate, the new emcee, all spic and span in his spotless Esso uniform calling viewers to order.
The commercials actually overshadowed the show. The focus was on the big white oval with the huge red lettering, while he spouted one of his signature quips about “Letting Esso help you on your way to happy motoring!”, or “You’re on your way with Esso”, or “Always look to Imperial for the best!”
Apart from the incumbent Baldy Cotton (now wearing a felt hat to cover his most famous asset), and who was always worried whether or not his fly was open, all the original members of the troupe were missing. Instead, Dave Price (Dave who?), Charlie Conacher, and Ed Fitkin, assembled in a mock-up corner store with a big pot-bellied stove front and centre. When Syl Apps joined the crew, the initial scene pictured him stuffing a hunk of wood in that old iron heater, and Cotton turning the crank to shake down the “ashes” from the fire box.
Some of the game’s well-known personalities, like Bobby Bauer and Dit Clapper were often guest participants in this on-going entourage.
But the estimate of the failure to transfer the programme from one medium to another proved to be accurate. 1957 spelled the end of the informal peek into the game, its current highlights, and the personalities active in it from game to game. Player interviews, video highlights, and a short period of lightning-fast caricature sketches by George Feyer replaced the old format — but the “Hot Stove” had burned out.
Two weeks ago, a kind-hearted friend sent me a copy of Al Strachan’s new volume, “Hockey’s Hot Stove”, profiling the satellite version which debuted in 1994. But that is a different story.
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