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Johnny 'Goose' McCormack
It has been said that nicknames are “as old a Mom’s apple pie”. They initially began to be used in the 1300’s. Originally they were intended as a light-hearted way of poking fun at the personalities of public figures.
They are as old as hockey too. Take a look at a line-up of the game’s old timers, and you will find that their Christian names were commonly substituted with what was first known as “eke names”. And even as those bynames betrayed the character of the one tagged in that manner, there are a whole cast of performers, who by their deportment are called “characters”. Other descriptions are sometimes used in substitution.
For instance, the game’s journalist extraordinaire, Stan Fischler, calls them “The Flakes of Winter” in his book of that title. He profiles a dozen of hockey’s clown princes, Earles of eccentricity, bantering bozos, crazy crackpots, and jaunty jokesters — to say nothing of naïve nitwits and leering lunkheads.
In part one of this missive, we profiled three skaters from the earlier eras of the game — Amby Moran, Jean Pusie, and Eddie Dorohoy. This time, the spotlight falls on a trio from the “Original 6” days .
The fountains from which these nicknames spring vary greatly. In “Total Hockey” (VOL. 1) one source was the animal kingdom — like “Moose” Vasko; “Rat” Linseman; and “Bunny” Cook. But not many in that category are connected to our fine feathered friends. There are “Eagle” Balfour, “Road Runner” Cournoyer, and “Big Bird” Robinson.
**But JOHNNY MCCORMACK takes the cake. Besides other agnomens he was known as “Goose”. That was inspired, quite logically, by his appearance. He was tall and lanky, with a long neck and arms, and a protruding Adam’s apple. Old timers used to say, “He was all wings and machinery!”
A defensive specialist, he was an excellent penalty killer. On one occasion, he was on the ice three times in 10 minutes, thwarting the opposition power plays. Part of his success was attributed to his superior ability at poke-checking. Veteran “Flash” Hollett once claimed: “You figured you have slipped by him, and next thing you know he has the puck. He must use extension ladders for arms”. It seemed that he was the reincarnation of the great Frank Nighbor of the Ottawa Senators. One opposition goalie suggested that he spent so much time poke-checking that sometimes after a tough game it took him a half an hour to straighten up.
But goals are what counts in the NHL, and he totalled only 25, starting with the Maple Leafs, moving to Montreal, and concluding his Big Time career with the Blackhawks. Because he had so much talent, yet was given so little opportunity to utilize it, he was also tagged “Calamity John”.
Not only did he have a deft stick, but also a quick lip! For the most part it earned him laughter.
The first time he played in the Big Apple, he strolled around downtown New York looking at the skyscrapers and other big city sights. When a teammate asked him if it made him nervous to be skating in that famous berg, he quipped: “No! I just wanted to see all I could. This might be my first and last trip!”
The guys in the stripped jerseys were on the receiving end of his wit from time to time. One night when the Canadiens were parading to the penalty box in succession, he skated up the referee Bill Chadwick and snapped: “If you’re calling all these to give me a chance to play, you can stop right now. I’m all in!”
Although he totalled only 35 P.I.M. in his career, he still had a tongue-in-cheek remark one night when he was called for violation of the rules of the game. “That’s the third time you’ve cost me the Lady Byng Trophy!” he scolded the official.
Linesman Sammy Babcock was given a grammar lesson one night when John questioned his call about an offside. “It was offside by two foot!, he was told. “The word is feet, Sammy!”
Boston’s star centre and captain was caught off guard during one match. He happened to be sporting a stick that was a little worse for wear, with lots of tape in evidence, and a blade that had been shaved to about an inch and a half in height. “Say Miltie”, he cracked. “That isn’t the the stick you started off your career with, is it?
While his carefree approach to life and the game prompted many giggles from teammates and even opposition skaters, his bosses didn’t always follow suit. On one occasion his coach was giving him a pep talk about how they needed more goals from him personally. “Well”, he responded. “From where I am sitting at the end of the bench, I can’t even reach the puck!” That earned him a trip to the farm.
In 1952-53 he scored one goal. As the new campaign was about the begin, he approached the Habs’ manager, Frank Selke, about a raise in pay. When the Canadiens’ boss asked him why he thought he needed more money, he explained that he needed dental work. He was promptly told to open his mouth for an examination. Mr. Selke didn’t agree there was enough decay to warrant a bigger cheque.
But the coup de grace came during the 1950-51 season with Toronto. He had played 46 games with the Leafs that year. He had also fallen in love, and married a nurse from the Sick Children’s hospital. Conn Smythe took less than a delight in players donning double harness during the season and promptly shipped him to Pittsburgh. Shortly afterwards the “Goose” told his boss in no uncertain terms what he thought of men who interfere with the course of true love. When the season was over Johnny was sold to Montreal.
He passed away at age 92 in 2017 — still smilin’.
It seems that most of the loose cannons who fall into the category of “stooge” have one common weakness. While some can’t control their elbows, others their sticks — the bulk of them can’t keep the lid on their mouths.
**LEO LABINE falls into that category. In fact, a little known fact is that the Maple Leafs showed an interest in him, but they gave up on the idea “because he was too yappy!”. His multiple nicknames give hints as to his personality: “The Haileybury Hurricane”; “Leo the Lion”; “the Magnificent Screwball”; and “Laughing Boy!”.
Not only was he full of mischief, but he was one of the toughest and roughest 170-pound competitors in the NHL’s history. “Rocket “ Richard said: “Every time he jumped over the boards I had the feeling he wasn’t out to score goals, but to lay somebody out!”
His rascally reputation preceded him when he jumped right from the Barrie Juniors to the Bruins. One summer he was working for owner Hap Emms putting some electrical plugs in a church. As he bored a hole and threaded a wire through a wall, he heard a voice say, “Bless me Father for I have sinned!” — and the man gave his confession. Rather than correct the man’s error, he just said, “Go say five ‘Fathers and five Marys”, and I’m sure you’ll look after yourself a little better from now on!”
While he was not known for his practical jokes, he did banter with his teammates. Early in his time with Boston he remarked to big defenseman, Bob Armstrong, “Armstrong, you’re insipid!”
“Is that so, Leo? Let’s hear you spell it!”
His attempt to do so set Webster’s dictionary back 10 years. But he countered with: “I may not be able to spell it, but I can pronounce it!”
He always seemed to be in Dutch with the Canadiens, and admitted, “The Canadiens just don’t like me!” He tangled with the “Rocket” more than once. Initially it was just talk. In reaction to a butt end, he snarled, “Look, Rocket. You’ve got 32 teeth. Do you want to try for 16?”
Notorious for his stick work, he later crosschecked the Habs’ superstar in the head. He also parted Gus Mortson’s hair with his stick, and had a dust-up with Chicago’s Tod Sloan. That time the duel backfired, with Leo getting a knock on the head with the Windy City centre’s wood. That night he must have been in a good mood. He simply told Tod: “You shouldn’t do such things. You’ll get a penalty!”
In 1961, he was traded to Detroit. It didn’t take long for him to make an impression on Norm Ullman. The latter was known for being extremely quiet — just the opposite of Labine — which confused the new Motor City member. So, one day, during a practice, he called over to Ullman to get his attention. “Did you want something, Leo?”, he was asked.
“No!’, he replied. “I just wanted to know if you could talk!”
All these shenanigans often wore thin with coaches and managers. Coach Lynn Patrick summed it up this way: “Before this season is over, one of us will be in a straight jacket… and I suspect it will be me!”
When Clancy was the bench boss in Toronto, Labine’s Beantown Six were besting the Buds. “King” leaned over the boards during a face-off and squeaked, “You’re a busher (bush leaguer) Leo, that’s all you are!’
Quick as a wink came the retaliation: “Maybe I am King. But at least I am playing for a big league coach!”
Even the men who wore the official referee and linesmen insignias were not immune to his scatterbrain deportment. One night, Bill Chadwick had laid the puck on the centre ice red dot, waiting for the signal to start the game. Labine, skated over, curled his stick around it, and fired it into opposition net.
His prize moment came during a game, when he was suddenly discovered hiding behind one of the nets during action. After being duly reprimanded he was questioned about his move. He explained that this way he got to see the best players — the goalie — and the one trying to score on him!
There are several other candidates for the third character (6th overall) in this column. But it is difficult to overlook the one who may be the best remembered “stooge” of all — EDDIE SHACK.
Without a doubt, he is unique among his loonie peers. He has had two biographical books to his credit (Labine is the only other one who had any). His illiteracy preceded any other publicity which accompanied his journey into the NHL spotlight.
But even though he could neither read nor write, his crackpot wit and verbosity made him a natural for advertising promotion. In this venue, he soon became identified with the Pop Shoppe soft drinks and the Schick Razor company — where he demonstrated their effectiveness by shaving off his famous moustache.
He flopped academically and was in the process of becoming a butcher by trade, when he was given opportunity to join the Guelph Biltmore Juniors. He felt that if he failed in that endeavour he could always resort to meat carving.
“Fast Eddie”, as he was also called, became a smart businessman because, he boasted, “He had a nose for value!”. His philosophy was that if one “looks after his pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.”
His first NHL club was the Rangers, who signed him after a very successful Memorial Cup playoff series in 1957.
He quickly earned a reputation as a “clown prince” and a dirty player all at the same time. He felt he was wrongly cast in his lot as a checker, being assigned to cover stars like Gordie Howe. But even in this unsettled atmosphere his jokester side shone through.
During an exhibition between the Blueshirts and their Providence farm team, Lou Fontinato lost his temper and smashed his stick against the boards. Eddie turned to his coach and complained: “Tch, tch, tch! That’s not good for a young player like me to see, Muzz. That’s not good for me!”
When he was traded to Toronto he came into his own as a talented goal-getter, managing five 20-or-more goal seasons, totalling 239 in his 17 campaigns in the Big Time. But these accomplishments were often overshadowed by the image he had created for himself as a flake.
Jerry Gladman wrote: “He stirred the juices of many fans any time he was on the ice. You never knew what he would do. His first NHL coach, Muzz Patrick, called him a river skater — meaning he would skate all night without ever being sure which way the river winds!
If he happened to be chosen one of the game’s three stars, he might give a figure skating demonstration, or a loop-de-loop while the cameras focused on him for those few seconds. Many in TV land recall the time he put on one of his sideshow acts before exiting; and a loud-mouth fan was heard to shout, “That guy’s an “A—H---“!
He was notorious for leaping into the air to check his opponents. There is a famous photo which demonstrates that: “The Entertainer” was pictured practically riding on California’s Gerry Ehman’s shoulders. “Mr. Hockey” was one of his first victims, ending up on the ice unconscious and bleeding!
Descriptions of his whirling-dervish style abound. He was a strong skater, but always seemed to be going in four directions at once. Writer Scott Young put it this way: “He travels like a one-man cavalry charge, his elbows riding wide and high, as his legs pump and his head bobs around, his big nose cutting the end like a prow in front…” Hence, another moniker—“The Nose”.
Another referred to him as a one-man herd of buffalo!”
Some readers will remember Brian McFarlane’s song:
“Clear the track, here comes Shack.
He knocks ‘em down and gives them a whack!
He can score goals, he’s found the knack.
Eddie Shack! Eddie Shack!”
Strangely enough, Steady Eddie didn’t dream of being a hockey player. But his father, realizing his limitations in other areas, bought him equipment and literally forced him to develope his talents. So, when he learned he could earn $60 weekly playing Junior hockey, he became more enthused about the game.
His keen sense of humour protected him from remarks that would otherwise have humiliated him. Early in his career, he was making one of his patented rushes down the boards in a game against the Red Wings. The Motor City coach tried to throw him off his game by yelling, “G’wan stupid; you can’t even spell!”
“Sweet Daddy Shackie” proceeded to finish his foray by shovelling the puck behind goalie Terry Sawchuk. As he was skating back for the faceoff, he coasted to the opposition bench to face his accuser. Very slowly and deliberately he sneered: “Goal……G-O-A-L….goal!”
To appreciate another classic anecdote, one must remember the evolution of the petroleum industry. Before it became “Gulf Canada”, this company was the British-American Oil. Its signs were everywhere, marked by the letters “B.A.”, with a curved diagonal slash separating them. One evening in a lighter moment, teammate Carl Brewer was teasing Eddie about his lack of education.
“Education, Carl?, he responded. “I know what you are thinking. So I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you fellows here, who have degrees — I have a B.A. too!” There was a stunned silence for a few seconds. Then, savouring the moment, he remarked slyly; “Sure! I just bought a gas station!”
The originals, Larry, Curly, and Moe — the radio/movie entertainers, packed it in after 1975. And even though few can come close to imitating these six — there will always be “stooges” in the world’s fastest game.
HOCKEY’S HISTORIC HIGHLIGHTS WILL RETURN IN OCTOBER
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