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Friday, 30 January 2015


There are a lot of things that are called “individual” sports. Technically I guess activities like darts, bowling, pool, and archery are considered sports but they seem more like games to me. Actually, when you think about it, you don’t have to be physically fit to excel at golf.
Most competitive individual sports only take a few minutes although years may have gone into training for the event. Sports like speed skating, figure skating, swimming, and skiing. Boxing can lead to brain damage. Marathon running and triathlons are two sports that probably have the most sustained wear and tear on the human body.
The widest audiences for individual sports are golf and tennis. Although golf involves psychological stress, for professionals that stress doesn’t compare to what the best tennis players in the world have to endure. Golfers have lots of time to figure out what their next move will be. They may be competing with others for a golf title but they don’t have a lone opponent staring at them consistently for 3 hours.
A tennis match between men can often last over 3 hours with just a few short rest breaks. If the match is played in the bright sun it can be totally exhausting. Concentrating for such a long period of time is a difficult thing to do. It is a natural thing for a mind to wander under extreme pressure. Doubt can sometimes creep in and everyone sees it.
In golf the spectators are often a fair distance away from the players and conversations happen between the golfer and the caddie in private. Golf spectators have other distractions like admiring the beauty of the golf course. In tennis the audience is totally locked in on the players. Vicariously they feel what the players feel and they know pretty quickly which player is frustrated and trying to keep it all together. You can see a lot in a player’s eyes. There is no place for the players to hide. The TV cameras, the fans in the stands, and often millions watching at home can see every nuance of the game of tennis. In golf the TV cameras skip from one foursome to another.
In some ways professional tennis is like watching gladiators.
My personal opinion is that professional men’s tennis and professional women’s tennis are not that comparable. There is a big difference between having to win 3 sets verses 2 sets.

I was about 5 years old when I first saw someone with a tennis racket. We had just moved from an apartment to a flat on Harvard Avenue in Montreal. It was 1952 I think. A couple of Dutch teenagers who lived near the corner of the street were out on the road hitting a tennis ball back and forth. It seemed like a fun thing to do. A little further down the street there were a couple of German kids who wore lederhosen that had scooters. Not homemade scooters but real scooters. I wanted one of those.
There was a small hallway at the top of the stairs at our place that lead to a small bedroom in the front of the building. There was also a closet in that short hallway. I think I was about 8 when I discovered the mysteries within. A couple of old epees (fencing swords), a banjo, my mother’s old ballet slippers, and a wooden tennis racket were some of the treasures I found. The wooden tennis racket also had a wooden bracket kind of thing with nuts and bolts. This contraption was to keep the face of the racket true.
A few blocks away there were some public tennis courts on Hampton Avenue. I think there were about 8 courts. One day I took the old wooden racket over to the courts and another kid and I took turns swinging that racket while the other one of us threw a tennis ball. The racket didn’t make it back home in the same shape it was when I left home with it.
When I was 16 or 17 I got into a bit of a scrap near my house with a guy who almost ran me over with his bike. His name was Tommy Gavin and he made daily trips back and forth on his bike to the Monkland Tennis Club that was a few blocks away. After the scrap he approached me a few days later and we buried the hatchet. It turned out that Tommy was a pretty decent tennis player. He often partnered in doubles with a guy named Pierre Lamarche who was involved with Canadian tennis for decades.
Back then tennis didn’t get a lot of coverage in the local Montreal newspapers. The big names in men’s tennis were mostly Australians. Players like John Newcombe, Rod Laver, Fred Stolle, and Tony Roche. American Pancho Gonzales also got some press.
Rod Laver
Up until 1968 only amateurs could compete in the Grand Slam events. The best players in the world had sponsors (often rich folks from their tennis club) which afforded them a decent living. These players also picked up money by playing “exhibition” games at tennis clubs around the world.
It was around 1964 that the Aussies turned up at the Monkland Tennis Club along with their manager Harry Hopman who had been an accomplished tennis player in his own right. It was pretty big news in the community of NDG at the time.
I knew a guy in high school whose divorced mom spent a fair amount of time at Monkland Tennis Club. It seemed that she might have been looking for a new husband. One night we spotted her in the lobby of her apartment building in her fur coat making out with some guy. It kind of freaked us out a bit.
For a short while back then I hung out with a guy named Jeff (Geoff?) Carpenter. He was a tall lanky guy who liked to comb his hair to a point at the front of his head. I got drunk with him a few times. His two older brothers Keith and Michael were world class tennis players. Keith was the more successful of the two. They also played doubles together and won The Canadian Doubles Championship in 1966 in Vancouver.
When tennis turned “professional” in 1968 it started to get more coverage on American TV. The new era is sometimes called “The Open Era”. For the first few years the Grand Slam events (The US Open, The French Open, The Australian Open, and Wimbeldon) men’s singles matches were dominated mostly by the Aussies. American television networks wanted to see a star male American player emerge so the game could more easily be sold to their audience.
Arthur Ashe, a black guy, was the first American star tennis player of the new era. He won the US Open in 1968, The Australian Open in 1970, and Wimbledon in 1975. Ashe was a pleasant guy but kind of low key. Tennis kind of has a history of being a sport favoured by the wealthy. There are no bartenders by basketball courts. A lot of the well to do who belonged to private tennis clubs wanted to see a bonafide white American male star.
Arthur Ashe
Stan Smith fit the bill when he won The US Open in 1971 and Wimbledon in 1972 but he kind of fizzled out.
Over on the ladies side the big names were Aussie Margaret Court and American Billie Jean King. King’s brother Randy Moffitt was a major league baseball pitcher for 12 years. In 1973 retired tennis pro Bobby Riggs challenged King to a match. King was 29 at the time and had won 3 of the 4 women’s singles grand slams the year before. Riggs was 55 and was a life-long hustler.
Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs
The event was a winner take all deal ($100,000.00) and was called “The Battle of the Sexes”. King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Hardly anyone remembers that Riggs beat Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1 four months earlier. Before the match King was carried out on a throne by musclemen and Riggs turned up in a rickshaw pulled by some scantily covered ladies. Riggs gave King a big lollipop and King gave Riggs a baby pig to symbolize his chauvinism. The whole thing was pretty hokey.
In the spring of 1973 I was staying in a waterfront house in a toney area of Victoria, BC called Gordon Head. A girlfriend of a friend of mine at the time was house-sitting for a number of months. I was kind of at loose ends but that would change when I went off to do some tree planting in Northern BC.
One day I noticed a couple of tennis rackets in the house. For some reason tennis was a game that I had always wanted to learn to play. I bought a can of tennis balls and took one of the tennis rackets over to the nearby University of Victoria campus. I found a building where a few other people were hitting tennis balls against a wall. Perfect! I got into a routine of spending about an hour or so hitting tennis balls against the wall each day for about 5-6 days. Forehand, backhand, forehand, backhand.
Then I went and found a public tennis court and practiced my serve. I got the hang of it pretty fast but I only had 3 tennis balls so I would have to go and pick them up before I could practice my serve again. I can’t for the life of me remember who I actually played my first game of tennis with. I know I was about 25 or 26 years old when I did. I was a little bit of a late bloomer when it came to the game of tennis. It was probably with some stranger who I met on a public court.
I went and bought my own racket. It had a wooden frame. I wouldn’t have been a very good house guest if I walked off with one of the owner’s rackets. None of the people I knew in Victoria at the time played tennis. Sometimes I would just turn up at a public court and look for someone to play with. Sometimes someone would ask me to play a game when they saw I was alone and practicing my serve. I started to get the hang of the game a bit.
I left Victoria for about a month to plant trees in northern BC and when I got back I was keen to play some more tennis. Back then I knew a guy who was a friend of a friend and he lived in Port Alberni. His name was Fred and his wife’s name was Trixie. You don’t meet a lot of Trixies in life. Fred was a tennis player. How I found that out I can’t recall. One bright sunny summer’s day I was up in Port Alberni and Fred and I played  tennis for about 4 hours. We were pretty close in our abilities. All these years later I remember that day playing tennis. I don’t think I ever got any better at the game as the years went by. I was young and mobile and loved the intensity.
Tennis was always an every now and then thing for me. It isn’t like riding a bike. Leave the game alone for a while and it takes a bit of time to get back in sync. If you don’t belong to a tennis club it isn’t that easy to find someone to play with. Between 1973 and 1980 I probably played the game no more than 8 times a year. I lived in North Vancouver for a number of years and discovered some public courts in Cates Park in the Deep Cove area. Usually one of those courts was empty and for a while I had a regular Sunday morning match with a guy named Barry who worked at the same place I did.
I knew that I wasn’t a stud at tennis but I thought I was half way decent. One night I ran into some ex-Montrealers in a disco called Annabelle’s in Vancouver. One of them was a guy named Artie Thomas and I think another was a guy named Graham Slater. The subject of tennis came up and Graham (if that’s who he was) and I made a date to play tennis the next day in West Vancouver. The long and the short of it is that Graham wiped me on the courts. He was a much better athlete than I was. I was about 30 at the time.
I’ve never really been a physical fitness kind of person. I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors hiking so maybe that counts for something. I was 48 before I ever went to a gym. I remember when I first realized that I didn’t have the same fitness that I did when I was younger. It was while playing softball for a company I worked for when I was about 30 years of age. I realized that I could no longer track a fly ball in the outfield, something that would have been easy for me years before. Ah well. At least I had company.

Jimmy Connors won 3 Grand Slams in 1974. It isn’t often talked about but to some Americans he was their first “great white hope”. Not only was he all of that but he was hooked up with American female tennis star Chrissie Evert. For a period of about 10 years starting around 1974 there were 4 players that were the big draws in men’s singles tennis, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Ilie Nastase. My favourite was Borg. Nastase was a bit of a freak at times. He was a great player but he could lose his temper and he often liked to clown around on the court.
Jimmy Connors
Bjorn Borg
I couldn’t stand McEnroe. His nick name was “the brat” for good reason. He treated some umpires like dirt and came across as a bully. There were a few times that it looked like he might get into a scrap with Jimmy Connors for delaying games. He seemed to back off when Connors stared him down. I think he knew if he threatened Connors that Connors would have been up for beating the shit out of him. On center court!

John McEnroe
Not that tennis isn’t great today, it is, but it some ways those 10 years were kind of tennis’s golden age, similar to the years that Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player ruled the golf links.
In 1984 I got to see Borg and McEnroe play a match live at BC Place in Vancouver. McEnroe was 25 at the time and Borg was 27. Borg had retired a year or so earlier. They hung a big curtain in the middle of BC Place so the building wouldn’t look so empty. 12,500 tennis fans turned up. McEnroe won 6-3,-6-4, 3-6, 6-1. I still think he is a prick.
Here are some of the pictures I took back then…..before digital and a little fuzzy.

McEnroe whining.

Men’s Singles Tennis

There has been a lot of great tennis played in the last 40 years. It seems that taller players now mostly dominate smaller players no matter how fast the smaller player is. Longer arms mean more court coverage and a more powerful trajectory on the serve.
In the 1950s and 1960s men’s tennis was dominated by the Australians. That dominance ended in the early 1970s and although there have been some decent Aussie tennis players since like Pat Cash, Patrick Rafter, and Lleyton Hewitt although none of them could be considered among the greats in the sport.
The Americans had a good run at the Grand Slams from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s with players like Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe, and Jimmy Connors.. Between 1990 and 2003 twenty-six Grand Slams were won by American meb including Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, and Pete Sampras. In my opinion Sampras was the 2nd best male tennis player of all time. An American male tennis player hasn’t won a Grand Slam in over 10 years now. The last one was Andy Roddick in 2003. Current men’s tennis rankings indicate that the best US men’s player is John Isner. Who? He’s ranked 21st in the world.
Andre Agassi with hair.

Pete Sampras

The Swedes have produced some great male tennis players. In a span of only 5 years Bjorn Borg won 8 Grand Slams. Between 1982 and 1992 Mats Wilander and Stephan Edberg won 11 Grand Slams between them. In 1988 these 2 guys won all of the Grand Slams.

Mats Wilander
The best Czech tennis player ever has to be Ivan Lendl. He won 8 Grand Slams. German Boris Becker won 5. Every once in a while there has been a surprise winner of a men’s singles Grand Slam. American Michael Chang was one of them winning The French Open in 1989. Argentinian Guillermo Vilas won back to back Wimbledon trophies in 1978 and

Boris Becker

Ivan Lendl
In the last few years Spain’s Raphael Nadal has had a good run. Although he’s only 28 it looks like his injuries catching up to him. Yesterday he lost in 3 straight sets, one of them 6-0. Altogether Nadal has won 14 Grand Slams.

Raphael Nadal
To many the best tennis player of all time is Switzerland’s Roger Federer. I would agree. Altogether he has won 17 Grand Slams. He is now nearing the end of his career but he’s still ranked 2nd in the world. Another Swiss, Stan Wawrinka is ranked 4th. It would be hard not to like a guy like Federer. He has always been a classy guy.

Roger Federer
The best male tennis player in the world right now is Serbian Novak Djokovic. He is one of the best ball returners in the history of the sport and has very few if any weaknesses in his game. One of his best assets is his ability to respond well to adversity. So far he has won 7 Grand Slams. He is only 27 and may very well end up as one of the top 3 best tennis players of all time. At this writing he will be playing Englishman Andy Murray in the men’s singles finals of the 2015 Australian Open.

Novak Djokovic
Women’s Singles Tennis
Australian Margaret Court was a dominating force in womens’s singles tennis for about 13 years starting in 1960. Altogether she won 22 Grand Slams. In 1970 she won all 4 of them. She is arguably the best women tennis player of all time. After Court retired Fellow Aussie Evonne Goolagong won the next 3 Australian Opens.

Margaret Court
American Billy Jean King won her first Grand Slam in 1966. She was kind of part of 2 eras in women’s tennis, the Margaret Court era and the era of Chris Evert, Monica Seles, and Martina Navratilova. Chris Evert won 18 Grand Slams as did Navratilova. Seles won 9.

Billie Jean King
Chris Evert
In 1987 German Steffi Graf won her first of 22 Grand Slams. She is my personal all-time favourite woman tennis player. She might also be the best woman to ever play the game, her or Margaret Court.

Steffi Graf
From the year 1999 until now there have been 3 ladies who have dominated women’s tennis, the two American Williams sisters Venus and Serena and Russian Maria Sharapova. Venus Williams has won 18 Grand Slams, her sister Serena has won 7, and Sharapova has won 5.

Serena and Venus Williams
Maria Sharapova
Doubles Tennis

For some reason there are some tennis players who are better at playing doubles than they are at playing singles. A lot of star tennis players won’t play in doubles matches because they don’t want the distraction from their singles game. Doubles may be a lot of fun to watch but most people who watch tennis can’t recall who won what doubles match and when.
Canadian Tennis
Currently Montrealer Eugenie Bouchard is ranked 7th in the world in women’s tennis. Apparently she and her twin sister Beatrice were named after the UK’s Prince Andrew’s kids. Bouchard has reached the quarter finals in several Grand Slams in the past 2 years. She doesn’t seem to have an overpowering serve but is very good at making quick and accurate shot selections. She is only 20 years old and seems to get a bit nervous when she is playing the best of the best. Bouchard comes from a well-to-do family but could very well make millions on her own through her tennis and endorsements. In my opinion she is the prettiest looking woman on the tennis circuit.

Eugenie Bouchard
Milos Raonic is currently ranked 8th in the world in men’s singles tennis. He is from Thornhill, Ontario. He was born in Yugoslavia and his parents immigrated to Canada. At 6’5” he is a pretty imposing figure on the courts. He has one of the most powerful and accurate serves in the game. He covers a lot of ground with his reach. He’s pretty nimble for a big man. Raonic is only 24 and keeps improving his game. In the next few years he may become the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam.

Milos Roanic
Bouchard and Raonic may be the current big names in Canadian tennis but neither has won a Grand Slam. Doubles player Daniel Nestor has won 7 Grand Slams and Vasek Pospisil 1. In professional tennis doubles players often have partners from other countries. At one point Pospisil’s doubles partner was a young Milos Raonic.

Daniel Nestor on right
Mary Pierce was born in Montreal to American/French parents. She won 2 Grand Slam titles representing France. Some other notable Canadian professional tennis players were Carling Bassett, Helen Kelesi, Glen Michibata, Grant Connell, Phillip Bester, Greg Rusedski, and Simon Larose. Alexandra Wozniak was named Canadian female tennis player of the year 5 times.

In 1993 my ex wife and I went on a winter vacation to a Club Med in Ixtapa Mexico. The club offered a number of different activities. My ex chose the trapeze and I chose tennis. The tennis pro was supposedly a bit of a drunk and was from Alaska of all places. At the end of the week they had a tennis tournament. It was about 10 a.m. in the morning and I was matched up against a 14 year old. I was 45. It was hotter than hell out and there was no shade on or near the court. I was doing OK in games won but after about an hour I had to pack it in. The idea of being dragged off to some Mexican hospital with heat stroke sealed the deal for me.
In 1995 I split up with my ex. I knew I was going to have to adapt to a different lifestyle. It was also a chance to pursue some things I was interested in. I joined a sailing club and a tennis club. I was 48 years old at the time.
The tennis club I joined was The Richmond Tennis Club which was in the area where I was living at the time. I can’t remember if the club had 8 or 9 courts. A few of them were covered in the winter months by a big rubber tent. Not long after I joined they tore down the old clubhouse and built a new 2 story one. The hot shot younger players, some in their thirties and forties, almost always played in the court right in front of the clubhouse. They kind of had a little exclusive group and didn’t often play with those with lesser abilities.

Twice a week 3 hours were set aside for “social tennis” which was generally doubles play. Most of the folks who turned up for this event were on the older side. There were the regulars and there were some others who would just show up every now and then. Leg and arm braces weren’t uncommon. Ladies and men played but it was mostly men. We would write our names down on a chalk board and once there was a group of four we’d all go over to a court and play. Some had particular people they wanted to play with or not play with. Some would start a new list of four if they didn’t see someone they wanted to play with.
One guy, I think he was a lawyer named Gary, had the strangest looking serve I’ve ever seen. He kind of served from his shoulder and not above his head. A few of the older guys (in their sixties) were quite proficient at dink shots with back spins. One of them in particular thought it was hilarious when the ball returner on the other side of the net would race (slow run) to hit the ball only to find the ball moving back towards the net. A person could break an ankle or something trying to get to those balls.
My son was a pretty decent athlete and when he was around 10 I enrolled him in the junior program at the club. I thought that if he started playing tennis relatively early in life he could enjoy the game for the rest of his life. There used to be a tiny store at the south end of Granville Street in Vancouver that was crammed with tennis gear. I took my son there and bought him a really nice racket. It was to no avail.  It didn’t take long to realize that he had little interest in the sport and I wasn’t going to try and force him to try and like it.
I brought a guest a few times to play at the club. I never entered any of the tournaments. After 3 years I pulled the pin and have hardly touched a racket since. I tried to teach the game to Linda a few times years ago but it was uncomfortable as she wasn’t that interested. It’s was kind of weird trying to show someone how to play when my own timing was off from being away from tennis for so long. As I said before… isn’t like riding a bike.
I haven’t missed watching many of the Grand Slams over the past 40 years. I would stay up late or get up really early when they were played in Australia, France or England. (Breakfast at Wimbledon). In my opinion the game is as good as it ever was. And I do know that Andy Murray didn’t get that girlfriend he has because of his looks. What’s up with male tennis stars and models anyway?


Saturday, 10 January 2015

Riding The Iron Lung

I hardly ever read a newspaper any more. I stopped being a daily reader of one of the Vancouver dailies when I moved to Vancouver Island about 10 years ago. These days the only time I buy a newspaper is at an airport or on the ferry to Vancouver. For some strange reason, probably because of my age, I have found myself wandering through the obituary pages. I never see a name I know. It seems a lot of old people from the Canadian Prairie provinces spend their final years on the West Coast, probably because it is warmer here. I find it fascinating that many of them live into their 90s and that a lot of them come from tiny towns I’ve never heard of.

I was probably around 11 or 12 when I first started reading the Montreal Gazette and the Montreal Star in the city I grew up in. The Montreal Gazette was the English morning newspaper and I had 2 of their paper routes at separate times. One was in the district of NDG and the other was in an area called Hampstead. Just thinking of those cold winter mornings gives me the chills. I think I was paid a little over a cent for each paper I delivered. I had something like 75 customers and it took about 2 hours to finish the routes. I dreaded hearing the alarm clock go off at about 5:00 a.m.

Delivering newspapers in the dark in the winter is kind of eerie. It’s kind of like being alone in a strange land. The only sound was that of my winter boots crunching a path ahead of me. Each streetlight seemed like an oasis and there was a kind of stillness seeing snow gently falling in front of those street lights. Sometimes I would see Christmas lights on snow covered bushes that seemed to be struggling to be noticed. Those were the good mornings. Other times the wind was howling and everything seemed to be covered by ice.
The newspaper delivery truck dumped the stacks of bundled newspapers at a nearby B/A service station between the pumps. The bundles were secured by wire and there was some kind of tool you could use to cut the wire but I lost mine and that left me having to inch the wire back and forth for several minutes to get it off. I sat between the gas pumps for another ten minutes or so folding the papers so they could be tossed.
75 newspapers probably weighed about 35 lbs. That doesn’t sound like a lot of weight but I always seemed to have a welt on the top of my shoulder from carrying the cloth newspaper bag. By the time I got home I was frozen and exhausted. I was now far too wired to go back to sleep and reading what I had been delivering seemed to come about naturally. If the name Dag Hammarskjold came up at school that morning I might have been one of a few who knew who he was.
Back then the main hockey writer for The Gazette was a guy named Dink Carroll. He held that job for 46 years (1941-1987). Red Fisher had the same position over at The Montreal Star (1954-1979) until the paper folded.

Red Fisher with Jean Beliveau
Although I never played organized hockey it has always been my favourite sport.  I became a Chicago Black Hawk fan around 1959 when I saw a write up about Bobby Hull in The Weekend Magazine that was a Saturday insert in The Montreal Star. One of the pictures in the article showed Hull bare chested pitching hay at the family farm near Belleville, Ontario. He looked like an action hero. The sports editor at the time for The Weekend Magazine was a guy named Andy O’Brien. During the winter months each week there was a full colour picture about 14” high and about 7” wide of an NHL player. The photos were simple and without a backdrop. The player stood there in full equipment including skates holding his hockey stick. In the fall there were pictures of CFL football players. A lot of young sports fans had some of these pictures on their bedroom walls back then including me.

By 1960 I had my favourite sports teams, The Black Hawks in hockey, The Pittsburgh Pirates in baseball, and The Montreal Alouettes in football. I wasn’t that interested in American football but I did have a friend whose dad was a big New York Giants fan. I think some Montrealers liked the Giants because the Giants running back Alex Webster had once played for the Montreal Alouettes.
I became hooked on that last page of the sports section with all the stats. It was fascinating to me. You could see how minor hockey teams were fairing in their leagues. In baseball, the stats were listed for who had the most home runs, RBIs, hits, stolen bases, and pitching wins. Those Alou brothers could sure smack a baseball!
I was about 15 years old when I became a total hockey nut. Things were pretty simple back then around 1962. There were only 6 teams in the NHL. My team, The Chicago Black Hawks had won the Stanley Cup the year before with players like Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote, and Glenn Hall and it looked like a dynasty was in the making. It never happened. It would be almost 50 years before Chicago would win another cup.
It wasn’t always easy being a Black Hawk fan in Montreal back then. Being anything other than a Montreal Canadiens fan was close to treason for some. From 1961-63 I attended Westmount High in Montreal. I had a Russian classmate and friend named Imants Valdmanis who was also a Black Hawks fan or was it The Red Wings? I started painting pictures of some of the Black Hawk players. I also did one of Detroit defenseman Howie Young that I remember giving to Imants. I was using poster paints and became fascinated with the Indian head Black Hawks logo. I could use all of the primary colours to paint that logo unlike a Maple Leaf or Habs logo. I also liked the tomahawks on the sleeves of the Black Hawks sweaters.


Back in the early 60s newspapers and magazines were in their hay days. Time, Newsweek, Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, you could find these magazines and others at outdoor newsstands dotted around Montreal or on the magazine rack at the local drug store or confectionary store. There were a number of sports magazines too like Sports Illustrated and others that dealt exclusively with hockey, baseball, football.

One day I spotted a rather thin newspaper on the magazine rack that used a quaint kind of type style in it’s name. It looked a bit Ben Franklinly. The newspaper only seemed to have about 16 pages. It was The Hockey News. I didn’t know it at the time but I would be a regular reader for the next 40 years.
The Hockey News was founded in 1947 by a guy named Ken MacKenzie. At one time, current TV hockey analyst Bob MacKenzie (not related to Ken), was the editor of the paper. Sure you could follow your favourite NHL team in any local newspaper but The Hockey News was meant for fans that wanted a lot more depth. The major newspapers weren’t covering junior hockey very often or the minors or college hockey.
There were two things that I found particularly appealing about The Hockey News. You could get an idea of who might be a future NHL star by reading stories about Junior Hockey and who was leading the scoring races and you could also see where some former NHL players were now playing in the minors like former Montreal goalie Charlie Hodge or former Boston Bruins scoring star Bronco Horvath who once missed winning the NHL’s Art Ross Trophy by 1 point.
Hockey trades were always interesting. Sometimes the trades just involved mostly more obscure players but every now and then there would be a blockbuster trade that would take a bit of time to figure out as to who got the better of the deal.
When I first started reading The Hockey News there were no plus/minus statistics. I’m pretty sure the NHL coaches and managers had some underlings who kept records of who was on the ice when goals were scored even back then. Plus/minus stats have always had the capability of being somewhat deceiving. A crappy goalie can make all the other players look bad for instance. In the 1978-79 NHL season Vancouver Canuck forward Ron Sedlbauer scored 40 goals which seemed pretty impressive until you saw the stat that he was also a minus 38.
In the early 1960s there were very few Americans in the NHL. Boston forward Tommy Williams was one of the first. Ulf Sterner, a Swede, was the first European trained hockey player to make it to the NHL. He only played 4 games for The New York Rangers in the 1964-65 hockey season. Stan Mikita was born in Czechoslovakia and defenseman Jack Evans was born in Wales but both learned how to play hockey in Canada.
The current Vancouver Canucks roster has 8 European and 3 American born players. Other NHL teams have a similar mix.
Two of the first NHL players to make it to the NHL through college hockey were Red Berenson and Bill “Red” Hay. They were followed by Adam Oates and others. For many years most professional hockey players had little to fall back on other than playing the game.

Red Berenson
Each position on a hockey team has its own skill set. There is nothing that can kill a potential NHL career more than the lack of foot speed and mobility. Size has also become important over the last few decades but a small speedy goal scoring forward can still make it in the NHL. Current Calgary Flame, Johnny Gaudreau, is only 5’9” and weighs 150 lbs. Montreal’s David Desharnais is only 5’7”.
Some players might be fast enough on the rush but run out of gas quickly. A lot about winning hockey games is about puck possession. If they can’t stay with a forward on the apposing team and back check they become a liability. Hockey, like a number of other team sports is often about time and space. A crisp 60 foot pass can sometimes trump foot speed.
Player conditioning has changed a lot over the last 50 years. Years ago some NHL players like Guy Lafleur, Denis Savard and Stan Mikita smoked and a lot of professional hockey players liked a few beers after a game. Some players used training camp to get back into shape. Those days are long gone.

Stan Mikita
Eventually age slows every hockey player down. They just can’t skate as fast any more. The effects from some injuries can also make a player slower. Some veteran players augment their lack of speed by knowing when to be in the right place at the right time. Eventually that savvy isn’t enough and the decision is made to call it a career.
Back in the day game films were hardly used. These days, although teams don’t play each other as often as they used to, every team knows the moves of their opponents. In some ways it is kind of like when a pitcher figures out a batter in baseball.  Still, overall, speed kills.
One of the more glaring examples of what can happen to an NHL player who isn’t fast on his skates today is Cody Hodgson of the Buffalo Sabres. He was a first round draft choice of the Vancouver Canucks before being traded to Buffalo. He had an outstanding junior career and played in international junior tournaments. He had back problems at the beginning of his NHL career but seemed to have shaken that off. Although he was -26 with a crappy Buffalo team last year he still had 20 goals. After 40 games this year he only has 2 goals and is -17. It looks like he just can’t keep up anymore. Fortunately for him he signed a 4 million per year contract.
Player Development
Although there have been many changes in professional hockey in the past 50 years some things remain the same. A first round junior draft choice is expected to eventually make the NHL team. In some years when there is a lot of talent in the junior draft, a 2nd round draft choice might also be expected to make the team. The other draft choices are kind of a crap shoot.
It isn’t very often that a junior hockey player goes straight to the NHL. They all need grooming and most of them will do it in the minors. Goal scorers often need to learn how to play defensively. Defensemen often need a bit longer than offensive players in learning their positions.
The biggest adjustment is playing against men instead of other boys. There have been a lot of junior scoring phenoms that couldn’t repeat those feats in the NHL. Some of these players who have foot speed get converted into defensive forwards in the minors. Sometimes that conversion happens at the NHL level. When Eric Nesterenko first started playing pro hockey in the NHL in the 1950s many thought he might be another Jean Beliveau. Instead Nesterenko spent most of his 20 year NHL career as a defensive center man.
The Minors
Up until 1967 there were only 6 teams in the NHL and only room for about 120 players. No NHL team has ever had exactly the same players two years in a row. There were hockey trades and rookies getting their first shot at making the big team. If a player was sent down to the minors the chances of making it back to the big show were not that great. The older a player was who was sent down the less likely they would ever return.
1967 was a good year for a number of players stuck in the minors after mostly brief NHL careers. The NHL needed about 120 more hockey players. Former NHL players Don McKenney, Ray Cullen, Gerry Melnyk, Andre Pronovost, Al Arbour, Larry Zeidel, Doug Harvey, Art Stratton, Jean Guy Gendron, Billy Dea, Les Binkley, Gerry Ehman, Charlie Burns, Billy Harris, Larry Cahan, Larry Popeil, Autry Ericson, Charlie Hodge, Lowell MacDonald, Ted Irvine, Bill White, Billy Inglis, Howie Menard, and Brian Kilrea all made the jump back to the NHL. The best of this bunch were probably Lowell MacDonald and Bill White.
In 1972 The World Hockey Association came into being in direct competition to the NHL. The league was willing to pay top dollar for proven NHL talent but didn’t have much interest in luring away over the hill minor leaguers. They didn’t have any problem with hiring junior hockey players though. Mark Messier was only 17 when he first suited up for The Indianapolis Racers as was Wayne Gretsky when he played his first WHA game.
The American Hockey League (AHL)
The American Hockey League (AHL) has been the premier league for grooming professional hockey players for around 70 years. During that period the league expanded and contracted a number of times. Most of the hockey rinks in the league have less than 8,000 seats. Today there are 30 teams and each one is a farm team for an NHL team. Not all of the players are owned by NHL teams but most are.
Owning a minor league hockey team is a business and each team puts their best players on the ice as much as possible because a winning team draws fans and a losing team doesn’t as much. Players in the AHL have always had to earn their ice time.
Years ago it was quite common for AHL teams to have a number of players on their rosters who were 30 years of age and older. Some of them played over 800 games in the AHL. Players like Fred Glover, Willie Marshall, Jody Gage, Bryan Helmer, Mike Nykoluk, Les Duff (Dick Duff’s brother), Dick Gamble, and Aldo Guidolin.

Fred Glover-Cleveland barons
Back in the 1950s NHL teams only carried 1 goalie and future NHL Hall of Famers Gump Worsley and Johnny Bower were stuck in the AHL for years.

Gump Worsley
Some of the more notable teams that had long histories in the AHL were The Cleveland Barons (John Ferguson played over 200 games for them), The Buffalo Bisons (supplied a ton of talent to the NHL), The Hershey Bears, The Providence Reds, The Rochester Americans (Don Cherry spent more time there than with any other minor league team), and The Springfield Indians.
The Springfield Indians were owned by former NHL star Eddie Shore. He was one tough bastard and many players dreaded ending up in Springfield. Shore treated his players like dirt. Current Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau had 116 points for the Indians in 1987-88. It wasn’t enough to get him back to the NHL as a player.
When I first started reading The Hockey News it seemed that there were a lot of fights in the AHL. There were more than a few stick swinging incidents. A lot of American fans love hockey fights. To be honest I do too. There were some tough customers in the AHL back in the day including John Ferguson, Fred Glover, and Larry Zeidel. It is kind of hard to believe but a player named Denis Bonvie spent 4493 minutes in the penalty box in his AHL career. That’s almost 75 hours!
Originally AHL teams were close to the Eastern Seaboard in the north eastern part of the US. Some of the cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo got NHL franchises and 2 pro hockey teams couldn’t make a go of it in the same city so the minor league team either moved or ceased operating. Over time the league absorbed some teams from other leagues and expanded into Eastern Canada.
The Western Hockey League (WHL)
When I first went out to Vancouver in 1968 I lived in a rooming house in the west end of the city. I was pretty well broke and my Lloyd’s radio was my entertainment. I started listening to Vancouver Canucks games. The Vancouver Canucks who were part of the Western Hockey League. Their leading point getter that year was Phil Maloney who was 39 years old at the time. He would later coach the NHL Canucks.
I was a bit surprised at how many former NHL players had chosen the WHL as the place to finish off their hockey careers. It might have had something to do with the warmer winter climate on the west coast of North America. Some of the longer lasting teams in the WHL included The Phoenix Road Runners, The San Diego Gulls, The Portland Buckaroos, The Seattle Totems, The Los Angeles Blades, The San Francisco Seals, and The Vancouver Canucks.
9 of The Canucks players in 1967-68 were over 30 years of age. Future NHL star Tony Esposito was 24 years old and played goal. The youngest guy on the team was Stan Gilbertson who went on to play in over 400 NHL games.
In 1968-69 Andy Bathgate who was a big star in the NHL in the 50s and early 60s joined the Canucks for 2 seasons before one last fling in the NHL with The Pittsburg Penguins. 12 players on The Canucks that year were over 30 years of age including former Montreal Canadiens goalie Charlie Hodge. Don Cherry was also on the team. It was to be his 2nd to last stop in his long minor league career. He only played one game in the NHL.

The 3 Schmautz brothers all spent time in the WHL. Cliff and Arnie played close to 10 years each for The Portland Buckaroos. Bobby Schmautz spent part of 3 seasons with The Los Angeles Blades before going on to a stellar career in the NHL where he would play over 700 games.

The first black hockey player to make it to the NHL, Willie O’Ree, spent close to 13 years playing for The Los Angeles Blades and The San Diego Gulls in the WHL. O’Ree spent part of  1 season with the NHL’s Boston Bruins in 1960-61 and netted 4 goals. Two former NHL players who had long careers both in the NHL and the WHL were Andy Hebenton who played 650 NHL games mostly with The New York Rangers and defenseman Jack Evans who played 753 NHL games in total with The Rangers and Chicago Black Hawks.

Very few players made it from the WHL to the NHL. Among those few were Walt McKechnie, and defensemen Tracey Pratt, and Jim McKenny.

Here’s a brief list of some players who had long WHL careers, Art Jones, Dick Van Impe, Mel Pierson, Connie Madigan, Guyle Fielder, Marc Boileau, Len Ronson, Dave Duke, Dick Lamareux, Sandy Hucual, Larry McNabb, Bill Dineen, Phil Maloney, and former NHL defenseman and wild guy Howie Young.
When the NHL expanded in 1967 and added two teams on the west coast of the US with The LA Kings and The Oakland Seals the writing was on the wall that the WHL’s days were numbered as a league. In 1970 Vancouver was awarded an NHL franchise and that was the end of the old Canucks. The league managed to survive until 1974.
The old WHL was fascinating but my guess is that most hockey fans aren’t aware that it ever existed. A number of years ago the Junior A league that has teams across Western Canada and Washington State usurped the name “WHL”.  
The Central Hockey League/Central Pacific Hockey League
At some point in the early 1960s NHL teams were having second thoughts about sending their draft picks to the AHL for a number of reasons. Often their draft picks would not get a lot of playing time because of the older more experienced players and it was thought that the older guys weren’t always the best influences on the younger guys. (Some of the older guys were heavy drinkers.)
AHL and WHL teams often had 8- 10 guys on their rosters that were 30 years of age and older. Part of the strategy in forming a new league was to have hockey teams with almost all the players in the early to mid-twenties and only 1 or 2 older guys with leadership qualities. By putting the new league in the center of the US it also made it easier to call up a player on short notice no matter where the NHL team was located.
In 1968 the league changed its name from The Central Hockey League to The Central Pacific Hockey League. By 1967-68 there were 8 teams in the CHL including The Memphis South Stars, The Omaha Knights, The Tulsa Oilers, The Kansas City Blues, The Oklahoma City Blazers, The Dallas Black Hawks, The Houston Apollos, and The Fort Worth Wings.
The CPHL folded after the 1983-84 season partly because the NHL put teams in some of their cities. It was, however, an experiment that worked very well for close to 20 years. Over the years it became the #1 source for young talent for NHL teams. NHL Hall of Famer Phil Esposito even spent time in the CHL. The league groomed hundreds of  NHL players.

Phil Esposito
In 1993 The Central Hockey league was reestablished and still exists today. The players in the latest version of the league are far below the caliber of the players that played in the old league and have about zero chances of ever making it to the NHL.
Current TV commentator and former goalie Kelly Hrudey was The Central Hockey League MVP in 1983.
Other Minor Professional Hockey Leagues
I guess if you get paid to play hockey you can call yourself a professional. Over the years there have been a lot of professional hockey leagues that have come and gone. The chances have always been very slim for a player to make it to the NHL if he was playing in a league lower than The American Hockey League or The Central Hockey League. One of the few exceptions is current Vancouver Canuck’s forward Alex Burrows. He went from The Columbia Inferno of The East Coast Hockey League to The Manitoba Moose of The American Hockey League to The Vancouver Canucks of the NHL. So far he has played over 650 NHL games.

Alex Burrows
Slap Shot-The Movie

Sure it was a comedy and some of stuff was a bit off the wall but all in all it was a pretty good depiction of what life was like in the Minors years ago. Actually former Boston Bruin great Derek Sanderson used to wear a fur coat just like Paul Newman did in the movie.

Slap Shot trivia: Current Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau had a pit part in the movie. Two of the 3 Hanson Brothers were played by Steve and Jeff Carlson and both were real minor league hockey players. Steve played 52 games in the NHL with the LA Kings. The part of “Mad Dog”  Madison was played by Connie Madigan, who had a long career in the minors. He is the oldest rookie to ever play in the NHL. At the age of 38 he was called up by The St. Louis Blues and played 20 games for them. Madigan was 2nd in all time penalty minutes in the old Western Hockey League.
The “goon” Ogie Oglethorpe was based on a real life minor league goon named Bill “Goldie” Goldthorpe. Former NHL referee Paul Stewart has written an interesting story about his first meeting Goldie Goldthorpe. After getting his university degree in 1975 Stewart, an American, was reading the sports pages one day and noticed that a team called The Binghampton  Dusters were mired in last place. He phoned and asked for a try out. Stewart was a fairly big guy and Binghampton said they would give him a tryout if he paid his own way to get to the team. He did just that.
The tryout went well and Stewart did pretty well in a fight in his first game. A few days later he was at the team’s Christmas party and felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Goldie Goldthorpe who had also just joined the team. According to Stewart right after they both introduced themselves Goldthorpe sucker punched Stewart. Stewart was pissed and they took the fight outside where Stewart got the better of Goldthorpe. Goldthorpe responded by biting Stewart and Stewart had to go to the hospital to get a tetanus shot.

"Goldie" Goldthorpe
You can find more about Paul Stewart’s story by googling his name and “Christmas On The Bus”.

If you think about it, most people are done with team sports by their early twenties. Very few get the chance to have professional careers. Unlike 30,40 or 50 years ago there aren’t many hockey players over 30 years of age today with 15 year careers playing in the minors. The few that are over 30 are role models for the younger guys and often have their eyes on coaching after their hockey days are done.

In most cases management and the player know whether a player is ever going to have a chance of making the NHL by the time the player is in his early twenties. Some young guys choose to play in the minors for their pure love of hockey and competing. A single guy can get by with the pay for a while and the job does have some perks like adoring fans, puck bunnies if they are interested, lots of travelling, and just the fun of being around a group of likeminded guys. In some ways playing minor pro is like skiing in Banff for a few winters. They are only young once and they can decide what they want to do with your life later.

Puck Bunnies?

In the old days there were quite a number of minor league players who played well into their thirties. Many of them were high school drop outs and playing hockey beat the hell out of getting stuck in a mine or mill job back in the little town they grew up in.
Whether it was 50 years ago or today it has to be hard to finally pack it in after playing a game for years that they first became interested in when they were just kids. Most kids have no idea what they are going to do for a living as an adult.
Personally I think the game of hockey gets in peoples’ blood more than any other team sport. Every night in the winter months, at 11 p.m. and sometimes as late as 1 p.m., there are hockey rinks across Canada and the US where men, sometimes over 50 years of age, who are skating up and down the ice in beer leagues. You won’t find men playing football, baseball, or basketball at that age never mind at that time of night.
Riding The Iron Lung
I’m not sure who came up with the name “Iron Lung” but it has been around for a long time. It was a nick name given for the old busses hockey players used to travel in. The NHL has always been the only league where hockey players travel by plane.
In the old days some of those busses were pretty beat up and had seen better days. Some would break down now and then and some had heating problems. Older players got to pick their seats and playing cards passed the time a bit on trips that lasted as long as 12 hours. You kind of have to think that there must have been some resentment between some players if a debt was run up playing cards. It couldn’t have been team morale building.
Busses are a lot better today than they once were. Teams don’t want to get their asses sued because of an accident caused by improper maintenance. Almost every day all across the US and Canada in the winter months there are hockey team busses headed to the next town on the team’s schedule. Somewhere along the line it was decided that players had to wear shirts and ties when they were away from the rink. Even in junior hockey. You can bet they loosen those ties a bit when they are trying to catch a few hours of sleep on the bus.


Hockey parents remember driving their kids all over the place, the petty gossip from other parents, being bored to tears at hockey practices, and that awful smell that came from their kid’s hockey equipment bag, but they also remember that particular shining moment or two when their son (or daughter) was involved in an exciting goal and the look of pure joy on their kid’s faces.
Hockey players, whether or not they ever played on a championship team or made it to the professional level, remember what a sweet game hockey really is. There is no sport like it.
A Short List of Some Of The Most Colourful Hockey Team Names Of All time
#1 The Albany River Rats


#2 The Saskatoon Sheiks

#3 The Portland Buckeroos

#4 The Chicago Black Hawks

#5 The Orlando Solar Bears

#6 The Huntsville Channel Cats

#7 The Kitchener Flying Dutchmen

#8 The Trail Smoke Eaters

#9 The Phoenix Roadrunners

#10 The Amirillo Gorillas

#11 The San Antonio Iguanas

#12 The Jersey Rockhoppers

#13 The Manitoba Moose


#14 The Cape Fear Fire Antz

#15 The Tuscon Gila Monsters