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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
Legs
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”.

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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.

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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

 

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