Monthly Archives: January 2017

Benedict Was Better

A few weeks ago, in conjunction with the Centennial Classic outdoor game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings, the NHL announced the first 33 of the 100 Greatest Players to be named in honour of the NHL’s 100th season. These players played predominantly during the first 50 years of the NHL, from the first season in 1917-18 through 1966-67; the last season before the big expansion. This weekend, prior to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the 67 remaining members who have played mainly since 1967 will be announced.

One of the problems with lists such as these is that they always skew modern. I don’t know which current players will make the final cut. I would suspect that Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have to be there. But I also imagine there will be several guys who don’t truly deserve it yet because of the desire to appeal to current fans. Let’s face it, this is a celebration not a history lesson.

Both

Making lists like these is a bit of a mug’s game. It’s impossible to please everybody. Some worthy players have already been left out, and others likely will be. While it’s hard to say that too many of the 33 choices so far don’t deserve the recognition, there are a few I probably wouldn’t have named. But my replacements might not be yours…

Undoubtedly, Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull (who were already stars pre-1967 but were not included in the early list), will make the final cut. I’m less confident that an early superstar like Newsy Lalonde will make it if he wasn’t named already. Same with Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny,  Joe Malone or Sprague Cleghorn. Time is cruel, and the fact that some of them had their best seasons before the NHL was formed probably doesn’t help their case either.

Still, one early era omission strikes me as the most glaring. And that’s Clint Benedict.

Everyone in the early days of the NHL knew that Clint Benedict and Georges Vezina were the best goalies in the young league. Along with Hugh Lehman and Hap Holmes, who spent most of their careers playing in rival leagues, these men were probably the best goalies in hockey history to that point. But of them, only Georges Vezina is a name most people recognize today. That is, of course, because since 1927, the NHL has presented the Vezina Trophy to the league’s top goaltender.

VezinaPaintings by Darrin Egan. Visit him on Facebook.

My friend and colleague Stu Hackel wrote a wonderful biography of Georges Vezina for the NHL Centennial web site. And I certainly don’t mean to disparage a legend. But if Vezina hadn’t collapsed of tuberculosis during a game and died about a year later (leading to the decision of Canadiens’ ownership to donate a trophy in his honour), the contemporaries he left behind likely wouldn’t have spoken quite so glowingly of him, and he’d have faded from memory with the rest of them.

For me, Clint Benedict was the best goalie of his era. Better than Vezina. Benedict led the NHL in wins in six of the league’s first seven seasons. He led or shared the lead in shutouts (not that there were many in his day) in each of the first seven seasons. He led in average six times between 1918-19 and 1926-27. He also won the Stanley Cup with Ottawa in 1920, 1921, and 1923 and added another with the Montreal Maroons in 1926.

According to all accounts, Vezina was stoic and played a standup style. Benedict was a flamboyant flopper whose habit of falling to the ice to stop the puck was a big reason why the NHL changes its rules early in its first season to allow goaltenders to leave their feet. Benedict was the Dominik Hasek of his day … but he was the Martin Brodeur too, playing behind a team in Ottawa that was really the first in hockey history to emphasize defense over offense. After all these years, it’s impossible to know if Benedict was really better than Vezina or just played behind a better defensive team … but we do know a few things.

In the Vezina feature in Turning Back Hockey’s Pages which ran in the Montreal Gazette on January 8, 1934, D.A.L. MacDonald writes of a story told by Leo Dandurand (the Canadiens owner in Vezina’s time who donated the trophy in Vezina’s name) about a game between Vezina’s Canadiens and Benedict’s Montreal Maroons.

BenedictContact Darrin at: inthebluepaint@gmail.com

“It will be a close battle,” Vezina said. “I can hold them out at my end, Leo, but it will be tough to score against them. The best man is in the other goal, you know.”

Modesty was apparently a Vezina quality, but Benedict’s own teammates certainly backed their guy.

“Georges Vezina, of the Canadiens was a great goalie then,” said former Senators and Maroons star Punch Broadbent in the Ottawa Journal on May 11, 1965. “He’s honoured with a trophy; practically legend in hockey. But we all thought there was no goalie ever better than Clint Benedict.”

Writing in that same paper on June 8, 1965 (the day after Benedict was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame), Journal sports editor Bill Westwick told this story:

“Vezina was the idol of many fans, especially the Montreal faction, but his own manager, the late Leo Dandurand, was a tremendous admirer of Benedict. There was a time when Dandurand told this reporter that he would have been very much tempted to have obtained Benedict in place of Vezina. That sounds like heresy in view of the legendary feats of Vezina, but Leo was the one to say it.”

You can’t always take these old sportswriters at their word, but if this story is true, that’s a pretty good mark in Benedict’s favour.

Rock and a Hard Place…

Right up front, let me say that I hope Tim Raines makes it on Wednesday when this year’s election results for the Baseball Hall of Fame are announced. All the early indications are that in his tenth and final year on the ballot (players used to get 15 years, but that’s no longer the case), Raines will finally top the 75 percent of votes needed for induction.

It’s a strange thing. After waiting the required five years to qualify for the Hall of Fame ballot, what suddenly makes a player worthy after being forced to wait another 10 years? Many are saying it’s a triumph of the new voting rules that have phased out older sportswriters who are no longer actively covering the game. The younger writers are more open to modern statistical interpretations.

Expos
Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Tim Raines and Al Oliver at the 1982
All-Star Game in Montreal. Raines was only 5’8″ and 160 pounds, but his
solid physique earned him the nickname “Rock” at an Expos rookie camp.

For a player like Tim Raines, who didn’t reach the big milestones such as 3,000 hits, younger voters are more likely to be impressed by the fact that when Raines’ hit total of 2,605 is combined with his 1,330 walks, he actually reached base more often (3,935 to 3,931) than eight-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn. (Gwynn’s lifetime batting average was .338 to Raines’ .294, but his on-base percentage is .388 to Raines’ .385) . And though Raines’ career total of 808 steals is well behind all-time leader Rickey Henderson’s 1,406, the fact that Raines was caught only 146 times to Henderson’s 335 means Raines’ success rate of 84.7 percent is better than Henderson’s (80.8). It’s also better than the only other players from the 20th Century who had more steals than Raines: Lou Brock (938 / 75.3%) and Ty Cobb (897 / incomplete data).

In the New York Post recently, baseball writer and Hall of Fame voter Ken Davidoff said, “Raines’ admittance, if it happens, would serve as a triumph of facts and statistics over emotions and memories.” But, as Richard Griffin in the Toronto Star has written (and I’m paraphrasing), “if all you did was feed the numbers into a computer, it would be easy to decide who makes it in.” Obviously, statistics play a huge part in this, but I, for one, would hate to see memory discounted entirely.

1981

For example, I know that Jack Morris didn’t put up the career numbers of recent Hall of Fame pitching inductees like Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. But I watched him pitch his whole career; hating him as a Tiger, impressed by his one year as a Twin, and then amazed by his 1992 season in Toronto. Yes, he had a 4.04 ERA that year, but he was every bit as good as his 21-6 record indicates. When he needed to shut you down, he did. His complete-game, four-hitter 4-0 win over Boston on June 11, 1992, when he outpitched Roger Clemens (and yes, I remember it well … but I had to look up the date!) was a masterpiece. Though he never received more than 67 percent of the vote in his 15 years on the ballot between 2000 and 2014, for me, Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer.

As for Tim Raines, my thoughts are this… In the first 13 years of his career (basically 11 full seasons) with the Expos, he was definitely a Hall of Fame-calibre player. He was the kind of guy, like Roberto Alomar, that when he was at the plate, you expected something good to happen. But I’m not sure fans of the teams he spent his final 10 years with (mainly the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees) felt the same way. Sure, he was a good teammate and a good role player, but as a Blue Jays fan in those years, I don’t recall having any fear of him coming to the plate like the excitement I’d felt when he was batting for the Expos … although he did put up some pretty good numbers against Toronto in the 1993 American League Championship Series.

1982

All in all, I’d say for Tim Raines the good years outweigh the mediocre ones, but this has to be a big reason why his candidacy has gone right down to the wire. Another reason, so I’ve read, is that some writers have refused to vote for him because of his cocaine suspension. To me, that’s ridiculous. How can you hold it against someone who served his time, kicked the habit, and never relapsed?

Which brings us to Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and others of the steroid era. If I had a vote, I’d vote for them.

Do I wish there was no such thing as drugs in sports? Yes. Still, I think the world has been pretty hypocritical about performance enhancing drugs. Athletes have been using whatever they could to get an advantage for a very long time. Caffeine to get up; nicotine to calm down; oxygen; cold medications; amphetamines. What is it that makes a guy a hero for taking a shot of cortisone and playing through the pain versus a guy taking a shot of something else?

1983

Yes, I know it’s illegal to use one without a prescription. So, that’s where we draw the line? But what makes something a medical miracle and something else an abomination? Why isn’t it cheating to take a tendon from a cadaver, or another part of your own body, and sew it into a pitcher’s elbow? What if doctors could figure out a way to do the same thing with muscles? Would THAT be cheating? We certainly don’t say pitchers can’t have Tommy John surgery because is wasn’t available in the old days. We don’t say today’s hockey players can’t have their knees scoped because they didn’t have that medical advancement in Bobby Orr’s day.

We’re pretty quick to jump on professional athletes who we perceive as not trying hard enough. But we seem to be even harder on the athletes who felt they had to take drugs to be the best they could be. What if Bobby Orr could have taken a shot of something and it saved his career? Would we look back on it as cheating … or would we see it as one of the greatest athletes of all time doing whatever it took to stay at the top of his game?

The Oldest NHL Player

With the death of 98-year-old Milt Schmidt on January 4, 2017, the distinction of being the oldest living NHL player falls upon John (Chick) Webster. It was a possibility he had already discussed with his son, Rob. “He told me, ‘This is probably my best record,’” said Rob with a chuckle when we spoke on the phone last week.

Webster, who recently turned 96, was just being modest. Though he only played 14 games in the NHL back in 1949-50, and never scored a point, Webster (who earned the nickname Chick because of his fondness for Chiclets gum) had a remarkable, and long, career.

RamblersChick Webster with the New Haven Ramblers, courtesy of Rob Webster.

John Webster was born in Toronto on November 3, 1920. “I don’t even think his parents knew that he and his brother [Don, who would play for the Maple Leafs in 1943-44] were serious about hockey until they reached juniors,” said Rob. After three years in the OHA with the Toronto Native Sons, Chick attended his first NHL training camp with the Boston Bruins in the fall of 1940. Not only did he meet Milt Schmidt at the camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he briefly replaced him during practice centering Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer when Schmidt hurt his ankle.

Writing in the Globe and Mail on October 28, 1940, Sports Editor Vern DeGeer notes that Webster, “made a fine impression on Art Ross.” Still, Webster expected to be sent back to Toronto to return to the Native Sons. However, having signed the C-Form that would bind him to Boston until they decided otherwise, Webster was sent by the Bruins to Baltimore of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League for the 1940-41 season.

Bruins
Globe and Mail, October 28, 1940.

By the following year, regulations established during War time made it difficult for many Canadian men to cross the border. Webster remained in the Toronto area for the 1941-42 season, and soon enlisted with the Canadian army. He encountered Schmidt again in March of 1942 when Webster’s Camp Borden team lost an 11-2 decision to the Kraut Line’s Ottawa RCAF Flyers. “I don’t remember that,” Chick admitted to me, but he does recall hooking up with them all again for a game in England. “I had to borrow skates from the rink for that one,” he says.

Army
Globe and Mail, March 9, 1942.

Before he was sent overseas, Webster spent the 1942-43 and 1943-44 seasons playing hockey for the Army with the Petawawa Grenades. “Turk Broda was our goalie,” he remembers. (The once and future Leafs great played with Petawawa in 1943-44.)

Petawawa
Army team at Camp Petawawa. Chick Webster is in the front row, third from the right.
Turk Broda is not present, so this is likely 1942-43. Courtesy of Rob Webster.

When he got back to Toronto after the end of World War II, Webster was 25 and thought he was too old for a hockey career. His friend Jack Riley (who passed away last summer at the age of 97) convinced him otherwise. After playing briefly with the Uptown Tires team in the Toronto Mercantile League during the early winter of 1945-46, Webster returned to Baltimore to join Jack Riley with the Clippers in the EAHL. His play was impressive enough to attract the attention of the New York Rangers, and he was one of 37 players invited to a Rangers tryout camp in Winnipeg before the next season. On September 23, 1946, Rangers GM Frank Boucher announced that 17 players from the camp had been signed by the club – including Chick Webster.

Webster was assigned to the New York Rovers of the EAHL. “Most of the guys there were just out of juniors, so I think I was a big help to the coach.” But after just a few games, he was promoted to the New Haven Ramblers of the American Hockey League, where he played for nearly three full seasons.

RangersGlobe and Mail, September 24, 1946. Photo courtesy of Rob Webster.

“I was 30 when the Rangers finally brought me up,” Chick said. “Some guy got hurt.” Actually, it was December of 1949 and he had just recently turned 29. But on January 15, 1950, it was Webster who got hurt. He remembers it as a broken wrist, though other sources say a broken hand. After sitting out a bit, he finished the season in New Haven wearing a leather cast on his arm. His NHL career was over, but he was far from through with hockey.

“The best team I ever played on,” says Webster, “was the Cincinnati Mohawks.” This was in the AHL in 1951-52. “We had Buddy O’Connor and Pat Egan. Emile Francis was our goalie.” He still keeps in touch with Francis, and is occasionally in contact with another Mohawks player who went on to the NHL, Ivan Irwin.

CinciChick Webster enters the Cincinnati Mohawks dressing room and
shakes hands with a young boy. Film provided by Paul Patskou.

“He seemed to be one of those players who could always be in the play,” says Irwin of his former teammate. “Winning was important to him. It was important to all of us. He was a hustler.”

Webster’s worst experience in hockey came a year later, playing with the Syracuse Warriors in 1952-53. Eddie Shore ran the team. He’d been a huge star in the NHL, but he was a tyrant as a minor league owner and coach. “Shore was a real, real, terrible guy,” Chick says. “If you were sick, or didn’t go on the trips out of town, he’d ask, ‘did you skate?’ I told him I couldn’t get on the ice because the rink was being used. He said, ‘there’s plenty of snow on the ground. You should have gone out on the road and skated.’ Then he fined me.”

NowThen
Chick Webster now and then. Signing a photo that has been mailed to me
and the earliest hockey photo of him, Toronto 1934. Courtesy of Rob Webster.

That 1952-53 season would be Webster’s last as a pro, but he continued to play amateur hockey in the Toronto area in Stouffville and Willowdale until the mid 1960s. In 1970, he moved to Mattawa, Ontario, where he played oldtimers hockey well into his 70s. He remains, as his son Rob says, feisty and independent and still living on his own at age 96.

It was a treat to speak with him.

For more on Chick Webster, please see the following stories:

Puckstruck 2017

North York Mirror 2016

North York Mirror 2017

The Hockey News 2017

Dennis Kane 2014

Print the Legend…

After my first experience on the internet, I remember thinking, “this is all pretty good, but until I can sit at my desk at home and read through old newspapers, what’s the big deal?”

There once was a time (not all that long ago, really) when the only way you could research old papers was to visit a library and scroll through microfilm. I still do that when I have to, but it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I now spend an awful lot of my time reading old newspapers online.

Cyclone
Cyclone’s story appeared in the Montreal Gazette
on January 2, 1934. Newsy’s appeared on February 1, 1934.

While old newspapers can’t answer every question, it seems to me that too many old-time sportswriters didn’t consider any research beyond their own memory to be worth the effort. When we at Dan Diamond & Associates began working on the first edition of Total Hockey in 1997, it was amazing to me to see how often the statistics (mainly compiled from old newspapers on microfilm by Ernie Fitzsimmons) didn’t match up to the stories that had always been told.

I don’t know why this particular bit has stuck in my mind for nearly 20 years, but it has. Written accounts for legendary Montreal Canadiens goaltender Bill Durnan had always said something along the lines of, “he first came to prominence with the Sudbury juniors in the OHA finals of 1934…” Yet the stats now showed that Durnan had actually played in Sudbury the year before. (The text in the Durnan bio was corrected in the second edition of Total Hockey.)

Today, with a few clicks and some clever search terms, there’s Durnan (apparently already wearing  his ambidextrous gloves!) tending goal for Sudbury against Newmarket during the Ontario junior finals of 1933.

Durnan
Bill Durnan and company appeared in the Toronto Star on March 20, 1933.

In the great scheme of things, does it really matter where and when some old hockey player played? Well, think of it this way. What if we were still this sloppy about political history, or military history … or current sports reporting? That’s why there are plenty of us out there trying to get these old facts right.

There’s a line in a classic movie. (Actually, John Ford used it in two of his classic westerns; email me or comment if you know which two!) It goes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” For a long time, that was all anyone bothered to do. But that shouldn’t be good enough anymore!

To the best of my knowledge, the first big effort to really tell the stories of old-time hockey began 83 years ago yesterday, on January 2, 1934, when D.A.L. MacDonald printed the first of his series, Turning Back Hockey’s Pages, in the Montreal Gazette. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (occasionally on other days of the week too) during the 1933-34 and 1934-35 seasons, a total of 84 articles appeared. Most were on old-time hockey stars, some were about early teams, and at least one was about the Hod Stuart Memorial Game (which I’ve mentioned in these pages before). The stories cover players from the 1880s through the 1920s. Many of them are still big names in hockey history; others are long-forgotten.

I haven’t yet read them all, but, generally speaking, the stories are fantastic. MacDonald had clearly gone through years of back issues of the Gazette, and yet even his sincere effort to do more than just print the legends is filled with all sorts of little errors. Wrong dates, wrong team names. That sort of thing. In the feature on Cyclone Taylor, for instance, it mentions him playing with “Portland Lakes” when the team was actually Portage Lakes. Not the worst of errors, admittedly, but an error nonetheless. And there are lots of others like them.

Marshall
Gordie Roberts was featured on January 25, 1934; Jack Marshall on February 13.

Of the pieces I’ve read, the only one where it appears that MacDonald actually had input from the player being featured is the story on February 13, 1934, about future Hall of Famer Jack Marshall. His career at the game’s highest level had stretched from 1898 to 1917, and his take on the then current game rings familiar today.

“They talk about the dearth of goals nowadays,” says Marshall. “No wonder. Look at the goaltenders padded up like stuff pigeons. Do you know why goaltenders first wore pads? It was for personal protection. And do you think a ten-inch pad on either leg is absolutely necessary for protection?”

“That,” writes MacDonald, “is his answer to what is the matter with present day hockey.”

Jack Marshall lived until 1965. Long enough to see Bobby Hull and his slap shot; Jacques Plante and his mask. I wonder if he ever changed his mind? Then again, just the other day at the Centennial Classic, when he was named one of the 100 greatest players of all time, Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall said: “Today’s goalkeepers are great, and you get some skinny little fella and he’s got on pants that are 10 times too large.”

But as I’ve pointed out here before, the question of how much protection for goalies is too much is one that people have been asking for a very long time!