Monthly Archives: January 2018

Who’s The Fastest?

This past Sunday (January 28, 2018), The Nature of Things on CBC aired an interesting episode called Champions vs Legends. In it, sports scientist Steve Haake investigated the question: “What if the greatest elite (winter) athletes – present and past – could compete against each other on a level playing field? If competitive conditions were made equal, would today’s stars come out on top? Or would they be beaten by the heroes of the past?”

It’s impossible to truly make the conditions equal, but it was very interesting. If you’re in Canada, you should be able to click here to watch it all online if you choose to. Also, although it DID air last Sunday, the CBC web site currently shows it as airing THIS Sunday. It was joined in progress due to the NHL All-Star Game, so maybe they’re planning to run it again in its entirety?

Weber
Don’t bother clicking on the arrow. It’s just a screen shot, not a video link. Sorry!

Among the six segments in the episode was one in which Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens tried to match Bobby Hull’s shooting prowess with a retro wooden stick. Weber had his slap shot clocked by radar at 108.5 miles per hour at the NHL All-Star Game a few years ago. But when he used leather gloves and a wooden stick in this episode, the fastest he could manage was 91 miles per hour. When he switched back to his current stick, his shot jumped to 103 mph.

Bobby Hull, as the episode notes, is said to have had his slap shot clocked at 118.3 miles per hour during the 1960s. This was a prominent feature of an article in Popular Mechanics in February of 1968 … though as the show also notes, nothing is said about how Hull’s shot was actually measured. These days, it’s generally conceded that Hull’s shot was never accurately measured, and that any timing device from his era would be unreliable. No doubt he had the hardest slap shot of his era, and likely the hardest of all time up to that point, but it’s hard to believe that Bobby Hull could really have approached 120 mph with a wooden stick in the 1960s. On the other hand, what might have been able to do with a modern carbon fibre stick?!?

Hull

This Popular Mechanics article reports Bobby Hull’s slap shot being clocked at 118.3 mph.

But all this is really just a roundabout way for me to show off a fun clip I found recently in an old newspaper. The article is from The Ottawa Journal on March 30, 1917, picking up a story from The Vancouver Sun. It compares the hockey shot of Didier Pitre to the baseball pitch of Walter Johnson. (Recall that in August of 2016, I posted a story about the documentary Fastball featuring Walter Johnson and the history of measuring baseball’s fastest pitchers.) The comparison is made by Harry Cheek, a journeyman minor league catcher with just two games in the Majors who had recently retired after playing three years in Vancouver.

Didier Pitre is not a particularly well-known name these days, but he was one of the biggest stars in hockey during a 20-year career beginning in 1903. He starred mainly with the Montreal Canadiens from the team’s inaugural season in the National Hockey Association in 1909-10 through 1922-23 in the NHL. In his heyday, he was widely regarded as having the hardest shot in hockey.

Pitre

It does make sense that the lever quality of a hockey stick would allow a hockey player to shoot harder than a pitcher can throw. Still, it’s hard to imagine Didier Pitre could shoot a puck in 1917 faster than than the 83 miles per hour Walter Johnson had been measured at in 1912 … not to mention the 93 mph the Fastball documentary says that actually translates to. And it’s interesting that Nolan Ryan’s fastball upgrades to the same 108.5 miles per hour as Shea Weber’s best slap shot. These days, I think it would be interesting to know how many players in the NHL can approach 100 miles per hour with their best shot compared to the number of pitchers who can approach 100 mph with their best fastball.

Writing and Research and The NHL Awards

A contract arrived by courier on Monday for a new hockey book for kids. This one won’t appear until the fall of 2019, but I’m awaiting another contract for two other books (updates to older projects) for adults that should be out this fall. So, after some slow times lately, at least I’ll be busy again for the next little while.

I sort of fell into writing for children, but I enjoy it. The truth is, in most cases, I don’t do anything very much different than what I write and research for adults – it’s just that the books are generally much shorter, so they don’t take nearly as long.

Books 1
The 2nd edition of The Big Book of Hockey for Kids has been out since September.
Absolute Expert: Soccer is due out in late May in time for the World Cup.

As I’ve mentioned here on occasion, I currently have seven new children’s books in stores, with one more due out in the spring. That one is somewhat different for me in that it’s about soccer, not hockey. Fortunately, since it’s for National Geographic Kids, they were much more interested in a book about the history and geography of soccer than a “how-to-play” manual … despite the title! It’s a beautiful book, and the research for it was a lot of fun. Plus, I was paired with US Soccer and MLS referee Mark Geiger, who was most helpful when I had questions. He also wrote some great personal stories that appear throughout the book.

All Six
The Original 6 series for Crabtree Books received a very nice review recently.

I think you’d be surprised at how many of the stories I’ve posted on this web site, as well as how many stories for my adult books, and how many updates and corrections to the NHL Official Guide & Record Book, have come from discoveries I’ve made while researching and writing my children’s books. For example, all the information I discovered for the story I posted last summer about Godfrey Matheson came as a result of the Chicago Blackhawks book in The Original 6 series. The genesis of today’s story comes from the New York Rangers book.

Boucher Book

Each book in The Original 6 series features a section on NHL trophy winners from those teams. Clearly, the designer who queried me had hoped to find a photograph of Frank Boucher with the Lady Byng Trophy. But it seems that no such photo exists. It turns out that until Boucher was given the original NHL prize for sportsmanship to keep in 1935 after winning it for the seventh time in eight seasons, he’d never even seen the trophy before! As for the Weber & Heilbroner Cup, it was presented to him prior to a playoff game with the Ottawa Senators at Madison Square Garden after the 1929-30 season for scoring the most points among Rangers and New York Americans players that year. (Weber & Heilbroner was a fashionable menswear chain in New York.)

Boucher newspapersThe article on the left is from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 24, 1930.
The cartoon on the right is from the Ottawa Journal on March 16, 1935,
shortly before Boucher won the Lady Byng Trophy for the seventh time.

It appears that until the 1960s, the practice of handing out trophies to NHL players (as opposed to just announcing who’d won them) was hit and miss. The Hart Trophy for the NHL’s most valuable player was donated to the league in 1924. It was presented to the first winner – Frank Nighbor of the Ottawa Senators – on the ice prior to the final game of the NHL playoffs on March 11, 1924. The presentation was made by Lord Julian Byng, Canada’s Governor-General at the time. Almost exactly a year later, Lady Evelyn Byng presented Nighbor with the new trophy she’d just given to the NHL.

In the following  years, it appears that sometimes the NHL trophies were presented on the ice, and sometimes at team banquets for Stanley Cup winners when those teams also boasted an individual award winner. And, obviously, based on Frank Boucher’s experience, sometimes they weren’t presented at all. But one trophy always was. Beginning in June of 1937, NHL president Frank Calder presented each winner of the rookie of the year with a trophy he bought for that player to keep. After his death in 1943, the NHL created the Frank Calder Memorial Trophy as a permanent remembrance.

Apps
Syl Apps was the NHL’s rookie of the year for 1936-37. Writing in the Toronto Star on June 14, 1937, Andy Lytle says that it was he who’d suggested the trophy idea to Frank Calder, and that Calder decided while on the train to Paris, Ontario, from his office in Montreal that because the winners would never be rookies again, they should get to keep the trophy.

The earliest reference I’ve  found in newspapers to a modern NHL Awards ceremony dates to April of 1967, although the stories for that year refer to it as “the annual awards luncheon” so it must have been going on for a few years by then. (There had been an NHL luncheon or dinner associated with the NHL All-Star Game pretty much since its beginning in 1947, and a postseason luncheon since at least 1963. Hockey Hall of Fame inductees were announced at the 1963 luncheon, but there appears not to have been any trophy presentations.)

Trophies 1932_1968
This photograph of Charlie Gardner receiving the Vezina Trophy (minus its elaborate base) appeared in several newspapers following the presentation to him on March 29, 1932.
The AP Wirephoto on the right is from the 1969 NHL Award Luncheon.

During the 1970s, the NHL Awards ceremony changed from a luncheon held during the Stanley Cup Final to a dinner held after the playoffs were over. The NHL Awards were aired on live television for the first time in 1984.

More From Before: A Johnny Bower Sequel

I’ve been writing (and talking) about Johnny Bower a lot about lately. I wasn’t planning to do it again this week, but I’ve been pretty interested (some might say obsessed!) with certain aspects of Bower’s early hockey career and how it’s tied up with his unusual military career. So this story is something of a sequel to my piece Before He Was Bower, which I posted on December 28.

In his 2006 autobiography The China Wall, which Johnny Bower wrote with longtime hockey writer Bob Duff, Bower says that when he was playing hockey as a boy in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, there was an army reserve unit in town. “A lot of us kids from the hockey team used to go every Friday night. We had uniforms and they trained us. It was good fun.” Bower says that, “when the war broke out, I was 15 and most of the guys joined up.”

Vernon
Johnny Bower was still Johnnie Kiszkan when he played wartime hockey in Vernon,
British Columbia. The newspaper clipping is from the Regina Leader-Post on
March 4, 1943. The playoff recap is from Ice Hockey Wiki.

With a birth date of November 8, 1924 (when he was born John Kiszkan), Bower would still have been 14 when World War II began in September of 1939. Perhaps he waited a few months to enlist. Most of his Prince Albert buddies were sent to Vernon, British Columbia for training – but Bower was held back for a few months “because one of the generals found out how young I was.”

Bower was eventually sent to British Columbia for further training, but “they found out when I was in Vernon that I was too young, so I was stationed there for two years.” He may actually have been there for closer to three years.

Tom Hawthorn, a veteran reporter who lives in Victoria, B.C., recently had a great story about Johnny Bower in an online British Columbia news magazine called The Tyee. It includes an account of Kiszkan/Bower playing goal for the Vernon Military All-Stars during the winter of 1942-43. Hawthorn relates that Bower led his team to the British Columbia intermediate provincial championship, followed by victory over the Saskatchewan champion Notre Dame Hounds before losing the Western Canadian title to the Calgary Buffaloes in mid-March of 1943.

Team
Johnny Kiszkan/Bower sits in the middle of this team photo of the Prince Albert M&C Warhawks, between two of the three trophies he helped the team win in 1943-44.

Sixty years later, in a 2003 interview (much of which appeared recently as a lengthy obituary in The Globe and Mail) Bower told Regina sportswriter and historian John Chaput that, “I went overseas around 1943 and I was going to play hockey at one of the camps, but when I arrived I found that Turk Broda and pretty well all the pros that played for the Maple Leafs were on this hockey team, so I turned around.”

This appears to make it impossible for Bower to have had the near-miss at Dieppe due to illness in 1942 that I wrote about in December, and which he himself discussed in The China Wall. Still, much of Bower’s overseas experience in 1943 was spent in hospitals as he battled rheumatoid arthritis. By January of 1944, he was back in Saskatchewan and would soon be out of the army. Bower returned to Regina, got a discharge, and went to Saskatoon. He writes that he then went back to Prince Albert, “and got a job on the railroad.”

At this point, virtually all hockey sources – and Bower himself – have him returning to the game as a Junior with the Prince Albert Black Hawks for the 1944-45 season. But as I more-or-less stumbled across in my December story, Bower/Kiszkan had returned to the ice almost as soon as he got home. I contacted John Chaput about this and he agreed to go through the Prince Albert Daily Herald on microfilm at the Provincial Archives in Regina for the winter of 1943-44. Here’s what we’ve found.

Close
A closer look at a young Johnny Kiszkan/Bower from the M&C team photo.

There was a four-team Prince Albert City League in 1943-44. They played a six-team double-round robin schedule. Bower/Kiszkan wasn’t a part of the league, but did play on a Prince Albert All-Star team in an exhibition game against the Saskatchewan RCAF Tech Aeronauts on January 22, 1944. In hyping the game on January 19, the Prince Albert newspaper noted: “An added attraction will be Pte. Johnnie Kiszkan, late of the Prince Albert Black Hawks and Victoria [likely Vernon] Army, who will be netminder for the All-Stars. Johnnie recently returned home from action overseas.” Perhaps he’d already been playing hockey in Regina or Saskatoon, as Johnnie and the All-Stars won the game 6-3.

The Prince Albert M & C Repair Depot team — sponsored by the M & C Aviation Company and known as the Warhawks — finished in first place in the City League standings. Kiszkan/Bower didn’t play for any team that season, but the Warhawks were also the only Intermediate hockey team in Northern Saskatchewan, and they added Johnnie Kiszkan to their roster for the playoffs against the Southern champions:

Feb. 25/44: Notre Dame Hounds 2 at M&C 5
Feb 27/44: M&C 4 at Notre Dame 0
(M&C wins total-goal series 9-2 and wins Henderson Cup as Saskatchewan intermediate champions.)

He remained with the team to face the Alberta Champions too:

March 17: Canmore Briquetters 2 at M&C 3
March 18: Canmore 1 at M&C 4
(M&C wins best-of-three series 2-0 and Edmonton Journal Cup as Western intermediate champs.)

Kiszkan/Bower played two more games that year, on March 30 and April 1 when the M&C Aviation Warhawks defeated Prince Albert Army 5-2 and 2-0 to win the Quinn Cup as Prince Albert City champions.

Cup
A closeup look at the team plaque on the Henderson Cup from 1943-44. (Thank
you to Brock Gerrard, Curator of the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in Regina.)

“It’s only a few games, and against diluted wartime competition,” says John Chaput, “but the goals-against average is pretty gaudy; 1.43 overall, 1.17 if you exclude the exhibition, 1.25 for the four games that really matter…. There are no quotes in any of the stories and the game descriptions are rather general, but the one thing about Kiszkan/Bower that is evident is [his style]. Against Notre Dame, “Kiszkan displayed some remarkable footwork in warding off the attacks of the determined Hounds.” Against Canmore: “Much credit for the win goes to Kiszkan for kicking out a good many ‘labelled’ shots.”

The poke check would come later!

An Ode to Old Goalies

On this day in history 100 years ago, on January 9, 1918, just three weeks into its inaugural season, the NHL made an important rule change. It would now allow goalies to leave their feet and fall to the ice to make a save. This rule change was the focus of a story I wrote last month for the New York Times. It’s also in a story I wrote three years ago for this web site.

To make the New York Times story different, I sought out several NHL goaltenders past and present to speak with. This gave me my first opportunity to talk with “Mr. Goalie” Glenn Hall … and what would sadly turn out to be my last chance to speak with Johnny Bower.

Bower
Paintings by Darrin Egan. Visit him on Facebook.

I spoke to Johnny Bower on October 17. It was a couple of weeks before his 93rd birthday. He answered the phone, but for the first time (and admittedly, I’ve only spoken to him a few times before), he sounded old. I explained that I would like to ask him a few questions, and he told me he really didn’t like to do interviews anymore. He wasn’t sure he still had the memory for it. I said I’d ask him one question, and if he didn’t feel he could answer, we didn’t have to continue. I asked him my question, and one thing quickly led to another. No problem with his memory that I could detect!

As noted in my Times story, Bower told me he was unaware there had originally been a rule requiring goalies to remain standing. He also told me it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference to his decision to become a goalie. “No one really flopped down,” he said. “As a child, I would stand up, I was scared. No one had to say anything to me.”

But, of course, there would be occasions when he had to drop to the ice to make a save. “My dad said, ‘you fall to much.’ I said ‘Dad, you don’t know hockey. I have to do what I have to do.’ It turned out just great.” Bower told me he always considered himself a standup goaltender, “but the poke check was a big plus.”

1918
This announcement  was made by NHL president Frank Calder from his office
in Montreal on January 9, 1918. (From the Ottawa Journal, January 10, 1918.)

The poke check, often diving head first (without a mask!) toward an on-rushing opponent, became Bower’s signature move.  As Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told reporters shortly after Bower’s death on Boxing Day: “Not too many people in sports have a name where it almost becomes a verb. If you were playing street hockey and you poke-checked somebody, you’d yell, ‘Johnny Bower. I just Johnny Bowered you.’”

Like Johnny Bower, Glenn Hall regarded himself as a standup goaltender, even though he’s considered the pioneer of the butterfly style. Spreading his legs wide to block the bottom of the net was merely an extension of his natural style. “I always played in a deep crouch,” he explained. “[Terry] Sawchuk did too. But I looked at the other goalkeepers who were just a little before me; Chuck Rayner and Sugar Jim Henry were two of my favourites. Both were standup.”

Hall told me that when he was playing junior hockey in the Red Wings farm system in Windsor, Ontario, he would go to Detroit to watch NHL games. “That’s when I saw those guys … but I never saw a goalkeeper I didn’t like. You didn’t steal from them exactly, but you noticed what they were doing and if it was getting results or making things more difficult.”

Hall
Contact Darrin at: inthebluepaint@gmail.com

Hall was aware of the old rule about goalies standing. “I think at one time I knew that,” he said. But even long after the rule had changed, coaches in his era weren’t exactly progressive in their thinking. “They had a few silly rules. Coaches would holler, ‘Stand up. Don’t touch the puck unless it’s going in the net.’ So many stupid things.”

There were no specialized goalie coaches in Glenn Hall’s time. The men behind the bench were usually ex-forwards or defensemen. “You never thought of the coaches,” he said. “They didn’t know anything about playing goal.” Former Boston Bruins goaltending great Tiny Thompson was a Black Hawks scout when Hall got to Chicago. “I liked to talk to him, but he never offered any hockey advice. Nor did I ask him.”

I asked Hall who was the best goalie he ever saw. “I never played against anyone I thought was better than me,” he said with a smile in his voice. But he did admit that, “Sawchuk, in his first four years, was unbelievable.” He also loved Gump Worsley and Johnny Bower. “Both were great goalies.” (Unfortunately, I didn’t realize until we were done that I hadn’t asked him about Jacques Plante.)

1917
Clint Benedict’s habit of accidentally falling to the ice is often credited with changing
the NHL rule about goalies, but Art Ross had spoken in favour of the change prior to
the start of the first NHL season. (From the Ottawa Journal, December 17, 1917.)

More recently, Martin Brodeur was someone Hall admired, but he had trouble relating to Dominik Hasek. “Hasek was different,” he said. “I wasn’t watching a lot of hockey then, but I hated to guess and a lot of Hasek’s moves looked like guess-type moves. He must have known what he was doing, but I would have had trouble playing like that.”

So would Mr. Goalie – a man who has a reputation for being sick to his stomach before nearly every game he played – still have wanted to be a goalie if the rules had required him to remain standing?

“Yes, of course! I didn’t start playing goal until I was about 10 or 11, but I found out it was the most interesting spot to play. That’s where all the action was. That’s what made it enjoyable. That’s where things were happening.”