The Montreal Canadiens announced the passing of Guy Lafleur this morning. Lung cancer. Age 70. His death comes just one week after Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders. Age 65. Lung cancer. Too soon for the two of them. Too sad for their millions of fans.
Admittedly, I was too young and probably too stupid, to appreciate just how good Guy Lafleur — and the Montreal dynasty of the 1970s — was. A Toronto native, and a Leafs fan of teams that were quite good, but not nearly Canadiens good, my memories of Lafleur are mostly of jealousy.
We didn’t see a lot of Mike Bossy on Canadian TV … until the playoffs rolled around. By the time of the Islanders dynasty (a couple of years after the Maple Leafs eliminated them in the 1978 quarterfinals — before losing to Montreal — in one of the two biggest highlights of my young Leafs fandom) the Leafs were in decline, I was a little bit older, and Mike Bossy was a sight to behold. He didn’t have the obvious speed and style of Guy Lafleur, but nobody scored goals like Bossy did. Of course, by then, I was more into Wayne Gretzky, so I probably didn’t appreciate Bossy as much as I should have either.
So much has been written and said about these two superstars following their deaths. I don’t know that I have anything new to add. So, I’ll contribute something old. Both players were included in chapters of my 2010 book, Twenty Greatest Hockey Goals. It’s a lot of reading, but if you care to, or when you have the time, please check out these stories on Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy.
The announcement on Sunday that Buck Martinez will be stepping away from Blue Jays broadcasts for a while to seek treatment for cancer has me feeling sad and nostalgic. Nostalgic is certainly not a new feeling for me. I like history; I write about history; and I’m lucky to have had a very happy childhood to recall. Yes, I like to look back … even to the sad things that have happened in my life.
My grandfather (my father’s father) died 50 years ago this summer. For my brothers and me, now all in our mid 50s, that is almost an entire lifetime ago. Even I, as the oldest, have very few memories of him … and the things I do remember, I don’t really know if I actually remember, or just know the stories from years of re-telling them.
From what I heard from my father in later years, his parents weren’t great parents. I think they were much more in love with each other than with the idea of raising children. My father, and his sister (my Aunt Monica) certainly weren’t neglected, or abused, or anything awful. I just think they weren’t surrounded by the same obvious love my brothers and I (and I hope my cousins) were. I remember my father telling me once that the only time his father had said he was proud of him was when I was born. I’m not sure that was much of an accomplishment on my father’s part! But like many men of an older generations who weren’t great fathers, my grandfather was a very good grandfather.
In the few short years he had with us, Poppa Moe spent lots of time with us. I remember going to a movie with him. (The Gnome-mobile. I was probably only four years old. I don’t remember anything about the plot, but I can still hear parts of the song in my head.) I know he took David and Jonathan to Toronto Marlies hockey games. (Don’t remember why I didn’t go.) And I remember the delight he took when we were riding in his car and Jonathan, who was probably only about three or four years old, would see a sign for an Esso gas station and spell out the letters forwards and backwards.
I certainly remember meals with Poppa Moe and Nanny Betty at Smitty’s Pancake House in Yorkdale Mall. Poppa Moe used to say to us, “I can’t say pancakes. I can only say pwancakes.”
And we’d always shriek back, “You just said it!”
He’d say, “No. I didn’t say pancakes. I can only say pwancakes.”
“You just said it!” we’d shriek again.
I’m pretty sure the last time I saw him — at least the last memory I have of seeing him — was at Smitty’s. It would have been 50 years ago next month, probably in mid-to-late May of 1972.
David and Poppa Moe had made a bet on the 1972 Stanley Cup Final. David picked the Boston Bruins over the New York Rangers. I seem to have a memory of watching one of the games in that series at my grandparents’ house on Glen Cedar Road near Bathurst and Eglinton … though that might be incorrect, because they were certainly living in an apartment on Walmer Road (near St. Clair and Spadina) by that summer.
Anyway, the Bruins won the Cup and David won the bet.
Over dinner at Smitty’s after the series (which ended on May 11, a Thursday, so perhaps as soon as that coming weekend though maybe not until later in the month), I remember Poppa Moe asking David how he’d like to be paid. Did he want a dollar bill, or four quarters … or a bag of pennies that might have more than 100 pennies in it? David chose the bag of pennies, and Poppa Moe handed it over.
I’m sure we counted it, though perhaps not until we got home.
I don’t remember how many pennies were actually in it.
And that was, I’m pretty sure, the last time I saw him.
Soon after that, Poppa Moe was diagnosed with cancer. I used to think it was liver cancer, but it may have been lung cancer. (He was certainly a smoker.) Whichever it was, he’d probably been sick for a while already. He didn’t last long; dying on August 26, 1972. I guess, as young kids, we were spared the sight of seeing him sick.
During that summer, I remember my father taking me to dinner at my grandparents’ new apartment. Nanny broiled steaks … which my father would later say was one of the few things she ever actually cooked. As I remember it, we were on our way to a Toronto Argonauts football game. (Having just checked the schedule online, I see that the Argos played their first two home games that summer on August 3 and August 16, so I’d guess August 3 … though perhaps it was in July and not actually before a football game.) I remember Nanny serving the steaks to us at the small kitchen table. Poppa Moe wasn’t there. He was in the bed room. Resting. (Dying.)
I wasn’t taken in to see him. Or if I was, I don’t remember it. My last memory of him is from the payoff dinner at Smitty’s … but maybe I just choose to remember that because it’s a nicer story.
My grandfather was a big sports fan. And that trait was certainly passed down to my father, and then to me and my brothers. (There are plenty of sports fans on my mother’s side too, so we come by it honestly!) Poppa Moe and my dad went to Argos games, and then my dad took us. Football, and the Argos, were my favourite, until the Blue Jays and baseball took over. I was on the Blue Jays ground crew from 1981 through 1985. Those were my last two years of high school and three years of university, and the “worst-to-first” years in Blue Jays history.
Buck Martinez was traded to Toronto on May 10, 1981, and got into his first game the following night. Once Bobby Cox arrived as manager in 1982, Buck became a big part of his platoon plans at catcher with Ernie Whitt and the Blue Jays finally got good!
Buck had two great moments during the first pennant-winning season of 1985. The first came on June 6 against the Detroit Tigers. Ernie Whitt actually caught most of that game, as Jimmy Key took a perfect game into the sixth inning, and a no-hitter into the ninth. Key wound up going 10 shutouts innings of two-hit ball. Buck came on in the 11th inning after Manny Lee ran for Whitt. He caught Gary Lavelle in the top of the 11th and Jim Acker in the 12th. In the bottom of the 12th, Buck got his first at-bat of the game with one out and George Bell on first base. He was hitting just .134 at the time, and fell behind 1-and-2 in the count before taking Aurelio Lopez (Señor Smoke) deep for a two-run homer that won the game 2-0. It was a huge, confidence-boosting victory over the 1984 World Series champs!
Five weeks later, on July 9, 1985, in Seattle, Buck was involved in one of the most remarkable defensive plays in Blue Jays history. With one out in the bottom of the third, he tagged out Phil Bradley at the plate after a Jesse Barfield throw despite the fact that the collision with Bradley tore the tendons in his right ankle and broke his leg. Dazed, Buck threw the ball away trying to make a play at third base, but was still alert enough to take a return throw and tag out Gorman Thomas at the plate to complete the first and only 9-2-7-2 double play in Blue Jays history. (If you’ve never seen it, click here!)
Buck missed the rest of the season after that injury, but managed to return for a final year in 1986 before retiring to the broadcast booth. I like to think I had a small part in his post-playing career, as I read lines with him once after a game while he was preparing to tape a radio commercial with Blue Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek. (Buck doesn’t remember it. I asked him about it once, a few years ago, at a Blue Jays season ticket holder event.)
It’s going to be an even tougher battle this time, but here’s wishing Buck Martinez all the best for another remarkable comeback.
Future Hockey Hall of Famer Billy Gilmour spun some interesting tales from his bygone days for the Montreal Star on June 20, 1938. An uncredited writer had caught up with the former member of the Ottawa Silver Seven on the deck of the Cunard liner Alaunia before he departed from Montreal to meet up with his daughter in France for the summer.
Gilmour spoke about some of his teammates on the 1909 Stanley Cup champion Ottawa Senators. Specifically Cyclone Taylor. “We had our fast men,” said Gilmour of the players in his heyday. “I don’t think anything you produced today was faster than Fred Taylor. He could go backwards faster than a lot of the boys could skate forward.”
“How did he compare with [Howie] Morenz?” the writer asked.
“I think he was as fast as Morenz,” said Gilmour.
When asked who, as a right winger, was the greatest left winger he ever had to cover, Gilmour answered Tommy Phillips of the Kenora Thistles. As for the toughest defensemen to get around, “there were a lot of them,” Gilmour said. “But when you go back a long time, I think Dickey Boon was as good as they came.”
More than a decade later, on February 13, 1950, Baz O’Meara of the Montreal Star was talking hockey with Cyclone Taylor. In reminiscing about the old days, Taylor discussed Billy Gilmour, whom he thought was both a very good player and a very good looking player.
“He was one of the finest looking men I ever saw on the ice,” said Taylor. “He had wonderful style, could hit a terrific body check, and because he was so elegant looking some opposing players would try to take rough liberties with him. They only did it once because Bill could handle himself in any company on any rink.”
Taylor, however, wasn’t one to glorify the stars of his day. When O’Meara assured him that, “a good man in any age would be a good man any time,” Taylor said: “I don’t know how I would have liked this game. I guess I would have done alright in it… but perhaps we undervalue some of the present day stars and overvalue some of the old ones.”
When asked if he had seen Maurice Richard play, Taylor said, “Yes, and I like him. He does things with the puck. He gives action and he takes a lot. He is a fine skater and is ideally adapted to the present type of game.”
When Maurice Richard got older, he seemed to have a bit of a mad-on with modern hockey. Early in the 1980-81 season, Richard was in Lethbridge, Alberta to referee an oldtimers game. He spoke with local sportswriter Garry Allison, who wrote about their conversation in the Lethbridge Herald on December 2, 1980. The Rocket admitted that he didn’t get to too many NHL games anymore, and didn’t even watch them much on TV. He didn’t like the style of the modern game. “I don’t like these slap shots from centre, where they race in for the puck,” he said. “When you take the slap shot out of the game, you see more passing. You see guys carrying the puck into the other end. You see better hockey.”
Still, Richard was a fan of Mike Bossy, who was early on his his quest that season of matching the Rocket’s record of 50 goals in 50 games. Richard thought Bossy had a chance to do it, and he rated the Islanders’ sniper as a similar player to himself — not a super hockey player, but a superb goal scorer. “There were a lot better hockey players than me,” Richard admitted, “but they didn’t work as well as I did around the net.”
As Bossy closed in on the mark, the New York Islanders offered to pay Richard’s expenses if he wished to join the record watch. The Rocket said no, but wished Bossy well and reminded people that he had told the Canadiens to draft him back in 1977 after seeing the kid from his own Montreal North neighbourhood starring as a junior player.
Richard wasn’t there when Bossy scored goal #50 in game #50, but he telephoned him in the dressing room after the game. The Rocket also sent a telegram, which read, in part: “Congratulations from an old recordman to a young recordman. I always knew one day my record would be surpassed or tied [and] I had always hoped that it would be done by the player from Ahuntsic who I have admired from the start. We are proud of you here in Quebec.”
Mike Bossy announced last October that he is battling lung cancer. He’s currently said to be resting peacefully at home, but apparently not in palliative care as was recently reported.
Like Maurice Richard, Bossy hasn’t always seemed like a fan of the game since his playing days ended, but it would appear that he did remain an astute observer. Last season, Steve Simmons wrote in the Toronto Sun in February of 2021, that Bossy was predicting Toronto’s Auston Matthews would win the Rocket Richard Trophy for leading the NHL in goals.
“I do like what I’m seeing from him,” Bossy said of Matthews. “Watch him, he loves to score goals, he has that natural goal-scorer’s instinct, he has the shot, or shall I say, shots. You can’t always explain scoring. It just happens.”
Matthews did, of course, win the Richard Trophy last year and is on pace to win it again this year, having recently tied Rick Vaive’s Leafs record of 54 goals in one season. He has 47 goals in his last 48 games, and is a favourite to win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP as well. But the playoffs will be the true test.
Bossy, it seems, would have loved to play under similar conditions to what offensive stars such as Matthews and Connor McDavid have in the NHL today. Around the same time last year that he spoke with Toronto’s Steve Simmons, Bossy told Larry Brooks of the New York Post, “you don’t see the cross-checking that we faced. You don’t see hooking and holding around the net and there’s not much hitting around the net nor in front of the net. There’s a lot of room out there that’s not talked about.”
No doubt Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz would feel the same way.