All posts by Eric Zweig

A Bit of a Heartbreak

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone … but we’re talking baseball today. Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, so no matter what the groundhog said (and, around these parts, I’ve always wondered why six more weeks of winter isn’t an early end) we know that summer can’t be too far away.

Still, the baseball news is sad for Canadian fans. After 36 years at the microphone for Toronto Blue Jays baseball on radio, Jerry Howarth announced his retirement yesterday. His health has not been great in recent years, and he just didn’t feel his voice could hold up over the long season anymore.

Thanks

Jerry didn’t have the “classic pipes” of a sports broadcaster, but he had a passion for baseball and wonderful way of telling stories. He always made the listener feel like they were part of every game he was calling. “Hello, friends.”

I was not a baseball fan before Toronto got its team in 1977. Tom Cheek, and later Jerry Howarth (he joined the team in 1981) certainly did their part to spread the Gospel of the Blue Jays to my brothers and me. My parents had loved the minor-league baseball Maple Leafs and we quickly came to love the Blue Jays in my family. All those 100-loss seasons in the early days didn’t dampen our enthusiasm at all. It was fun (and inexpensive!) to take in a game at the ballpark – even if Exhibition Stadium wasn’t much of a ballpark. Even in those early days, you could find a radio tuned into the game in almost every room in our house.

It’s funny, but here in Owen Sound, I can usually get the games on my car radio from anywhere in town … until I turn onto my own block. Can’t get the games on the radio in the house at all. So, I watch on television. I’m not the first to say this, but baseball is a perfect game for radio … and I haven’t been able to listen to Jerry as much as I’d have liked to in recent years. Now, I won’t get that chance anymore.

Tom
My father took this picture of the Blue Jays’ first broadcasting duo, Early Wynn and Tom Cheek, at a spring training game against the Phillies in Clearwater, Florida, in March of 1980.

It seems that no one has anything but nice things to say about Jerry Howarth. He’s widely regarded as a lovely person. I haven’t had a lot of experiences with him, but the ones that I’ve had certainly confirm that.

When I worked for the Blue Jays ground crew from 1981 to 1985, I always tried to hang around Tom and Jerry as much as I could get away with when they were on the field before games. I loved to listen to them telling stories. A few years later (it must have been the summer of 1987), when I was working for a small company called Digital Media, I was able to arrange for us to get the occasional press pass. The very first time I was on the field as a “reporter,” I re-introduced myself to Jerry. I doubt that he really remembered me, but he immediately marched me up to Jesse Barfield and set up a quick interview for us. He certainly didn’t have to do that, but that’s the kind of person Jerry Howarth is.

In 2001, when we published The Toronto Blue Jays Official 25th Anniversary Commemorative Book, I had a chance to be in the radio broadcast booth during a game to talk about the book. It was a thrill to be on the air with Tom Cheek, but I remember that when I was done, Jerry asked me quietly about my favourite parts of the book. I told him that while the Pennant-Winning and World Series years of 1985 to 1993 had, of course, been fun, my favourite story was something smaller. It came under the category titled “Oddities and Others” and was the story of the final game of the 1982 season.

Jesse

Until the baseball strike of 1981, even a diehard fan like me knew that the Blue Jays were terrible. Still, the team played better in the second half of 1981 and, with players like Willie Upshaw and Damaso Garcia, the outfield of George Bell, Jesse Barfield, and Lloyd Moseby, and platoon partners Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg and Ernie Whitt and Buck Martinez, we finally got a glimpse of the future in 1982. The team was 44–37 in the second half, and with a series-sweeping win over expansion cousins Seattle on the final day of the season, the Blue Jays  finished with nine wins in their last 12 games to escape last place for the first time in franchise history … sort of.

With a record of 78–84 in 1982, the Jay actually finished tied for sixth with Cleveland in the seven-team American League East. I can remember fans chanting “We’re Number Six!” in the stands after the game, and “Bring on the Indians!” knowing that we would beat them in this theoretically tiebreaking playoff and escape last place for real.

Attendance was only 19,064 (in my memory, the crowd was bigger … but not much) yet everyone stuck around to the end. When Jim Clancy finished up his complete-game victory, he was cheered off the field and threw his hat and his glove into the seats. Alfredo Griffin brought a bag of balls out of the dugout, and he and his teammates began tossing them to the fans too.

1982

There would be bigger celebrations in the years to come, but that one always felt special to me – a treat for the real fans. I can recall Jerry smiling as I reminded him off it. I don’t know what (or if) he remembered of it personally, but he certainly seemed to appreciate the story.

Best of luck wherever the future takes you, Jerry.

Your retirement certainly marks the end of an era.

Another Birthday Mystery…

Quick trivia question for you. Which goalie holds the NHL record for lowest career average? No tricks. It’s not someone who played one career game and managed a shutout. Is it Georges Vezina? George Hainsworth? Terry Sawchuk? Jacques Plante?

Nope. It’s Alec Connell.

In 12 seasons between 1924 and 1937, Connell posted a career average of 1.91. He also set an NHL record with six straight shutouts during the 1927-28 season in a scoreless streak that stretched 460 minutes and 49 seconds. It’s true he only played 417 games in his career (a top goalie today would reach that number in about seven seasons) and that he played during the lowest-scoring era in hockey history with only limited forward passing for some of that time. Still, somebody has to be the lowest, and Alec Connell is it.

Card

Tomorrow marks Connell’s birthday. (His given name was Alexander, with no apparent middle name, but whether he actually went by Alex or Alec is a whole other debate!) He’d be turning 118 years old. Probably. He might actually be turning 119. Or maybe only 116.

I know… You’ve heard these things from me before. Just recently, I wrote a little bit about Johnny Bower’s birthday mystery and I’ve written entire stories about the birth dates of Art Ross and King Clancy. But I hope you’ll indulge me one more time.

NHL records show that Alec Connell was born on February 8, 1902. That’s what the Hockey Hall of Fame has too. It’s what we had in the two editions of Total Hockey back in 1998 and 2000. I don’t have access to any of the earliest NHL Guides, but I think that’s a date we inherited from way back. My guess would be that at some point in the mid 1930s, when it seems the first efforts were being made to catalogue this type of information, Connell decided it might be advantageous to be a few years younger.

It’s said that Connell didn’t begin to play hockey until he was in the Canadian Army and training at Kingston, Ontario, during World War I. He couldn’t even skate, which seems odd for a boy of his era who grew up as part of an athletic family in Ottawa. Still, with his prowess at lacrosse it was thought he’d be a natural at hockey, and being a non-skater, who was also a catcher in baseball, goalie seemed the best position for him.

By 1920, Connell was back in Ottawa and would begin to put up impressive numbers with various teams in the amateur City League. In 1924, he turned pro with the Ottawa Senators and beat out Joe Ironstone (one of pro hockey’s first Jewish players) with an impressive training camp and a strong performance in two preseason games against the Calgary Tigers of the Western Canada Hockey League.

Clip Alec Connell’s debut with the Senators on November 24, 1924 earned a note
in the sub-headline and a cute cartoon in the next day’s Ottawa Journal.

Young and skilled, no one probably cared much about Alec Connell’s age at that point … and if someone had asked him, he might not have been sure of it himself! One thing seems pretty obvious, though. He was NOT born in 1902.

Connell must have been born by 1901 because he appears in the Canadian Census that year as the youngest of seven children in an Irish Catholic family. His birthdate is listed as 8 Feb 1900 and his age as 1.

1901

Ten years later, all seven Connell children are still living at home, but young Alex (as he’s listed) has aged 11 years and is now recorded as being born in 1899.

1911

His War records are equally confusing. He has a medical history that seems to show he enlisted in 1917, so he may well have chosen to lie about his age.

WWI 1917

Strangely, in an Attestation Paper apparently signed by him on October 7, 1918, (when he would have been of age) Connell’s date of birth is left blank.

1918

But in another Attestation Paper dated May 9, 1919, (which actually seems to be about the time that he was demobilized from the army) his birth date is recorded as 1899 February 8.

WWI 1919

(For those of you noting that his Trade or Calling is listed as “Chauffeur” and knowing that his nickname was “The Ottawa Fireman,” Connell didn’t actually join the Ottawa Fire Department until 1921. And he wasn’t really a fireman. He served for 29 years as Secretary to a succession of Ottawa Fire Chiefs.)

So, was Alec Connell born in 1899 or 1900? The best evidence points to 1900, although this birth certificate wasn’t actually filled out by his mother until 1919:

1919

Most convincing is the record of his baptism at St. Brigid’s parish in Ottawa, which occurred on February 12, 1900:

1900

Although it’s a little bit difficult to read, it says that Alexander Connell is the legitimate son of James Connell and Sarah Courneen, and that he was “born on the eighth inst.” Inst in this case being an abbreviation for the Latin instante mense, meaning a date of the current month.

So, happy 118th birthday Mr. Connell. And do you prefer Alec or Alex?

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 too 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.”

Before He Was Bower

Leafs legend Johnny Bower passed away on Tuesday at the age of 93. Much has already been said and written about him, most of it conveying that as great a goalie as he was, Bower was an even better person. My personal experiences with him were few, but any time I had the opportunity to speak with him, it was always special.

Bower

Bower’s exact age had long been something of a mystery. As a young boy, he lied about his age to join the Canadian Army in World Word II. (Many stories say he was only 15 at the time, others say 16). During his career, he enjoyed playing along with the guessing game, but in recent years it was determined that he was (probably!) born on November 8, 1924. His name at the time was John Kiszkan.

A respiratory infection in 1942 likely saved Bower/Kiszkan’s life when he had to be hospitalized instead of being sent to France for the disastrous Dieppe Raid. After being discharged due to rheumatoid arthritis in his hands in 1943, Kiszkan returned to his home town of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where he quickly resumed his hockey career. He played for the Prince Albert M and C Warhawks and helped them win the Western Canada Intermediate hockey championship at the end of the winter in 1944.

Bower 1
The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix of February 26, 1944, reports on Prince Albert’s 5-2 victory
over the Notre Dame Hounds to open the Intermediate Provincial championship.

Bower 3
Stories on Prince Albert’s two-game sweep of the Western Canada title
are from The Lethbridge Herald on March 18 and 20, 1944.

In the fall of 1944, John Kiszkan had a professional tryout with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League. He didn’t catch on, returning once again to Prince Albert where he played Junior hockey. His Prince Albert Black Hawks won the North Saskatchewan championship in 1945 but lost the Provincial title to the Moose Jaw Canucks of the Southern Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

Bower 4
Cleveland Barons story from the New Philadelphia (Ohio) Daily Times on September 29. 1944. The Saskatchewan Junior story is from The Lethbridge Herald on March 9, 1945.

The next season, 1945-46, Kiszkan began his lengthy minor league apprenticeship in Cleveland that would eventually lead to his great success in Toronto.

Bower 6
From the Athens (Ohio) Messenger on December 28, 1945.

A year later, John Kiszkan (whose last name had often been misspelled in newspapers, and must have been mispronounced by broadcasters as well) decided that his surname was just too difficult for the sports media. Bob Duff, co-author The China Wall: The Timeless Legend of Johnny Bower, told me that Johnny’s parents had separated by then, and when he turned 21, Johnny had his sister Rose, who worked in a legal office, help him change his name to Bower. It was their mother’s maiden name.

Bower 7
The Cleveland Barons were training in the Manitoba Capital when
this story appeared in the Winnipeg Tribune on September 24, 1946.

His name appeared as John (Kiszkan) Bower in many newspapers throughout the 1946-47 season with Cleveland … but he would be Johnny Bower for ever after.

Season’s Greetings

From the Vancouver Daily World, on Tuesday, December 24, 1912…

Xmas 2017

Who knows how “Extra” becomes “Wuxtry”? And, personally – not to be sexist or racist in this day and age! – I wish All Good Sportsmen AND Sportswomen a Merry Christmas, a belated Happy Hanukkah, or best wishes for any holiday you celebrate at this time of year.

Thank you to everyone who takes a few minutes once a week or so to read these stories, and especially to those who offer comments; either by email or Facebook, or directly on the site.

All the best to everyone in 2018.

Toronto as Title Town

Not that long ago, Toronto was being mocked as the worst sports city in North America. Well, in recent years we’ve had two exciting Blue Jays playoff appearances (though I fear we won’t see that again for a while), a resurgence of the Raptors and a rebirth of the Maple Leafs. And now, within a two-week span from November 26 to December 9, a Grey Cup championship by the Toronto Argos and an MLS Cup win by Toronto FC.

TFC

Once upon a time, titles in Toronto weren’t so rare. In fact, there was a time when it seemed like the Argos and Maple Leafs would never lose. In an eight-year span from 1945 to 1952, the Argos won the Grey Cup five times and the Leafs won the Stanley Cup five times. That’s got to have been a pretty wonderful time to have been a Toronto sports fan! During those eight years, there was never more than 18 months between championships, and often as few as six months:

  • April 22, 1945: Toronto wins Stanley Cup
  • December 1, 1945: Toronto wins Grey Cup
  • November 3, 1946: Toronto wins Grey Cup
  • April 19, 1947: Toronto wins Stanley Cup
  • November 29, 1947: Toronto wins Grey Cup
  • April 14, 1948: Toronto wins Stanley Cup
  • April 16, 1949: Toronto wins Stanley Cup
  • November 25, 1950: Toronto wins Grey Cup
  • April 21, 1951: Toronto wins Stanley Cup
  • November 29, 1952: Toronto wins Grey Cup

This was when my parents grew up. I know it made a big impact on my father, and I’m sure it’s a big reason why sports still runs so deep in my immediate family. I mean, there’s never really been another run like it in all of Canadian sports. Even when the Edmonton Eskimos and Edmonton Oilers were winning all those championships between 1978 and 1990 (and there were 11 in total – although it took them 13 years to do it) the only time they both won in the same calender year was 1987. Toronto did it in 1945 and 1947.

Argos

Montreal comes out on top in terms of twin NHL and CFL titles, although even with their 24 hockey championships dating back to 1916, the only years in which the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup and a Montreal football won the Grey Cup in the same season are 1931, 1944 and 1977. Ottawa almost joins the list of twin wins with Grey Cup victories in 1925 and 1926 and the Stanley Cup in 1927.

American cities have had their multiple champions too, but not very often. In 1927, the New York Yankees and the New York Giants football team were both champions, although the NFL did not have a championship game yet. In 1928, the New York Rangers and Yankees were both champs and in 1969 the New York Jets and New York Mets both won titles too. (The New York Knicks added an NBA title in 1970.) In Pittsburgh, Super Bowl championships by the Steelers in January of 1979 and 1980 bookended a World Series win by the Pirates in October of 1979. And way back in 1935, the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions won the World Series and the NFL championship within two months of each other. (Detroit’s Joe Louis was boxing’s Heavyweight Champion of the World at the time, and the Red Wings would add Stanley Cup titles in 1936 and 1937.)

In terms of timing, the ultimate back-to-back championships would be to win the Stanley Cup and the NBA Finals in the same season, given that they have often wrapped up within a week or two of each other. No one city has ever accomplished that double feat. But in past years Toronto has crowned multiple hockey champions in a timeline often tighter than the 13 days between this year’s Argos and TFC titles. Have a look…

  • March 22, 1922: Toronto Granites win Allan Cup
    March 28, 1922: Toronto St. Pats win Stanley Cup
  • April 6, 1932: Toronto Nationals win Allan Cup
    April 9, 1932: Toronto Maple Leafs win Stanley Cup
  • April 22, 1945: Leafs win Stanley Cup
    April 23, 1945: St. Mikes wins Memorial Cup
  • April 19, 1947: Leafs win Stanley Cup
    April 22, 1947: St. Mikes wins Memorial Cup
  • April 15, 1964: Leafs win Stanley Cup
    May 9, 1964: Marlies win Memorial Cup
  • May 2, 1967: Leafs win Stanley Cup
    May 14, 1967: Marlies win Memorial Cup

Toronto doesn’t have a monopoly on this. Montreal has done it too, but not nearly as often.

  • March 30, 1930: Montreal AAA wins Allan Cup
    April 3, 1930: Montreal Canadiens win Stanley Cup
  • May 4, 1969: Montreal Canadiens win Stanley Cup
    May 5, 1969: Montreal Junior Canadians win Memorial Cup

Once again Ottawa comes pretty close, with the Senators clinching the Stanley Cup as champions of the Eastern Canada Hockey Association on March 3, 1909 and the Cliffsides being awarded the inaugural Allan Cup on March 6, 1909 only to lose it to Queen’s University in the first challenge match nine days later.

If anyone’s aware of any twin wins I’ve missed, please let me know!

Jack of All Trades Was a Master Too

I thought this story would be quick and easy. But I was wrong.

A week ago, on November 29, a statue of Jackie Robinson was unveiled at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. What makes this new statue different from others commemorating the man who broke modern baseball’s racial barrier is that this one honours Jackie Robinson’s contributions to football in Southern California where he grew up.

Statue
Jackie Robinson wearing the #55 he sported while starring at Pasadena Junior College.

Robinson was a four-sport star, excelling at football, baseball, basketball and track, at Pasadena Junior College in 1937 and 1938 and then at UCLA in 1939 and 1940. The stories I saw about the unveiling of the football statue mentioned that Robinson played many games at the Rose Bowl and that his 104-yard kickoff return there is still thought to be the longest touchdown run in the history of the storied stadium.

I thought it would be fun to find a newspaper clipping about that run and set out to hunt one down. Generally speaking, the many books and articles written about Robinson over the years seemed to agree that the play happened during the final game of Pasadena’s perfect 11-and-0 season in 1938.

Pasadena
Jackie Robinson and teammates with he Pasadena Junior College baseball team.
(Photo courtesy of John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball.)

Jackie Robinson was a remarkable athlete, and football may well have been his best sport. He played quarterback and safety at Pasadena Junior College and during that undefeated season in 1938 he rushed for over 1,000 yards. Older sources say he scored 17 touchdowns, but newer research claims he had 18. Robinson also threw seven touchdown passes, kicked one field goal and converted many of his team’s touchdowns too. In all, he scored 131 of his team’s 369 points.

So, I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find evidence of a 104-yard touchdown run. Then again, Robinson was playing at a Junior College in an area of the United States with more universities than anywhere else. His games did get covered in many of the California newspapers I can find online, but there’s not always a lot of detail.

There’s likely more in a Pasadena paper hiding in a library somewhere, but I couldn’t find much from the 39-6 win over lowly Cal Tech on Wednesday night, November 23, 1938. There’s nothing about a 104-yard touchdown, and though I’ve seen stories and books putting the attendance anywhere from 18,000 to 30,000 that night, the newspapers I’ve found show only 3,500.

Both
United Press stories on the Cal Tech game from newspapers in Berkley and Bakersfield.

As I expanded my search, I found several references over the years saying that Jackie Robinson had run for “only” a 99-yard touchdown in the Cal Tech game. However, in the description I found for the 1939 Junior College Annual of Pasadena City College available online at Abebooks (you can buy it for US$540 if you choose!), there’s a very detailed account of the 1938 football season. Of the game in question, it says: “Jack Robinson and 16 other seniors rang down the curtain on their Pasadena football careers as they walloped cross town rival Cal Tech 39-6…. Robinson’s closing chapter was a 104-yard run to the touchdown, climaxing the greatest individual career in jaysee history.”

Beyond that, the next mention I could find of Robinson running for a 104-yard touchdown doesn’t appear until an April 12, 1977, story in the Los Angeles Times marking the upcoming 30th anniversary of Robinson’s Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“The season ended,” wrote Shav Glick of Robinson’s 1938 Pasadena football campaign, “with Cal Tech and another 30,000 in the Rose Bowl and Robinson’s final contribution was a 104-yard kickoff return.”

Shav Glick knew Robinson personally. They both attended Pasadena Junior College together. Glick first started reporting sports in Pasadena as a 14-year-old in 1935 and wrote his final column for the Los Angeles Times in January of 2006 at the age of 85. He was likely at the Cal Tech game, and may have been writing from memory, or from old newspaper stories he himself had written and saved. He may well have written that recap from 1939.

Sun
Brief coverage of the Cal Tech game in the San Bernadino County Sun.

Interviewed for a 1997 story in the New York Daily News, Glick said of Robinson’s football skills, “He was so spectacular. In a game against Cal Tech, Robinson returned a kickoff 104 yards and collapsed in the end zone.” Added Hank Ives, longtime publisher of JC Grid-Wire and the foremost authority on Junior College football: “He must have run 200-plus yards. He reversed his field twice, running back and forth.”

Ives was born in Southern California in 1926, so perhaps he was at the game that night too. And yet…

Many of the biographies of Jackie Robinson mention his 104-yard touchdown run. Most note that it was a kickoff return. But not all. In his 1997 biography of Jackie Robinson, Arnold Rampersad wrote of that 39-6 win over Cal Tech: “In the next game, his last as a Bulldog, Jack said farewell with a masterpiece. Setting up behind his own goal line in punt formation, he gathered in the hiked ball, then raced 104 yards for a touchdown against a muddle of disbelieving Cal Tech players.”

UCLA
Jackie Robinson wore #28 while playing football at UCLA.
(Photo courtesy of John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball.)

That seems rather incredible. Perhaps even foolhardy, although no doubt the Pasadena team felt they could crush Cal Tech even if this gamble turned over the ball so close to their own goal line. And there’s a little corroborating evidence too. Jules Tygiel made no mention of it in his 1983 book The Great Experiment, but wrote of Robinson’s touchdown prowess in Pasadena in an article for the Los Angeles Times in 2006, “the last [came on] a 104-yard dash on a fake punt.”

At this point, it seems impossible to know for sure, but I’m leaning towards the fake punt rather than a kickoff return. If anyone knows of a detailed, first-hand account of the game, I’d love to see it.