Category Archives: Personal

Buck’s Battle Has Me Feeling Blue…

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.

Me in my days on the Blue Jays ground crew during Buck’s time playing in Toronto.

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.

The prize?

One dollar!

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.

Four generations of Zweig men circa 1964. (That’s me, The Little Prince, sitting on the table.) On the right side, the little guy in the cap is my father, seated beside my grandfather and his sister, my Aunt Monica. The guy standing at the back is family friend Louis Rosenberg. (This picture may have been taken at Maple Leaf Stadium.)

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!

Though Dan Diamond and Associates was mostly a hockey publisher, working on the Blue Jays 25th anniversary book was definitely my favourite project! This picture of Buck Martinez calling out Bill Caudill is one I particularly like.

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.

The Leafs in Owen Sound

Well, Hockey Day in Canada was supposed to be broadcast from Owen Sound 10 days from today on Saturday, January 29. Events were scheduled all around town from Tuesday to Friday leading up to it. Unfortunately, word came down two weeks ago that amid new provincial restrictions and a worsening surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations, it’s all been postponed until 2023. The day-long marathon broadcast will continue, but not from here.

I had provided research for the Owen Sound broadcast, about the city of Owen Sound and its hockey history for Hockey Day. I prepared notes on players from Owen Sound and its teams specific to the games to be broadcast, as well as general notes about events from the past, and local historians who might be able to speak to them.

There are several stories I would have loved to post on my web site, but I didn’t want to jump the gun on anything Rogers might choose to broadcast. Many will hold over until next year. Still, I’m posting this one now because, although it may well be something Rogers will still cover, there’s no way they’ll go into the quirky personal connection I have with this story.

When Rogers finally comes to Owen Sound for Hockey Day in Canada, it will probably be the biggest hockey circus to hit town since the fall of 1944 when the Toronto Maple Leafs held training camp here at the Civic Auditorium-Arena. (The Leafs would train in Owen Sound again in 1945.) I have long wondered how much the fact that Hap Day was from Owen Sound played a part in that decision. Day had been the Leafs’ captain from 1927 to 1937, and the coach since 1940. His Owen Sound roots couldn’t have hurt, but it was the mayor of the city who’d done the leg work to bring the Leafs here.

Talk of Toronto holding training camp in Owen Sound in 1944 had been rumoured around town since that spring, when Day and Leafs assistant general manager Frank Selke were the headline speakers at the local arena for a banquet held by the Owen Sound Hockey League on May 31, 1944. Mayor W. Garfield Case presided over the banquet, and after it was announced at a committee meeting of the City Council on September 8 that the Maple Leafs were coming to town, the Sun-Times newspaper reported the following day that Case “has been conducting negotiations with Maple Leafs management for some time regarding the team coming here to practice.”

These pictures of Hap Day and his “Kid Line” teammates hung on our walls in the Webster-Case House. Now I wonder if Hap Day might have really been there!

That’s where my connection to the story comes in.

When we moved to Owen Sound in the fall of 2006, we moved into the Webster-Case House, previously owned by former Owen Sound mayors William Webster and Garfield Case.

Wilfrid Garfield Case was mayor of Owen Sound from 1942 to 1944. In 1945, he defeated Canada’s Defense Minister, General Andrew McNaughton, in a bye-election called specifically to give McNaughton a seat in the House of Commons. McNaughton had been parachuted in by the Liberals, but was opposed by Case of the Progressive Conservatives, who campaigned on the slogan “Send a Grey North man to Ottawa, not an Ottawa man to Grey North” and whose pro-Conscription position carried the day over the Liberals and Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily Conscription” view. Campaign meetings were held in Case’s home. Our home.

Case was born on September 23, 1898, and enlisted in the Canadian army during World War I. He later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, but was discharged after being seriously wounded. He served Grey North as its Member of Parliament from 1945 to 1949, and was defeated again in the election of 1953.

Later, in July of 1959, Garfield Case was admitted to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto for psychiatric treatment. I remember someone telling us that Case had killed himself in a store in downtown Owen Sound. Turns out, that’s not true. He was actually found dead on September 22, 1959, in the chapel at Sunnybrook Hospital … though he had killed himself.

A neighbour told us that Case haunted our house, but that he was a friendly spirit.

A couple of people even told us they had seen the ghost.

We never had any spooky experiences!

But getting back to the Maple Leafs… when the announcement of their coming to Owen Sound was made at the City Council meeting, Alderman Jean Honsinger had suggested that “perhaps it will bring them a change of luck.” After all, the Maple Leafs had experienced two straight first-round playoff defeats since last winning the Stanley Cup … all the way back in 1942!

Most of the team arrived in Owen Sound by train from Toronto on the afternoon of October 10, 1944. Others would trickle in over the next few days. The players were put up in a couple of hotels around town, had access to a local gym, held practice in the Arena, and played golf on a local course. Coach Day, trainer Tim Daly, star player Babe Pratt and a few others took part in a radio broadcast on CFOS on Friday night, October 20 from the Paterson House hotel, where most of the team was staying. During their two weeks in Owen Sound, the presence of Toronto’s NHL stars gave the Sun-Times something else to report on other than the War news that filled almost every other page.

The Leafs played just one preseason game in Owen Sound on October 23, 1944. It was an inter-squad game featuring a Blue team against White. The Blues won the game before an overflow crowd while a storm raged outside. “From the windows could be seen flashes of brilliant lightning,” the Sun-Times reported the following day, “and during lulls in the cheering could be heard peals of thunder and the sound of [heavy rain] pouring on the roof.”

The Leaf packed up on October 24, moving to St. Catharines, where they played another Blue and White game that night before kicking off the season against the New York Rangers at Maple Leaf Gardens on October 28. “Well, the Maple Leaf hockeyists are gone,” wrote Joe O’Neill in a Casual Comment on Sport column in the Sun-Times on October 25, “and the fans in particular feel just a bit lonesome.”

During the time the Leafs had been in Owen Sound, “all of them from the coach to the least rookie, whenever one met them, proved themselves gentlemen of the highest type. They made for themselves a warm spot in the estimation of the people of this city and they will always be welcome…. Fans will follow their battles in the hockey wars with greater interest now that they have come into contact with them and know them.”

The biggest stories out of the Owen Sound camp were the appearance of the three Chin brothers from a Chinese family in nearby Lucknow, and the emergence of goalie Frank McCool. (With Turk Broda in the Army, the Leafs had stuggled to get decent goaltending the previous season.) McCool had played hockey with the Currie Army team in his hometown of Calgary in 1942-43 until ulcers forced his discharge from the Forces, and had sat out the 1943–44 season when the Rangers were scared off by his stomach troubles. He made his NHL debut with Toronto in the season opener in 1944 one day after his 26th birthday. McCool went on to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 1944–45 and, guzzling buttermilk to calm his ulcers during the Stanley Cup Final, led the Maple Leafs to that long-awaited NHL championship.

Photo courtesy of the Society for International Hockey Research.

“If I were to single any one for individual praise I would have to say that of all the team, McCool has come farthest since Owen Sound,” said Hap Day after the Leafs’ seventh-game victory over the Red Wings on April 22, 1945. “At Detroit last night when it was all over McCool came up to me and said, ‘Thanks, coach, for sticking with me.’ I think of all the boys, he got the greatest kick out of achieving Stanley Cup eminence in his rookie year.”

For Frank McCool, the end of the 1945 Stanley Cup Final was the end of his Cinderella story. He was slow to come to terms the next season (holding out for a $5,000 contract) and lost his Leafs job when Turk Broda returned from the army late in the schedule. McCool’s name would pop up in rumours for the next few years, but he never played hockey again. He returned to Calgary, where he would work for the Albertan newspaper and serve on many city boards for the rest of his life. McCool was only 54 years old when he passed away on May 20, 1973. His stomach cancer was said to have been related to his lifelong battle with ulcers.

Renfrew’s Thousandaires

I’ll admit that I was pleased with myself when I found that Merry Christmas/Happy New Year clipping I used in my year-end Holiday story three weeks ago. I’d found similar (ish) clippings to use for holiday stories in 2017 and 2019, but this one was fun because of the personal connections…

Similar to what I said in a story I posted about Lester Patrick last summer, any chance to poke around in the history of the Renfrew Millionaires is always fun for me because they were the team featured in my first book, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada. Really, so much of whatever I have accomplished/become in my “career” since that book came out in 1992 is attributable to the Millionaires. Probably no one since Bill O’Brien some 80 to 100 years ago has owed as much as I do to that legendary Renfrew team. (No idea who Bill O’Brien is? Check out the note and the end of this story.)

And, really, how can you ever go wrong with Sprague and Odie Cleghorn?

A mug from my brother Jonathan on the publication of my first book. He also cropped my early 1990s head onto the image of a 1909-10 Newsy Lalonde hockey card. (It’s not his fault no one on an old hockey card would have smiled like that!)

I’m sure I’d have hated them as hockey players. I’ve never been a big fan of the violence in the game, and they — especially Sprague — may have been the dirtiest players ever. Still, their names are just so much fun to say! My cat, Odie, was even named after the younger of the two Cleghorn brothers.

As it happens, I have a story about Sprague and Odie Cleghorn in the 2021 Hockey Research Journal of the Society for International Research which recently became available to members online. It’s about their season playing hockey in New York City during the winter of 1909-10. The brothers were from Montreal, but even Canada’s largest city was no match for The Big Apple, and the Cleghorns lived large once they got to Broadway! By season’s end, New York newspapers would accuse them of having too much fun to bother with practice and — although Odie led the league in scoring — blamed their lack of conditioning for their fondness for on-ice mayhem.

For his part, Sprague wasn’t impressed by the calibre of hockey played in America’s largest city, and, a year later, the brothers had no plans to play there again. So they had been receptive when George Martel of the Millionaires came to Montreal to woo them for the 1910-11 season.

From the first installment of his four-part Maclean’s feature; November 15, 1934.

“There couldn’t have been a bigger contrast in a world cruise than New York the winter before and Renfrew that winter,” Sprague would say in Maclean’s magazine on December 1, 1934, in the second of a four-part series on his life, “but once we settled down we liked the place.”

That had not been his first impression!

After signing their contracts in late December of 1910, Odie reported directly to Renfrew. Sprague “wanted a final whirl at Broadway, and … took the few dimes I had saved during the summer and spent them strutting my stuff among my New York friends.

“It was a bitter cold night … when I dropped off the train at Renfrew. I was wearing a light overcoat. Odie met me, peeking out over the top of a bale of sweaters…. I shivered and looked around. There was nothing to see but darkness.

“‘Good gosh!’ I said. ‘What is this?’

“My brother has a mean sense of humour. ‘This,’ he told me, ‘is Renfrew.’

“We walked out of the station to the cutter which Odie had borrowed…. I couldn’t see a house in sight, and I had just left Broadway and my ears were beginning to nip.

“‘I don’t think we’re going to like it here,’ I said.

“For twelve hundred dollars, we gotta like it,’ my brother told me.”

Hockey cards from the winter of 1910-11. (I have replicas of this set.)

Sprague makes it clear that he and Odie were paid $1,200 apiece for the three months that constituted the 1910-11 hockey season. At a time when a working man might only earn half that amount for an entire year, this was a lot of money. It was a lot for a hockey player that season too, given that, after team owners had spent so freely the previous winter, the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) had imposed a salary cap of $5,000 per team (!!!) for 1910–11.

For comparison’s sake, it has long been said that the Renfrew Millionaires had spent $5,000 or more just to lure Cyclone Taylor to town from the Stanley Cup champion Ottawa Senators for the 1909–10 season. Sprague Cleghorn certainly though it was true. The thing that he liked most about Renfrew, he said, was that, “the men behind the club believed that money was for spending – and they spent it.”

“The story,” wrote Sprague, “is that M.J. O’Brien [no relation to Bill O’Brien], paid $5,000 for Cyclone Taylor’s jump from Ottawa. I never saw the documents, but if Renfrew wanted Taylor and Taylor wanted $5,000, that is what was paid.” In his own MacLean’s profile a few years earlier in 1931, Bill O’Brien had also stated that Taylor signed in Renfrew for $5,000.

But had he?

It seems to be well-recorded in hockey history that Renfrew paid Lester Patrick $3,000 for the 1909-10 season. It was more money, he would write, than he thought possible for playing hockey. Though some stories would say that his brother Frank received $3,000 as well, Lester wrote that his younger sibling received only $2,000.

I bought these two original 1909-10 hockey cards back in 1992 because of
their connection to my first book, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada.

Interestingly, the Renfrew Mercury of March 25, 1910, quotes an Ottawa story dated March 19 about how “all the members of the millionaire septet were paid off” before the team made a postseason trip to New York. Claiming the total salaries paid came to $18,000, the paper noted: “Lester Patrick was the highest paid player of the team, he drawing $2,700 and expenses… Frank Patrick and Fred Taylor got $2,000 apiece.”

So what had Taylor actually been paid?

Renfrew’s negotiations for Cyclone Taylor (and many other players) made news in papers all across Canada in December of 1909. It wasn’t very different from the stories about free agents in sports we see today. In its December 4 issue, the Montreal Gazette reported that Taylor had been offered the captaincy in Renfrew (which would go to Lester Patrick, who signed with the team and reported to town sooner than Taylor) and a contract for $2,000 plus an off-ice job valued at $1,200.

Two weeks later, on December 18, the Montreal Star joked that, “At the rate of $3,000 per [player], Renfrew must be glad that there are only seven men on a hockey team.” Yet the reports that day that Taylor had agreed to terms would prove false. When he finally did sign with Renfrew, it rated front-page news in Ottawa on December 29, 1909, in both the Citizen and the Journal. But neither paper reported on the value of the contract. Strangely, the Edmonton Journal of December 30 (with a story datelined from Ottawa the previous day), did.

“After several weeks of persistent dickering with Taylor, the Renfrew promotors landed him. Taylor left last night for Renfrew, where he will play this season. His salary is said to be even better than the famous Lester Patrick. Taylor will receive $3,000 for his hockey salary and a steady position at $1,200 per year.”

Front-page stories from the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Journal
surround the newsier report from the Edmonton Journal the following day.

If that was true, then were does the talk of $5,000 come from?

The earliest reference I have found is in the Winnipeg Tribune from April 16, 1913. Taylor had just spent the 1912-13 season playing in Frank and Lester Patrick’s Pacific Coast Hockey Association (which they had formed in 1911–12) as a member of Frank’s Vancouver Millionaires. In a story (once again datelined from Ottawa the previous day) reporting that Taylor had decided to stay in Vancouver, it was noted that after winning the Stanley Cup in Ottawa in 1909, the Cyclone “was carried off by Renfrew” the following season “at a record breaking salary” said to be “$5,000 for two years service as a member of the Renfrew team.”

That would be only $2,500 per year … but a story on December 15, 1913, in the Brantford Expositor of all places, tells things very differently. A column headlined SPORTING COMMENT and written by someone identified as DOPESTER, reads:

“It is said that Cyclone Taylor got … $11,000 from the Renfrew hockey club during the two seasons he remained with them. A hockey fan who was on the inside in those days tells how Cyc worked the trick…. [He] was offered a contract for $3,000 by the creamery town and accepted; that is ancient history. For the next season the Ottawas were after him hot foot and the Renfrew bunch had to add a job, guaranteed to bring the Cyclone $5,000 a year. Taylor had the money deposited to his credit in a certain bank with the stipulation that he get it if the job was not forthcoming. Certain members of the Ottawa hockey club got busy and blocked the job part of the contract and the Cyclone, although he had a hard time, managed to collect his $5,000 from the bank. This is the way the story goes. Whether it is true or not only the Renfrew executive, Fred Taylor, and a couple of the Ottawa executive men know, and they probably wouldn’t tell.”

So, which story is true? Did Taylor make $2,500 a year for two years in Renfrew to reach the $5,000? Did he have a one-year contract for $3,000 plus a job paying him $1,200 for a total of only $4,200? Or did he actually make $3,000 per year for his two years in Renfrew, plus another $5,000 for the job he didn’t get?

It’s pretty much impossible to tell!

And what of the stories I haven’t even mentioned yet? That Taylor actually earned $5,250 during his first season in Renfrew in 1909–10? Where do those stories come from?

It appears those stories began in columns by Eric Whitehead in the Vancouver Province in the mid 1950s. Whitehead knew Taylor, and would write Cyclone Taylor: a Hockey Legend with him in 1977. In that biography/autobiography, Whitehead writes of the $3,000 contract offers “plus a soft job at $1,200 a year,” but states emphatically that Taylor signed for the sum of $5,250 which was deposited directly into his bank account before the start of play. Taylor told Whitehead that a friend, Jack McGinnis, did his negotiating and came up with the number, “although I don’t recall how he arrived at that particular figure.” Taylor also says that, “if I’d held out, I could have got a lot more money. They would have paid almost anything to get me, and they said so.”

Back in 1959, on a visit to his hometown of Tara, Ontario, not far from Owen Sound, Taylor spoke about his $5,250 contract for the 1909-10 season. Pictures of him appear on the front page of The Owen Sound Sun-Times on February 24, 1959, and in a story on page three, Taylor “ruefully admits his salary for succeeding seasons dropped considerably.”

The earliest reference to Cyclone Taylor being paid $5,250 that I could find for this story came from Eric Whitehead’s column in the Vancouver Province on April 23, 1953.

It has seemed to me over the years that Taylor (or maybe Eric Whitehead) didn’t always get his stories right … but that much, at least, is true! Taylor never got that kind of money for playing hockey ever again.

When talk of the new salary cap dominated Canadian sports pages in November and December of 1910, much was made of what Renfrew would do. Having spent those $18,000 for an exciting team that had still finished behind Ottawa and the Montreal Wanderers in the race for the Stanley Cup, what kind of team would they have now for just $5,000? Neither Frank nor Lester Patrick would return, nor would other future Hall of Famers Newsy Lalonde and Fred Whitcroft. Taylor, it was said then, was still under contract from the previous season that called for him to be paid $1,800 this year.

Where does that number come from?

I’m not sure!

Still, assuming that Cyclone Taylor was paid $1,800 by Renfrew for the 1910-11 season, and that Sprague and Odie Cleghorn earned $1,200 a piece, that’s $4,200 of the $5,000 salary cap for just three players. In this era of 60-minute men, Renfrew really only needed seven regular players, but they employed 13 in all that season.

Did they pay 10 other men just $800 in total?

Probably not.

There are plenty of stories from the 1911-12 season saying that while the salary cap was still on the books, teams would likely ignore it as they had done in 1910-11. So Renfrew might have spent more. But there were also plenty of stories back in the fall of 1910 saying that a few of the Renfrew veterans (Larry Gilmour, Bobby Rowe, Herb Jordan and Bert Lindsay – the father of Ted Lindsay) were willing to stick around again for other considerations … which were likely offers of better off-ice employment in town.

Sort of puts a different twist on the “hometown discount” we hear about in sports these days, doesn’t it…

And as for Bill O’Brien, mentioned at the beginning of this story … he was a longtime sports trainer who worked for years with the Montreal Maroons and Montreal Canadiens in hockey, the Montreal Royals in baseball, and even a season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, between 1924 and his death at the age of 58 in 1944. Born in Papineauville, Quebec, in 1886, he arrived in Renfrew with his railway contractor father in the early 1900s. Around 1904 (although he says it was when he was 16 years old, so maybe 1902 if his birth year is correct), he became the trainer of the Renfrew team in the Ottawa Valley league. After spending the 1909-10 and 1910-11 seasons working with the Millionaires, he then worked for teams in Ottawa and around the Ottawa Valley for a couple of years before winding up in Montreal during World War I. He trained hockey and soccer teams for the companies he worked with until joining the Maroons when they entered the NHL in 1924. But, like me, it all started for O’Brien with Renfrew.

(P.S. Bill O’Brien was also the father of sportswriter Andy O’Brien, who was born in Renfrew.)

Happy (Hockey) Holidays!

Late in December, the Cleghorn brothers did sign with Renfrew for the 1910-11 season of the National Hockey Association. Reportedly (according to Sprague Cleghorn in 1934), for $1,200 apiece. So, if it wasn’t a Merry Christmas, it was a Happy New Year.

Despite everything that’s going on again (still?), I hope you get/got everything you really need this holiday season. All the best to everyone in 2022, and thanks for reading these posts again this year.

Hometown Hockey in Oro-Medonte

Our family has had a cottage near Oro Station, on the shores of Lake Simcoe, at the foot of Oro Line 7, since the summer of 1970. (It’s Oro-Medonte Line 7 now. Has been for quite a while. But I still think of it under the old name.) About a month ago, when Rogers Hometown Hockey announced that the Township of Oro-Medonte would be the host site for the fourth broadcast of the season on November 8 (two days ago), I sent Ron MacLean a picture that my mother had taken of my brothers, our father, our dog Grover, and me playing hockey on the lake circa 1974.

“Beautiful!!” replied Ron, who also said that he could “use some Intel on that stop,” if I had any thoughts. “Will send our research in 2 weeks,” he added, “but if you find a nugget, don’t hesitate.”

Just the sort of challenge I enjoy a little too much! So, I went to a few of the newspaper sites I like to use and entered the search terms “Oro Township” and “Hockey” to see what turned up. A few interesting items did…

Among the first was the story of an Oro girls team playing for the championship of the B division in the 1962 all-Ontario girls hockey tournament. (Oro lost to Cannington; Don Mills beat out the hosts from Alliston to win the A series for the second straight year.)

I also learned that there had been an Oro Township Hockey League from as early as 1923 until at least 1939. A story datelined from Barrie on March 10, 1923, appeared two days later in The Globe from Toronto telling of how East Oro had defeated Oro Station 3–2 for the championship of Oro Township and the honor of being the first holders of the Drury Cup, donated by Ontario premier E.C. Drury. (Edward Charles Drury was from the area and, as the leader of the United Farmers of Ontario, he served as the province’s eighth premier from 1919 to 1923.)

Clipping from The Globe. Photograph from The Story of Oro (1972, 1987).

Another fun story I found was that of the Leigh family of Hawkestone (at Oro Line 11). Apparently, nine of the 11 members of the Hawkestone Hawks, who went undefeated in the Oro Township Hockey League for four straight seasons from 1936 through 1939, were Leigh family brothers or cousins!

Clipping from the Windsor Star on April 19, 1939.
(The Hawkestone team had fewer Leighs in 1927!)

But the story that intrigued me most was from The Globe and Mail on February 10, 1950. It was a small note about a bantam phenom (age 12) named Bob Garner of Oro Township “who scored 10 goals in a 15–0 win over Coldwater last week.” The writer advised that hockey scouts had better look him up.

As I wrote to Ron when I sent him the clippings, “When I was a kid, we used to get a lot of our hockey gear at Garner Sports in Barrie. It’s closed now. Don’t know if it’s the same family, but I like the chances!”

I did a Google search for Garner Sports and found a story from 2007 on the web site of Donna Douglas, a veteran Barrie journalist and communications consultant. From Donna’s story, I learned that Garner Sports had been founded by Bill Garner, a big name in Barrie sports, in 1931. It was later run by his son Jack (who would have been running it when we used to shop there in the 1970s) and then by his son, John. It would turn out that Bob was a part of that same Garner family (Bill’s son, and John’s brother), but that he never worked in the store.

Bob Garner with the Weston Dukes in 1951 and relaxing at home 70 years later.

I learned from Donna via email that the Garner family was from Shanty Bay (at Oro Line 2) and that there were 10 children in the family. (I believe that Bob later told me there were actually 11 children.) Donna didn’t know of Bob, but posted a query from me on a Facebook group for people who’d grown up in Barrie. Soon enough, I heard from Stew Garner, Bob’s son, who put me in touch with his father. Bob and I conversed by phone, email and by text over the next few days, and he told me some great stories about growing up in Oro and about his hockey career.

Like me (only probably a lot moreso), Bob played hockey with his family on Lake Simcoe while growing up. As a boy playing on Kempenfelt Bay, he told me that “on a clear day, it felt like you could have a breakaway and skate all the way to Brechin!”

The only indoor rink he remembers while growing up in Oro was in Guthrie at Oro Line 4. (The current rink there is the third or fourth to stand on the same site. The original was built in 1922 and opened in 1923, but was destroyed by a tornado in 1934. The rink Bob played in opened in 1937 – the same year he was born.) “It was great to play there, but you didn’t want to be the first to arrive [at six o’clock] in the morning,” he says. “You’d have to light the fire in the stove to warm the place!”

Bob doesn’t remember scoring those 10 goals against Coldwater in the bantam game for Oro back in 1950 … but he told me he scored even more goals in other games. NHL scouts may not have noticed him right away, but a few of them would soon enough.

The first indoor Oro arena at Guthrie.

Just a few days later, on Saturday, February 18, 1950, Bob played at Maple Leaf Gardens with a Barrie peewee team at what The Globe and Mail called “the Inter-Suburban Athletic Association’s second annual elimination tournament for under-13 hockeyists.” Teams included Weston, Barrie, Pape Playground, Leaside, York Township, Forest Hill, Brampton, Bowmanville, Cooksville and East York. Bob led Barrie to the finals, where they lost to Weston. According to the newspaper stories, he scored seven of his team’s eight goals in the three games they played.

The 1950 tournament was held in front of a “three-man board of judges composed of [NHL scouts] Bob Davidson, Harold Cotton and Reg Hamilton.” Bob tells me he kept in touch with Davidson for many years, but since Barrie was considered Boston Bruins territory because the Bruins sponsored the Junior A Barrie Flyers, Baldy Cotton spoke with Bob and told him that Boston was putting him on their negotiation list. “They could control players as young as 12,” Bob says, “and guys didn’t even know they were on the list.”

The Guthrie Arena after the tornado.

In 1951–52, Bob left home to joined the Weston Dukes in the Toronto suburbs. He was only 14 years old, and the Globe says he was the youngest person playing Junior B hockey in all of Ontario. Weston was a Toronto Marlboros farm team and therefore part of the Maple Leafs system. Future Leafs Billy Harris, Bob Baun and Kent Douglas, as well as a couple of other NHL players, were among this teammates over the next couple of years.

Bob told me that Hap Emms (who owned and operated the Barrie Flyers) must have traded his rights to Toronto … but I found a newspaper clipping in the Globe from January 7, 1953, where Emms accused Stafford Smythe and the Marlboros of stealing Bob Garner and Dave Sanderson out of Barrie. (Bob found that interesting!) He played six games with the Marlboros in Junior A during the 1953–54 season, but by that fall Emms had signed Bob away from the Marlboros and brought him back to Barrie.

After playing briefly with the Flyers in 1954–55, Bob spent most of that season and the next playing Junior B with the Brampton Regents. Bob says it was Rudy Pilous who brought him to Brampton … but I don’t know what Pilous’s connection to Brampton was. (Brampton may have been a Junior B affiliate of either the St. Catharines Junior A team or the Buffalo Bisons of the AHL. Or both.)

Bob says a big reason why Stafford Smythe got rid of him (and perhaps why Emms did too) was because he got married at the age of 16! That’s partly why he feels he never got a chance to play in the NHL. Also, he wasn’t all that interested in professional hockey because the money was terrible at that time. He had a job with the appliance company Moffat back then, and later worked as a dealer for another appliance company.

Bob continued playing intermediate and senior hockey around Barrie until the late 1960s. He played for Barrie teams in OHA intermediate and senior Georgian Bay circuits with teams in Collingwood, Midland and Orillia. There were a lot of former NHL players in those leagues too. Harry Lumley is probably the biggest name. Cal Gardner is another. Ivan Irwin, Bob Hassard, Ray Gariepy and Gerry McNamara too. “It was very competitive,” Bob remembers, “but fun.”

After hockey, Bob became a stockbroker in Toronto for many years. He’s now retired and living in Orillia. I’m glad he got to enjoy a brief moment of hockey fame all these years later (it was more like 15 seconds than 15 minutes!) when Ron MacLean mentioned him on the broadcast on Monday night.

Bob and I both enjoyed our correspondence over the last couple of weeks, and we look forward to meeting each other in person one of these days.

…it Happens

Though I’ve mostly enjoyed it (and managed to do pretty well for myself), writing books can be a very strange way to try and make a living. Remember how I was supposed to have two new books coming out this fall? (I’ve mentioned it here a time or two, I believe!) Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories and Engraved in History about the 1907 Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles. Remember those? Well, both books have now been postponed.

As Forrest Gump said while he was running across America (supposedly inspiring a somewhat ruder version on a bumper sticker), “…it Happens.”

The Kenora book was actually a tactical decision, and it’ll be just a short delay. With so many other hockey books due out this fall (as always), including new books about the Dawson City Stanley Cup challenge of 1905, and the history of pro hockey in Victoria from 1911 to 1926, publisher Rick Brignall thought it best to try and avoid this book getting lost in the crowd.

Obviously, this book is something of a niche interest, and the people in Kenora and Winnipeg and the scattering of really old-time hockey fans elsewhere who’ll (hopefully!) want to buy it will buy it whenever it comes out. So, it’s being pushed into late January of 2022, which will coincide with the 115th anniversary of Kenora’s Stanley Cup victory. But hey, if you were counting on Engraved in History as a present for the holidays, it is hoped it will be available for pre-order in November.

I’ll keep you posted.

As for True Stories … with the job shortages and interruption in the “chain of production” we keep hearing about in this not-quite-yet-post-COVID world, even though we met all of the deadlines on a very tight timeline, once the manuscript was sent to the printers, they told Firefly Books there was no way they could have it ready for November of 2021, and likely not until at least late January of 2022. Since this book was very much conceived as a gift book for your father/brother/uncle/grandpa at Christmas or Hanukkah, Firefly decided to hold it back until the fall of 2022.

It’s hardly the life-and-death issue so many other people have faced around the world for the past 18 months, so for someone who’s basically felt like he’s breezed through most of this Pandemic, it’s pretty hard to complain.

Besides, what can you do?

Even without COVID, publishing can be a strange industry. Remember, two years ago, when I wrote about J.T. Haxall kicking a 65-yard field goal back in 1882? At the time, I mentioned that I’d come across the story while working on a football book for National Geographic Kids. That book (It’s a Numbers Game! Football) was originally supposed to be published in the fall of 2020. Well, long before that — and completely unrelated to COVID — I was told that due to corporate restructuring at National Geographic, it was being bumped all the way to the spring of 2022!

So, over the past two years, this book has come back to me twice for updates from the 2019 and 2020 football seasons. Just yesterday it was returned to me one final time for my last notes and comments. (Sadly, the spring publishing date means there won’t be time for a final update after the current NFL season, which won’t end until about six weeks before this book should finally come out, but at least we’ll be able to add the record-breaking 66-yard field goal from this weekend.)

Again, what can you do?

At least I’ve been paid for the work on all three books (though I am still waiting for the final checks from Firefly) … and I do still have one new book that’s due in stores any day now. Hockey Hall of Fame Heroes: Scorers, Goalies and Defensemen is also from Firefly, and is the second edition (with updates and new players) of a book that was first published by them five years ago. If you’ve got a hockey fans around the ages of 9 to 12 years old, this would be a good one for them.

Speaking of younger hockey fans, right now I’m working on the fifth book in the Hockey Trivia For Kids series for Scholastic Canada. This one will also come out in the fall of 2022 but is due at the publisher this November 1 … a full 30 days earlier than any of the four previous books (which didn’t have to be delivered until mid December when I wrote the first one back in 2005). This time, COVID is the culprit again, with Scholastic worried about the chain-of-production delays brought about by the Pandemic.

What else can I say except, “… it Happens.”

Famous Jewish Sports Legends…

I haven’t posted anything since March. I’d been pretty busy until recently. In February, I started conversations with Firefly Books (for whom I’ve written several) about something new for their Hockey Hall of Fame series. They wanted something less stats-driven than most of their recent books … and they wanted it fast! So, in early March, I started writing and I delivered a lengthy manuscript at the end of April. It was quite the crunch.

The new book is called Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories. It’ll be out in November. And it’ll be a lot like the stories I post here. Some are actually re-writes of stories I’ve already posted. Many of the new ones would make great posts too … except it seems silly to “scoop” the book at this point. I’m sure you’ll hear more about this from me in the fall.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing about this story that’s so compelling I had to write it now, but I don’t like to stay away too long, and I thought it was sort of interesting since it demonstrates the twists and turns my research (I’m sure lots of people’s research!) often take. Also, I recently discovered that May is Canadian Jewish Heritage Month in Canada. So, there’s that too.

Martin Rosenthal as he appeared in the “Silver Seven” Stanley Cup photo circa 1904.

I rarely write about anything Jewish — although the very first thing I ever had published was a story about shtetl life that I wrote in my grade six religious school class and was printed in the Temple Har Zion bulletin. And just last week, I said to a few different people that I think I care less about Jews in sports than many other Jewish sports fans. But, I do like history, so I’ve long been aware of Martin Rosenthal and his role as an executive with the Ottawa Hockey Club from about 1901 until 1918.

The Rosenthal family, I’m told by my colleague Irv Osterer of Ottawa, was a pioneering Ottawa Jewish family. Aaron Rosenthal, Martin’s father, was born in Germany circa 1835. Aaron’s wife, the former Bertha Lehman, was also German, born in 1850. According to Aaron’s obituary in 1909, he spent much of his young life in Australia, India, and other countries. Martin was born in 1873 in Kent, England. Genealogical records show the family arrived in Quebec City on June 21, 1874. After settling in Montreal, the Rosenthals came to Ottawa around 1878.

Aaron Rosenthal was a jeweller, and several of his sons followed him into the business. In addition to the Jewish causes Aaron and Bertha supported (or created) in Ottawa, the family was very sports-minded too. Martin and his older brothers, Harry and Samuel, all played hockey at a fairly high level. And the family business supplied club pins to many Ottawa sports organizations too. After Martin got involved in management with the hockey team soon to be known as the “Silver Seven,” tickets to games were often sold through the Rosenthal business, and the Stanley Cup was sometimes displayed in the store window. (The building still exists, as the Birks Building, in Ottawa’s downtown Sparks Street Mall.)

From the Ottawa Citizen on August 3, 1900.

In doing my brief research on Rosenthal, I discovered that Martin didn’t seem to be very Jewish by the end of his life. His children had married outside the faith, his funeral was handled by a non-Jewish funeral home, he was buried in the Beechwood cemetery … and the service was officiated by a reverend. His obviously non-Jewish funeral, in fact, caused me to wonder if maybe the Rosenthal family wasn’t Jewish, but only German, and launched me into my brief genealogical search.

Clearly, the Rosenthal family WAS Jewish. Aaron and Bertha had very strong ties to Jewish life in Ottawa. But Martin definitely shared fewer and fewer of those ties over the years.

Martin Rosenthal’s parents from newspaper stories at the times of their deaths.

In the the Canadian censuses in 1881, 1891, and 1901, when Martin Rosenthal still lived with his parents, the family is recorded as “Hebrew” or “Jewish.” By 1911, he’s married and has started a family of his own. The listing is tricky to find because the name has been transcribed incorrectly, but Martin, his wife, Mary, and son, Lionel, are all listed as Jewish. In 1921, Martin, Mary, Lionel, a daughter named Phyllis, and another son named Malcolm, all have “Jewish” listed as their religion … but for everyone except Martin, it’s been crossed out.

Sections of the Rosenthal entry from the 1921 Canadian census.

When Mary died two years later in 1923 (at about 52 years of age), her funeral service was conducted by Reverend T.E. Holling of St. Paul’s Methodist church. So, were Mary Belle Rosenthal (nee Adams) and her children every really Jewish?



But I don’t know.

The Marriage record of Martin Rosenthal and Mary Adams. Perhaps she took Ruth as her Hebrew name if she did actually convert? (Religious denominations for the bride aren’t filled out for any of the three women married by Solomon Jacobs on this page.)

As you can see above, Mary Adams married Martin Rosenthal on October 10, 1905. They were wed in Toronto, and the record shows the marriage was performed by Solomon Jacobs. Though that name meant nothing to me, I do know that even now, it’s hard to find a rabbi to perform the ceremony for a “mixed marriage.” Solomon Jacobs certainly sounded like a Jewish name. But was he a rabbi?

He most certainly was!

British-born, and a rabbi to the once-flourishing Jewish community in Jamaica for 15 years, Solomon Jacobs became the rabbi at Holy Blossom synagogue in Toronto in 1901 and served until his death in 1920.

Because Rabbi Jacobs spoke English so well (I suppose most other Toronto rabbis at the time were from Eastern Europe and probably spoke Yiddish as their first language), he was often called on when newspapers were looking for the Jewish perspective on issues in Toronto. He seems to have been quite liberal in his views, but was able to keep the peace between older, Orthodox members of Holy Blossom and the younger Toronto Jews who would later push the synagogue toward the Reform movement.

Rabbi Solomon Jacobs.

Rabbi Jacobs seems like a fascinating guy. (Google him if you care to!) Still, he doesn’t strike me as someone who would have performed the marriage of Martin Rosenthal and Mary Adams unless she had converted to Judaism. But I don’t know that.

Still, for me, the connection (albeit brief) of Martin Rosenthal to Holy Blossom was particularly interesting. My family has a very long affiliation with that synagogue. On my father’s side, my Zweig grandparents were deeply involved there for years and years, and on my mother’s side, several of my Freedman and Rosen aunts, uncles, and cousins, are still members to this day. My earliest Jewish life began at Holy Blossom with Rabbi Gunther Plaut and then Rabbi Michael Stroh, a friend of my parents who presided over some of my first “lifecycle” events at Holy Blossom before moving to Har Zion, where he later performed the ceremonies at my bar mitzvah, my wedding, my father’s funeral, and many other family events as well.

So, in a strange way (and even though he seems to have fallen much further from the faith than I ever have or likely will), all of this feels like it has given my a bit of a “six degrees of separation” connection to Martin Rosenthal, and therefore to the Ottawa Silver Seven … which is kind of neat for someone like me.

This is the new book that will be out in November. One of three I’ve got due in the fall!

(Oh, and the title of this story… It’s a bit of a joke based on the leaflet handed out to the old woman in the movie Airplane! when she asked if there was something light to read…)

My Friend Art

As with many writers, I haven’t gotten rich doing what I do. But, I have (mostly) been able to earn a living doing something I enjoy. There’s a lot to be said for that. And even if I haven’t exactly made a fortune during all these years, I’ve met a lot of interesting people. Not surprisingly, most of the famous people I’ve met through my work have been athletes and media personalities. But it’s not just the famous people who are memorable.

Far from it.

As many of you known, I worked for 10 years on my biography, Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins. Now, 10 years of working on a book is not exactly like 10 years of working in a coal mine! And it’s not as if I worked on it every day during those 10 years. But it was never very far from my mind. By publishing standards, the book was decidedly not a success … but I would never trade the friendships I made with the family of Art Ross.

Art Ross III — grandson of the hockey legend, and my good friend — died last week.

(Because of the times we’re living in, I guess I need to say that COVID-19 was not a factor.)

It was more by good luck than good management, but it was
perfectly fitting that Art received the very first copy of the book.

My father died several years before I met Art, and though he was never very comfortable with the idea the few times I’d mentioned it, he became a sort of father-figure to me. Especially after leaving Toronto for Owen Sound. In addition to sharing our research discoveries, I would often get in touch with Art just to say hello, or to moan about flooded basements, or roof repairs — the things about home ownership that always terrified me!

Not that I expected him to do anything about it, but his calming manner always helped.

I was never sure if Art’s discomfort with the father-figure idea was simply because he looked at us more as contemporaries, trying to figure out the stories in his family on the ice and off. Or if it was because of his strained relationship he’d had with his father, and his estrangement from his own son, which only ended a couple of years ago. (It’s a very odd thing that there have been at least five generations of father-son fallouts in the Ross family, going all the way back to the father of the “hockey” Art Ross; and probably extending to a sixth generation with “hockey” Art’s own father and grandfather.)

The young man in the photo is “My” Art. He is seated beside his grandfather,
Art Ross. Standing behind him is his Uncle John, Art Ross’s other son.

“My” Art Ross is how I often refer to Art when speaking about him with others. That was to differentiate him from his grandfather, Arthur Howey Ross, the hockey legend I wrote about, and from “My” Art’s own father, Arthur Stuart Ross. (“My” Art is, technically, Arthur Stuart Ross Jr.) He was actually the second family member I was in touch with when I first thought about writing my book back in 2005.

Among the very first people I had mentioned my idea to was Phil Pritchard from the Hockey Hall of Fame. Though he never acts like it, I’ve often heard that Phil knows EVERYONE. He told me that one of Art Ross’s granddaughters had introduced herself when she had been to the Hall a few years before, and that he had an email address for her. I wrote to Victoria Ross on September 28, 2005. When she wrote back a few days later, she said that she would love to talk … and that she would also forward my email on to her brother.

When Victoria and I spoke on the phone for the first time on October 20, 2005, she mentioned that her brother was the family genealogist and the one I should really be talking to. Art and I were in touch by email a few days later. And after that … boy, did we talk!

Me, enjoying an old family scrapbook on a visit to Art and Kathy in Tennessee.

Art and I were probably in contact every few days, often many times a day, until the book was published 10 years later. That was more than five years ago now, and really, it was only the confusion and memory issues brought on by his increasing struggles with Parkinson’s Disease the last two years that finally slowed us down.

In the beginning, I suppose we both wanted something from this relationship. I wanted the stories he was willing to share; he wanted those stories to be told. But we bonded almost immediately over, I suppose, a love of history, telling stories … and getting those stories right! (I’ve written before about the Art Ross birthday battles, and the old divorce hiding in the family tree.) Both Art and his wife, Kathy, and me and my late wife Barbara, love(d) history and books and movies. (Barbara and I may or may not have had more movies in our old collection, but Art and Kathy probably had even more books than we did!)

Over all those years, Art and I mainly “spoke” to each other via email; sometimes on the phone; and occasionally by text. (Texts especially when the Blue Jays were playing the Red Sox, or the Leafs and Bruins were hooked up in the playoffs.) Barbara and I also visited Art and Kathy a few times at their homes in Tennessee and Maine. They hosted a lovely party for us, along with several other Ross relatives, in Maine when the book came out in 2015.

Art and Kathy and Me and Barbara at the party in Maine in 2015.

It’s strange for me to realize as I write this that in the 15+ years Art and I knew each other, we probably spent less than 15 days of that time together in person. I’ve only met Victoria Ross in person once, younger sister Valerie twice, and youngest sister MacKenzie only via Facebook and Messenger. Yet, I feel a closeness to all of them. Kathy too, of course.

My friendship with Art, unusual though it may seem, was very special to both of us.

I am greatly saddened by his loss.

(For anyone who feels so inclined, donations can be made to the Parkinson’s Foundation or the Michael J. Fox Foundation.)

Wayne Gretzky and the Zweig Brothers…

Last week, a Wayne Gretzky hockey card sold at auction for $1.29 million. It was a 1979 O-Pee-Chee Gretzky rookie card and it set a new record as the first hockey card to sell for over $1 million. (O-Pee-Chee produced hockey cards in Canada, and the Canadian cards are more valuable than the identical American hockey cards of the time produced by Topps.) [NOTE: The record was smashed on May 27, 2021, when a Gretzky rookie card sold for $3.75 million.]

Apparently, this Gretzky card is one of only two from his 1979–80 NHL rookie season to have earned a “Gem Mint” rating from PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator) out of the 5,700 or so that have been certified. In a story by Kevin McGran in the Toronto Star last week, Chris Ivy of Heritage Auctions in Dallas (who sold the card) said even brand new O-Pee-Chee cards in 1979 would have had difficulty earning a top rating due to the poor paper quality used, the wires used to cut the cards, and the issues they often had with poor centering.

The record-setting Gretzky card certainly looks to be well-centered, with no folds or chips in the paper. And, apparently the slightly jagged edge on the right side only adds to its authenticity in an age where it’s easier than ever to fake these cards.

So, hey, collectors! If you like jagged edges, check out this Gretzky rookie card that belongs to my brothers and me. (David was the biggest Gretzky fan in the family, so he has it at his house.)

The edges are definitely rough! There are some issues with the corners, and some of the blue edge has worn away, probably where somebody’s thumb handled it too often. The centering looks good, but the biggest issue to a collector would be the hole from the push-pin near the bottom.

And therein lies, (as Paul Harvey used to say), “the rest of the story.”

My brothers and I were, essentially, children of the 1970s. Children of the 1970s — like the generations before them — may have enjoyed collecting sports cards, but we didn’t preserve them for their future value. We played with them!

Farsies. Topsies. Knock-Downs. Scrambles. (Some times for fun, sometimes for Keepsies!)

The damage to the back of our card is even worse!

I don’t think any of the Zweig brothers ever put their cards in the spokes of their bikes, but David and I definitely had our own, special game for them. We would take the plastic nets off of our table-top hockey game and put them on the floor. We’d put a goalie card leaning up in front of each net, then we’d grab a card in each hand, get down on our hands and knees, and whack around a marble (and each other!) while trying to score on the other one’s goalie. Most of the hockey cards we have to this day still have creases that bend perfectly between four fingers and a thumb.

Our Gretzky card didn’t get that kind of treatment. Not because we were thinking of its future value, but because David and I were now 15 and 17 years old and less likely to crawl around on the floor body-checking each other.

David and I were both big Gretzky fans. As I wrote back in February, we’d been so since February of 1978 when our father took all three of us to see Gretzky play for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds against the Toronto Marlboros at Maple Leaf Gardens. We followed him in the newspapers in the WHA in 1978–79 and, I saw Gretzky play for the Edmonton Oilers against the Maple Leafs at the Gardens the first two times they played there in 1979-80; once in November and once in March. Gretzky had two goals and four assists in the March 29 game (the Oilers beat the Leafs 8-5) to close in on Marcel Dionne for the NHL scoring lead, and it was amazing!

I’ve never been much of a collector, though I’ve held on to plenty of things!
When card collecting was huge in the 1990s, I bought these two 1910 hockey cards because of their connection to my first book, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada.
If I’m remembering correctly, I paid $250 for Lester Patrick and $225 for Cyclone Taylor.

I saw the first Gretzky game on November 21 with my friend Mike Baum, who we called “Guy” because he loved the Canadiens. (Gretzky had two goals and two assists in a 4-4 tie that night.) I saw the March game with Steve Rapp, and afterwards we waited around to get autographs. I got Gretzky’s on a scrap from a popcorn box. (I believe I got his linemates Brett Callighen and B.J MacDonald too.) Since David was the bigger fan, I gave him the autograph … and he pinned it to the bulletin board in his bedroom, along with the Gretzky card — because Gretzky was his favourite player.

So, there you go. The autograph hasn’t survived, but because of the pinhole damage (not to mention the damage from the tape on the back!) the value of our Gretzky rookie card drops from a potential $1.29 million to maybe $1.29 hundred.

If we’re lucky!

And, hey, if I don’t get around to posting anything again over the next 10 days or so, Happy Holidays to everyone and best wishes for 2021. (How could it not be a better year?!?)

NOTE: The autograph still exists too! David has kept it all these years. Says I promised I’d get it for him if he let me wear his Gretzky jersey to the game that night. (I remember that I wore it, but don’t remember the promise! He says “I couldn’t believe you came thru.”)

Sports Musings from Now and Then…

Normally — when it happens in April! — I always say of the start of the baseball season and the hockey playoffs, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” I know there are lots of sports fans out there who are thrilled to be watching again … but this year, I’m not so sure.

(If you haven’t seen it yet, check out this Toronto Life story about my Mom and baseball.)

Yes, I imagine I’ll be watching too (at least some of the Maple Leafs games and I’m already watching the Blue Jays — the Buffalo Wings?), but I’m still not convinced it’s a very good idea. Hockey and basketball at least seem theoretically safer in their “bubbles,” but all that travelling in baseball seems to be courting disaster. I hope not, and I hope everyone gets through this safely, but look at what’s already happening to the Miami Marlins.

But, thus endeth the sermon. Really, I’m just posting this today to have a little fun.

As some of you know (some of you who are my friends on Facebook), I’m working on a new book. It’s a history of the 1907 Stanley Cup champion Kenora Thistles for a writer/publisher friend in Kenora. Yes, it’s pretty old time hockey, but if you read it when it comes out in 2021 — and I hope you will — I think it’ll make a pretty compelling case that hockey was always as popular (and obsessive!) with its fans in its earliest days as it still is today.

But, not everything from the old days was the same!

Sportscasters these days seem to consider themselves pretty funny (or punny, anyway), but you don’t see a lot of satire like this anymore.

What follows below was written by someone named C.M. Kyle of Winnipeg on March 17, 1905 and printed in the Winnipeg Telegram three days later. For context, the Ottawa “Silver Seven” had just defeated the Rat Portage Thistles (Rat Portage would officially be renamed Kenora on May 11, 1905) in a rough, best-of-three challenge series. It was the third straight season that Ottawa was the Stanley Cup champion, but fans outside the Canadian capital were become increasingly unhappy with the team’s tough tactics.

The Silver Seven were the Broad Street Bullies (the Bank Street Bullies?) of their time. Their style of play could be downright scary. So, as one who’s not so much a fan of violence in hockey, I hereby present…

Once upon a midnight dreary,
as the Ottawas, weak and weary
Pondered over three great cup games
and from which they still felt sore;
Suddenly there came a tapping,
as of some one gently rapping,
As of some one gently rapping,
rapping on their club-room door.
Merely this and nothing more.
Seeing that it was not heeded,
once again it was repeated,
Till at least it drew attention,
some one opened wide the door.
Entered then a stately raven,
plumage heavily snow-laden,
Who flapped his wings then took a perch
above their club-room door,
Saying sadly, “Never more.”
“What meanest thou” immediately
   arose the natural query,
“What brings thee here on this strange visit;
   ne’er heard of before?
With a sigh the raven turned,
   and pointing to their hockey colors,
Put his head beneath his wing,
   and whispered as he had before,
      Sadly, softly, “Never more.”
Dumb, astonished, scarcely breathing,
   wondering what could be the meaning,
Of those words so sadly uttered
   by the bird above the door;
Once again an explanation
   was demanded in vexation,
But the raven once again for
   loss of words, did as before,
      Mournfully saying “Never more.”
Losing patience, and at random
these mysterious words to fathom,
For the last time asked the question
of the bird above the door:
“Speak though coal-black imp of Satan,
or by he who sent the chasing,
’Round the country with the message
that shalt see the sun no more,
What mean these words, ‘Never more?’”
Seeing there was no evading
expectations now, the raven
Gazed bitingly upon the players
crowded ‘round the door,
And with grace and style enthralling,
but vehemence most appalling,
Said, “If you guys would play hockey
you’d be champions no more.”
Merely this, and nothing more.
Smarting from the raven’s satire,
but determined yet to know more,
From their strange yet noble visitor
who spoke in terms so sure,
Said “Pray tell us noble raven,
ere departing for they haven,
What makes thee think our Ottawas
will ne’er be champions more?
Why use these words, ‘Never more?’”
As if answering their query
that strange raven from his eyrie,
Said in tones so deep and solemn,
they cut right to the core,
“If you people would play hockey,
you would not now be so cocky,
For the first team you ran up against
would bang in twice the score.
Then you’d ne’er by champions more.”
Ottawa has got some players,
but they’ve got a few man-slayers
On their team who think it noble,
their check’s face to cut and scar.
And until they are removed,
or until Father Time removes them,
Ottawa will hold the Stanley Cup
as they have done before,
But by hockey? — NEVER MORE!

And, hey, it that doesn’t do it for you, you can always check out The Simpsons version