Monday, April 30, 2007

Contemplating the NHL's Original Six Era...and the anniversary of its end

Forty years ago, tomorrow, the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens to win the 1967 Stanley Cup. It was a triumph which shocked hockey fans and experts alike since the Canadiens (defending two-time Stanley Cup champions) were highly favored to win. Yet, Toronto’s victory proved to be an augury for seismic changes which would alter the structure of the National Hockey League and how the game was played itself. In the months that followed, the NHL would expand; it’s players would form the present-day National Hockey League Players Association (which still exists today); and the game would become more wide open offensively with new stars who once had to rusticate in the minors simply because there weren’t enough roster spots on the six original teams at the time.

For me, the anniversary of the final end of the Original Six era marked an important milestone for me as a historian. Since October 2005 I have been interviewing former hockey players who played from 1942 to 1967 with variedly interesting results. My efforts until now had been sporadic (squeezing in one or two interviews while occupying myself with other pursuits) but during this past week I threw down a gauntlet to myself in terms of the effort I was putting in at chronicling what was the NHL’s first Golden Age. This past week I was in the Greater Montreal area conducting interviews with the following former players: Dollard St. Laurent, Bobby Rousseau, Gilles Tremblay, Gerry Plamondon, Fleming Mackell, and Henri Richard. Weeks before I was honored to interview Canadiens living legend Jean Beliveau over the telephone. I also was able to interview former hockey author and broadcaster and Canadiens historian and Dick Irvin, Jr. (Irvin’s father, Dick Irvin Sr. coached the Canadiens from 1940 to 1955) and Michel Vigneault, a university professor and hockey historian who contributed to a well acclaimed Canadian documentary on the history of hockey in Canada. The results of my interviews were astounding and there were times when I was thoroughly surprised by the information I was learning. Sometimes the memories weren’t there for certain topics like the 1965 Stanley Cup Finals but there were other memories that burst forth like Bobby Orr leading a line-rush and or came suddenly like a Bobby Hull slap-shot.

They stand out like snap-shots which capture a moment in time:

Jean Beliveau telling me over the telephone that the happiest memory of his NHL career was when the Canadiens voted him to be the team captain, replacing Rocket Richard in that capacity after Richard’s retirement.

Gilles Tremblay telling me how, before a game, teammate John Ferguson used to cruise by the bench of the opposing team, giving them a silent challenge to take him on the ice—and more often than not there would be no takers because John Ferguson was the toughest, meanest man in the NHL during the 1960s.

Bobby Rousseau telling me about how his head coach at Montreal Toe Blake excused him from team practice and from playing in a game because his two sons were hospitalized with serious internal ailments. (Toe Blake had a rule that if a player had problems at home then he was supposed to keep them at home—but there were exceptions to that rule and Rousseau’s problem was one of them). Rousseau’s story reaffirmed the enormous respect the team had for Blake’s authority but also emphasizing Blake’s humanity as well.

Henri Richard (brother of Maurice “Rocket” Richard” and a member of eleven Stanley Cup winners—no other player has more) surprising me with his answer that head coach Toe Blake was the unsung hero of the 1956-1960 Montreal Canadiens dynasty when they won five Cups in a row—a feat never to be equaled in the NHL, after I had asked him which player fit the bill.

Dick Irvin, Jr. telling me about how the late Danny Gallivan, the Canadiens English-speaking TV broadcaster with a penchant for coining new words in the English language to describe the Canadiens play was rather remote off-camera, never really socializing with Irvin his partner during game telecasts. Irvin told me, “Everyone used to call Danny ‘room service’ because he never ate out while he was on the road.”

Fleming Mackell, a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs and, later, the Boston Bruins, telling me how he despised Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay because the two of them played a very mean game of hockey and were not averse to illegally hitting players in the face with the butt end of their hockey sticks.

Gerry Plamondon, a member of the Canadiens in the late 1940s telling me how Ted Lindsay used to insult Rocket Richard’s French-Canadian heritage by calling him an “f-ing frog”.

Dollard St. Laurent telling me a hilarious story about the efforts he and the late Doug Harvey made to stop a young Chicago Black Hawks rookie named Bobby Hull from penetrating the Montreal Canadiens zone in a Habs-Hawks game backfired badly against them.

Michel Vigneault relating to me the events which led to the Richard Riot of March 17, 1955 and the socio-political undercurrents that swirled in the hearts and minds of the rioters that night.

Naturally they told me more and what they told me will somehow find its way into the book I hope and pray will come out of this personal journey in recording, preserving, and disseminating the memories of these great players. These are men who have endured the losses of loved ones (Plamondon and Dick Irvin, Jr. both have lost their wives recently) or are enduring health troubles of their own. (I was asked by Henri Richard and Dick Irvin as to the status of Gilles Tremblay’s health. I couldn’t answer them because Gilles Tremblay never discussed his personal health with me. Apparently he must be ill but I can’t help but be surprised by that because my interview with Gilles Tremblay was the longest one of them all. I got 2.5 hours of him on tape, an incredible interview.

My trip to Montreal marks a milestone for my own quest. In the months and years to come I will make many more trips to further locales in America and Canada seeking the slowly dwindling number of survivors who saw hockey grow from a small regional sport to a continental and, now, international sport. Their stories must be told and I will do my utmost to preserve them and share them with the world.

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