General Articles

Best Man at the Blueline

Forwards who run up against Kenny Reardon know he plays for keeps. They count themselves lucky to come out alive

TRENT FRAYNE January 15 1948
General Articles

Best Man at the Blueline

Forwards who run up against Kenny Reardon know he plays for keeps. They count themselves lucky to come out alive

TRENT FRAYNE January 15 1948

Best Man at the Blueline

Forwards who run up against Kenny Reardon know he plays for keeps. They count themselves lucky to come out alive

TRENT FRAYNE

WHENEVER Coach Dick Irvin of the Montreal Canadiens encounters a querulous old-timer all primed to argue that hockey players ain’t what they used to be, he brings the discussion to a close by pointing to Kenny Reardon. The good old days, says Dick, never owned Reardon.

Reardon is the Canadiens’ crag-faced, spikehaired, bull-necked, square block of defenseman, and the only concession that his coach will make to the past is to point out that the immortal King Clancy possessed the same inspirational qualities which have made Reardon the best defenseman in the NHL.

Carvaceous Kenneth, a real, rough, tough, ru8Sed fellow who can lift his team when it’s almost down-and-out, is loved by few coaches outside of Montreal but he is admired by them all. He was their unanimous choice for top defense honors in last season’s all-star team and, now 26, he bids fair to retain their reluctant devotion for another four or five years.

Irvin, in extolling the leadership virtues of Reardon, goes no farther back than last March 27 for illustration. That night the Canadiens were trailing the Boston Bruins 1 to 0 in the 19th minute of the third period. It was the second game of the Stanley Cup eliminations series in the Montreal Forum and a Boston victory would nullify the Canadiens 3 to 1 victory in the opener. Reardon,

rocking through the grimly struggling Boston defense, smacked a passout from Maurice Richard past goaler Frankie Brimsek with 52 seconds left to play, thereby breaking the Bruins’ hearts and removing the lead weights from the Habitants’ breeches. After five minutes of overtime he made it official by fighting off two Bruins in a corner, corralling the puck and sending it out to Kenny Mosdell for the winning goal. “See what I mean?” commented Irvin, removing great beads of perspiration from his brow, “Inspiration.”

Reardon’s development into a star of majorleague proportions came comparatively late. He was the extra man on the Edmonton Athletic Club Juniors in 1938 when they won the Western Canada championship. He didn’t appear at all in the playoffs. The next year (he was 18), he performed

as inauspiciously until shortly after Christmas.

“I didn’t score a goal for half the season,” Kenny comments. “Then, one Sunday afternoon, I scored three. I can’t tell you what made the difference but from then on I scored regularly. Something just seemed to happen overnight.”

It happened so quickly, in fact, that Paul Haynes, on a western scouting trip for the Canadiens, signed Reardon for a tryout after looking him over a second time. Three weeks earlier, Haynes had been unimpressed. Reardon joined the Canadiens for a tryout that fall and clicked immediately.

There’s nothing smooth about this rawboned Irishman and the Lady Byng trophy for gentlemanliness will never adorn his mantel. He has the tough humorous face of an Irish cop, jaw outthrust, deep-set. blue eyes under craggy brows. His shoulders are broad, yet bony, and although he looks bigger on the ice he is just under five feet eleven and weighs 178. He has a skating style unique in the NHL, a peculiar running, jumping stride that sends him fairly bursting out of his own end of the rink, the puck'

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pushed far out ahead of him at the tip of a stick which he can whirl with all the authority of a shillelagh. He plays the game for keeps; if you ask him whether he plays it clean he looks at you with a twinkle in his eyes and a grin on his likable pan and he says, “This is bread and butter, you know. You get that puck, no matter how. It’s a living, you know.” Kenny Reardon would be a tough man to meet in an alley, or even behind a blueline, but away from alleys and bluelines he’s a friendly, easy-going sort who doesn’t smoke and never drinks more than a very occasional bottle of beer.

He commands a great respect from enemy forwards and few, if any, ever describe him in less than two languages, one of which appears only in books that are banned in Boston. Howie Meeker, Toronto’s rugged little right-winger who won the rookie award last season, remarked one time last season that he’d sooner attempt to get around Butch Bouchard, Reardon’s defense mate, than Kenny. At that time Bouchard was regarded as the league’s top defenseman. Pressed for a reason, Meeker replied that while you might not get a shot at Goaler Bill Durnan in attempting to skirt Bouchard, you stood an even chance of coming back alive. Coach Hap Day of the Leafs, asked if he could make a comment on Reardon, unhesitatingly replied: “Not one that you could print.”

Reardon gets into his share of fights, of course, but it is interesting to note that the greatest Donnybrook in the history of hockey, though instigated by him, transpired with him far removed from the scene. This was the battle which came at the end of the last game of the season in Madison Square Garden last spring. The Canadiens were leading the Rangers 4-3 and there were 20 seconds of playing time remaining. The puck was in the Canadien zone and Reardon speared it. He recalls now that the only thing on his mind was to get that puck out of there while time ran out. He dug intoHhat gallop of his and then, he relates, the next thing he knew he was flat on his back. Bryan Hextall’s stick had caressed him flush on the mouth, knocking him down, removing a tooth and splitting his lip for 12 stitches.

Battle Royal in the Garden

Blood streaming down his chin onto his jersey and splashing onto the ice, Reardon was led toward the dressing room for repairs. As he stepped from the ice near the Ranger bench, a fan sitting in the boxes shouted at him: “Reardon, I’m glad to see you get it. I’ve been waiting a long time to see this.” Kenny took a wild, aimless swipe with his gloved fist at the heckler which fell far short. But his Canadien teammates, sitting on their bench across the arena, mistakenly thought the Ranger players were attacking him.

The Canadiens swarmed across the ice and the Rangers clambered over the boards to meet them. A Ranger player broke his stick over Butch Bouchard’s head and Maurice Richard, the Hab’s great right-wing scoring champion, broke his stick over Ranger defenseman Bill Juzda’s sconce, or nut. For 15 minutes fights broke out all over the ice, some players with sticks, others without; some with their gloved hands, oth irs with their knuckles.

All the while the man who began it all, Reardon, was sitting in the dressing room having his lip hemstitched. His reflection on the whole affair is somewhat illuminating, since here is a player

who plays to win. “I was carrying the puck and the guy whacks me in the mouth with his stick and do you know what?” he asks in bewilderment. “That screwy Hayes (the referee) said he didn’t see it. He never gave the guy a penalty!”

It was only a matter of a few weeks after this episode that Reardon astonished the hockey pundits, if not the medical profession, by turning up for the first game of the Stanley Cup finals against the Leafs. While the Canadiens were eliminating the Boston Bruins from the semifinal round he had collided with fiery Bep Guidolin in the fourth contest and when Guidolin’s skate penetra ted Reardon’s boot, cleanly slicing the tendon of his big toe, Kenny was through for that series. To all intents and purposes he was counted out of the final round as well, because for a week he was on a diet of sulpha drug and penicillin. Ordinarily, he’d have been eating raw meat in preparation for the Leafs.

An Orphan at 14

But when the best-of-seven final series got under way in the Montreal Forum the night of April 8, 1947, the sweater bearing the familiar No. 17 was filling up half the rink in the Canadien end and it was Reardon, all right, filling up No. 17. Perhaps the shock of seeing him accounted for the 6-0 pasting the Torontos absorbed that night, since history records that they recovered sufficiently to win four of the next five games to regain the title.

It would not be accurate to say that Reardon was born with a hockey stick in his hands; in fact, had his older brother Terry (now playing manager of Providence Reds) not been a terror on the rinks it is doubtful whether Kenny would have played the game professionally. He was bom April 1, 1921, in Winnipeg, two years after Terry made bis appearance. When he was 13 his mother died and a year later his father passed away. This sent the Reardons (there was also 10-year-old Larry and nine-year-old Patricia) to live with their uncle, Charlie George, out near Polo Park in Winnipeg’s west end. Terry, though just 16, already was a promising junior hockey player with the St. Boniface Seals, and Kenny was lined up with the East Kildonan Bisons midget team. Both teams played their games in the Olympic Rink in the north end of the city and Kenny recalls that he seemed to spend most of his waking hours on Main Street and Portage Avenue streetcars, trundling the 10 or 12 miles between the rink and Charlie George’s home.

When he wasn’t on streetcars he was on a bicycle as a CNR telegraph messenger, a job he had taken when his father died. He worked an eight-hour day and then attempted to hold his place with the hockey team, a task which he found virtually impossible. He played only three games that winter (1935-36) and the following year he turned out with the Winnipeg Monarchs juveniles. Still working the telegraph beat, he barely made the team, although his interest in hockey was great and his admiration for brother Terry amounted almost to idolatry.

Ken was 16 in the fall of 1937 when Charlie George moved to Blue River, B.C., and through the entire winter he played no hockey. Instead, he shot ducks and deer, climbed mountains and helped around the house. “After a year of that, Charlie was tired of me hanging around,” says Kenny now. “He wrote and asked the Edmonton Athletic Club if they’d give me a tryout.” E. A. C.’s figured there might be more hockey

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gold in the Reardon name and flagged him on. He caught a place, but barely, on that good Western club which burned up all competition west of the Great Lakes and then suddenly fell apart in the Memorial Cup final with

the Oshawa Generals.

About the only thing Kenny got out of the season was a nickname, Beans. This came almost automatically in Edmonton where, 15 years before, a baseball umpire named Beans Reardon had begun a career which carried him to the big leagues. The name stayed with Kenny in Edmonton but he rarely hears it today.

The 1939-40 season marked Reardon’s arrival, his unexplained overnight conversion from a lumbering kid to an inspirational leader. He sparked the E. A. C.’s to the Western final but there they were eliminated by the Kenora Thistles, who also owned a one-man gang, the swift-moving goalkeeper, Charlie Rayner, now of the New York Rangers.

A Bow to the Crowd

The Edmonton-Kenora series was concluded in Winnipeg and at least 5,000 Winnipeggers still retain a particularly vivid recollection of Reardon. Because the crowd was proKenora it was quick to spot the aggressive qualities of big Beans. The customers cheered mightily whenever he was penalized and on one occasion he argued vehemently with the referee after receiving what he believed was an unjust penalty. As he skated to the penalty bench, with the cacophony rolling around his ears, he suddenly stopped, looked up into the stands and tenderly placed the thumb of his right glove to his nose. He grinned widely and wiggled his fingers. The incident was recalled to him recently, to his considerable embarrassment. “Ah,” he said. “You do those things when you’re young. On the road, every boo is a cheer now.”

In 1939 the New York Rangers, probably dazed by the Reardon name (Terry had become a star property of the Boston Bruins), had placed Kenny's name on their negotiation list but after a second look at him they remoyed it. rp~~8 he was free to join the Montre~1 Canadiens when Paul Haynes offered him a tryout. Les Habs were building a worn-out machine when Reardon joined them for the 1940-41 season. He was teamed with towering Jack Port land his first year and he performed capably, though not spectacularly. The next year he got what he considers his greatest break in professional hockey when Dick Irvin partnered him with Butch Bouchard, whom Kenny regards as the best defenseman in hockey

without reservation. He believes he learned more by watching and playing beside Bouchard that season than he learned during all his other years in hockey.

Twenty-one-year-old Reardon left hockey in the summer of 1942 to join the Canadian Army. He was posted to Ottawa in the fall where he discovered that his hockey life was far from finished. He joined the Ottawa Commandos, played defense beside Bingo Kampman, Joe Cooper and Walt Murray and he helped the soldiers to the Allan Cup as Canada’s senior champions. He went overseas in the summer of 1943 with a reinforcement unit and then he got on the continent with the 86th Bridge Company. Later his outfit was attached to the 6th Airborne Division and Reardon, now a corporal, earned the Gommander-inChief’s Certificate for Gallantry, an award whose name he regards as one of the war’s greatest overstatements. “1 had a very good section and we built some very good bridges and one day the English lieutenant-colonel said we’d done a good job and that he was going to recommend us. Since I was the corporal, I got it.”

Reardon came home in October, 1945. Having no family, he was greeted at the Montreal station at 9 a.m. by Dick Irvin, the Canadien coach, and Tommy Gorman, then general manager of the club. He says he was deeply struck by the sentiment expressed by Coach Irvin. “Welcome home, kid,” grinned Dick, “and, by the way, be at the Forum at 11; we’re practicing.”

Back in Harness

Unlike brother Terry, who had been hit in the chest by a sniper’s bullet and had a difficult time readjusting himself to NHL competition, Kenny stepped in beside Bouchard as if he’d never been away. The team whistled through to the league championship, whipped the Bruins four games to one in the Stanley Cup finals and Ken gained a berth on the No. 2 All-Star team. Last year he was even better, sparking Les Habs to their fourth consecutive league championship and getting more votes as the coaches named their All - Star team than any other defenseman, 13 against Bouchard’s 12.

This wasn’t his biggest thrill in hockey, nor was the winning of the Stanley Cup, although both are high on his list of big moments. The top kick came last Feb. 23 when the Canadiens were playing at home against Toronto. The Leafs, surging after a January thaw, were aiming at the league championship (which goes with first place) and they held a 2 to 1 margin on Les Habs as the final seconds

ticked away. In a last effort to pull out a tie, Coach Dick Irvin pulled Goalie Bill Durnan and sent Reardon to centre for a face-off in the Toronto | zone. There were less than 10 seconds j to play and Reardon lost t he draw. The puck, in the wild melee which followed | the face-off, bounced toward the blue) line where Hab defenseman Roger Leger trapped it. He fired and Toronto Goaler Jurk Broda stopped the shot. Reardon, standing at the side of the net, was shoved behind it but lie bulled his way past a couple of defenders, circling the net and barging out in Iront. He leaped toward the loose j puck, gained control of it and whistled i it into the net before Broda could slide ! across to smother it. There were only seven seconds left when the red light flashed and a demonstration followed which perhaps never was equalled in the Forum.

He is a great favorite in the Forum, as much as he is a villain on the road. His goalkeeper, Bill Durnan, calls him “a great plugger, a great spark. He can clear well in front of the net and ho can steer the forwards into the comers. But most of all, there’s his spirit.” Reardon personally finds Max Bentley and Milt Schmidt the most difficult forwards to harness. “Bentley’s plenty tough,” he says of the NHL scoring champion who was traded by Chicago to the Maple Leafs this season. “He’s smart and he’s tough.” Schmidt’s speed and the power of his skating make Boston’s All-Star centre player as difficult a target, Kenny finds. Although crowds generally don’t faze him any more, Reardon calls Boston’s the toughest. They seem closer to the ice, somehow, he says, and they throw a lot of debris on t he ice.

Reardon must be the NHL’« most eligible bachelor. With Bouchard, he is the league’s highest paid defenseman, (both earned better than $10,000 last season, including salary and bonuses). He shares a Montreal apartment with his sister, Pat, whom he describes as once having been tin* best athlete of tin* bunch. “When she was a kid in Blue River she was the star in a boys’ Midget league.” Other brother Larry is playing with Jimmy Ward’s Portland team in the Pacific Coast League.

But despite his current stature in hockey, Kenny believes any youngster who places the sport above education is mistaken. He is extremely grateful to a game which enabled him to find himself in spite of skimpy schooling, ¡ but he points out that if a youngster doesn’t make the National Hockey League he has nothing to turn to. In Reardon’s case there is a potential $50,000 waiting for him in the next five years, a circumstance which makes him j one of the most highly paid ex-telegraph boys in the world. ★