Sports Watch

Hockey moves out of its hallowed homes

With Seibert still riding him, Richard faked the goaltender and, with one free hand, guided the puck into the net

Trent Frayne November 4 1996
Sports Watch

Hockey moves out of its hallowed homes

With Seibert still riding him, Richard faked the goaltender and, with one free hand, guided the puck into the net

Trent Frayne November 4 1996

Hockey moves out of its hallowed homes

Sports Watch

Trent Frayne

With Seibert still riding him, Richard faked the goaltender and, with one free hand, guided the puck into the net

Of all the evocative place names in sports—Wimbledon, St. Andrews, Yankee Stadium, Churchill Downs, to name a few—none ever stirred the blood of a Canadian sports fan quite like that of the Forum in Montreal—unless it was Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. The sad part is that one name, the fabled Forum, the Cathedral of Hockey, is already fading from the language, and the other, the Gardens, the Shrine that Smythe Built, seems irrevocably on its way.

The old Forum, now standing vacant at the corner of Atwater and Ste-Catherine while the lavish new Molson Centre nearby hosts the fiercely loyal legions of les Canadiens, was home for 23 Stanley Cup winning teams. And, more than that in some minds, it was where the spotlights enshrouded nonpareil heroes such as Howie Morenz, Rocket Richard, Jean Béliveau, Doug Harvey and Larry Robinson, to name five of five dozen.

Meantime, the Gardens, still an elegant dowager that celebrates its 65th anniversary this week, is being prepared for vacancy by owners seeking larger premises, heftier profits and a galaxy of luxurious corporate boxes. The old palace hasn’t accommodated a Stanley Cup winner in nearly 30 years, but it harbors names that still ring bells—Syl Apps, Darryl Sittler, Frank Mahovlich and Bobby Baun, to name four of four dozen (add Max Bentley and Teeder Kennedy if you want six).

Accordingly, with the Forum gone and the Gardens fading, memories stir. What emerges is a night nearly half a century ago in Montreal when Rocket Richard scored what may have been the most astonishing goal of all time (yep, all time). It’s re membered as “the Seibert goal,” a Forum masterpiece against De troit, with Richard bursting along the left boards and challenged at the blue line by strapping Earl Seibert, an erect, heavy-shouldered defenceman of 220 lb. or so.

To bull his way past Seibert, the Rocket, who was fivefoot-10 and weighed about 175 lb., bent his head low and hurtled to his left. Seibert went with him, reaching him and sprawling across his back. Locked like this, Richard drove a few heavy strides, then straightened, still controlling the puck though staggering under Seibert’s weight. With an enormous extra effort he faked the goaltender into a sprawl and, with one free hand, guided the puck around him and into the net, Seibert still riding him (without a saddle).

Well, of course, the crowd went nuts. But the old Forum was used to crowds going nuts, for Howie Morenz often stirred the fans to that condition. Ralph Allen once wrote in Maclean’s that Morenz “was a superhuman figure to the millworkers and tram drivers and off-duty cabbies who jammed the rush end of the Forum and called themselves, with magnificent irony, the Millionaires.” They toasted Morenz in bathtub gin and, when he scored,

they shouted their soaring battle cry, “Les Canadiens sont là!”

Such sizzle has been gone from Maple Leaf Gardens over the past 30 years. No Stanley Cup banner has belonged there since 1967, a period during which the Canadiens have rung up 10 more championships. And the economics of the game have changed so drastically that while the Gardens is truly as beautiful and squeaky clean as the day it housed its first NHL game, on Nov. 12,1931, its confines are apparently too limited to accommodate modern budgets.

When Conn Smythe built the Gardens, its aisles were wide and the 12,586 seats were roomy. In later years, Smythe’s son Stafford and his partner Harold Ballard jammed additional seats wherever a space dared poke its head, increasing seating to 15,726—not including luxury boxes. As a result, legroom has shrunk and so has the space for human posteriors.

Back when there was room, patrons reveled in the Punch Imlach teams that won the Stanley Cup four times in the decade of the 1960s, no triumph more glittering than the one engineered by defenceman Bobby Baun 32 seasons ago. Ah yes, Bobby Baun.

It is Detroit, April 23, 1964, the Red Wings leading the series three games to two, the score tied 3-3 in the third period. Gordie Howe rifles a low shot hoping Baun has screened goaltender Johnny Bower. The puck catches Baun just above his right ankle bone. Baun hears a crack like a small firecracker exploding. As he dashes after the puck he hears another crack, this like a loud firecracker, and feels fire race up his leg. He falls to the ice, can’t get up, is carted to the dressing room on a stretcher.

“Can I still play?” he asks the team doctor.

‘Well, there are no jagged edges.”

Will I hurt it more if you freeze it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“So you better freeze it.”

Baun returns to the ice for the rest of the third period and the sudden-death overtime, taking his regular turn at right defence. After about seven minutes of overtime he drills a shot from the Detroit blue line and the puck somehow finds the net, the winning goal.

For the flight home the doctor packs ice around Baun’s ankle and wraps it tightly. Baun walks on crutches to the plane and from it to his car. He stays in bed all the next day, doesn’t keep an appointment on the day of the final playoff game, though his leg pains severely. At the Gardens that evening before the game and then between each period, the ankle is pierced through a small hole in the bandage with a hypodermic needle to kill the pain. Baun plays his regular shift as the Leafs win 4-0 for a third consecutive Stanley Cup. In the Gardens the fans go nuts.

Oh. Next morning, Baun finally agreed to an X-ray. It confirmed what he’d known since he’d heard the first small firecracker 60 hours earlier. The ankle was broken.