Why hockey keeps getting faster . . . and gentler

Dink Carroll December 16 1961

Why hockey keeps getting faster . . . and gentler

Dink Carroll December 16 1961

Why hockey keeps getting faster . . . and gentler

Dink Carroll

Ken Reardon, the Montreal Canadien*s executive who complained that the Chicago Black Hawks “deliberately racked up” his team in last year's Stanley Cup semifinal, is the same man ivho brought spearing into hockey. And the spear-carrying Reardon would have been a panty waist beside earlier fire-eaters like Sprague Cleg horn and Bad Joe Hall. The game is getting gentler all the time — even if the playe)‘S don't always want it that way

WHEN THE Chicago Black Hawks eliminated the Montreal Canadiens in the semifinal series of the Stanley Cup playoffs last year, the unexpected defeat did not sit easily with the Canadiens' top brass. “That kind of hockey will set the game back fifty years." declared Ken Reardon, a former all-star Canadien defenseman who is now' a vice-president of the club. “They racked us up deliberately and got away with it. If it's allowed to go on, we'll have to revise our thinking about the way the game should be played.”

This declaration sounded like a natural reaction. made in momentary chagrin. Then, last August, Reardon was reminded of it. “Yes, I said that.” he admitted. “The entire history of hockey has been the effort to improve the skills of the game and the calibre of play. But there are a few crazy kids in the league today who may rewrite the whole book.”

Yet Reardon, whose playing career ended in 1950, agrees that the game isn't as rough now as it was when he was playing. He was once forced to post a $1,000 bond to keep the peace after a stick-swinging duel. “Do you know, I think 1 may have been the first to bring spearing into hockey.” he recalls. “I'd just come back from the w'ar w'here we’d been taught to

use bayonets. I guess it just came natural to jab the point of the stick blade into a guy who was bothering me. But it’s not as bad as skatekicking. That's the worst offense in hockey — kicking a guy when he's down.

“I doubt if 1 could play in the league today,” Reardon finished. “I liked to play it rough.”


And that, in the recent chorus of complaints (including Reardon’s own) about rough play in the NHL, is just the point. Hockey is a rough game that, despite anything you read or hear, isn’t as rough now as it w'as twenty years ago. and wasn’t as rough then as it was twenty years before that. In a printed interview' back in 1934, Sprague ( leghorn, one of the pioneers of the professional game, remarked on the change.

“1 don’t know whether the present-day game is better than the old one. hut 1 do know this — the old game was a darn sight tougher," he was quoted as saying. “Players w'ere tougher, playing conditions were tougher and spectators were tougher. The hockey we were playing twenty-five years ago was a lustier, more vigorous game than you’re watching this winter.”

Sprague signed his first professional contract in the 1910-11 season with the Renfrew Millionaires, whose star was Fred (Cyclone) Taylor. In those days a hockey player dragged on his long underwear and stockings, climbed into short pants and sweater, grabbed a pair of light gauntlets and was ready to play. Cyclone Taylor w'as the first to wear pads on his shoulders. He picked up a couple of pieces of felt in a livery stable one day. cut them to fit and sewed them to the shoulders of his undershirt.

When the National Hockey League was organized in 1917 with teams from four cities — Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Quebec — the game was as rough and tough as the players wanted to make it. In those early years, the classic bad men were Minnie McGiffen of Toronto, and Newsy Lalonde and Bad Joe Hall of Montreal. With any of these men on the ice, war was apt to break out at any time. One night McGiffen, launched on one of his wild, high-charging rushes, tried to go around Hall, who was waiting for him. Hall first bent him over with a crunching bodycheck, and then butt-ended him in the mouth with his stick. McGiffen spat his teeth out on the ice, tried to speak but couldn’t, then grinned a toothless grin and went back to his position without causing any delay in the game.

“Joe speared my taped ribs. I was through for the night. It was the way he'd learned to play hockey"

Joe Hall was a hockey schizoid, wellliked away from the rink, but a bloodletter on it. Walter Smaill, a defenseman with the Montreal Wanderers, once explained Hall as well as anyone could.

“I went into an important game with three fractured ribs.” he recalled. "They were taped up and I figured I could get through the game if I could avoid being hit. Joe and I were friends and I told him about my injury before the game. He smiled sympathetically, shook hands, and assured me I had nothing to fear from him. I know he meant it. But a few minutes later we were fighting for the puck and Joe gave me the butt-end in the ribs. 1 was through for the night.

"That was the way Joe had learned to play the game and it was the only way he could play it. Later he even joked about the incident, saying I was getting too brittle to take the bumps."

Minnie McGiffen tangled almost as frequently and violently with Art Ross, who was to manage and coach the Boston Bruins years later, as he did with Joe Hall. They cut each other so badly in the rink on one occasion that both were arrested for assault and battery. The judge, who happened to be a hockey fan. fined them one dollar and costs and ordered them to keep the peace. Another dispute immediately ensued over who was to pay the fine. They flipped a coin and McGiffen lost. He paid cheerfully enough, mentioning casually that he'd take it out of Ross on the ice.

One man with a vivid recollection of McGiffen and Ross is Cooper Smeaton. today the senior trustee of the Stanley Cup. He was a referee when they were in their heyday and he recalls a game he refereed in the old Toronto Mutual Street Arena in which they opposed each other: “McGiffen was a stick-swinger, but when it came to a fist fight he was no match for Ross, who was a clever boxer with a punch. Ross got the better of the fight and when I was in my room getting dressed after the game, an usher who was a rabid Toronto fan poked his head in the door and shouted: You held McGiffen

while Ross socked him, you so-and-so.' I invited him to come in and repeat what he’d said. He came in and we started throwing punches. I think I flattened him. but that wasn’t the end of it. Somebody

had informed the police there was a big fight on and I was told the police were coming. I was only half-dressed, but 1 bolted out of the room by the back door and out of the rink by a side door, jumped into a taxicab and finished dressing on the way to the train.

"Those things couldn’t happen today. The referees have it soft."

Newsy Lalonde. one of the great alltime scorers, was also one of the most feared players of his era. The late Dick Irvin used to tell a story that illustrated Newsy’s belligerent approach to the game.

"Newsy and I were opposing centres and he made a sudden break with the puck." said Dick. "I couldn’t catch him from behind and he wriggled through the defense and sniped a pretty goal. We swung behind the net together and I said. "Nice goal. Newsy.’ It was a nice goal and I meant it that way. Lalonde thought 1 was kidding him and flipped his stick up while we were back in there where the referee couldn't see what went on. He opened my face for seven stitches."

Frank (King) Clancy, now an executive of the Toronto Maple Leafs, ran afoul of Newsy in Ottawa. Frank Nighbor, Ottawa's great centre, was clipped over the ankle and Clancy was dumped on the ice as his replacement. "Nighbor says to me: ‘Watch Lalonde on the scratch, kid!' On the first faceoff. Newsy brought his stick up and nearly took my nose off. I hollered at him: ‘Hey. you got my nose on the end of your stick,’ and so help me if he didn’t take a look at the blade of his stick to make sure my nose wasn't there."

Clancy, who is one of hockey’s best raconteurs, also had a brush with Sprague Cleghorn that same year. King was teamed on the Ottawa defense with George Boucher in a game against the Canadiens in Montreal. Near the end of the first period, he rushed with the puck and his shot went wide of the net. Sprague gathered it in and started up the ice. Clancy raced back as fast as he could and just as Sprague reached Boucher. King rapped the ice with his stick and shouted. "Here. Sprague, here!" Sprague passed the puck without looking and Clancy relayed it to Cy Denneny, who lugged it back up the ice and scored. Just then the siren sounded the end of the period. As Clancy was going through the gate to the passageway that led to the dressing room, somebody called: "Hey. King!” Clancy looked around and a fist belted him flush on the chin.

Witnesses told him later that Sprague walked on inside as if nothing had happened.

Clancy recalls another episode involving Sprague. Hooley Smith was a cocky young rookie with Ottawa and Sprague was nearing the end of his career. One night after a game King went with Hooley, who had nailed Sprague with some bonerattling bodychccks, to a restaurant for supper. Sprague appeared with several of his teammates. He yelled something at Hooley and started to approach the table. Hooley immediately picked up the largest ketehup bottle within reach. Every lime Sprague or one of his group came close, Hooley swung the bottle and he and Clancy made their escape fighting a rearguard action.

The professional hockey players of that day must have known that few of them would take a backward step, but they reefed each other just the same. I once asked Newsy Ealonde. now a sprightly septuagenarian, what they hoped to gain by going after each other the way they did.

“That's easy," he replied. "We were always fighting for our jobs. There weren't many teams and they carried only eight or nine players. I here weren't enough jobs to go around."

Officials were lenient with the players on the ice and jurisdiction began and ended at the door of the rink. Supervision over the operation of the league by a governing body was extremely loose, and these conditions combined to allow the players to behave pretty much as they pleased.

Professional hockey really started to grow up in 1925, the year after cities in the United States were included in the National Hockey League for the first time. 'There wa.> a scramble for fresh talent and players' salaries went up. The promoters set out to make the game more attractive to the public by stepping up its speed. A team that had customarily carried a relief forward and a relief defenseman now began to carry three sets of forwards and at least two defense pairs. There was still the problem of making the game an edifying spectacle for women and children, and the referees were instructed to fine any player for unnecessarily rough or vicious play. It gradually dawned on the sadistically inclined that every time they hit someone over the head they automatically hit themselves in the pocket, especially since their own managements showed a disposition to slap on extra fines of their own.

In the 1927 final series between Ottawa and Boston, much of the action took place

after the series was over: Billy Coutu was expelled from the NHL for life for assaulting the two officials; Hooley Smith was fined $100 and suspended for the first month of the following season for high-sticking Harry Oliver; Lionel Hitchman and George Boucher were fined $50 each for fighting, and Jim Herberts was assessed $50 for "wild actions and intimidation." The players were now being disciplined for unruly conduct.

There were still players who could go berserk on occasion, like the Boston Bruins’ Eddie Shore. "Get Shore before he gets you!" was the watchword around the league, which probably accounts for the record 970 stitches taken in his skin during his hockey career. There were others like Toronto's Red Horner and the Rangers' Bill Cook, but they were counterpunchers: they didn't start the fights, though they were always there at the finish.

Shore figured in one of hockey's few near tragedies. In a Boston-Toronto game he bodied Ace Bailey to the ice with such force that a severe skull fracture resulted. Bailey was rushed to a hospital in Boston where two trepanning operations within ten days were necessary to save his life. Shore didn't escape unscathed, either. Almost uncomprehendingly. he was looking at Bailey hing on the ice when Red Horner skated up and hit him on the chin with a terrific punch, and this time it was Shore's head that struck the ice. He was carried to the dressing room where seven stitches were required to close the cut on his scalp.

Bred Wilson, who was sports editor of the old Toronto Globe, maintained that Conn Smythe did more than any other individual to clean up hockey. This may sound odd. since the boss of the Toronto Maple Leafs is always associated with the bellicose statement: "If you can't lick 'em outside in the alley, you can't lick 'em inside in the rink. " But Wilson said. "It was Smythe who made professional hockey a social outing in Toronto, and the rest all copied his methods. He was a college graduate and the first to sign college players. He preferred young players and they always had clean uniforms and the newest equipment. His rink was so spickand-span it was a pleasure to be there."

Leo Dandurand. who was one of the owners of the Montreal Canadiens when Smythe purchased the Toronto franchise, is inclined to agree. “Conn was a young man then with fresh ideas. I usually found myself on his side at league meetings because he was progressive." About today's hockey. Dandurand says, " I he accent is on speed now, and the game’s faster but not nearly so rough. If 1 had to point to something I don't like about today’s hockey, it would be the chippy penalties. There’s too much holding, hooking, tripping and interfering—-they won’t let the stars shine.”

Undoubtedly that’s why great scorers like Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe have had stormy careers. Opposing players resort to illegal tactics to keep them in check and. inevitably, they turn on men who won't let them go about the business of playing hockey.

Hockey is the largest earner among the attractions that go into the big arenas today and the arena owners, who also own the hockey teams, take steps to protect their investment. Clubs that spend thousands of dollars to develop one player aren’t going to allow his career to be cut short by rough play. The moment a fight starts the linesmen jump in and break it up. The players are responsible to the league for their actions, both on and off the ice. If they were to battle each other in the street or anywhere else after a game, they would undoubtedly be fined by Clarence Campbell, the league president. They are even held accountable for what they say. When Andy

Bathgate, of the New York Rangers, wrote a magazine piece in which he put the finger on six players who, he implied, were potential murderers on the loose, he was fined by President Campbell for “conduct detrimental to hockey."

Modern equipment prevents many injuries. and there is a clinic in every rink with a physician in attendance at every game. Most coaches subscribe to the theory that an injured star will not help his team; most injured players are rested and replacements are called up from the farm system.

The average salary in the NHI. today is close to $10,000. which isn't bad for five months’ work, and the players have a good savings and pension plan, and are protected by insurance policies. Some add to their earnings with radio and television interviews, and by endorsing hockey equipment, wearing apparel and other merchandise. Quite a few have off-season jobs in public relations or other commercial ventures. They are businessmen, and they aren’t going to do anything deliberately to jeopardize their earning power.

Every once in a while some old-timer around the league like Jack Adams, the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, will rebel momentarily, especially

if his team is in a slump. Then he may tee off on the referees for calling penalties too closely.

"They're making it a pantywaist game,” Adams has alleged with some heat. "If they aren’t careful they'll ruin hockey.” Tim Daly, who finally retired as trainer of the Toronto Maple Leafs after being in hockey for over half a century, was around when the hard-nosed men I’ve been writing about were pioneering the pro game. “The invention of the X ray didn't do hockey no good,” he is fond of saying. “In the old days a player’d get a rap over the hand and maybe break a finger. I'd put a piece of black electric tape around it and he'd get back in the game and think no more about it. Today a guy gets slashed and right away he's got to have an X-ray picture taken and he's out of the game for weeks. They ain't hockey players no more—they’re television stars. They got their public to think about. Don't tell me. 1 know."

There will always be injuries in hockey because it is played at high speed, the players w'ear razor-sharp skates, and carry sticks. But ninety percent of the injuries will be the result of accidents and not caused by intent, as was the case in the pioneer days of the professional game. ★