The new Shack: a windmill who (sometimes) plays tike a star

The old Shack was a oneman disaster area who couldn’t score goals. The new Shack is a one-man disaster area who does. Can success spoil Eddie?

SUSAN DEXTER February 5 1966

The new Shack: a windmill who (sometimes) plays tike a star

The old Shack was a oneman disaster area who couldn’t score goals. The new Shack is a one-man disaster area who does. Can success spoil Eddie?

SUSAN DEXTER February 5 1966

The new Shack: a windmill who (sometimes) plays tike a star

The old Shack was a oneman disaster area who couldn’t score goals. The new Shack is a one-man disaster area who does. Can success spoil Eddie?

SUSAN DEXTER

ONE OF THE MORE endearing characteristics of a twenty-eight-year-old hockey player named Eddie Shack is that when he sets out to congratulate a teammate on scoring a goal, fans can never be certain whether he'll shake the fellow's hand or knock him down. On one occasion early this season the “new', reformed” Shack charged down the ice to give linemate Brit Selby a pat on the back, forgot to stop, and bowled him over. And Shack’s inadvertent hut bruising bodycheck aggravated an injury to Selby's ankle which sidelined the high-scoring rookie for the next three games.

This sort of misguided exuberance and unpredictability has been known to infuriate coaches — though it never fails to delight the fans. In fact, a lot of Toronto Maple Leaf partisans wouldn’t mind their team being in the National Hockey League cellar, just as long as a leftwinger named Shack was getting a lot of icetime.

“He’s like a big airedale on skates,” says one regular patron of Maple Leaf Gardens. “He’s too strong to skate smoothly,” says Ed Sweeney, who played for a couple of years on a line with Shack in the junior leagues. “When Shack makes a goof, the fans cheer," says Leaf coach Punch Imlach, mystified. Coach Eddie Bush recalls the days when Shack was playing for him at Guelph in the junior - league Ontario Hockey Association and

working part-time as a coal-truck driver. “Even w'ith his overalls on, he was exciting . . . When Shack starts to skate, the crowd screams and the ice just flies — chipped right out.”

Shack's only problem in the major league has been that his coaches, and particularly his current coach, Punch (George) Imlach, have not been impressed with ice chips — they've wanted goals. Even his most devoted followers can’t agree why the “old" Shack didn’t get more. Some say his reactions are slow; others insist they're quick — but wrong. One thing is sure: his goals have been as rare as drunks at a temperance party — that is, unpredictably enough, until this year.

Now Punch Imlach is not known as an admirer of Shack’s shenanigans, and he felt, after last season, that Shack should be playing less to the crowd and more for the bench. For after winning the Stanley Cup in three successive years, the Leafs last season were knocked out in the semifinals. Now all Imlach's players were going to have to deliver — in goals. So when Punch took a look at Shack's dismal record of five goals in sixty-seven games last year, he decided to send him down to the Leaf’s minor-league team at Rochester. New York. (Another reason for Punch's decision — some say the determining factor — was that gate receipts were down in

Rochester, and the Leaf management wanted a Cfowd-pleaser, namely Shack, to pull them up.)

To many Ians, this looked like high treason, and such slogans as “Bring Shack back" began to gain currency at the Gardens. But, oddly, though the Maple Leal management was braced for a deluge of abuse, only a trickle came through the mail. There were fans, though, who thought the sports writers were too easy on Punch, for they had the forbearance not to remind Imlach that his nickname earned after he took a conclusive bodycheck in amateur hockey about thirty years ago was originally “Punchy.” Anybody nicknamed Punchy was hardly in a moral position to put down Unsteady Eddie.

Then, as if in a vindication of Shack partisans, t e Leafs wilted in their first seven games of the season, winning tw'o, losing four and tying one.

or while Shack was pining away in Rochester and doing nothing in particular to distinguish miself, the rest of the Leafs weren't earning any accolades for their NHL performances. So Punch relented, and back came Shack.

This time it was — again unpredictably — a n( " Shack. Now he was the quiet modest interview subject who shrugged off his accomplishments as though they were preordained. He was «he bashing but bashful hero who kept out of

the penalty box enough to become the Leaf's number-two scorer, with fourteen goals in his first twenty-two games (Bob Pulford led. with fifteen goals in twenty-nine games). Eddie w-as a chastened man. He wasn't trespassing on other players’ territory, he wasn't creating traffic jams in front of his own net. he wasn’t terrorizing his ow n teammates, and he wasn't careering into the boards all by himself. No, sir. Shack was all business. In practice, he was no longer drilling the puck as he once had — so hard that he would sometimes sting and bruise the hands of goaltenders Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk.

The charisma of Shack (both old and new) is something that baffles many hockey professionals and at least some hockey fans. For though Shack has a good build and a powerful shot, his resemblance to such super-stars as Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull ends right there. But to his fans. Shack is not just a hockey player, but . . . well, an experience, a windmill of a skater, a living, panting study in artless inefficiency and jagged action, all arms and legs and elbows and bucking and jumping, a bowlegged straining case of desperate singlemindedness. Shack is often so determined to get to the other end of the rink, he just bulls through opposition players fand even his own teammates) if they get in his way. In

Eddie Shack's rather limited vocabulary, there’s no such word as finesse. On other occasions, when he has lost the puck, he'll skate around for a minute or two, looking forlorn and a little betrayed, as though he can't quite figure out what happened. And Shack, when he sets his mind to it, can probably look more forlorn than anyone else in the NHL, with his widely spaced, startled-fawn eyes and his great penguin nose. Shack has one of the biggest noses in professional hockey, but he always breathes through his mouth. When the play is on the other side of the ice, his mouth hangs open at half mast. And once he gets the puck, the pressure goes up and the mouth goes down, down, down, until it looks something like a gaping elevator shaft.

For someone who takes hockey seriously, the kind who can shout, “Stick to the point, Shack," and know that he’s talking hockey, not criticizing conversation, the new Shack was just great. But for someone like me, the emergence of Eddie Shack, Conventional Hockey Player, was, to say the least, disillusioning. The old Eddie was so delightfully illicit — I mean, even people w'ho hated hockey and didn't know what the game was about could get a kick out of the old, buffooning Shack. But still, there are enough glimpses of the old / continued on pape 26

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Shack to nurture our hopes that he'll have a relapse, that this responsibleyoung-hockcy-player switch can be turned ofl. And maybe we’ll see more glimpses of the Shack that was; maybe we’ll again be treated to the kind ol Shack who once humiliated a rival player by grabbing him up in his two hands and whacking him with his head. (There are times, though, when the new Shack is somewhat appealing. In fact, recently he literally knocked out two New York Rangers at the same time, and did it with such cunning that the referee and the announcer attributed the knockout to a collision between the two — Shack wasn’t even suspected of the crime. )

Certainly, there are some players among the I.eafs who aren’t convinced that the new Shack is here to stay. At a recent game in Toronto, as the crowd cheered when Shack took the puck, his linemate Hob Pullord eloquently raised one glove and protectively covered his head as though afraid Shack would shoot at him. Such tears are kept alive partly by some of the old stories about Shack. In one. Bert Olmstead had nimbly avoided a check by an opposing defenseman, only to be knocked to the ice by Shack. Olmstead. in apparent fury, picked himself up. grabbed Shack's sweater and demanded, “What color is it. Eddie?” Shack allowed as how it was blue. “That’s right.” Olmstead shouted. “Stay away from blue, Eddie, stay away from blue!” The very fact that such elementary instruction has ever been necessary is one reason why most Leafs display little enthusiasm for Shack—old or new.

With fans, of course, it’s a different story. A psychologist who has given thought to the Shack mystique believes he is a natural hero of the working class. He says that working men identify with Shack because he makes such splendid, larger-than-life mistakes, and because he’s always in trouble with the boss. That makes for sympathy. Further, working-class fans admire a man who can deliver a good belt in the chops, and Eddie has a reputation for coming across with a few. And, they say, his lack of education may help make him a popular folk hero with the lunch-pail crowd.

For, somehow. Shack managed to go to school in Sudbury until he was fifteen without learning how to read and write. Yet he has his own philosophi on his lack of education, and a characteristic way of phrasing it: “It's not because I'm stupid,” he says, ”. . . As long as I know what my hands . . . have to do |I can look after my wife and two children). You know, 1 mean, a guy could be the most educated fellow [but] if he doesn’t know how to work his hands, if he doesn't know how to do things, he's not accomplishing nothing.” Other teams sometimes get on Shack's back about his slow intellectual development. On one famous occasion a couple of years ago. Shack took constant abuse from a rival team and

its coach. According to legend, the players were shouting that Shack was so stupid he didn’t even know how to spell. Then Shack scored one of his few goals. As the red goal light flashed on, he skated serenely over to the opposition bench. Leaning over, he told his tormentors, “S-C-O-R-E. That spells score."

Being the new Shack has advantages. As long as he remains a high scorer, Shack doesn’t have to act as the team’s policeman, bodying opposing players and provoking fights. “Before it was just check, check, check,” he says, “and I really don’t like hurting anyone like that. But I had to do something to earn my pay.”

If hockey hadn’t worked out, Shack wouldn't have been a policeman, he would have been a butcher. As a boy in Sudbury, Ont., he took a job in a grocery store and worked his way into the meat department. “I always worked hard and always ate well. That makes you strong. I worked as a butcher. 1 worked hard there lifting hind quarters of beef, halves of bacon and lamb and boxes.” His wrists today look large and swollen, not through injury, but simply because he has developed wrist muscles the size of hard-boiled eggs.

Of course, they didn't develop just from hoisting hind quarters of beef. Shack has been playing hockey since he was a kid of six, back in Sudbury. His route to the majors was through Guelph, the New York Rangers farm team. The Rangers moved him up to their own lineup in 1958, and for most players the promotion would have been the hap-

piest move of their careers. For Shack it was almost a disaster. First he broke a leg and spent a substantial part of the season recovering. Then he put in two more seasons with the Rangers, all of them unhappy. In all two years he managed only sixteen goals. And in those days you didn't have to watch closely to know when Shack was going onto the ice — you could tell by the Bronx cheers.

It is only since I960, when the Leafs took him over in a trade, that Shack even showed signs of becoming what he is today: a secondrate player who is nevertheless a press agent’s dream. Now it’s a natural supposition that Shack deliberately cultivates the awkward and backward side of his personality in order to register publicly as the character in the Leaf lineup. And you might assume that he’s still acting out this role, when you ask him, as I did, what he has that gives him that appeal for the crowd, and he replies, “There’s something I do that gets them. I don’t know what it is myself. It just comes naturally. You can’t do anything if there's no reaction — it’s just like a movie star. It’s there now, so you can leave things the way they are. You don't try to quiet them down or anything — they’re paying a good dollar, and if they're enjoying it that's fine, ’cause I enjoy playin’.”

But after you've really studied him, close at hand, you find yourself hanging a new adjective on clumsy, homely, awkward, lovable old Eddie Shack. And that word, believe it or not, is sincere. ★