Lester B. Pearson December 1 1969


Lester B. Pearson December 1 1969


Perhaps it could never have been Pearson, Jackson and Conacher. But there’s no doubt the NHL lost the services of a lifelong lover of the game when LESTER PEARSON left to make his name in another arena. Here, in an edited interview, the former Prime Minister talks about old pros and modern cons as he picks

MY EARLIEST recollections of hockey go back to when I was five or six years old. I really can’t remember when, in the wintertime, I wasn’t struggling along over the ice on some kind of contraption. My first memory is of using double runners on a pond opposite the parsonage on 697 Dovercourt Road in Toronto. In those days the area was a big field; now it’s in the middle of the city. I remember going from double runners to the old spring skates, the kind you screwed on to the boot. Then, one great day, I graduated to real hockey skates, and later to tubes.

We didn’t have much equipment, of course. We used to shove magazines inside our stockings to serve as shinpads. Incidentally, Maclean’s would be very inadequate in this regard! Foreign Affairs and the Canadian Historical Review are better. These days, things are different. I have a grandson who, when he reached the point where he played in an organized midget league, was about as well equipped as an NHL player. I suspect his family have spent more money on his equipment in the first two or three years of his hockey career as a child than my family could have spent, or have afforded to spend, on me in all the years I played.

After my family moved to Peterborough, I used to play hockey on the icy

streets. I was relatively safe; at that time there wasn't much traffic. When I grew a little older and was a little more impressive in my hockey skills and ambitions, I played a few organized junior games in Peterborough’s old Brock Street rink; natural ice, of course. Those were the early days and the memory is good.

I was a teenager when we left Peterborough, which was a great hockey centre, and settled in Hamilton, which was not. Indeed, they didn’t even have a hockey team when we arrived in 1911 and I had to switch my winter sport to basketball. My summer sports were lacrosse — I used to spend my summers on the farms of relatives near Orangeville, a great lacrosse centre — and baseball. I had the ambition of every boy who loves sports: to excel at the game itself, to “make the team.” I used to dream of myself in the big leagues. It

wasn't a dream my parents took very seriously. Many years later, when teaching at the University of Toronto, I became interested in the coaching side of things in hockey and football.

In my first days at college, before World War I, senior intercollegiate and OHA hockey were almost as good as the pro hockey then being played. One of the amateurs of those days I admired most was Hugh Aird, father of Senator John Aird, who played on the Varsity team. Another was a friend named Billy Milne, on the same team and a great player, who enlisted with me in the first war. On the pro side, I saw most of the teams in action; my heroes were such men as the great Cyclone Taylor and Newsy Lalonde.

Probably the funniest hockey experience of my life occurred just after the war while I was attending Oxford University. Oxford will always play Cambridge at any game ever invented, and some invented for the occasion, if a challenge is issued. In this case Oxford, somewhat unfairly, was to play Cambridge at ice hockey. It may have been the first game ever played between the two universities; I’m not sure. We had to go to a place called Mürren in Switzerland to find ice to stage the match.

Oxford had a good team. We had

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Lester B. Pearson

North American Rhodes scholars, of course, and the Canadians and one American who made up our team had all played senior hockey over here. Cambridge was less fortunate. They didn’t have Rhodes scholars, but they found a couple of Canadians and a couple of Americans and a few other people who knew how to skate. But that was about it. Their goalkeeper couldn’t skate at all, so we allowed him to wear galoshes.

Well, we faced off before a fairly large crowd and by the end of the second period it was something like Oxford 27, Cambridge 0. I vividly remember the two Cambridge wings. They could only be sure they were still on their feet by hanging on to the boards. At that point we called the game off. It was really funny; but, of course, it wasn’t hockey.

In contrast, my most thrilling hockey experience came after I returned from Oxford in the 1920s to teach at the U of T. Conn Smythe had been coaching the university team. When he left, I took over his job. That season (1927-28), Toronto happened to win the intercollegiate title and we found ourselves in a two-game, goals-to-count playoff with the winner of the Senior OHA series. It was Kitchener, a club that has supplied so many pros.

The first game was in Kitchener and we received a dreadful drubbing. The final score was 5 to 1, quite a handicap to come back to Toronto with. But I’ll never forget the second game. I remember telling my players, “Now, the only chance we have is to go out and play the first five minutes as though they were the last five minutes and we were one goal behind.” Our chaps did just that. For the first five or 10 minutes they swarmed all over the Kitchener net and scored three goals to catch up on a four-goal lead. That put us back in the playoff. Then we went on to tie them. But by the third period the energy had drained out of us and Kitchener managed to score the winning goal.

Even though we lost, it was a great hockey game. And the excitement of those opening minutes, when we scored three goals, was tremendous. I was sitting on the bench, playing everyone’s position. By the end of the period I was more exhausted than any of the players.

It’s probably no secret that, among the NHL teams, I’ve always tended to favor the Maple Leafs. The reason goes back to those college days. Like the U of T teams, the Leafs wear blue and white and had, at that time, an association of sorts with the university through such people as Conn Smythe. There is still that lingering affection. When I attend a game in Montreal — and I more often have a chance to go there than in Toronto — I continued on page 44

try to pick a game when the Leafs are playing. I usually sit with my good friend Senator Hartland Molson (uncle of the owner of the Canadiens) and have a terrible time disguising my emotions.

So the Leafs are my sentimental team. But I also have an immense admiration for the Canadiens. Not because they are so successful all the time — as a matter of fact, I generally root for the underdog — but because of the type of hockey they play. They concentrate on speed and on skill, head-manning the puck and skating, always skating.

The 1920s was a legendary era for pro hockey. The player who impressed me most was Howie Morenz, the greatest forward I have ever seen. Among defensemen, I think Eddie Shore stood out is those days. And in my book Georges Vezina was a pretty magnificent goalkeeper. They used to call him the Chicoutimi Cucumber, he was so cool. Then there was King Clancy — the dynamic, dramatic King Clancy — and the very polished, skilled Frank Nighbor. They are the ones I remember best.

Of the contemporary NHL players, the men I admire most are, I suppose, the ones everybody admires: Bobby Hull naturally, with his power and the excitement he generates; Jean Beliveau, because of his artistry and the intelligence of his game. And then there’s Frank Mahovlich; you always feel he’s going to explode at any moment. He’s got amazing potential and I love to watch him play. The defensemen I respect most are Doug Harvey and Bobby Orr. I’ve only watched Orr on ice once or twice, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more brilliant young player. And in goal, I think Johnny Bower is tops.

Beyond that, there are a lot of exceptional players who seem doomed to go unwept, unhonored and unsung — despite their skills. They are the men who kill off the penalties and play steadily but unspectacularly on defense. I’m thinking, for instance, of J. C. Tremblay and of the great Leaf centreman, Normie Ullman. There are lots of other players whose style is more skillful than exciting and who don’t receive the attention they rate. But they do their job.

I once thought of Phil Esposito in that way — in the days when he played for Chicago. I watched him on television on Saturday nights and admired him very much. He was a fine, smooth player overshadowed by Bobby Hull, although he was helping Hull all the time. Now, of course, he has come into his own in Boston.

I have been asked to choose my alltime, all-star team. Every hockey fan has his own ideas about that and I stress that mine is just one man’s opinion. I shall

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pick two men for each position, so there will be a first and second team. The first team would have Georges Vezina in goal, Eddie Shore and Doug Harvey playing defense, Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard on the wings and Howie Morenz at centre.

The second team would have Johnny Bower in goal, with Bobby Orr and King Clancy at defense. I would put Hull at centre — I hate to overlook Jean Beliveau but I don’t know how you could leave Hull out — with Cyclone Taylor and Harvey (Busher) Jackson on the wings.

I suppose modern styles have turned hockey into one of the most exciting spectator sports in the world. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have caught on so easily in other countries. But I’m not so sure that it’s the best spectator sport, as is commonly argued. There is too much interference with the actual game: time off for fighting, time off for television commercials, time off for changing players, time off for this and time off for that. For concentrated and continuous spectator excitement there’s nothing to equal, in my view, a first-class English soccer match. There the action in each half goes on for 45 minutes, up and down the field, without a break.

Í should make it clear that I’ve nothing against aggressive, hard-checking hockey. Indeed, the defensive game bores me. During the early 1920s, if they got a goal, a team would often play a sort of kitty-bar-the-door style of hockey and that was rather dull. But by aggressive I don’t mean crude or brutal hockey. I appreciate that it’s a hard, body-contact sport. After all, I’ve played it. And I’m tolerant of the spontaneous outbursts that are inevitable when hot-blooded people collide in a hot-blooded game. But these calculated brawls in which everybody is throwing off gloves and swinging punches make me a little impatient. There’s too much of it. There should be no place for brutality, for stick-swinging, in any sport. If it’s growing in hockey, blame the spectators; they seem to love it and clamor for it. The owners are professional promoters and they give the people what they want.

I was in Singapore a few years ago and caught the six o’clock news in my hotel room. The TV announcer said that later that night there would be a newsmagazine report on a championship hockey game between Canada and the U.S. This sounded wonderful to me. I thought I’d call some of my friends from other parts of the world who were attending the same conference and show them a little Canadian hockey, the world’s greatest game.

I had them in my room at 11 o’clock

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when the program came on. The Singapore announcer had got his facts wrong. It was the New York Rangers, whom he had assumed were the U.S., playing the Canadiens in the semifinals of the Stanley Cup. However, I proudly told my friends that they were about to see the fastest game in the world.

We saw action for about two seconds and then somebody hit the puck carrier and a brawl started. It really was something. Sweaters were off, gloves were off, sticks were down and there were even some spectators trying to mix in with it. This went on for three or four minutes and then that was the end of the report. The announcer, in a rather satirical way, finished by pointing out that hockey was Canada’s national sport.

Then there is international hockey, which is now more a contest of prestige than a game between players.

I’m seldom swayed by national pride when watching NHL games between American and Canadian teams. I know the players are all Canadian anyway. In fact, last year I was secretly rooting for Boston to beat Montreal. Much as I admire the Canadiens, I also like to see a team like Boston win the Stanley Cup occasionally.

But when a Canadian team is playing in a truly international game, I become as chauvinistic as any teenager. I was out

in Winnipeg a couple of winters ago when the Canadians beat the Russians. And when they ran up the Canadian flag and played O Canada, I was profoundly stirred. The trouble is that the intensity of national emotion aroused in worldcompetition hockey can sometimes generate ill will. We have all read about some of the unpleasant incidents involving Canadian teams abroad. I can well remember, when I was Secretary of State for External Affairs, getting a dispatch from one of our embassies saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t allow any more Canadian hockey teams to come over here if you want to keep our relations good with X.”

My feeling is that we shouldn’t send any more players overseas unless they can lose gracefully. I realize this is hard for a player to do in any kind of international competition. He’s been keyed up to feel that the honor of Canada is resting on his shoulders. When he gets on the ice he is needled and knocked about. He knows he has to fight hard and sometimes he fights a little too hard. Every time he does something wrong, the crowd over there howls at him and at Canada.

We must remember that we are in a vulnerable position in the hockey world. Everybody likes to beat us because we were the champions for so long. As things now stand, the only way we can regain

our prestige is by learning to be good losers and by sending our best men overseas to become good winners.

On the question of international competition in general, I think the time has come to stop being hypocritical. We should remove what, in many cases, has become an artificial distinction between the amateur and the professional. I would like to see the world hockey championships played with the best men from the competing countries, regardless of their pro or amateur status. At the moment the best Russians play, but not the best Canadians. My opinion is that if a regular NHL team — not all-stars — met the Russians for a five-game series, the NHL team would win. But it wouldn’t be a pushover.

Finally, some advice for any youngster contemplating a career in professional hockey. I couldn’t disapprove of this decision because I like the game so much. But I would warn him that he should also continue with his education. It’s difficult to do both, I know, but it can be done. And if he should find that he is not going to turn into a first-class NHL player but become just a run-ofthe-mill pro, he should chuck the game at once. He should go back home and spend his time getting a good education.

My chief worry about the future of hockey centres around the tough, rough, win-at-any-price behavior we see on television. The kids coming up watch this and, because they want to be like NHL players, copy the worst as well as the best features of the game. Too often the result is brawling, fighting and other unpleasantness on the junior and juvenile level. If that continues, I think the game will be in trouble. □