SPORTS WATCH

Back when players bowed before owners

Smythe told newsmen that any player who would consider getting married in midseason obviously didn’t have his mind on hockey

TRENT FRAYNE February 5 1996
SPORTS WATCH

Back when players bowed before owners

Smythe told newsmen that any player who would consider getting married in midseason obviously didn’t have his mind on hockey

TRENT FRAYNE February 5 1996

Back when players bowed before owners

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

While the hand in his employer’s pocket is extracting $6.5 million or so each season, Wayne Whatshisname, the Wizard of Hockey, observes that he’s not getting enough, well, gratification for a man of his stature. The Wizard may not permit the Los Angeles Kings to continue to put the money in the pocket. He may switch to another donor. Sixand-a-half million a year is more than half a million a month. For 52 weeks, that’s $125,000 a week. For 365 days, that’s about $17,808 a day. A guy ought to be able to get by on $17,808 a day every single day of the year, even with a wife and three kids.

But what’s bothering the Wizard is that he hasn’t lined up with a Stanley Cup winner since 1988 when he won No. 4 with the Oilers in Edmonton. Now, following nine NHL seasons there and eight more in Los Angeles, the Wizard grows long in the tooth, 35 years old on Jan. 26. And the thing is, he feels his Cup hath not yet runneth over. And so, if the Kings don’t make a move, add a few warm bodies, Wayne the Wizard is gone.

So who has a problem with that? Where is the hockey player who wouldn’t want to wind down with one last hurrah? I know that a couple of my old acquaintances, Jake Milford and Johnny McCormack, would not have complained if the curtain had gone down on a glass of the bubbly. But back when they were active, players did not dictate to owners in the manner of Wayne the Wizard. Indeed, back then players cowered before their employers.

For instance: Jake Milford, general manager of the Kings for four years in the mid1970s, had played under the lash of the violent Eddie Shore, a man as feared as owner of the Springfield Indians as he’d been as the rambunctious defenceman with the Boston Bruins. The writer Kyle Crichton once called Shore the greatest drawing card in hockey. “What makes him that way is the hope, entertained by spectators in all cities but Boston, that he will some night be severely killed.”

Smythe told newsmen that any player who would consider getting married in midseason obviously didn’t have his mind on hockey

Shore may be the only owner in history who traded one of his players for two hockey nets, and he is definitely the only owner in history who traded one of his players for two hockey nets and then lamented that he’d made a bad deal. The player involved was my friend Jake, a guy I’d known in Winnipeg.

“Eddie called me in one day to tell me he’d sold me to Buffalo,” Jake recalled. “As I stepped off the train, my eye caught a headline in the morning paper—‘Milford acquired for two hockey nets.’ I wasn’t surprised, but Shore complained later that the Buffalo team had led him to believe they’d be new nets. Apparently the ones they sent him were used.”

An incident almost as bizarre befell Johnny McCormack, an Edmonton native who spent a whole or parts of eight seasons with the Maple Leafs, the Canadiens and the Blackhawks in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Assuredly, John would not have objected to a final Stanley Cup season. Still, as I say, it was not an era when a player tells an owner he is thinking of changing his address.

McCormack was a tall skinny guy with a long skinny neck, accordingly called Goose. An Edmonton scout for the Maple Leafs rec-

ommended him to Conn Smythe, the Leaf boss, and he moved east and helped the St. Mike’s juniors win the Memorial Cup before being elevated to the Leaf lineup. In Toronto, he had met a young nurse, Margaret Anne Gordon, and one January day in 1951 they decided to be married. It was midseason, of course, no time for a honeymoon, a marriage on a day between games. The following morning, Johnny was picked up by his teammate Fleming MacKell for the drive to Maple Leaf Gardens for a team practice.

“Did you hear the radio?” MacKell asked.

“No, what?” said McCormack.

“Boy, have I got news for you! Because you got married, you’ve been farmed out to Pittsburgh.”

When McCormack got to the Gardens, the Maple Leaf coach, Joe Primeau, confirmed the report. The Old Man—Conn Smythe, the team’s part owner and general manager—told newspapermen that any player who’d consider getting married in midseason obviously didn’t have his mind on his top responsibility, hockey. McCormack, who’d been making $5,800 a season with the Leafs, had his salary cut $1,000 going to the farm team in Pittsburgh. Worse, playing three weeks of playoffs in the American Hockey League with Pittsburgh against Hershey, Springfield and then losing the final series to Cleveland, he collected a mere $400 extra. That same spring, the Leafs won the Stanley Cup, and that summer the unforgiving Smythe sold McCormack to the Montreal Canadiens for $20,000.

It was never this way for Wayne the Wizard. From the moment his father, Walter, laced one tiny skate upon one tiny foot, the Wizard was the Wizard. Early on, his style confounded onlookers and his records mystified them for he was never as spectacular as, say, the two Bobbys, Orr and Hull. He didn’t shoot hard and he didn’t skate fast and, being only slightly thicker than a lamppost, he terrified no one. So how come he rewrote the record book?

The first to come up with a reasonable answer was the broadcaster-writer-nationaltreasure Peter Gzowski in his 1981 book, The Game of Our Lives. Gzowski theorized that the Wizard possessed a sort of delayed time frame that in the midst of furious action slowed everything down for his perception, enabling him to react, or even anticipate, with a better view.

Gzowski wrote of a paper by Dr. Adrian Upton, head neurologist at McMaster University, who compared the difference between the neurological systems of superior athletes such as the Wizard and those of ordinary folks such as sportswriters with the difference between a highly tuned sports car and the family sedan. It was Gzowski’s conclusion that what separated the Wizard from his peers “may well have nothing to do with physical characteristics but be a matter of perception, not so much of what he sees but of how he sees it and how he absorbs it.”

And today, what that amounts to, apparently, is unfulfilment at $17,808 a day.