Monday, February 18, 2008
Deja Vu, Once Again
Bobby Hull began his NHL career in 1957. He played two years of Junior Hockey in St. Catharines, and was invited to the Chicago Black Hawks training camp in the fall of 1957. He was eighteen years old. He also played junior hockey prior to that in Woodstock, leaving his home in Pointe Anne when he was fourteen.
The Chicago brass had little difficulty deciding to keep Bobby with the parent squad following the training camp. He possessed all of the tools to play in the NHL. What they did not know at that time, but soon learned, was that he was destined to become one of hockey’s greatest superstars.
Some time in the late 1950s, my Dad escorted my brothers and me to a Hawks game in Toronto. I had been a Leafs fan until Hully came on the scene, then quickly transferred my loyalty to the Hawks. He had visited my Boy Scout troop at Bridge Street Church in Belleville as a guest of our troop master, Frank Insley. Frank also hailed from Pointe Anne, was a great friend of the Hull family, and often invited interesting guests to the meetings.
As you can well imagine, we hung on every word that Bobby spoke at that meeting. I distinctly remember that he told us to stay in school, and get a good education. I fought with that concept for a good number of years, having to consider that Hull himself did not graduate from high school. My slap shot, however, did not quite measure up to his, and I chose the education route.
Bobby had a fine game at Maple Leaf Gardens that evening, scoring twice and ringing a third shot off the crossbar. After the game, we wandered down to the hallway near the Hawks dressing room, hoping to get a glimpse of “The Golden Jet” and his teammates. At that moment, Bobby opened the dressing room door and motioned for us to enter the room. He personally escorted us around the dressing room, introducing us to every player.
Eric Nesterenko gave me his Northland Pro hockey stick which was reduced to firewood shortly thereafter as we used it for several games of driveway hockey on Church Street.
The air conditioner seldom worked in the visitors’ dressing room at the Gardens. I recall that it was hot, smelly, and very crowded with equipment everywhere. I also recall it being the most exciting event in my life at that point.
Last Thursday night the Toronto Maple Leafs came up one goal short in a bizarre game with the New York Islanders.
Following the game, I lent an ear to a few post-game summaries in the Leafs dressing room. It is the room where the players leave their equipment following the game. Each player has a stall, with a name plate.
Behind that room there is an area, out of bounds to the media, where the players keep their “street clothes”. There are also shower areas, work-out areas with stationary bikes, whirlpools, training rooms, and the mandatory washers and dryers for the uniforms.
Nowadays, only a few players face the media hoard after a game. McCabe, Toskala, Steen, and Stajan each shared the stage for a moment or two after the game.
Shortly thereafter, Eden Austorian came into the dressing room with his father. Eden is about ten years old, and he had a firm grip on a Leafs’ hockey puck. Tailing behind Eden and his Dad was Matt Stajan.
Stajan escorted them around the room, pointing out the locker areas of all of Eden’s favourite players. He then sat at his own stall with the youngster while his father took a couple of important photographs---ones that likely went to school a day or two later, as evidence of his experience.
Stajan told me that he had never had the opportunity to visit the Leafs room as a kid growing up in Mississauga. He added that was one of the reasons that he enjoys doing things like that now.
The Chicago Black Hawk bus often had to wait for Bobby Hull following a game. He took time to sign more autographs than any other player. Thousands of youngsters left the rink clutching those valuable slips of paper that Hull had signed. He was the most personable, most friendly player of his time. Kids never forget.
Young Eden will likely never forget his night at the Air Canada Centre. Matt Stajan has a new friend, and that is not a bad thing at all.
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Sunday, February 10, 2008
Matt Stajan's Fifth Year with the Leafs
It certainly did not look good for the Toronto Maple Leafs last week. They faced the daunting task of playing two of the top teams in the National Hockey League, as well as the Florida Panthers, just slightly ahead of them in the standings.
There was turmoil, and the team was adjusting to the recent firing of General Manager John Ferguson Junior, and the re-hiring of Cliff Fletcher. The Leafs Nation, as the media are wont to call the team’s fans, were on the war path.
Several key players were in the sick bay. Another, Nik Andropov, was in the sin bin for three games for throwing his stick in the vicinity of an official.
Coach Paul Maurice was under the gun. He rallied his troops for the Panthers game last Tuesday, to no avail. The Leafs started slowly, and only gave up a power play goal in the first period.
The floodgates opened at the ten second mark of the second period. The Panthers added two more goals that period, four more in the third. Final tally: eight for the visitors, none for the permanent residents of the Air Canada Centre.
Coach Maurice changed goaltenders, bringing in Andrew Raycroft halfway through the second, when the Panthers were up four zip. He called a time-out to chat with the boys. He passed on some tips prior to the start of the third period. To no avail.
Following the game, Coach Maurice took the podium for the traditional interview. It almost appeared like there was smoke coming out of his ears. Reporters carefully worded their questions.
When asked what he had to say to the players after the game, Maurice began: “I said just about everything I had to say at the end of the second period. After the second goal, we resorted to ‘swinging away’ and playing pond hockey. The booing that was heard after the sixth and seventh goals was to our team, not to the goalie. More than anything, our top end guys were drastically off.”
He added that he would not forget about this humiliating loss “for a long time”. “I did not expect this. I could go through a long list of guys that I am not happy with. I will handle this on my own.”
It was a little difficult to find any players to interview after the game; however, Matt Stajan answered a few questions for the hoard in the dressing room. “Naturally, this is a tough loss. But we’re a good group in here. The guys like each other. We will bounce back.”
Stajan is now into his fifth year as a full time professional hockey player. He began as a Leaf in the 2003-2004 season, and averages about 35 points per season.
He was the Leafs nominee last year for the King Clancy Trophy, “awarded to the player that best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy contribution to his community.”
Stajan had a stellar career with the Belleville Bulls, amassing 94 points in his final season. He reminded me that he now has two cousins in the OHL: Jake Laplante, a towering defenceman with the Peterborough Petes, and Thomas Stajan, a centre with the Brampton Battalion. He follows the exploits of the Bulls regularly.
He was pleased to see that the Bulls had two players, (Shawn Matthias and P. K. Subban) on the Canadian Junior team which recently won the World Championship. “It gave me bragging rights in the dressing room with the players from the other countries.”
Matthias, incidentally, has played for the Panthers this year. He was an “emergency call-up” due to injuries on the team. He will likely start with the Panthers next year, along with another former Bull-Branislav Mezei.
Yet another Bull with the Leafs, Chris Newbury, got involved in a shoving match with Mezei in front of the Panthers goal. Mezei had the distinct advantage of being more than half a foot taller than Newbury.
The Leafs quickly put that stinker behind them, roared out to record two straight victories over the Habs and the Red Wings before the week was done. In the Wings game, former Bull Daniel Cleary, in the midst of an outstanding season with the Wings, was struck in the cheek with a shot. He will miss six to eight weeks with the injury.
The Leafs have twenty-five games left to try to sneak into a playoff position-a difficult chore at this time as their nearest rivals-Buffalo and Boston are six points ahead with three games in hand. Nevertheless, still some great hockey to come.
Sunday, February 03, 2008
Pass the Peanut Butter, Please
In 1962, the York Peanut Butter Company issued a set of hockey cards of National Hockey League players from the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens. Accompanying the cards was an album which could be purchased from the company for twenty-five cents.
Al Arbour Tom Johnson
The cards came in jars of peanut butter and on the top lid were the words, “Free NHL hockey cards inside”. Those were words that your mother had to look for when she was doing the weekly shopping.
On the back of the booklet, the company left instructions on how to access the cards. “Now, take off the lid and turn the lid upside down. Use a knife blade and gently pry out the inner liner. Underneath you will find York NHL cards.”
Memory indicates that some of those cards had traces of peanut butter oil on them. Damn! Others did not come out as easily as advertised, and got slightly bent in the process.
Nonetheless, the cards were great, and well worth the trouble.
The company selected separate editors for the Leafs and the Habs. Foster Hewitt introduced the Leafs, and Frank Selke supplied the notes for “les Canadiens”.
Hewitt made his first hockey broadcast in 1923, and described play-by-play action of the Leafs in more than 2500 games-including seven Stanley Cups. That is, up until 1962, when the cards were released. His father, simply known as “W.A.”, and his son Bill were also heavily involved in the hockey world in Toronto.
Frank Selke began his hockey career in 1914, when he led the Berlin Union Jacks to an all-Ontario hockey final. He went to New York in 1926 to help Conn Smythe establish the Rangers. Twenty years later, he accepted a position with the Canadiens. He led them to six Stanley Cups, including five in a row.
Recently, one of the Habs featured in the series passed away. Tom Johnson finished his career in Boston, then stayed to work for the Bruins. The Baldur, Manitoba, native was a stalwart on the Canadiens blue line. He had good company to lead the Canadiens to so many Cups: Doug Harvey, Jean Guy Talbot, J. C. Tremblay, “Leaping” Lou Fontinanto, and Jean Gauthier. All have cards in this series.
Johnson played seventeen seasons in the NHL, fifteen with the Habs. He played more than a thousand games, and racked up almost sixty goals. He really wasn’t there to put the puck in the net. His job was to keep the crease clear for his netminders: Jacques Plante, Gerry McNeil, Cesare Maniago, and Gump Worsley, to name a few.
Al Arbour is one of the Toronto Maple Leafs included in the set. Arbour came up with the Red Wings, but played on the Hawks as well. He wound up with the expansion St. Louis Blues. Following his playing days, he coached for many seasons, winning several Cups with the New York Islanders.
Most of us remember Arbour wearing his glasses, although his York picture has him minus his spectacles. On the back of the card, there is an explanation; “ He is one of few professionals to wear glasses while playing, and his aggressiveness does not suffer from this handicap.” Handicap! Not much tact there!
During the 1962-63 season, York Peanut Butter inserted “Iron-on Transfers” in their jars. There were twelve players from the Habs, the Leafs, and the Red Wings.
The Wings were also a strong team at that time with Terry Sawchuck in goal, Bill Gadsby and Marcel Pronovost on defence, and power up front with Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, and Norm Ullman.
The company produced the more popular cards during the 1963-64 season, with 54 cards including both Canadian teams and the Red Wings.
In 1967-68, York issued their final set of cards, in a completely different format. They were “action shots”, taken from the Weekend Magazine photos. There were usually two players on each card, sometimes three. Card # 32 of the 36 card series features Jim Pappin and Bob Pulford of the Leafs moving in on Rogie Vachon. The Leafs possessed the Stanley Cup at that time.
The cards were also stuffed into bags of York Peanuts. They were acceptable, but did not measure up to Planters at that time.
One minor complaint about the cards is that the names of the players are not on the front of the cards. That makes life a whole lot easier.
Like most collectors, there are many holes in my collection of these octagonal discs. I have both of the albums, which are little treasures, but less than half of the cards. Alas, that is all part of the game, and the hobby. Got any traders?