Hockey's Historic Highlights

Ferreting Out Phantom Hockey Stars

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

Ferreting Out Phantom Hockey Stars

Posted March 17, 2017

Viewed 3384 times

    “I am a rookie with the New York Rangers, and the first woman ever to play in the National Hockey League.”

     This testimonial is credited to one Cleo Birdwell, and was found in the flyleaf of a new book published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, released in the fall of 1980. It was promoted as “an intimate memoir by the first woman ever to play in the NHL”.

   Buyers who casually picked up this new volume to peruse it would have certainly questioned “how come this was not headline news in the hockey world?” Those reading this column will doubtless react in the same way. “No historical record exists of this blockbuster phenomenon!”

   The reason being, in both cases, of course, that this was a fiction novel called “Amazons”, penned by Don DeLillo under the pseudonym “Cleo Birdwell”. No wonder Stan Fischler opined: “To put it mildly it is the most different hockey book ever written”.

Ms. Birdwell was a phantom, fostered in the imagination of Mr. DeLillo.

     Because of the inherent joy of scooping the competition in the arena of player search and rescue, some mischievous executives, players, and even public relations personnel, have invented out-of-the-ordinary finds in order to ruffle feathers—or to gain the advantage in competitive shinny circles—phantoms—the product of over-active imaginations.

   Back in 1925-26 the NHL’s Hamilton franchise was expelled from the league, but most of its players made their way to New York, hired by the team that became the Americans. Anxious to promote the game in the Big Apple, the club’s president, Tom Duggan, concocted a scheme to attract spectators to watch the second American city to be granted a franchise in the league. He announced that an Indian brave from the Caughnawaga Reserve in Canada, named Rainy Drinkwater, would join the club. Milt Dunnell, the sports editor of the Toronto Star, wrote: “He received more ink than Sitting Bull”. However, as it turned out, his real name was René Boileau from Pointe Claire, Quebec, a French-Canadian, a slight fellow who weighed in at 150 pounds.

    The press release went something like this: “From the shores of Lake St. Louis where his forbearers have resided for centuries, to the mad swirl of New York, comes Rainy Drinkwater, full blooded Indian, to play for the New York Americans. His real name is “Rain-in-the-Face” but it has been shortened to “Rainy”. He has resided in tee pees for the greater part of his life, and he liked nothing better than to go around Lake St. Louis in his canoe, helping his tribe get enough to eat by fishing and hunting.”

Rene "Rainy Drinkwater" Boileau
René "Rainy Drinkwater" Boileau

   It was great publicity for hockey-ignorant New York, but he lasted only a couple of weeks, playing seven games, then was sent down to New Haven. There he resumed going by his own name. But, when he was sent to Niagara Falls of the Can Pro loop they immediately hung the nickname of “Chief” on him. He became a minor league journeyman who never made it back to the NHL. Someone said: “He couldn’t live up to his press clippings!”

   Tommy Gorman was one who stuttered more than once from the practical jokes played on him by his goalie, Alex “The Ottawa Fireman” Connell. In the fall of 1935, when the Montreal Maroons were training in Winnipeg, an inexperienced newspaper scribe, desperate for a scoop, asked Connell if he knew of any new deals in the offing. He replied that he did, but it was very “hush hush”, and must be kept on the Q.T.! A prospect by the name of Billy Gilmour from out west, a 220-pound, six-footer, the fastest guy on skates from the prairies, would soon be arriving in camp. According to the mischievous cage-cop, he would make Howie Morenz look like a second-rater. The price tag was $10,000, but worth every cent!

   The excited columnist spilled it to the papers, and the Canadian Press picked it up. The papers had barely hit the stands when Gorman received an agitated phone call from the Maroon’s owner back in Montreal! With the club’s finances on shaky ground, the manager had some explaining to do. Totally unaware of what was going on, he asked owner Tom Arnold what the player’s name was. When informed it was Billy Gilmour, he laughed out loud. “Boss!”, he said. “That guy played for Ottawa 30 years ago!”

  Back about 1941, just previous to the Patrick brothers, Lynn and Muzz, entering military service, they collaborated with Coach Frank Boucher to play a practical joke on one of the Rangers’ scouts. 45 candidates for the team were at Lester Patrick’s “hockey school” as he called it, and after every scrimmage lists were drawn up appraising the hopefuls. The mischievous trio inserted a mythical player—Lysol Wilson, by name—into the ratings. After the first day of camp Lynn rated him fifth overall, and Muzz thought he should be third. The scout was trying to figure out which one was Wilson, but he didn’t want to appear ignorant, so he rated the non-existent player 19th

   The next day Wilson was near the top of the Patrick’s list, but this time the scout cautiously moved him up two notches to 17th. When Coach Boucher asked for an explanation for giving him such a low estimate, the scout frowned his best, feigned thinking for a wise answer, and piped up: “He can’t come out of the corners!”

    About 1945 the Chicago Blackhawks were holding their training camp in Regina. A rookie reporter had been sent from a Windy City newspaper to dispatch any exciting developments concerning the team’s pre-season activities. An experienced journalist saw his chance to have some fun at the greenhorn’s expense, and conspired with the Hawks’ publicist, Joe Farrell.

   He introduced Farrell as “Coach Johnny Gottselig” (Gottselig was the coach at the time), and, pretending to do the cub scribe a favour, revealed that they had just secretly signed a full-fledged Eskimo named Johnny Ooglenook to a contract. The Hudson’s Bay Company had given the kid a pair of skates, and he had taken to them like a fish takes to water. He moved like greased lightening and handled the puck so well it seemed to be glued to his stick. What was so attractive about this signing was that, since there was little on which to spend money in the Arctic, Johnny wanted only part of his salary in cash—the rest was to in the form of fish, delivered to his family. The fledgling writer took off like a shot to phone the story to his editor. But the smiling pranksters called him back and told him the truth.

    A decade later, when the Boston Bruins were suffering through some hard times, finishing at the bottom of the pile for a number of seasons in a row, Roger Barry, a local sports writer, decided to do something to boost the morale of the long-suffering Hub fans.

He fabricated the “discovery” of a utopian goalie, Pierre Lafond by name, who had been discovered in the wilds of Northern Quebec. He was five feet tall and five feet wide, thus almost totally filling the four-by-six opening in a standard NHL net. “Perfect Pierre” was introduced in a Boston Garden’s programme, setting off a wave of excitement in the hearts of the New England city’s hockey fans. Not only that, but there was panic in other league centres, as they wondered how they would ever get a puck past this China Wall netminder. But the delirious joy (and relief) was quickly turned to disappointment when the bewildered Barry discovered what he had intended as a gag was being taken seriously. He had to retract the news release.

   But the classic ruse of this nature is actually the most recent. It was the brainchild of the otherwise serious-minded, George “Punch” Imlach, when he was the general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. At the 1974 NHL’s Amateur Draft in June, he selected Taro Tsujimoto as the one hundred and eighty-third pick overall. Imlach and his associates had become bored with the drawn-out proceedings, which had been carried out by means of a three-day “conference call”. 

   Imlach had mischievously pulled the name out of a phone book, claiming the skater was a member of the Tokyo Katanas (Swords). The other managers were scratching their heads, wondering how “Punch” had discovered a prospect they never heard of. And, while it was all a lark, Tsujimoto’s name did appear in the Sabres’ training camp roster. In fact, the team’s Media Guides still list him among the draft picks. This trio of tricksters had the gag backfire, however, when the team’s owners, Seymour and Northrop Knox, were so excited about this mystery player from the Far East, they went to the airport to meet his plane. Only then were the beans spilled about the whole prank.

   And so, the moral of this story is: Believe only half of what you hear—and less from what you read in the newspapers.

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