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Pavel Datsyuk #13 of the Detroit Red Wings warms up prior to the start of the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium on January 1, 2014 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Fast forwarding to the 1940’s there were still a smattering of puck-juggling magicians. “Teeder” Kennedy joined the Maple Leafs in 1942. He was in instant hit with both Toronto’s management and fans. When the Quaker Oats Company offered hockey premiums to the public, they included a little booklet profiling the Port Colborne product. One phrase which summarized his approach to the game was “stick-handler deluxe”. Hap Day, who was the Toronto coach when Kennedy quickly earned a prominent spot in the line-up commented: “He is the greatest teen-age hockey player to come along since “Busher” Jackson. He isn’t as good a skater as “Busher”, but he is a better stick-handler. In fact he is one of the best stick-handlers of the past two decades.
The Boston Bruins were able to boast at least two who could dangle the disc like a yo yo in the hand of an expert. It was said of Ralph “Cooney” Weiland that he could “manipulate the puck through the sticks and legs like a magnet, to the delight of the fans. He tormented opposing defenders with his trickery!”
They called Bill Cowley a “Wizard”, because he was a superb puck-handler who could feint around the opposition and slide the rubber to either of his wingers.
The Ranger’s Edgar Laprade typified this definitive adroitness, “He could handle a stick the way a crafty politician could handle words”. In his book, “Over The Glass and into the Crowd”, Brian McFarlane put it this way: “He was a fluid skater who could weave a creative web of dekes and passes that dazzled New York’s long-suffering fans.”
Howie Meeker relates how that in the mid 1940’s, Coach “Hap” Day liked to conclude practices by having his crew play the game of “keep away”. He and Joe Klukay were often the victims of Max Bentley in this exercise. Neither of them got to touch the puck. “Max would dispy doodle around and laugh like heck. We’d just laugh and shake our heads. They didn’t call him the ‘Dipsy Doodle Dandy from Delisle’ for nothing. You’d never have seen anything like it!” Countless game reports acknowledge that he often skated through an entire team at top speed, ending up at the goal-mouth ready to challenge the netminder.
Many hockey buffs recall the circumstances surrounding Henri Richard’s attempt to break into the power-packed Canadien’s line-up in the fall of 1955. Always living in the shadow of his famous brother, “The Rocket”, he was questioned about his chances of making the team. “Dey don’ wan’ me yet; but I’m gonna make dem oblige to get me!” Coach “Toe” Blake summarized how prophetic those words were.
“When he was on the ice nobody else had the puck, so I had to sign him!” He soon proved his worth. One night in Toronto with the Leafs up 3-2, the young rookie headed for the blueline, soon to be met by a forward moving in on him. But he whirled in a complete circle, went past the skater, drew the defenseman to him, stick-handled past him, flicked a pass to (Marcel) Bonin, who scored to tie the game. A minute later, he once again eluded the defense corps, and set up a mate for the winner.
In 1958 the Toronto Star published an NHL “Coach’s Poll”, listing the players who were best in different categories. Larry Regan, then with the Bruins, was chosen number one when it came to the stick-handling department. Every profile of the North Bay product emphasized his prowess in this area. Perhaps Brian McFarlane’s humourous thumbnail sketch in his “It Happened in Hockey” describes it best.
“While skating for the Pembroke Lumber Kings, he (Regan) was stickhandling all over the ice and completely ignoring his wingers. One of his mates, Rheal Savard, kept rapping his stick on the ice in frustration, waiting for a pass. When Regan finally spotted Savard in the clear. and whipped the puck in his direction, the winger had grown weary of waiting. He snared the pass, flipped the puck from his stick to his glove, and skated over to his team’s bench. He handed the disc to trainer Bill Higginson and said, “Here, Bill get this thing mounted. It’s the first bloody pass I’ve got from Regan all season!”
It would be a gross oversight not to include Dave Keon in the 1950’s list of elite puck-handlers. Known for his forechecking skills, he was also an incomparable penalty-killer. And that was due to his deft moves with the old boot-heel. Paul Morris, who was the Maple Leaf Garden’s P.A. announcer from 1961 through 1999, was asked to recall his most memorable call. He responded by mentioning the most memorable play—which he could not announce. It was a penalty killed almost single-handedly by the Noranda native, the entire two minutes.
During that decade, this basic skill had already badly eroded. In 1953, Toronto Star Sports Editor Milt Dunnell responded to Lester Patrick’s recommendation concerning a NHL newcomer. “He’s the best stick-handler I’ve seen in 10 years!” “And what, pray tell”, the dean of shinny scribes answered. “Would a stick-handler do in this league?”
On one occasion, Jack Adams, Hap Day, and Frank Selke Sr. happened to be together, and this topic came up. The upshot of their brain-storming was the conclusion that stick-handling was disappearing in Juvenile and Junior ranks. After all, the NHL set the pattern for other levels of the game. And the rules of the world’s premier league made it almost impossible for a player to stick-handle without being mobbed by anywhere from two to five rivals wrestling him for the puck.
Three years later, Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette submitted a column entitled, “What’s Wrong with Hockey?” He quoted former league President, “Red” Dutton: “There haven’t been any stick-handlers since 1943, when the red line was added to the game….”
As a matter a fact, in January of 1946, a former Sports Editor of the Toronto Star made this prediction: “The days of the big hulking defenseman are numbered—and shortly a good stick-handler will be just as unimportant….”
One reason for this deterioration of the game’s basic skills was due to a departure from the roots of the sport. In its vintage years prospective players honed their skills by grabbing skates and stick, hauling shovels or home-made scrapers, clearing a spot on the ice of a river, pond, or lake and getting a game of shinny started. Pairs of winter boots were adequate for goal posts; sides were chosen; and the match was on. Playing “keep away” was priority—snatching the puck (or equivalent) and slipping the rubber by all and sundry, until a goal was scored or someone knocked it off your stick. There were no coaches, no drills, no set forward lines—getting past the opposition by manipulating the puck—one for all and all for one—until a score was made. Those were the fundamentals of hockey.
In 1948, Dick Irvin, bench-boss extraordinaire, griped: “They’re over-coaching younger players. There’s only a handful of players (in the NHL) who can lug the puck up the ice … the emphasis should be on puck-handling and stick-handling … when I was a kid we played on the Red River … (there were) 50 kids and one puck. If you couldn’t stick-handle you never got the puck. There’s not enough pond shinny going on these days. That was the breeding place for the old time stick-handling. If we’re not careful it will become a forgotten art!”
Buddy O’Connor, who won both the Hart and Lady Byng Trophies in 1948, echoed these sentiments while discussing the state of modern hockey in 1964. He deplored the lack of old time shinny scrimmages, when a player would grab the puck and try to keep it away from 20 others. “Many a fine stick-handler developed that way”, he opined.
Several decades later, Wayne Gretzky, interviewed by Peter Mansbridge, commented: “We’ve lost a lot—playing on a pond — getting out there and using imagination and creativity, doing funny things with the puck!” He contrasted that with the highly systematic and robotic approach to the game for kids now.
College Coach, Len Ceglarski, echoed those sentiments. “Stick-handling has left the NHL, replaced by a discordant symphony of clutching and grabbing. Players get rid of the puck, anticipating getting creamed!”
Unfortunately, this compilation of opinions did overstate the case. While it was true that the, overall, this basic tenet had taken a back seat, there were still those who dazzled both spectators and opponents alike with their sleight of hand, leaving defenders looking a bit sheepish while the puck-carrier went on his merry way.
Especially in is hey-day, none other than Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe, gave opponents fits as he left them stranded, wondering where the old boot-heel went. Bob Baun, who played against him for years, then with him for a little over two seasons, said: “He was a master at ragging the puck during a penalty. He dared opponents to take the puck away from him!” Stan Fischler added: “He was so adroit at stick-handling his opponents used to say: “He plays a funny kind of game—he doesn’t let anyone else touch the puck!”
Stan Mikita was another “old school” competitor. In his book, The Chicago Black Hawks Story, George Vass recalls “Stash” dealing with a team’s short-handed situation: “……figure-skated in and out of Montreal Canadien ice. He had shaken the puck loose from a Canadien along to the boards in Hawk territory, then charged up the ice until two Montreal defensemen double-teamed him. He spun out of their grasp, picked up the loose puck again, and wove back and forth across Canadien territory as Montreal’s finest helplessly watched.”
The other underlying reason for the disappearance of this tactic can be explained by a trio of trends, which had evolved over several decades—moving in and out of prominence more than once. Space will not permit a detailed diagnosis, but—“Dump and Chase”. “Clutch and Grab”, and ‘the Trap”—any one of the three making the use of this tactic impossible or insignificant. Doug Harvey said of the first: “It’s just giving the puck to the other team.” Of the second Brett Hull growled: “Because of obstruction tactics the game sucks to watch”. Of the third, Robert McLeod called it a “ludicrous spectacle”.
”Fortunately, the ingenuity of a few pucksters have assured that this entertaining adroitness has never been allowed to die completely. To one of those players was applied this pun: “This Orr is pure gold!” Any hockey fan who has access to YouTube can watch clip after clip of the Bruins’ Bobby Orr displaying his tremendous prowess. Again and again he takes the puck from behind his own cage and weaves his way through opposition players—sometimes two at a time, and either passes to a mate or shoots on goal. In the book, “The Bobby Orr Story”, John Devaney describes one example of that: “The Bruins lost a skater, who had been sent to the penalty box. They won the face-off and flipped the puck to Bobby. He hugged the puck to his stick and skated in circles, with a line of Rangers chasing after him. They tried to knock the puck away, but he held onto it. They tried to knock him down, but he stayed on his feet. For 30 seconds of the two-minute penalty Bobby skated in circles with the puck, killing the penalty. Finally three Rangers cornered him. He shot the puck the length of the rink, and by the time the Rangers recovered it, the penalty time was nearly ended. They did not score!”
During that same era, J.C. Tremblay likewise demonstrated amazing dexterity in cradling the disc and keeping it from the opposition. His teammates joked that when he played there should be two pucks — one for him and one for the rest of the players. While playing for the WHA Quebec Nordiques he once kept the puck to himself for the full two minutes of the penalty handed out to his cohort.
In the interim, between the 1970’s and the “Shanahan Conference”, which has greatly reduced the clutch and grab tactic, there were still a precious few who rose above it and managed their puck and stick magic. One of those hangers-on was a kid who was considered too scrawny by the Winnipeg Jets — one Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky. Reviewing his moves, even during the “dead puck era” is inspiring. His stops and starts, his tricks with the puck as he spun and weaved, seemingly surrounded by “the enemy”, bursting out of that cluster of elbows and sticks still cradling the object of the game, is truly amazing.
Mario Lemieux, Alex Kovalev , Gilbert Perreault, Pavel Bure, Ales Hemsky, Sergei Fedorov, Jaromir Jagr, and Steve Yzerman were contemporaries who excelled at ragging the puck, keeping the opposition chasing their tails.
Then came the great emancipation, spawned by Brendan Shanahan in 2005. This did more to breathe breath back into the game at its highest level than any other innovation recorded in league archives. At last, highly-talented artisans were free to display their wares without being strangled in their attempts to win games and entertain the paying public. Several responded in spades to being free of the shackles which had previously cramped their style.
One of the first to demonstrate his appreciation for this new lease on life was Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk — since retired. Those “top 10”, “top 15”, or “top 25”, in various categories usually represent subjective choices — understandable because total objectivity is almost impossible. But it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sleight of hand demonstrated by this clean-playing Russian native. There is a Youtube “Highlights Reel”, which focuses on him bursting through at least four defenders — against two different teams — in each case to score against a baffled goal janitor. His ability to back-pass between his own feet, only to retrieve the disc again, is spell-binding.
Currently, the “top 5” puck-jugglers, according to Skills Coach, Pavel Barber, are: Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid, Mathew Barzal, Nathan MacKinnon, and Sidney Crosby. (no Marner). Since this column is “Hockey’s Historic Highlights, readers may easily check out video clips of this handful of wizards — plus others — without blow-by-blow descriptions on these pages.
The actual all-time-best? Every era has nominated its own choice. One can only read reports of the dipsy-doodle dandies of the first three quarters of the NHL’s history. But that doesn’t rob us of the enjoyment of being dazzled by those who today radiate the revival of hockey’s once-lost art!
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