Viewed 2604 times
Please note that the following article contains a quote that uses a racial slur. We have chosen to reproduce the quote without censorship because the column is about hockey history, and changing the quote would amount to rewriting history. It is clear that such a slur does not belong in a civilized world, and the tone of the article should leave no doubt on this issue. This essay from Randall Kennedy, Professor of Law at Harvard University, provides an in-depth study on the matter and was used for guidance in our decision.
About a dozen years ago, when having a dog (or dogs) was on the verge on being a status symbol, two pooch prowlers happened to meet at the end of my driveway. The man and the woman (because of their mutual pastime) greeted one another like two car collectors who both had ’57 Chevs. And, while their canines rubbed noses, the lady spouted: “She’s been just dying to meet him!”
“Just dying” to see, do, have, go, or be, is a common way of expressing a keen desire—an popular expression heard often as one utilizes the idioms of our strange English language. Sadly, it is not an unknown scenario for people literally to lose their lives in their attempt to achieve these kinds of aims. “Dying” to be rich has led many a dreamer to armed robbery—only to be killed in a shootout with the law! “Dying” to test the top speed of a new automobile has left unwary drivers expired in their crumpled wrecks.
By the same token a number of professional pucksters have so committed themselves to Canada’s National sport, they have ignored the ultimate cost. In simple terms, there have been at least 28 hockey personalities who have faced death threats during the course of their careers. Happily, none of them lost their lives in the process.
It was in the autumn of 1953 that goalie Terry Sawchuck’s wife, Pat, viewed in person what her husband did for a living. Knowing very little about the game previously, she was shocked to see the man she loved, wearing no mask, the target of flying pucks and swinging sticks. She suddenly realized how much the ice-game meant to him, and commented that “he would have given his life for the Red Wings”. She discovered how close he came to doing just that.
He received an anonymous phone call before a crucial match, threatening him with the option of throwing the game or losing his life. The sophomore backstop informed Jack Adams, and then defiantly carried on as if nothing had happened. In fact it so enraged him that he played one of his best games, whitewashing the opposition with his stellar performance. Thankfully, nothing ever became of the warning.
Without a doubt the most publicized incident of this kind took the form of a double-barreled menace. It was sparked by the infamous “Rocket” Richard/Hal Laycoe bout in the spring of 1955. In a rage the Montreal winger punched linesman Cliff Thompson who attempted to quell the fight. As a result NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended him for the remaining games of the regular schedule and the post season. Two individuals felt the wrath of the Canadien’s fans, who, realizing Richard’s value to the club thought it was grossly unfair.
Campbell himself was the first victim. The league offices were deluged with phone calls, admonishing the loop’s CEO to change his mind, or face death. One anonymous note cautioned: “I’m an undertaker and you’ll be needing me in a few days!”
But the other target of the “Rocket’s” biased supporters put a strange spin on their acts of protest. None other than “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Richard’s teammate, became the target of disfavour. When the suspension was handed down, Geoffrion was second in league scoring, but well within reach of the cherished scoring championship. When it became apparent that he might catch the famed winger, or even pass him, he too received death threats by phone. One report stated that there was a warning his house would be burned to the ground if he persisted in scoring points, thus taking the Art Ross Trophy away from the “Rocket”. Indeed when he refused to play possum, and passed the banished star in points, he was rudely booed by the hometown Forum crowd.
The Boomer had already received a warning from an irate fan in the Big Apple two years earlier—a threat to send him into the great beyond.
A little more than a year after the Richard fiasco, Detroit and Toronto were embroiled in a spirited first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Games one and two were played at the Olympia in the Motor City. During the second match the Leaf’s Tod Sloan tangled with “Terrible Ted” Lindsay. Not long after, he and Gordie Howe skidded into the boards together, resulting in a separated shoulder for the youthful centre.
The Queen City faithful did not react kindly to the popular Leaf’s plight. But one took it far more seriously than others. Three anonymous phone calls to the Toronto Star with promises to shoot Howe and Lindsay caused no little stir, especially when the newspaper insisted on headlining the plan with: ‘WILL SHOOT HOWE AND LINDSAY TO AVENGE SLOAN”.
The news was withheld from the players until they arrived at the Gardens, but Gordie’s mom had heard about it by radio and broke down when she heard it. The players themselves treated it as a prank, and, typical of athletic humour, the team voted to have little-known rookie Cummy Burton skate up and down the ice, with Howe’s number 9 on his back, and Lindsay’s number 7 on his chest. He declined the offer, and the game went on as scheduled. As one journalist recalled: “The only shooting that night was by the Lindsay and Howe, who accounted for three of the team’s five goals, including the winner in overtime by the latter”. He was the last to leave the ice, and amused the spectators by circling the ice holding his stick like a rifle and muttering “rat-a-tat-tat”!
Three years passed before the next instance of this kind came to light. On that occasion the motive for harassment was racism. The immensely talented Willie O’Ree, who was burning up the QHL with the Quebec City Aces, was called up to the Bruins. It was after his first match with the Beantown six that he found hate letters in his mail box.
A carbon copy scenario surfaced in 1974 with Mike Marson, the next black to make it to the big time, bearing the abuse. He had been leading scorer and captain of the Sudbury Wolves Junior squad, and was Washington’s second choice, 19th overall, in the annual amateur draft. It soon became apparent that he was in for a rough ride.
Several death threats came by telephone. Others were paste-ups using letters clipped from newspapers and magazines. One read: “You’re skating on thin ice, black boy. This nigger is going to die if he thinks he belongs in a white man’s game!” His adversaries went one step beyond mere WORDS of caution. He found the wheel lugs loosened on his car, and found it necessary to check them every time he needed to drive.
After a respectable first campaign, the pressure rapidly began to tell on him. For the next three seasons he spent most of the year in the minors. There was even a last-ditch move, which took him to Los Angeles. But the damage was done. He candidly stated: “This garbage made me uneasy. How can you perform at your best as a professional athlete if you’re uncomfortable all the time? You can’t! It’s impossible!” He retired at age 25!
When Mike Bossy was habitually bulging the twine in 1981, threatening to surpass “Rocket” Richard’s scoring record of 50 goals in 50 games, he too came under police protection because of intimidation. After counseling a young women to kick her drug habit, the slim sniper was threatened by her boyfriend. Not only were patrols increased near his home, but he never went anywhere with security guards in tow. Bossy opened admitted he wanted out of New York, and would prefer to play in his native Quebec province.
A number of other forewarnings dot the pages of hockey history. Shortly after moving to Detroit, on March16, 1983, Danny Gare didn’t allow a death threat (which was directed to him for no apparent reason) to faze him—he scored 2 goals against the Leafs that night.
Proving that even fame of the highest order does not make one immune from this cowardly verbal assault, the “Great One”, Wayne Gretzky himself, was a victim on more than one occasion. In his autobiography he refers to “hate mail….the nut letters, people threatening my life”. In subsequent pages he gives specific examples—like the two people who had held such dastardly designs while the Oilers were on their way two their second consecutive cup triumph—and “the nut who wanted to kill me on my wedding day!” Further, after his trade to Los Angeles and the Kings had put the Oilers out of the post seasons, the same thing happened.
Many people were seriously upset with Eric Lindros when he refused to sign with the Quebec Nordiques who had picked him first overall in the 1991 draft. He already had a reputation for being uncooperative. When chosen by the Sault Greyhounds Major Junior team, he refused to make those long bus trips lest it might cause him to lose his year at high school. He held out and signed with Oshawa. It is said that he slept with a knife under his pillow during those amateur days because he feared for his safety. When he declined to move to Quebec, he was painted as “spoiled, immature, and greedy”. Both he and his family received death threats.
That same year Garry Galley, Boston defender, accidentally collided with the Flame’s Gary Roberts, resulting in damage to Robert’s knee. On the plane ride home the joint swelled so badly his pants had to be cut off before he could receive medical attention. Galley phoned Roberts and apologized. Roberts waved it off as “no big deal—it was an accident. But apparently Don Cherry thought differently; and when he criticized Galley on HNIC, the unsuspecting Beantowner received death threats because of his “dirty hit”!
The energetic whirling dervish, Doug Gilmour by name, may also be included in the list of NHL’ers who have had this scare thrown into them. In his case the motivation was different than the norm. It could be called a case of romantic sour grapes. During the 1994 playoffs he was given police protection after being menaced by an unidentified woman, who made calls from a number of Toronto phone booths. While the Maple Leaf pivot had no idea who she was, she, in turn felt he SHOULD recognize her. “He’s not giving me the time of day!”, she whined. “I’m going to get him! I’m going to kill him!”
The list of those experiencing this foreboding goes on and on: Claude Lemieux , Ron Greschner; Jose Theodore; Todd Bertuzzi; Brian Spencer; Brian Marchment; Gary Suter; Guy LaFleur; Pat Price; Paul Baxter; Glenn Anderson; Matthew Barnaby; Mike Richter; and even Phil Esposito.
The last significant one, as far as players are concerned (Gary Bettman was under the gun during the recent lock out) took place in 2009, with Alex Ovechkin getting the nod. Authorities investigated a communication posted on the Penguin’s message board, which declared: “I am killing Ovechkin. I’ll go to jail. I don’t care any more!” Whether it was a prank or not, police took it seriously. No motive, other than that it WAS possibly a lark, was ever disclosed.
Dying to playing hockey? Some came close to doing so.
Viewed 2604 times
Minor League 'Davids' Defeating Major League 'Goliaths'
Posted December 07, 2018
The Shadow Knows
Posted November 25, 2018
Lying Down on the Job
Posted November 04, 2018
The Perils and Pleasures of Water
Posted October 19, 2018
Hockey's Cinderella Teams
Posted October 07, 2018
Posted May 19, 2018
Hockey's Classic Embarrassing Moments
Posted May 10, 2018
Playing in a Fog
Posted April 21, 2018
Posted April 08, 2018
First Game, First Shift, First Goal!
Posted March 26, 2018
Always a Bridgroom
Posted March 12, 2018
The Year the Canadiens Almost Died
Posted February 24, 2018
Tangled With the Law and the Lawless - Part 2
Posted February 17, 2018
Tangled With the Law and the Lawless
Posted January 28, 2018
Lucky Black Cats and Number 13
Posted January 17, 2018
Concussions in Hockey Nothing New
Posted December 30, 2017
The Best Christmas I Remember
Posted December 18, 2017
Filling the Gap
Posted December 01, 2017
Off Duty Injuries; mishaps away from the rink
Posted November 13, 2017
The Most Cruel Bird of All
Posted October 26, 2017
Las Vegas — NHL's 31st Team — Knights or Knaves?
Posted October 13, 2017
Playing Under the Influence - of Pain
Posted May 29, 2017
In Tune Pucksters
Posted May 14, 2017
Laughter - The Best Medicine
Posted April 29, 2017
The Last Straw
Posted April 15, 2017
Whose Side Are You On Anyway?
Posted March 30, 2017
Ferreting Out Phantom Hockey Stars
Posted March 17, 2017
A Woman's Place...is On the Ice (Part 2)
Posted March 08, 2017
A Woman's Place...is On the Ice (Part 1)
Posted February 19, 2017
Tales From the Sin Bin!
Posted February 04, 2017
Happy 100th Birthday N.H.L
Posted January 25, 2017
New Year's Resolutions that Might Have Been
Posted January 06, 2017
It Happened on December 25th
Posted December 21, 2016
The Best of Hockey's One-Liners
Posted December 10, 2016
The Price of Stardom
Posted November 18, 2016
Is There a Doctor in the House?
Posted November 03, 2016
Auston Matthews: Liberator or Lemon?
Posted October 14, 2016
Hockey's Multi-Generation Families
Posted June 16, 2016
Picture Perfect - A Dozen Classic Hockey Photos
Posted June 08, 2016
Anatomy of the Penalty Shot
Posted May 17, 2016
Hockey's Honourary Indian Chiefs
Posted May 04, 2016
Posted April 17, 2016
Records That Will Never Be Broken
Posted March 31, 2016
Right Church — Wrong Pew
Posted March 23, 2016
Does "Captain" Mean Much Anymore?
Posted March 02, 2016
Posted February 21, 2016
Now That's Not Pun-ny!
Posted February 07, 2016
A Century of Leap Year Landmarks - Part 2
Posted January 26, 2016
A Century of Leap Year Landmarks - Part 1
Posted January 06, 2016
Posted December 29, 2015
Practice Can Be Precarious
Posted December 11, 2015
How Much is a Body Worth?
Posted November 25, 2015
Brooklyn Bridge is Falling Down...
Posted November 15, 2015
Did You Have a Good Summer? (Part Two)
Posted November 01, 2015
Did You Have a Good Summer? (Part One)
Posted October 16, 2015
From Champs to Chumps
Posted June 07, 2015
CLEAN PLAY……CLEAN PLAYERS….TRUE SPORTS
Posted May 11, 2015
Putting the Bite on the Opposition
Posted April 24, 2015
One Eyed Wonders
Posted April 12, 2015
Captain Cage Cop
Posted March 26, 2015
Trade Deadline Deals — Blockbuster or Bluster?
Posted March 17, 2015
Fun In the Snow
Posted February 27, 2015
Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated
Posted February 16, 2015
It's not what they said - it's what they meant!
Posted January 31, 2015
Posted January 18, 2015
Hockey's New Years Babies
Posted January 03, 2015
Strange Gifts - Christmas or Otherwise
Posted December 20, 2014
Two Dozen + 1 Wacky Wonders
Posted December 06, 2014
The Last of a Long Line of...
Posted November 24, 2014
A Compendium of Referee Non-Calls
Posted November 09, 2014
40th Anniversary of the 1974 Summit Series
Posted October 25, 2014
The Many Faces of Training Camp
Posted October 13, 2014
The Rise and Fall of Playoff Heroes
Posted May 30, 2014
Boston Bruins Celebrate 90 Years
Posted May 17, 2014
A Curse Upon Ye!
Posted May 01, 2014
For the Birds
Posted April 20, 2014
They Were Not Fooled By Their Birthdates
Posted April 08, 2014
Bitten By The Hand That Feeds
Posted March 22, 2014
Tongue in Check
Posted March 08, 2014
A Few L.A.F.F.S. to Relieve your S.A.D.
Posted February 21, 2014
The Ultimate Valentine - A Kiss
Posted February 08, 2014
Hats Off to Hockey
Posted January 25, 2014
Posted January 11, 2014
New Year's Revelations
Posted December 30, 2013
Posted December 23, 2013
Esposito vs Esposito - Smith vs Smith
Posted November 30, 2013
What's In 50 Years
Posted November 02, 2013
The Ongoing Resolve - NHL Season is Too Long!
Posted October 20, 2013