Hockey's Historic Highlights

For the Birds

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

For the Birds

Posted April 20, 2014

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It may be readily argued that hockey has nothing to do with birds—and birds have nothing to do with hockey. Technically that is true—even though goal nets are sometimes called the “cage”, and broadcasters have been described as calling games from their “perch”.

     It must also be remembered that over the years there has been a “Turkey” Broda who played goal for the Leafs; Larry “Big Bird” Robinson patrolled the blueline for the Canadiens; and Nathan Perrott, Bob Wren, Emory “Spunk” Sparrow, and Robin Burns who were forwards with Nashville, Anaheim, Boston, and Kansas City Scouts. Also, Johnny “Goose” McCormack, Mike Eagles, and minor leaguer Donald Duck, graced the ice lines at one time or another.

  As well, the number of teams which adopted fowl names is almost endless—one of which will be featured early in this missive. As early as 1916, the PCHA welcomed a new septet called the Spokane Canaries—a name which prompted chuckles galore in shinny circles. In 1926 Colby College in the USA nicknamed their entry the Ice Birds; and in 1941 there appeared an Eastern League fraternity labeled the Johnstown Bluebirds. Of course we must not overlook the Rochester Cardinals, the Seattle Thunderbirds, the New Haven Eagles, the Richmond Robins, the Moncton Hawks, and the Quad City Mallards. Currently the world’s premier shinny circuit boasts the Anaheim Ducks, and the Pittsburgh Penguins and only lost the Atlanta Thrashers a couple of seasons ago. 

  But birds DID literally connect with Canada’s National Sport as time passed— various species of our fine-feathered friends came upon the shinny scene in most unusual ways. And that doesn’t count the live chicken which was flung to the ice dressed in the team colours of the Los Angeles Kings, or the plucked turkey which was beyond flying on its own steam when it hit the frozen playing surface. Some bad eggs were really desperate to carry out such foul acts of mischief. But we are talking about live birds, which honked, chirped, cawed, or crowed.

     One of the first recorded instances of one of oiseaus making a public appearance came during the Allan Cup finals in Toronto in 1919. The Hamilton Tigers and the Selkirks from Manitoba were all set for the opening face-off in this Senior hockey classic, when an unprecedented event took place. Two gamecocks, decorated with ribbons bearing the black and yellow colours of the Tigers, and the red and white of the Selkirks, commenced a competition of their own. Fortunately these feathered mascots had been stripped of their talons, and, amidst copious flying plumage, settled for a draw. But Hamilton bettered their western counterparts by one goal. 

    In 1930, the Detroit Cougars changed their name to Falcons. The club itself made a big enough fuss about it, but the team dentist, Dr. Charles Belland, decided to add some spice to the proceedings. He and a companion captured 30 crows and transported them to the Olympia Stadium in sacks. Their scheme was to paint the birds red (to match the colours of the team uniforms) and let them loose at the appropriate time. Their plan got off track when the mischief makers got drunk. So, without their decorated plumage, the crows were released from one of the galleries, with the result that, as they flew among the rafters, they created havoc. The pranksters were hauled off to the hoosegow where they became jailbirds!

     In 1943 the newly-appointed President of the NHL, Mervyn “Red” Dutton, was in Toronto to watch the first round of the play-offs between the hometown Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings. Getting ready for the night, he strolled into his room at the Royal York Hotel, doffed his jacket and shirt, and prepared to shave. Suddenly from behind the shower curtain there came a distinctive “hisssssss!” Because elaborate pranks were the rule of thumb in those light-hearted years, he suspected that his long-time nemesis, Lester “The Silver Fox” Patrick, was attempting to unhinge him.

    He threw aside the curtain, and there, swimming contentedly in the bathtub was a goose! A few seconds later the eleventh floor maid was astounded to see this half-dressed gentleman (with shaving cream still on his face) rushing down the corridor in pursuit of a  long-necked white goose. She fainted!

  Within a few minutes, in a very mysterious manner, “Oscar” found his way into the room of J. Digby Chick, a rather rotund gentleman who was the vice-president of the International Hockey League. It was late, and Mr. Chick was tired, and proceeded to enter his bathroom to ready himself for bed. Gazing solemnly from his bathtub was none other a goose!

   Short on patience because of the time of night, he phoned the hotel manager, demanding that something be done about the feathered intruder in his tub. With even less patience, the house executive, suspecting he had been imbibing, told him to “take a couple of aspirin and everything would look better in the morning.”

   But when J. Digby re-entered the powder room at 7 a.m. “Oscar” was not only still present, but became rude—nipping the hockey icon on his ample flanks. This time, he marched right to the manager’s door and demanded he “come and see for himself!” Sure enough, there was a goose in the tub. He was promptly delivered to the hotel butcher—and the manager and his assistant had a late Christmas meal!

    When the playing days of Dick Irvin Sr. were brought to a halt in 1929 due to a head injury, he was appointed bench boss of the Blackhawks. Typical of coaches in the Windy City, he lasted by two seasons. From there he moved to Toronto, where he was skipper of the Leafs until 1940. Finally he transferred to Montreal where he became almost an institution, settling in for 15 years. Frank Selke Sr. was an assistant to Conn Smythe for some of Irvin’s tenure in the Queen City, and they became fast friends.

   They shared a mutual hobby—raising and showing blue ribbon bantam chickens and pigeons. Both took this pastime very seriously. That became evident when Selke was made manager of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge in 1946. Since they had considerable pull with their respective clubs, they managed to arrange the NHL schedule so that the Canadiens played in Toronto during the famous Royal Winter Fair. This enabled the duo to showcase their precious fowl in this national setting. Somehow it is difficult to imagine anything like that happening in today’s multi-million dollar shinny scene.

   In his book Behind the Cheering, Selke candidly reveals another behind-the-scenes aspect of this unusual diversion from the rigours of big time hockey. Irvin somehow discovered the cream of the crop species, of both chickens and pigeons, could be had south of the Canadian border. So, on occasion he would purchase these birds when the Habs were playing in Boston or New York and smuggle them back into Montreal. Apparently, on one of these trips, the older players on the team found out he was bootlegging a fine rooster in the luggage compartment. Happy to play a trick on their boss, they left the cage open, with the result that this White Rock rooster came walking down the aisle of the Pullman.

  Joe Farrell, who was the Chicago Blackhawks publicist for several years, was a gagster extraordinaire. He was unpredictable in the pranks he would conjure up—and seemed to have no limit when it came to the lengths to which he would go. In 1948 an unnamed rookie reported a week late to the Windy City training camp. When he finally made his appearance he had a wild goose under his arm. Bill Tobin, who was the manager at the time, first blistered the young hopeful for his tardiness. Then, demanding an explanation for the wildlife, shouted, “And what is that?”.  

   “Well, I was delayed by a trip into the wild, sir!” He explained. “Mr. Farrell told me every rookie had to bring some sort of wild game with him—that it is a Blackhawk tradition!”

    “Stop!”, said the club executive, suddenly seeing the light. “That explains it! Just be thankful he didn’t ask you to bring a penguin!”

    And, while on the subject of penguins—the expansion Pittsburgh team by that name chose to use a live bird of that rare species as their mascot. When the first intermission took place in the “Igloo” (as they fondly called the Pennsylvania arena) on October 11, 1967 out waddled “Pete”, to make the first of his nightly forays on the ice. Borrowed from the city zoo, and kept in a cage while game action was on, he made his appearance while the players were resting between periods.

   As season number two approached, Jack Riley, the general manager announced that by the time the sextet took to the ice on October 12, 1968, “Pete” would have learned how to skate. “Can you imagine the impact Pete will have all decked out in top hat and tails and wearing skates!?”

   Well, the project failed. The butler-like bird never managed to conquer the blades—in fact, before the season had concluded, he died of pneumonia!

     In 1972 the Montreal Canadien’s AHL farm team was housed in the Halifax Forum. In March the change of climate ensured that fog would often prevail. In March of that year the local press submitted this report on the 25th, game night: “Inside the fog-shrouded Forum an hour before the game, hundreds of sparrows chirped happily in the rafters, anticipating a bigger feast than usual of hog dog buns. Mike Kelly, Vice-President of the Voyageurs, explained that the birds came with the winter fair, and attempts to persuade them to lave have failed miserably!” 

     A different kind of oiseau showed up in April 1980—not as a mascot, but a good luck charm—for the benefit of the Brantford Alexanders Senior “A” sextet. This time it was a mynah called “Rajah”, owned by Colin Kerr, a died-in-the wool hockey fan. This feathered celebrity had previously been given audience with the “who’s who” of the world, including President Jimmy Carter, the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II, and Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show! The famous Lloyds of London insured him for 12 million dollars. 

   Kerr was actually a supporter of the Toronto Marlboros, the Alexander’s opposition in the Allan Cup tournament. But the Marlie’s GM, Frank Bonello, declined the bird’s charms, saying they could win without its help. So Mr. Kerr offered its services to Brantford. Skeptical at first, the players soon began touching it, rubbing its cage, and screaming “Rajah! Rajah!”  The mynah’s owner claims the squad received energy from the bird, which enabled them to be victorious. But everyone wasn’t convinced. When Colin offered the miraculous fowl’s vibes to the Maple Leafs, Publicist Stan Obodiac had him ushered out of Maple Leaf Gardens. One might suspect he recognized it would take more than a good luck charm to bring the Stanley Cup back to Toronto!

   The most bizarre incident relating to a bird’s entrance on the shinny scene must be reserved for a single sparrow.  The Windsor Star featured this 2001-2002 story:

“Jason Spezza may be able to shake off defensemen with ease, but it’s a different story against a determined sparrow. A recent episode of the NHL TV Magazine show, Cool Shots, profiling Spezza, showed a video clip of him bearing down on a goalie (in the Windsor Arena). But just as he was about to make his move, Tweety dive-bombed him, swooping down in front of the started Spitfire and forcing him to lose control of the puck.

A microphone in the player’s bench picked up his amazed reaction. “Did you see that?”,

Spezza asked a teammate. “It was a bird!”

   One of the most recent birdie tales originated with the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors hockey club. Leave it to this California club to avoid anything mundane when it comes to PR stunts. On April 13th they promoted “Undie Sunday”. Fans were asked to throw underwear onto the ice when their home team scored their first goal of the game. But on February 10, 1913, their “normal” ploy experienced some glitches. Their mascot, a live condor, was perched on the arm of its handler at centre ice while the National Anthem was being sung. Suddenly the nervous fowl began flapping its wings violently, prompting its master to attempt to calm it down—but to no avail. In fact it flew wildly away, with its handler in pursuit. With the feathered carnivore once more at least partially secured, he made a b-line for centre ice again. This time the agitation of the mascot threw him off balance, and he lit unceremoniously on his derriere. And, once more the chase was on. But this time the condor landed momentarily, scooted along the playing surface until it leaped into the “home” player’s bench, then headed down the hall to the locker room. Somehow the score of the match against the visitors from Los Vegas seemed insignificant in light of the pregame entertainment!  

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