Hockey's Historic Highlights

A Curse Upon Ye!

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

A Curse Upon Ye!

Posted May 01, 2014

Viewed 5385 times

The dictionary definition of “curse” is: “An imprecation of evil’; that which brings or causes evil or trouble.”  In simple, everyday terms it speaks of casting a spell, or placing a hex which either detracts from benefit, or brings decided tragedy. 

   The ancient world put great stock in such jinxes, and filled hearts with fear and superstition. In the Bible, Jehovah’s curses either depleted benefits, or brought definitive hardship on those who fell into His disfavour. Medieval ages were also rife with an atmosphere of malediction.

  As people generally abandoned the tendency to believe in superstitions, curses became less and less of a threat in day-to-day living. However, partly tongue-in-cheek, and partly influenced by the spirit of whammies and double whammies which manages to plague organized hockey, curses have reared their ugly head, seemingly influencing the outcome of everything from a single game to a franchise status.

  Curses usually take on one of two scenarios: an actual pronouncement, when a declaration of bad luck is directed to another; or an implication, when circumstances seem to point to a bane having become the portion allotted to the victim. Most of this missive will be given over to the former.

    Initially we go back to 1926, the year the Chicago Black Hawks were granted a franchise in shinny’s premier circuit. The first of the two most celebrated hexes in NHL history has made perpetual headlines. The chief cook and bottle washer of that fledgling fraternity was Colonel Fredrick McLaughlin. Pete Muldoon (whose real name was Linton Muldoon Tracey) was hired as the first of many Windy City coaches. He guided this new club to a third place finish in the American Division of the ten-team loop. His sextet had scored more goals than any other troop in the league. 

  But, instead of getting a pat on the back for his efforts, he was fired. The impatient McLaughlin opined that his chattels should easily have finished at the top of the heap. Angrily, the rookie bench boss is reported to have said: “Why you blankety-blank so-and-so! I’ll place an Irish curse on your club that’ll keep them out of first place forever! You just wait and see!”

  McLaughlin passed away in 1944. At that point, two decades later, this so-called “curse” was still in effect! In fact, even though they copped the Stanley Cup in 1934, 1938, and 1961, it wasn’t until the 1966-67 campaign that they finally reached the top rung on the hockey ladder during the regular season. On the night they clinched top spot, Coach Billy Reay barged into the dressing room with, “We buried Muldoon!” 

   As time went on, this hoodoo would be publicized from time to time—more frequently as the pages of calendar were turned.

  While doubt is rightfully attached to the validity of any “spell”, apparently even the accuracy of the story is suspect. Former Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster, Brian McFarlane, claims that former Globe & Mail columnist, Jim Coleman concocted the tale when he ran short of material for his daily editorial one day. Certainly the curse is a myth; but we may never know whether or not the account of it is.

   The other most renowned incantation emanating from the ice game involves another club which became part of the NHL family the same season – the New York Rangers. Their story carries more positive overtones. In their initial campaignthey won the divisional title, and were Stanley Cup champions in their second year.

  During the 1940-41 schedule the mortgage on their home arena, Madison Square Garden, was paid off. Since they were the current holders of shinny’s Holy Grail that season, the bowl of that silver chalice was utilized for the ceremonial burning of the mortgage. There was a ground swell of criticism for treating the trophy this way. Some said it had been “desecrated”, leading the “hockey gods” to place a curse on the team. This, of course, was often theorized as the reason the Blueshirts perpetually failed to earn the game’s highest honour. When, after 54 years, they finally turned the tables, the popular conclusion was they had finally “conquered the jinx”!

   But there is an added element to this scenario—creating a double whammy, as it were.

When “Red” Dutton suspended operations of the New York Americans following the 1941-42 season, he held the franchise in limbo, with the intent of reviving it following World War II. In fact he held the office of league president for the duration of the hostilities. He resigned that position in 1946, ready to resurrect the star-spangled six. But the league governors, supported by Madison Square Garden, reneged on the promise to allow the Amerks to return. A bitter Dutton is reported to have declared that the cross-town Rangers would never win the Cup as long as he lived. It was six years after his passing before the spell was lifted. The actual potency of all such hexes is akin to the one attributed to rock singer Jim Hendrix: “I’m gonna put a curse on you – all your children will be born completely naked”.

Cursed Related Players

     This next tale was virtually unknown until a Hockey News interview in 1992 made a passing comment on it. But in April 2012 the full revelation came to light. Larry Hillman, who is considered by many hockey icons to have been the unsung hero of the Toronto’s last World Championship in 1967, confessed having “put a curse on them”, as a result of the shabby treatment he received following that triumph.  

  The hex was the result of Punch Imlach’ s refusal to consider a raise in pay, which would have given the middle brother of the Kirkland Lake family trio $21,000 as opposed to the $19,000 the club offered him. When he balked they took his equipment out of his stall, and fined him $100 per day for the time they made him sit out. 

  The impact of Hillman’s jinx was to prevent them from winning another Cup until they repaid him that $2400 he lost through fines—plus interest! (This account was reprinted on April 18 of this year.)

    The December 26, 2009 issue of the Toronto Sun included a feature article on “The Curse Of Sam Lane”. It was written by Sam’s son, Gary, who spent several years in Los Angeles as a TV writer and producer.

  In this column his bold preface stated: “When Frank Mahovlich was traded by the Leafs in 1968, this disgruntled fan declared to his sons that the team wouldn’t win another Stanley Cup for 50 years! Who knew just how prophetic his words would be?”

  Lane mentions that upon hearing the announcement about the famous swap, which took the “Big M”, Pete Stemkowski, Garry Unger, and the rights to Carl Brewer to Detroit, and shipped Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson, and Floyd Smith to Toronto, his father made the above prediction.

   The underlying reason for this “curse” stemmed from the fact that Simon Lauc (aka Sam Lane) was from Croatia, and Frank Mahovlich is the son of Croatian immigrants. Lane concluded his submission with these words: “But if the Leafs don’t win the Stanley Cup until then (2018), or later, well, I guess you can blame my father—and the Leafs’ management, who traded away Frank Mahovlich on March 3, 1968.

 Another little known instance of shinny voodoo involves one Tommy Smythe, the grandson of Conn Smythe, one of the game’s most renowned movers and shakers. The depressing account of Stafford (Conn’s son, and Tommy’s father), and his involvement along with Harold Ballard in his hanky-panky with Maple Leaf Garden’s securities still lingers in the game’s lore.

  In February 2007, this third generation member of the famous family caused a stir following the club’s honouring of the 1967 club, the last Leaf sextet to cop Lord Stanley’s famous old mug. On that occasion he protested the failure of the team’s powers-that-be to acknowledge his late father, when all the accolades were spread like confetti during that ceremony. He pointed out that while Punch Imlach was given the credit for making deals and promotions to improve the team, it had actually been Stafford, working behind the scenes, who had developed the successful farm system which prospered the Blue and White so fully. Solid performers like George Armstrong, Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, Bob Pulford, Dick Duff, Bob Nevin, and Carl Brewer donned Toronto’s colours as a result of his efforts.

  “But”, Tommy complained. “That night Stafford was never mentioned, and no member of the Smythe family was invited to the gala celebration!”

  He also revealed that, “When my father died in 1971, I put a curse on the team. They will never win another Stanley Cup until this injustice is put right!” 

   Bewitcheries such as this in the world of hockey are a dime a dozen. For instance there is “curse of the batted bat”. In 1975 the Buffalo Sabres were battling it out with the Flyers in the finals. During game 3, unusually warm weather in Buffalo caused fog to descend on the playing surface, making it impossible for some spectators to view the match. Out of nowhere a bat swooped down into the fray. Centre Jim Lorentz took a home run swing, thus disposing of the nuisance. The home town six won that contest, but lost the series 4 games to 3. The defeat was blamed by the “bad omen” brought about by the killing of an innocent creature. Since then the Sabres have only reached beyond the semi-finals once, and never captured Lord Stanley’s coveted mug.   

   A few of these hoodoos have been applied to individual players. Paul Coffey was traded by Edmonton to Pittsburgh, as part of a multi-player deal in November 1987. He didn’t exactly leave the Oilers on the best of terms because of a contract dispute with the powers-that-be—namely, Glen Sather. And the last thing “Slats” said to him was: “You’ll never win again!” History tells a different story!

  Accusations of conjuration know no bounds. Back in October 2008, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin was invited to ceremonially drop the puck at the October 16 match between Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers. With much pomp she was introduced as the best-known “hockey Mom in the United States”. There were smiles and handshakes all around – but the Flyers lost that game, and five more in a row. 

   Eleven days later, Governor Palin duplicated the favour in St; Louis, a contest in which the Rangers were also the guest team. The blue carpet, on which Ms. Palin had walked to centre ice, unfortunately slid sideways when goalie Manny Legace made his entrance. He strained his hip and missed several games while he recuperated. The Blues also were shut out in the match that followed. The resulting headlines included appeals by other NHL clubs that they would not be victims of the “Palin curse”, by being expected to ask that she be involved in opening face-offs in their bailiwick.        

 This next kind of bane falls into a different category than those first mentioned. There are several wherein the vilification is perceived rather than cast. For instance, in 1997 the Detroit Red Wings swept the Flyers 4 games to 0 to retrieve an honour which had escaped them for 41 years. As they celebrated winning hockey’s silver chalice, Kris Draper announced: “The curse is over!”  After two consecutive campaigns of having the best regular season record over all, then fizzling in the post-season, they final took home all the marbles. 

   A variation of this scenario focuses on what traditionalists call “hexes” of one team over another. In 1945 Dink Carroll of the Montreal Star reported that that the Canadiens had an “Indian sign” over the Red Wings. The latter had gone 18 straight games against the Flying Frenchmen without a win. 

   In December 1974 it was reported that the Pittsburgh Penguins in 19 contests in Boston Garden had a record of 0-17-2. In fact they had only been victorious there a single time since they joined the NHL in 1967.

  In April 1991 the New Jersey Devils failed to get in the win column against the New York Rangers in 12 years. 

   There is a slight spin on that kind of hang-up which has become known the “Marty McSorley curse”. In 1993 the Kings and Habs were pitted against one another in the finals. In game three, as the game was winding down, down Coach Jacques Demers sensed there was something fishy about the big enforcer’s stick blade which stood out. He called for a measurement—and sure enough—it was illegal. With Los Angeles a man short, the Canadiens knotted the score, and went on to win the game in overtime. They were victorious in the next three matches and were awarded the Stanley Cup. Since then, no Canadian-based sextet has won the world championship Tradition holds it that McSorley’s selfishness and Demers’ nit-picking when so much was at stake has cast a spell on teams north of the 49th parallel. 

  Finally there is a totally different kind of whammy known as the “Madden curse”, or the “Electronic Arts (EA) curse”. Originally it began with an NFL video game, which first featured footballer John Madden. Other gridiron stars whose image appeared on the cover of the game since 1999 have had a disastrous season the following year.

  That same year NHL hockey players began to be showcased as well—Eric Lindros being the first. That campaign he finished with 90 scoring points. The next schedule saw him experience the first of several concussions, which eventually brought his tenure in the game to a close.

 Chris Pronger followed suit in 1999-2000. Previously he had topped the list of plus/minus candidates with an amazing plus-52. The next year he missed 31 games due to injury.

  Jerome Iginla was a winner of the Maurice Richard Trophy, racking up 52 markers in 2002-03. But he had a disappointing follow-up campaign with only 35 goals.

  So……is there anything to all this “curse”, “hex”, “jinx” stuff? Perhaps Jardon Kintz answers that best: “I am cursed! Everybody around me is dying – it just might take them one hundred years to do so!”

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