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Whenever a newspaper finds its way into my possession, I must admit that I always dig out the “Sports” section first. That is especially true during the hockey season.
In reality that heading borders on being a misnomer—at least since professionalism has reached the top rung of the ladder in the whole area of games of various kinds—whether it be in baseball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, or even poker.
The word “sport” is derived from the Latin “des” (away) and “porto” (to carry)—to divert, especially in the sense away from serious intent or labourous. So it came to be equivalent to “play” or “fun”. But far too many venues of sport have long ago abandoned most of that intent. That is adequately demonstrated in the mindless action of parents who are spectators at Canada’s National Sport being played by 8-year-olds. Fights among fathers and mothers, vehement threats flung at opposition skaters, and brutal abuse of referees seal this accusation in spades.
Recently sports pages headlined a bizarre example of how ignoring this philosophy has filtered down from the pro level of the game. After two years, a 16-year-old Brantford minor hockey player has been found guilty of “assault causing bodily harm”, and sentenced to 60 hours of community service. After having charged an opponent from behind he punched him 11 times after he lay prone on the ice. Sport? Me thinks not!
To be sure, the play-for-pay scene is the catalyst for this deterioration of attitude. When amateur hockey ruled in the game’s fledgling years, opposing teams actually hosted banquets for their nemesis when challenge matches or series of games had been concluded.
When our fair Dominion first embraced mercenaries in order to snatch the most skilled pucksters to ensure championships, in almost every case the complaint by spectators and the press was that the “pro game was too brutal”. In some cases fans simply chose to continue to watch the “Simon pures” because of the reports they heard about pros, or they abandoned arenas which featured their games. In a number of cases entire leagues folded because attendance dwindled resulting in failing finances.
Spineless dealings with offenders only encouraged skaters who were prone to violence to continue their sinful ways. On one occasion an offender racked up three major penalties and was banished for clubbing an opponent on the noggin—and was suspended one week by the league president—which during a 20-game schedule may have caused him to miss only one match.
Another incident featured an “enforcer” given a game misconduct for severely injuring an opposing player, with an arrest for assault being added to his portfolio. The referee announced that he was “a disgrace to the game”. But even though the victim of the attack missed two games as a result of his hurts, the league president “did not seem unduly concerned!” When the puckster’s club requested his expulsion from the league, other team executives refused to back the demand.
Such indiscretions were commonly reported—especially involving vicious cross-checks to the face and “pole axing” competitors on the head. Perhaps the climax came following a playoff contest between Ottawa and the Canadiens in 1923. After the Hab’s Billy Coutu and Sprague Cleghorn and “demolished” the Senator’s Cy Denneny and Lionel Hitchman, the offender’s own manager suspended the pair for the other game in the 2-game total-goal series.
Enter Lady Byng, wife of Lord Byng, Canada’s Governor General from 1921 through 1926. Residents of Ottawa, by their own admission, they had “fallen in love with the game”, but were distressed by the violence and mayhem so often present at the mercenary level. So, on March 7, 1925, the Viscountess addressed a letter to NHL President Frank Calder, which appeared in the Ottawa Citizen for the general public to read:
“Feeling a great desire to help in your effort to clean up hockey, and to eliminate
needless roughness that is at the present a threat to our National Game…..I am
writing to ask you to let me offer a challenge cup for the man of any team in the
NHL, who, while being thoroughly effective, is also a thoroughly clean player. I am
convinced that the public desires good sport, not injury of players; and, if by donating
this challenge cup I can in any way help toward this end, it will give me a great deal
It is interesting to note that her ladyship called upon Frank Nighbor to see the trophy, and, upon his approval, she personally took it upon herself to present it to him as the very first winner. Equally surprising is that the requirements for qualifying seemed to have been compromised a bit, in that the “Pembroke Peach” was 25th in scoring, with 18 penalty minutes. No less than five of his peers were listed higher in the points race and had less minutes in the sin bin that season. And Mickey Roach, Sam Rothschild, and Carson Cooper all had violated the rules to the tune of only two minor penalties. Apparently the frequency of being whistled to the “fence”, as they then called it, was not the only standard by which “clean play” was judged. It may be assumed that Nighbor, who was a poke checking whiz, had often tipped his victims off their pins by accident.
A candid survey of the league statistics over the next several seasons indicates that the worthy intent of the Byng hardware did NOT accomplish intended purpose. Perhaps referees bearing down to help realize that aim is the reason for a high number of infractions across the board. It was the mid-1930’s before the average P.I.M. numbers began to decrease.
In fact, Frank Boucher, on whose mantel the Byng rested for eight out of nine years commencing in 1928, averaged 15 P.I.M for the first four seasons he was granted the award.
However, it is encouraging to find players’ records interspersed among the rest reflecting sportsmanship and gentlemanly play. The campaign following Lady Byng’s donation, Harold Darragh was caught in violation of rules only three times. He repeated with the same in 1928-29 and 1929-30. Joe Primeau and “Cooney” Weiland had only two minor penalties in 1932-33.
Rookie-of-the-Year winner in 1933-34, Russ Blinco was the epitome of a spanking clean competitor. Either two minutes or four minutes were his usual stats in the naughty column over the six years he was with the Maroons and Blackhawks. His tolerance for fouls committed against himself equaled his “fair play” approach to the game. His mates used to encourage him to retaliate when he was done dirt—but he continued to bear the punishment without complaint. Finally, however, he gave in. After one more opponent was guilty of an indiscretion against him, he skated to the opposing team’s bench and shouted: “Yer nuthin but a bunch of darn tinkers, that’s what you are!”
Gordie Drillon (Byng winner the following season) and Harry Oliver recorded only two P.I.M in 1937-38. The “Kraut Line” winger, Bobby Bauer was joined in 1939-40 by five other top-notch performers with but a single minor infraction.
About that time an unassuming forward by the name of Clint Smith had reached the zenith of his 11-year stint in the Big Time. He was one of the five mentioned above. Over the course of three previous schedules his “line score” was 0-0-2 in penalties minutes. He logged a total of only 24 P.I.M during 483 NHL contests, and rightfully was recognized twice as the “most gentlemanly player”. He was runner-up thrice as well.
Syl Apps was another whose record was seldom besmirched with rule violations. His clean play approach to the game was acknowledged in 1941-42, when he spent zero minutes paying for on-ice sins. Between two to six minutes per season cooling his heels was his common pattern over 12 seasons.
Likewise Buddy O’Connor’s conduct seldom had black marks on it. In 509 games he totaled 34 P.I.M. In fact, in 1948 he earned both the Lady Byng and Hart Trophy, the latter emblematic of “most valuable player to his team”.
In was during that fourth decade of the 20th Century that the most notable achievements along this line made the headlines. As the 1948-49 campaign came to an end, two outstanding performers—Harry Watson and Bill Quackenbush—had played 60 games without incurring a single penalty. Because it was obvious to voters that it is more difficult for a defenseman than a forward to avoid rule violations, the nod was given to Quackenbush to receive this honour. An interesting sidelight emanates from the action in the final match of that season. Realizing the blond rearguard’s accomplishment, an opponent spent his time on the ice testing the gentlemanly Bruin to the limit by pestering him again and again. Finally, “Gentleman Bill” couldn’t take it any longer and gave his tormentor a jab. But the referee, who knew the lay of the land, saw what was happening, and ignored the clout—leaving the defenseman’s record spotless.
Bill Quackenbush before joining the NHL in 1942
Several others whose careers mainly spanned the “Original 6” era are equally deserving of recognition for that personification of the true meaning of “sportsmanship”. The slightly-built Camille Henry, who was called the “Eel” because he slithered around the opponent’s cage and slinked the puck behind goalies as a habit, skated in the NHL for 14 seasons, but whose P.I.M. total was only 88, falls into that category.
If there is a “Mr. Super Clean” it has to be Val Fonteyne. Over 13 seasons—820 games—his total penalty minutes was 26. For five of those baker’s dozen years he was not called even once for breaking the rules. Mainly a penalty killer, his points total was only 229, so he was never seriously considered as a trophy winner.
It would be an injustice to overlook Davey Keon, winner of the award in 1962 and 1963, who was found guilty of only one minor infraction both campaigns. His philosophy was simple: “I don’t do my team any good when I’m in the penalty box”.
With the 1967 expansion, enabling less talented skaters to don big league sweaters, the penalty minute totals across the board decidedly increased. More and more players with 100 plus minutes in the sin bin dotted the final stats numbers. Inferior competitors stooped to clutch and grab and roughhouse tactics in order to try to level the playing field. The “Broad Street Bullies” mindset replaced finesse and clever passing plays as a way to win all the marbles. As a result the powers-that-be lowered the standards when it came to what should be called as a violation of the rules. In 1976 superstar Bobby Hull reacted in no uncertain terms:
“Idiot owners, incompetent coaches, and inept players are dragging the game through the mud. They’re destroying it with senseless violence—whether Junior leagues, the minors, or kid’s teams—all doing the same thing—destroying hockey with brutality and savagery”
Over 40 seasons of diluting the symmetry of precision play with a mediocre fare there was infiltration of umpteen promises to “tighten the rules”. At last something came of it after the 2004-05 lock-out, with Brendan Shanahan’s leading the charge to have hockey played as it should be played.
One offshoot of this trend, naturally, was that players judging to exhibit “gentlemanly play” qualified for this silverware with higher P.I.M. totals. There were exceptions, of course—Jean Ratelle (4 min. in 1971-72); the aforementioned Butch Goring (2 min.); Paul Kariya (6 min. in 1996-97; and Ryan O’Reilly last season. But from 1968 through 2014, Wayne Gretzky won it with 21 P.I.M. in 1979-80; Brett Hull was chosen with 24 P.I.M. in 1989-90; Pierre Turgeon got the nod in 1992-93 with 26 min.; and Joe Sakic had the most votes in 2000-2001 with 30 P.I.M.
Perhaps a less direct result is the tendency to glorify puckster’s transgressions. First the league began to release the various team’s total penalty minutes per season. But by 1998-99 they published the top 50 individual leaders in the department. The lowest sum in that list was 154; the “leader”, Donald Brashear boasted 372 P.I.M., and 18 logged in more than 200 minutes
In an interview some years ago with the late Don Raleigh, the slim Ranger’s pivot of the 40’s and 50’s, I can still hear his raised voice when he said: “What kind of statistic is THAT? How do penalties help a team to win games?”
SIHR member Ian Fyffe recently penned an excellent piece entitled “Sportsmanship is Not a Dirty Word”. In it he despaired that there are “lots of lists of penalty minute leaders which are easy to come by—showing who broke the rules—but generally no lists of players with the fewest penalty minutes—no tributes paid to those who played within the rules!”
This attitude of displaying pride for being penalized rather than shame invites the kind of critique offered by Sport Magazine: “….the threat of a two-minute penalty doesn’t worry the average puckman. ‘What’s two minutes?’ he mutters as he skates to the box after getting the heave ho. That he has broken the rules upsets his thoughts if he has any. The consequences of his act are dismissed with complete affluence by everyone concerned!”
Jason Kay, Editor of The Hockey News, commented on this mind-set: “My guess is that it has to do with changing culture. Gentlemanly play, once highly respected, is now often equated with lack of toughness. Today’s game is more brutal. There’s always been an element of that in the NHL, but the speed and size and shorter shifts translate into a faster, bigger collision type of event. It’s more frantic—less artistry!”
There is still an element of hope left, despite all this negative hype. For one thing, at long last, three seasons ago, a defenseman was again awarded the Lady Byng Trophy—in the person of Brian Campbell—whose P.I.M. total was 6 minutes. Finally the PHWA seemed to have grasped the fact that it is more difficult for a rearguard, who is the second-last line of goal prevention, to defend against scoring. As mentioned, this is why Bill Quakenbush was chosen over Harry Watson in 1949. There were seasons in the past, when blueliner Nicklas Lidstrom should have been awarded this honour. In 1995 he had 12 minutes less in penalty minutes than the eventual winner, Ron Francis. In 2001 he served 12 minutes less for wrong-doing than Joe Sakic did. The other three years his totals were almost identical to those who carted off the hardware.
By the by, a fact that was virtually overlooked at the time, has long been forgotten as the years have slipped away is the unusual accomplishment of another defenseman, “Bucko” McDonald. Known during his 11 seasons in the NHL for his devastating body checks, he went through his final campaign as a member of the Rangers, with zero minutes in the clink.
A bright light which bursts through the shinny gloom is manifest in Ryan O’Reilly’s demonstration that a high standard of play CAN indeed coincide with good conduct. With 64 scoring points, third in Colorado’s scoring, his only infraction was failure to drop a broken stick quickly enough. As I recall it was CKEY’s Joe Crysdale used to end his sportscast with “Good night to all good sports!” May the tribe of good sports like Ryan O’Reilly increase. May more and more top flight skaters recognize that deliberate breaking of the rules is out and out cheating—that “sportsmanship is not a dirty word!”
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