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When Guy Lafleur came out of retirement in the fall of 1988, Stan Fischler mused about how he might withstand the nightly pummeling (at his age). The response to that query came from defenseman Kevin Lowe of the Edmonton Oilers: “No foe will dare cheapshot the Flower…..it’s an unwritten rule that you don’t cheapshot a star!” Over the years that same sentiment has been both written and spoken, if not in those precise words, at least in spirit.
Whether that statement was, in fact, real or ideal depends upon how one interprets “cheapshot”. It may well be that respect for the ultra-talented skater may prevent his being speared or blindsided; but there has been no law which prevents cheap tactics being applied to hindering such a player’s progress on the ice.
(By the by, that same Lafleur commented that the game had become dirtier and rougher than before he temporarily hung up his gear)
Recently Sidney Crosby was deemed to be the best hockey player in the world., Commentary on Mr. Lowe’s theory came under the microscope when “Sid the Kid” made his debut in the Big Time. The way he was “welcomed to the NHL” made headlines on sports pages and prompting outbursts of criticism on radio and television. Mr. “Coach’s Corner” himself, Don Cherry, blasted the cheap shots and other illegal tactics used to try to contain the loop’s leading point-getter! “He cannot be whacked around like the way he gets whacked around! It’s absolutely ridiculous the way he gets hit!”
The blustery shinny critic was thinking particularly of the spear by Rob Blake, a butt end from Maxim Lapierre, and a high stick from Francis Bouillon. He could have added a slash across the wrist by the Leafs’ Bryan McCabe!
His Penguin teammates agree! Sergei Gonchar added: “I see cheap shots all over the ice, and league officials have to do a better job of protecting him!”
Mark Recchi chirped in with: “He takes more abuse than any other young hockey player will take. For whatever reason people are trying to find negative stuff on this young gentleman who doesn’t deserve it!”
Perhaps it seems ironical that Wayne Gretzky, who found himself as the NHL’s number one attraction in the 80’s and 90’s, should take such a matter-of-fact response to this. “He’s the best player in the game.” said the former icon on ice. “Some people are going to try to knock him off his porch! He’s going to have to go through it. That’s part of being a professional! I know when I played, the other coach in their locker room, the first thing he said was, ‘Hit 99’!”
What “The Great One” fails to remember is that he had Dave Semenko riding shotgun for him. He had other “protectors” as well. Big Lee Fogolin warned a Detroit pivot, who was lined up for a face-off against the teen-age phenom, that if anything happened to Gretzky he would carve his eyes out of his head. He was invited to “spread the word!”
Perhaps the acquisition of enforcer Georges Laraque was meant to change the complexion of things at the Igloo.
“Mr. Wayne-derful” was right about one thing, however. His reference to “being a professional” underlines an unwritten law which portrays the price of stardom in the world’s premier hockey circuit. In simple terms, as Stan Fischler once wrote: “The more celebrated the player, the more attention he will get from the woodchoppers and spear carriers!” It was happening to “Sid The Kid”—just as it happened to every other superstar before him.
In 1982 Dean Robinson wrote the book,”Howie Morenz—Hockey’s First Superstar” Following his first marker as a pro puck chaser, as Robinson put it: “Officially the baptism was over for him, but physically the ceremony would stretch the rest of the season. He was awarded with special attention by such rough and ready assassins as Ken Randall and Bert Corbeau….”
In the Stanley Cup final that season, after having potted 3 goals in one game, he was leveled by the notorious Cully Wilson, resulting in torn shoulder ligaments and chipped collarbone. One opposition coach ordered his charges previous to one game to “knock Morenz down the first time he comes to you, and keep knocking him down. Never mind the rubber (puck)! Never mind anyone else on the team. But get him!”
Howie Morenz being stitched up in the Boston Garden locker room in 1930 (Photo: hockeygods.com)
While there were countless talented pucksters during the early days of the “Original 6”, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was the next hockey prodigy to be given special treatment in an effort to offset his tremendous goal-scoring achievements. Old time journalist, Bill Roche, once wrote: “No player in hockey history has been so illegally shackled and interfered with by a host of personal checkers and shadows as Richard! He should know all about the sour science of wrestling, for he has had nearly all the headlocks, arm scissors, and other grips and grabs applied to him in ice action. Defenders have assaulted him in every conceivable manner!”
Herb Warren of Sports Illustrated added: “He was subjected to more physical punishment than any other player since the organization of the NHL in 1917. ‘Defensive specialists’ resort to holding, grabbing, and hooking him—all to get him to retaliate, and so to get him off the ice!”
Numerous testimonies affirm these seemingly exaggerated claims. In 1945 Leaf boss, Conn Smythe, who had been confined to home nursing war wounds, saw him play for the first time. He reported that he saw a lot of the Rocket that night. “Once he skated in from the blueline with a big defenseman draped all over him on one side, and (Johnny) Gottselig draped all over him on the other!”
Emile “The Cat” Francis recalls one night when he was playing net for the Blackhawks. “He made the greatest play I ever saw! He came in from the blueline with big Ralph Nattrass and Bill Gadsby hanging all over him all the way. He was on his knees when he got to the net; but he beat me with a high shot to the corner!”
Perhaps the most famous account, one which has been told and retold, involves 220-pound Earl Seibert during his days with the Red Wings. Richard himself related it this way: “He realized he couldn’t possibly get in front of me so he did the next best thing. He threw his arms right on top of my shoulders. I kept skating and he kept following. Suddenly, I felt his skates lifting off the ice. When I was about ten feet from the net he tried to throw his whole weight on me. I felt as if I might cave in. The goalie moved straight out for me, but somehow I managed to jab the puck between his legs while Seibert kept riding on my back!” Even former referee Red Storey admitted that too many fowls against him were not called.
A contemporary of Richard was “Mr. Hockey”, Gordie Howe. He too took abuse when he was establishing himself as a big leaguer. However, that was short lived. Players soon came to realize that to antagonize the big fellow carried very high a price. Well-placed elbows to the head meant that it was the better part of valour not to try anything that would irritate the only skater who ever played as a grandfather in the NHL.
In one sense Bobby Orr, whom some say is the greatest competitor in the history of the game, also escaped a great deal of the physical harassment intended for him because he was so elusive on the ice. But, right from the start they came, with sinister spears to the stomach, subtle butt-ends to the ribs, elbows to the jaws, and crosschecks! Roughnecks like Reggie Fleming would try to blindside side him; others stabbed him in the back of the legs with their sticks. But after battling and beating some of the best “boxers” in the circuit, most of his tormentors realized that challenging him wasn’t worth the price.
A great deal of ink was given over the challenges of this kind afforded to an impressive teammate of Number 4—namely Phil Esposito. In his own inimitable way, columnist Bill Libby laid it on the line in descriptive terms: “Let’s say you are an office worker. You sit down at your typewriter and start to type, and a fellow from another firm starts to tug at your left arm, while another tries to break your right arm, while another hits you so hard he sends you flying. Let’s say that under those circumstances it’s hard to do your best work.
Every place that Phil Esposito goes these days there are other professional hockey players trying to earn their pay by mugging him!”
In a little more conventional manner Boston scribe Jack McCarthy opined: “……All superstars get a lot of attention, and not all of it to their liking. In Phil’s case, the Bruins’ organization thinks that he is getting worked over a little too much, and plans to protest to the league office—with illustrations.”
The “Golden Jet”, Bobby Hull, responded to such tactics a little differently. When asked why he put up with so much abuse, he answered: “I’ve had a certain amount of success playing my way!” And, of course, he had. His charges down the left wing lanes brought fans to their feet with excitement. His slapshot terrorized every goalie who ever faced him, enabling him to become the first NHL player to bulge the twine more than fifty times in a single campaign.
During one game against the Canadiens, super shadow, Claude Provost, pulled the stick out of Hull’s hands several times, yet only received two interferences penalties. Even then he held a tight rein on his temper, announcing that he couldn’t get mad at a fellow for “doing his job the best way he knew how!”
But it was criminal the way he was, in the words of Dan Moulton, “…hooked, held, and tripped more than any other man in the league. Because he’s so great the referees seem to ignore what’s done to him—and that’s plenty! They don’t call one quarter of the penalties that they should against players trying to check him. He’s just not allowed to play his game!”
One night in MapleLeafGardens, in the first period alone, he was tripped by defenseman Tim Horton, Kent Douglas climbed on his back, and Frank Mahovlich grabbed him by the arm and flung him on the ice!
The Ranger’s coach, Emile Francis, made no effort to cover up the fact that he “double-teamed” the Golden Jet whenever his sextet faced Chicago. Not only did he assign Bob Nevin the task of shadowing him, but also when these shinny Siamese twins hit the blueline, Tim Horton joined in, often stopping Hull’s forward motion by holding him with his Herculean right arm.
A bloodied Bobby Hull
But his patience DID have a limit! In the December 3, 1966 issue of the Hockey News the headline on page eight read: “Hawk’s Bobby Hull Hitting Back” “After more than nine years of being held, hooked, battered, slashed, high-sticked, charged, boarded, tripped, and kneed, Bobby has decided that the price he must pay for his tremendous talent is too much!”
The problem was, officials continued to keep the whistles silent when he was fouled; but when he retaliated, he was given the gate.
Other big name skaters suffered the same fate. Mario Lemieux was often forced to score goals with guys draped all over him. However, he was so big and strong that he was almost impossible to stop. Nevertheless, when he retired the first time, he gave as one of the reasons, the interference, the hooking behind the play, and the holding at the blueline. He stated he was sick and tired of the excessive clutch and grab hockey, which made it hard to finesse players to excel. “It got to the point where it wasn’t hockey anymore—it was football on ice—outright tackling went unpenalized!”
For the slightly built Mike Bossy, it was a different story. He was not capable of piggyback hockey in the manner of Richard, Hull, or Lemieux! A prolific scorer, who potted fifty goals in nine straight seasons, and who was the first to match the Rocket’s
Fifty goals in fifty games, he was forced to retire prematurely because of the abuse he received, particularly in front of the net. Of course the more he scored the more attention he received. One night in Detroit, after three seasons of collecting his usual share of bruises, he finally spoke out. He had been slashed, crosschecked, tripped, and grappled to the ice.
“Clean checks don’t upset me!” he said. “But when they commit infractions and they’re overlooked, I get frustrated! Then it becomes a joke!”
Opposition defenders didn’t hesitate to slam their sticks into his back. It happened so often, that finally the pain was more than he could bear. Aiming for his tenth consecutive schedule with fifty markers, he had reached thirty-eight, but could go no further. His battered body refused to get knocked down and get up anymore!
Whether a vulnerable Mike Bossy, or a current celebrity like Sidney Crosby, supposedly guarded by the stricter disciplines of the “new NHL”, it goes beyond injustice when they are constantly punished for being experts at their trade. Bobby Hull exposed the irony of it all thirty-five years ago when he complained: “They are trying to sell tickets because Bobby Hull is coming to town. But what do they see instead? Some guy out there preventing you from doing what people came to see!”
There is little doubt that the game’s newest hot shots will, sooner or later, be afforded the same special attention. Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad, Patrik Laine, and Auston Matthews will not be allowed to roam free in displaying their talents. But if they are mauled, tackled, and mugged in the fashion that the aforementioned have been, then perhaps this old adage can be appropriately applied to this scenario: “The only lesson history has taught us is that man has not learned anything from history!”
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