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Bruins' Steve Kasper (right) sticks close to Oilers' Wayne Gretzky during the game at Boston Garden (Getty Images)
For 25 years, beginning in 1937, old time radio featured a mystery programme called “The Shadow”. The unmistakable introduction by Frank Readick Jr. never varied: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Heh-heh-heh-heh! The Shadow Knows!” A cross between Mandrake the Magician and Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, Lamont Cranston had the power to “cloud men’s minds so they could not see him”. The climatic theme of this unusual show was: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit—crime does not pay!”
The broad definition of “shadowing” in hockey speaks of a specific player being assigned to pay special attention to an opposing team’s high scorer—to defend against his ability to put the puck in the net. Typically he follows him everywhere on the ice, stride for stride, robbing him of the freedom to do what he does best—score goals. That close scrutiny imitates a person’s shadow every present.
Recently there has been talk about Sean Couturier’s limiting Evgeni Malkin’s free-wheeling dominance on shinny’s icy stage; Nathan MacKinnon’s pestering Ovechkin, cutting back on his prolific bulging of the twine; and even Ryan Kesler’s dogged guarding of the league’s scoring machine, Connor McDavid.
But the old-style shadowing, which featured the “no holds barred”, unreasonable abuse, hampering sufficient elbow room to be a constant threat, has disappeared significantly. In fact, Steve Kasper, one of the best ever in this shut-down role, maintains there are no shadows any more. Modern coaches are more likely to utilize an entire team effort, with every player expected to be part of “blanketing” rather than “shadowing”—with all players involved—not just the specialists. Another shinny icon adds his two cents’ worth, maintaining that with the emphasis on speed today, it makes it all that much harder to equal the pace of the skater who needs special attention.
But, for years— first before the collective clutch and grab ploys of the 80’s and 90’s, and then, previous to the “new NHL” (a change resulted from the Player’s Association’s protests at the end of the 2004-2005 strike/lockout)—this tactic was as common as whistle tooting.
Without a doubt there have always been defensive tactics applied to prevent skilled competitors from freely plying their trade effectively. But “shadowing” as such, gained status doing the glory years of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. Once he escaped the stigma of being “injury prone”, he took off like a jackrabbit, gaining confidence in leaps and bounds in scoring prowess.
The urgency to close the door on his bent for the net almost surpassed his rise to fame. Bill Roche, who was in his prime as a hockey scribe in the 1950’s, wrote: “No player in hockey history has been so illegally shackled and interfered with by a host of checkers and shadows as Maurice Richard! He should know a lot about the science of wrestling, for he has had nearly all the headlocks, arm scissors, and other grips and grabs applied to him in ice action!”
There is a famed tale from the 1945-46 campaign, laughingly tagged the “Piggy-back goal” The Habs were playing in Detroit against the Red Wings, when, during one of the “Rocket’s” typical dashes to the net, he was knocked to the ice by big rearguard, Earl Siebert. When Richard got to his feet he still had possession of the puck. He also had Siebert draped over his shoulders. He continued to skate, with 225-pound nemesis on his back, moved into the goal area, faked Harry Lumley, and flicked the old boot-heel into the netting with one hand. When Siebert returned to the bench, Jack Adams bawled him out for letting his opponent score.
“Listen!”, he responded. “Any player who can carry a 200-pound weight on his back from the blueline in, deserves to score a goal!”
“Wild Bill” Ezinicki was one of the worst tormentors. “He was the toughest man I ever faced!”, admitted the first NHL’er to pot 500 goals. “During one match he was around my neck, had his stick between my legs, and was hanging on my back all night!”
However, not all shadows resorted to such illegalities. In the 1950 post-season, Finnish-born Ranger winger, Pentti Lund, was assigned the task of covering the “Rocket” during the New York/Montreal semifinals. In an interview some years ago, Lund recalled: “I never stayed on his heels as checkers often do. I gave him lots of rope, so to speak, but I was always there to cut him off at the pass as he was flying over the blueline. His approach obviously worked. Pentti was the leading point-getter in those playoffs with 6 goals and 5 assists; while Richard managed only one of each—and his Beantown nemesis did so without incurring a single penalty minute!
There certainly have been other shinny agitators who took on the role of human straight jackets. Bryan “Bugsy” Watson was at the top of the ladder in this category. Bobby Hull was next in line to receive extra special attention by opposition coaches. The first skater to exceed the magic 50-goals-in-one-season milestone, he was especially agitated by Watson. “He’s crazy!”, the “Golden Jet” offered. “His tactics have nothing to do with hockey; It’s like bullfighting when there’s a guy around sticking spears into it. I don’t like the look in his eyes. He has an air about him that irritates me! He’s always cross-checking me, running at me, and high-sticking me. There is no need for him to do the things he does!”
Montreal’s Claude Provost was another story. It seems strange, but Bobby almost grew fond of him, admiring him as a player. He commented: “Provost is alright. He guards me closely, but he plays his (own) game too. When the chance comes, he goes on offense and gets the odd goal himself. He is an all-around hockey player”. And, like Lund, he approached his defending in a gentlemanly fashion.
This darker side of the game is not without its lighter moments. Ron Stewart, perhaps best remembered for his years with the Maple Leafs, was also a skilled shut-down artist. One night, after he had been traded to the Rangers, he was assigned to ride shotgun on Hull. Gifted with a quick wit, he faced the All-Star winger as the puck was being dropped. “How come they always send you out to check me?”, he quipped. The Golden Jet couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
Guy Lafleur, the swift-skating Montreal whiz, did little laughing when he had to deal with Dave Hunter, one of the three Petrolia-born brothers who made it to the Big Time. The oldest of the family troika, he was described as a “role player type”, who was mean, extremely physical along the boards, who wore down the opposition with tenacious fore-checking and physical contact. He was not above clutch and grab tactics as “The Flower” discovered during the 1981 playoffs. He did a masterful job in shutting the winger down, limiting LaFleur to a one assist in the series. But he finally prompted Guy to lose his cool, resulting in a flying fist or two. It cost the annoying pest very little in pain—but put a crimp in the Stanley Cup aspirations of the favoured Canadiens.
Steve Kasper cannot be categorized under either extreme—he was neither a Mr. Clean in his checking assignments, nor did he resort to being a human backpack when shadowing opposition team’s best centre men. As a defensive forward he was the first to break Bob Gainey’s monopoly on the Frank Selke Trophy, awarded to forwards excelling in that aspect of the game.
It was his lot to be at his prime during the era of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and he was magnificent in curbing the runaway scoring tendencies of these prolific pivots. His extreme efforts to blanket “The Great One” climaxed in the mid 1980’s. He was considered the Edmonton boy wonder’s most effective nemesis. The standing joke was that when Gretzky boarded the team bus after a game, Kasper was so accustomed to sticking to him like glue that he boarded along with him. In fact, he was so dogged that “Mr. Waynederful” also quipped that he followed him so closely he half expected him to be sitting at his breakfast table eating Cornflakes with Janet.
“The Friendly Ghost”, as he was tagged, after the comic strip character, said in an interview about his strenuous assignment: “He (Gretzky) doesn’t try to be a one-man show—and he doesn’t have to carry the puck to be affective. The main thing I try to do is keep him on the outside of the ice and nudge him early to get him off his stride—like a bump and run in football. It’s no good trying to line him up for hard checks; he’s too mobile. If you start lunging at him, he’ll make you look ridiculous.
There have been a number of specialists after this ilk—little-known Gene Carr practically handcuffed high-scoring Yvan Cournoyer in the 1972 playdowns. Guy Carbonneau, former Habs’ player and later their bench boss, was one of the best—as the aforementioned Mr. Gretzky will attest.
Dan Daoust, a 160-pounder Maple Leaf, almost scrawny in appearance, was said to “hit like a 200-pounder”. But his ability to put the kibosh on skilled snipers also brought him acclaim. In April 1987, the Maple Leafs were pitted against the St. Louis Blues in the post-season division semifinals. In Toronto, in the fourth game of the series, he made the difference in the outcome. At that time Doug Gilmour was the driving force of the Blue’s offense. But in that match, Daoust tied him up so effectively that he went pointless. It prompted Gilmour to accuse the slim forward of choosing “Me and My Shadow” as his favourite song. Adding insult to injury, Dan popped the puck passed Rick Wamsley for the winner in the 2-1 squeaker.
But perhaps the epitome of intimidation is a Finnish pest by the name of Esa Tikkanen. He was at his aggravating best (or worst) in the 1990 playoffs. In the Division finals between his Oilers and Los Angeles, he kept former teammate Wayne Gretzky from tallying his usual bucket full of markers. In the Conference finals against Chicago he did a duplicate job on Denis Savard. And in the Stanley Cup finals he thoroughly spooked the Bruins’ sterling young centre, Craig Janney.
One scribe wrote: “Most of the time Tikkanen got up close and personal enough with the young playmaker to fog his visor. Turning whenever Janney turned, constantly shouldering him, sometimes tripping him. He also amplified Janney’s nightmare with a steady stream of trash talk and a maniacal grin!”
No one proved the old adage, “all in the family”, like the Golden Jet’s son Brett. A Lady Byng style player through most of his brilliant career, the “Golden Brett” was subjected to the same insane treatment as his famous father. In an interview with Stan Fischler, the season after Tikkanen’s blanketing of the trio mentioned above, he uncharacteristically “spewed venom” (as Fischler put it) about “shadowing” in the NHL!
“Shadowing is not only illegal and obscene; it should be to hockey what X-rated movies are to child-care centres! I hate shadowing. I hate the stuff. I’d be embarrassed if I was a guy like that (Tikkanen). What he does when he is shadowing is not really playing the game. He’s out there for no reason but to follow a guy around!”
Brett went on to opine that the league is trying to sell the game’s big-time players like Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. “They are what hockey is all about—not shadowing!”
Five-time scoring champion, Phil Esposito, was a big man and strong scorer, who was almost impossible to move from in front of the net. But there were those who did their worst to prevent him from getting to that station. One of them was little Andre Boudrias, whose presence reminded fans of the old “Mutt and Jeff” comic strip duo. Someone said Boudrias’ efforts to stymie the big centre looked like a tiny logger trying to topple a Douglas fir tree with a bladeless axe! But he tried, nevertheless.
This prompted a popular tale about Espo’s frustration with the minute checker. While laying over on the West Coast for a couple of days, some of the Bruins went fishing. Phil stared down into the water and burst out: “I know why I’m not catching anything! That little Boudrias is down there checking my bait!”
Well, apparently Brett Hull’s wish has essentially come true. “Shadowing”, as it used to be practiced, as such, is a dead issue. And he, his father, Gretzky, Savard, Janney, and countless others, are happy attendees at the funeral.
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